Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Christendom Legacy

I've been reading Stuary Murray's books 'Post-Christendom' and 'Church After Christendom', and have been pondering the claims he makes about the influence of Christendom on Christian theology. The first chapter of 'Post-Christendom' is here and the first chapter of 'Church After Christendom' is here

While Murray notes that there were worthwhile dimensions to Christendom, he goes on to suggest that "Christendom excluded or reinterpreted elements of New Testament teaching that had been important in pre-Christendom:

· There was no longer any significant distinction between ‘church’ and ‘world’.

· The general orientation of the church was now towards maintenance rather than mission, which was largely carried out by specialist agencies.

· Pastors and teachers were honoured, while apostles, prophets and evangelists were marginalised or regarded as obsolete.

· Mission within and beyond Christendom was accomplished by top-down methods, including coercion and offering inducements.

· Faith in Christ was no longer understood as the exercise of choice in a pluralistic environment where other choices are possible without penalty.

· The supranational vision of the new Christian nation, the corpus Christi, scattered through the nations was replaced by a vision of an earthly Christian empire.

· Discipleship was interpreted in terms of good citizenship, rather than commitment to the counter-cultural values and practices of the kingdom of God.

· Church services became performance-oriented as multi-voiced participation, the use of dialogue and the exercise of charismatic gifts declined.

· Clerical power and the disappearance of the ‘world’ beyond the church meant that church discipline became punitive, and often lethal, rather than an expression of pastoral care and mutual admonition.

· A preoccupation with the immortality of the soul replaced the expectation of the coming of the kingdom of God

· The church largely abandoned its prophetic role for a chaplaincy role, providing spiritual support for groups and individuals, sanctifying social occasions and state policies.

· The church became more concerned about maintaining social order than achieving social justice.

· Enemy-loving and peacemaking were replaced by the formation of a Christian army and the adoption of the ‘just war’ theory or ‘holy war’ ideology.

· The cross was less a reminder of the laying down of life than a symbol carried into battle by those who would take the lives of others."

Are these claims about the negative theological results of Christendom fair, or has Murray overstated the case or misinterpreted the historical and theological data? I'd be interested in your thoughts

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

"A Serrated Edge" - Book Review

I love satire...always have. My sense of humor resonates with irony and cynical, even sarcastic under-tones in both comedy and drama alike. I find satire to be incredibly clever, powerfully direct and a tool that portrays life with crystal clarity. Yet, I have been brought up in a church culture that believes the use of satire (particularly with a sarcastic bent) is socially unacceptable.

I know that sarcasm itself is often referred to as 'the lowest form of wit'...and perhaps it is. I must admit I've always teetered between the acidic destructiveness of sarcasm and it's cleverer cousin, irony.

But being a relatively cynical satirist has gotten me into all sorts of trouble within church circles. It's got me off-side with church leaders and members alike; has been the cause of many misunderstandings and accusations of arrogance; and at times has even lead to outrageous verbal attacks by some of the sweetest 'Christians' I knew. So ‘user be warned’ – appropriate satire with caution!

Therefore it's with little wonder my attention was instantly grabbed when I came across the book A Serrated Edge by Douglas Wilson (2003, Canon Press). Wilson puts forward an insightful case for the valid use of "biblical satire" and "Trinitarian skylarking". He asserts that when it came to commenting on our world, engaging 'the powers' and especially in communicating the gospel of the Kingdom, satire was one of Jesus’ most effective tools.

The book is a most entertaining read, if you like satire and have a fine-tuned sense of humour. But aside from it validating my own bias toward the love of satire, the book also presents a profound analysis of Scripture that justifies the biblical use of it in our conversations and commentary, as followers of Christ. Wilson defends biblical satire in the face of today's all-too-sanitised, sickly-sweet Christianity that is often present amongst large parts of western evangelicalism.

The book claims to provide a "godly pattern for giving offence". And that it does! Perhaps it’s a much-needed word to hear? Especially in times when over-censored political correctness has pervaded much of Christ's church; taking what is supposed to be salt, and turning it into “heavenly-washed sand”.

But there is a strong warning.

The Christian satirist will always be unpopular. As Wilson says, "In an age where folly reigns, the lot of a satirist is frequently very difficult." (p 41) However, for those who are tired of squeaky-clean, don't-rock-the-boat Christianity, I would thoroughly recommend getting a copy of this beauty and reading it.

Who knows? You may discover that perhaps people who enjoy satire have more in common with Jesus than what their Sunday School teachers could ever have imagined! So, if you're someone who has all but given up on their God-given gift of biblical prophecy, please don't. We need you...the church needs you. Take up your cross...and bear it!

For what it’s worth, both Wilson and I salute you...

Friday, December 04, 2009

‘In the World’ But ‘Not Of the World’: Holiness and ‘Headkickers’, Citizenship and Exile

To be ‘in the world’ but not ‘of the world’ is a well-known phrase drawn from the final discourse of Jesus in John 17. It captures most fittingly the tension that Christians experience between the call to discipleship and the norms and pressures of the day-to-day world in which that discipleship must be lived out.

Seeking to be ‘in sync’ with the ‘not of the world’ call of Jesus, Evangelicals of an era not-too-long ago were especially concerned with certain activities which were considered to betray ‘personal holiness’ such as smoking, drinking any alcohol, dancing, watching particular kinds of movies—or any movies—and, of course, sexual promiscuity. These prohibited activities ranged from those clearly proscribed by the Bible to those that to fellow Evangelicals seemed rather arbitrary. Be that as it may, the thing which linked all these was the concern with personal morality.

Those activities which were more controversial in their prohibition carried an air of being ‘out of the world’. Interestingly, when many Evangelicals ‘rediscovered’ that public life was a worthwhile site of engagement, their new enthusiasm for being ‘in the world’ was often not matched with the scruples concerning its ‘worldly’ character that they had displayed concerning personal holiness. Involvement of Christians in politics was, on a very important level, indistinguishable from the involvement of others.

Sure enough, Christians often represented stances on particular issues—notably on sexuality and bioethical issues—that were distinct in that they were out-of-step with where many in wider society were going. On the other hand, on some matters where, given a close reading of the Gospels, one might have expected a distinctive Christian voice, there was little to be heard. Is it any surprise that those matters were the exercise of power and questions of violence? After all, what is wrong with a bit of political headkicking when I can get a bill through to further ‘Christian interests’…? Hmmm…

There is no question that Christians have a part to play—actually, a range of parts—in public life. But do we na├»vely assume that grasping the reins of power or voting in our preferred candidate is the ultimate political aspiration?

If we were to remove politics from the Bible, it would be a holey Bible indeed. The story of Israel and its covenant relationship with our Creator is nothing if not political. It is to that story we are often drawn (occasionally forgetting the Messiah may have something distinctive to say about ‘politics’). And furthermore, despite the warnings of God through the prophet Samuel, we are frequently attracted to the power politics of the monarchy for our political model. Yet the ‘height’ of Israel under Solomon, the son of David, is full of corruption and the ‘rot’ has set in. This is a story which is told from the point of view of exile. Power politics and the quest for military might is not a ‘success story’.

Neither is a story with which we may be more familiar, the rise and fading of Christendom. Along with many positive influences which came out of the infusing of the Bible in Western culture were many distortions of the gospel of Jesus Christ, particularly in relation to power, coercion and violence in order to further ‘Christian’ ends. No longer representing culture as a whole, no longer at the centre of power, Christians can rightly learn from the Jewish experience of Exile and Diaspora.

The prophet Jeremiah sent word to leaders, elders, prophets and priests, and all the people of God in exile to “build houses”, “plant gardens”, marry and multiply. As they did so, they were further told by God, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:1-7). ‘Welfare’ is shalom: peace, harmony, prosperity with justice. Exile is transformed by grace from a place of despair to a new site and base for mission. Indeed the New Testament celebrates both our ‘return from Exile’ in terms of our reconciliation to and participation in the promised kingdom of God and also our continuance in an ‘Exilic’ mode of existence and mission.

We can expect too much from the ‘seat of power’ and in doing so expect too little of ourselves until some hoped-for ‘day of power’ returns. What if that is not what we are to be hoping for? What if in fact the politics of exile, of being trained as an exemplary minority with an alternative politics of genuine servanthood (and not trendy ‘servant leadership’), is the order of the day? What if Christian community is meant to be a genuine witness to God’s purpose for the world? What if Christians scattered in workplaces and households and neighbourhoods, living our their vocation of discipleship critically and constructively through their roles are the real hope of politics.

Herbert McCabe once said, “The relevance of Christianity to human behaviour is primarily a matter of politics…” I think he could well be right. But what kind of politics? Thinking beyond ‘party politics’ or ‘power politics’, might our primary political focus include the following:

1. Christians as a gathered community—a city on a hill, a light to the world—must inculcate a culture among themselves particularly committed to the transforming initiatives of the Sermon on the Mount and “teaching everything [Jesus has] commanded” (see Matthew 28:18-20)

2. Christians need to be involved in forming or perpetuating non-government social movements and ‘ministries’ dedicated to implementing restorative justice practices.

3. Christians in their various social roles should look for opportunities to contribute to the transformation of their institutions through analysis, critique, imagination, example and advocacy.

There are inevitable tensions between citizenship and discipleship yet discipleship is a non-negotiable calling. Civic responsibility does not trump Christian faithfulness. Yet, as a Christian ‘social philosophy’, citizenship should be recognised as a relative good which may be able to further the cause of Christ-inspired restorative justice.

Be ‘in the world’ but ‘not of the world’.

I published this also in Engage Mail 09-11 (November 2009) Contact me to subscribe

What's behind this blog?

What is it? Where did it come from? Where is it going?
Frustrated by the lack of opportunity for grappling with issues of theology and culture in their local congregations, Simon Bibby, Murray Thornhill, Matt Malcolm, Ian Packer and Steve McAlpine started the Dead Apologists’ Society in 1999 as a reading group, regularly together to discuss issues of Christian faith in the context of contemporary Western culture. As ‘lay people’ we wanted to think through the implications of Christian faith in everyday life.

We Believe that Discipleship in the New Millennium
... Includes Loving God with Our.... Mind?!
We believe that Christian faith entails discipleship and that there is no sphere of life excluded from the call to follow Jesus. In this case, questions of contemporary thought, society, culture, art, technology, money, work, leisure, possessions and family come under the call of "whole life discipleship."

... Needs a Theology of God’s Kingdom and Creation
We affirm a non-dualistic view of Christian faith, holding that the whole of life comes under the kingdom rule of God; that while God’s salvation is deeply personal, it is not private but is corporate and cosmic, embracing all creation. Therefore the gospel must be expressed as ‘public truth’.

... Engages Western Culture and the Problem of (Post)Modernity
We understand that (post)modernity presents momentous challenges to those who would live as Jesus’ disciples. Further, despite historic Christian influence, our culture requires a genuinely missionary engagement. It is in this light that we seek to understand cultural trends. We also believe that Christ is the transformer of culture particularly through his people as a community gathered and as scattered throughout the ‘everyday world’.

... Seeks to Shape Christian Common Life
The Dead Apologists’ Society is not a ‘church’ but cares deeply about Christian community. We are concerned to seek reform and renewal in common life, and especially to foster and embody practices that witness to the presence of God’s kingdom. Following Jesus commits us to a live as an alternative counter-cultural community.

What Do We Read?
The ‘Dead Apologists’ have read and are reading such things as:

John Howard Yoder, Body Politics.
James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom
Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.
N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus
Alan Kreider, The Change in Conversion and the Origin of Christendom.
Tom Sine, Mustard Seed vs McWorld.
Duane K. Friesen, Artists, Citizens, Philosophers: Seeking the Peace of the City: An Anabaptist Theology of Culture.
Marva Dawn, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down.
Mark Strom, Reframing Paul: Conversations in Grace and Community.
Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People.
John Stackhouse, What Does It Mean to Be Saved?

We support networks and groups like...
Zadok Institute for Christianity and Society
Anabaptist Association of Australia and New Zealand
The Ekklesia Project
Evangelical Alliance
TEAR Australia
Macquarie Christian Studies Institute

For upcoming sessions of the Dead Apologists’ Society, meeting every 4 to 6 weeks on a weeknight:

Ian Packer: here or here