Month: July 2011

three common mistakes in engaging with culture

After a brief hiatus, I’m back on James Davison Hunter’s To Change The World.

If you were starting to worry about my heady rush of unalloyed enthusiasm for this book, then worry no longer — I have some serious misgivings about how Hunter constructs his positive proposal for an alternative to the kinds of engagement characteristic of the Christian Right, Christian Left, and Neo-Anabaptist movement in the US.

But you’ll have to wait a touch longer for these. Because on his way to his constructive proposal, Hunter outlines the three common mistakes in engaging with culture that lurk behind each of the more or less organised ‘versions’ of public Christianity in the US right now:

  1. Adopting a strategy of ‘defensiveness against’ the culture. On this view, the culture is seen to be full of threatening and corrosive influences. But while the world may be going to hell in a handbasket, God is rescuing people and cramming them onto the ark of his church. Hence: (i) we’ve got to get people onto the ark, and (ii) we’ve got to stop it springing leaks so it remains distinct from the culture around it.
  2. Pursuing ‘relevance to’ the culture above all else. In a mirror image of the first view, this view sees the culture (although maybe not the whole culture) as the very thing we need to get in tune with. The imperative is to show people that the church and its message is relevant, up to the moment, and addresses people’s felt needs. This is not just the province of older-style theological liberalism. It’s also the strategy of many ‘seeker sensitive’ approaches to church.
  3. Turning away from the culture in a quest for ‘separation from’ it. The common refrain of this view is that the church serves the culture best by being the church — not by fighting the culture or pursuing some benign chaplaincy to it. And they’re on to something. They want to reject the undertow of violence, resentment and negativity that increasingly characterises US politics, and that bleeds over into many Christian attempts to engage in public.

For Hunter, these approaches are mistaken because each of them fails to pursue ‘faithful presence within’ the culture (page 223):

[T]he desire to be “relevant to” the world has come at the cost of abandoning distinctiveness. The desire to be “defensive against” the world is rooted in a desire to retain distinctiveness, but this has been manifested in ways that are, on the one hand, aggressive and confrontational and, on the other, culturally trivial and inconsequential. Finally, the desire to be “pure from” the world has entailed a disengagement and withdrawal from active presence in huge areas of social life. All want to engage the world faithfully, yet all pursue that end in ways that minimize the inherent tension that comes with being ones who are called to be “in the world but not of it.”

What does this mean in practice? Stay tuned!

should Christians love the law?

A couple of weeks back I mentioned that I was reading Psalm 119.

I’m still going! And still loving it.

But this niggling questing keeps popping into my head:

Should Christians love the law like the Psalmist seems to?

Psalm 119 is shot through with exclamations like, “your statutes have been my songs wherever I make my home” (verse 54) and “I delight in your law” (verse 70).

The Psalmist is clearly referring to God’s holy law — the Law of Moses, the Torah (or ‘instruction’).

What’s the problem with that?

Well, many Christians have been taught that God’s grace in Jesus delivers us from the law — rescuing us from the penalty it levies against sin and freeing us from the anxious need to obey it (in order to amass brownie points with God or whatever).

A spirituality focused on the law is thus painted black — it brims with hypocrisy, nominalism, moralism, and shallow behaviour adjustment rather than deep heart change. Over against this, trusting in Jesus is supposed to show up in all its vivid glory.

What to do, then, with the Psalmist’s whole-hearted enthusiasm for God’s law?

Isn’t it embarrassing that someone so obviously hungry for genuine connection with God — and so obviously aware of their own failings and need for mercy (the Psalmist says in verse 67, “Before I was humbled I went astray, but now I keep your word”) — is so in to the law?

Or maybe it’s more embarrassing that we aren’t in to God’s law? That we aren’t so hungry to know God and follow his ways?

I’ve found it particularly challenging to read Psalm 119 alongside the Sermon on the Mount (which I’m preparing some talks for).

What Jesus seems to want from those he’s graciously grabbed hold of, is not less concern for the law than those most zealous for it in his time. It’s nothing short of a radical and total fulfilment of the Psalmist’s deepest longings.

I suspect we could learn from Augustine’s prayer, “Give what you command, and command what you will”.

what Rupert Murdoch, Law & Order, and Franz Kafka have in common

High speed police chase

High speed police chase by, on Flickr

I was part of one of those tea-room conversations yesterday.

We were talking about Rupert Murdoch. (Who wasn’t?)

As inadequate as we found his Select Committee interview, we were all glad he’d been brought to some kind of public account. Although, most of us were sceptical about whether he would face significant legal sanctions like imprisonment — barring some kind of massive internal leak at News Corp.

At this point the conversation took a sharp left.

We began to tally up all those prominent public figures who had managed to avoid the pointy end of the law they were so obviously in breach of. We shook our heads at the fact that so many get off on technicalities even when the moral ‘spirit’ of the law lies in tatters around their feet.

Who would have thought? Our mundane tea-room conversation had joined the swelling chorus of all those throughout history lamenting the lack of justice in the world!

Then someone observed that all those crime shows on TV tap into exactly this.

They complained that no-one ever gets what they deserve. And they cited all the the plea-bargains and back room deals as evidence that the idea that justice system actually works is a total sham.

I wasn’t so sure that this was the moral of the story. And I realised as I sat on the couch watching Law & Order later that night.

From where I was sitting, the chord progression Law & Order endlessly riffs on is that justice is bigger and deeper and harder to get at than mere laws allows.

What Law & Order dramatises — and what we see acted out in the Rupert Murdochs of the world — is an ancient dilemma, one which ethicists refer to as the Kafka paradox (in honour of Franz Kafka whose dense and dark fiction returns obsessively to themes of law and justice).

The dilemma is that the demand for justice that calls laws into being is often hijacked by those very laws.

Hence, all the effort goes into the technicalities of determining who’s legally wrong instead of dealing with wrong.

That job — the job of dealing with wrong and establishing justice in the widest sense of good and right order — is always tantalising beyond the reach of human laws.

For it requires not simply the transformation of human hearts (transformed men and women still have past wrongs to answer for) but the utter condemnation of wrong and the total renewal of wrongdoers.

In short, it requires death and resurrection … even new creation!

why it’s so hard to explain how the cross works

I don’t know if you’ve ever found it hard to explain (or illustrate) how the cross works — how God achieves what he does through the execution of Jesus.

How does the cross demonstrate God’s character and inner nature as Father, Son and Spirit?

How does it accomplish the defeat of Satan and the hostile ‘powers’?

How does it effect the condemnation of sin?

And how does God reconciles sinners to himself through all of this?

These are huge questions. And the answers aren’t always straightforward.

Of course, that there’s a problem may never have occurred to you. Much popular Christian piety works hard to reassure us it’s all very simple.

The songs we sing, the sermon illustrations we hear time and again — all of them beckon like the Sirens: God punishes Jesus in our place. That’s how it works. Easy…

And there’s something to this. The New Testament does tug us in this direction. Think of Jesus’ cry from the cross: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

Likewise, the language of exchange — of substitution — is shot through the ways Paul, Peter, John and the others explain Jesus’ death.

And just as the reality of holy God’s fierce and personal response to human wickedness and hard-heartedness — his wrath — can’t be avoided, so Christ’s bearing of that wrath is (at least) implicit everywhere.

But we must resist.

We must resist the Siren call. Because divine child abuse is only the most extreme charge that can be levelled against us if we head this way.

And we’ve got to stop short at the edge of the abyss. Because the New Testament does.

Consider the language of ‘condemnation’. Who or what is condemned to secure a condemnation-free future for us?

God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh. (Romans 8.3)

God condemned sin. He didn’t condemn Jesus.

Father and Son (and Spirit) are united in the achievement of the cross. They’re working together as active, loving, and willing subjects.

So where does that leave us in trying to explain how the cross works?

With a problem!

As Graham Cole points out, ‘Perhaps trying to illustrate … penal substitution is like trying to illustrate the Trinity. The analogies and illustrations fail at crucial points because the Trinity and its involvement in the atonement is sui generis.’ (God The Peacemaker, page 255).

the future of forgiveness

A bunch of thoughts about forgiveness collided in my head over the weekend.

Let me share them with you — then you tell me whether you’ve glimpsed the creation of a whole new (highly unstable) element or something more like a five car pile-up:

  1. Forgiveness has a future. That is, forgiveness only makes sense in so far as it prepares the ground for the restoration of a wider moral and relational order in which life can flourish. This was the basic thesis of a lecture I attended late last week, ‘Forgiveness: Narrative and Lyrical’ by Kevin Hart — and it was what sparked off my chain of thought.
  2. Forgiveness provides a foretaste of the future. A strong case can be made for seeing the Lord’s Prayer as all about the future that Jesus’ resurrection secures. So it’s significant that the only present human activity it mentions is forgiving (as something inseparable from being forgiven).
  3. And yet the future holds more than forgiveness. Hence, Christians are called to engage in a variety of activities anticipating creation’s ultimate future. As we pursue things like justice, beauty, and responsible stewardship of God’s world, we’re not so much building the kingdom as establishing bridgeheads of the proper final ordering of things to the Father through the Son in the power of the Spirit.
  4. But I’m less sure about how forgiveness relates to these other aspects of the new creation. How does Point 2 fit with Point 3? Whenever I talk about Point 3 with people, some get excited while others greet it with a degree of scepticism. This usually bubbles up in cautious questions about how the pursuit of justice or stewardship of creation (or whatever) should be prioritised with respect to evangelism — ie. announcing God’s forgiveness and urging people to be reconciled with God.

Not very concrete, I know. At least not yet.

But do please share your thoughts with me…

it’s time to decouple the public from the political

The imposing Durham Cathedral - seat of Northern England's Prince-Bishops (stick that in your secularist pipe and smoke it!)

I’ve found myself chatting with more and more self-confessed secularists lately.

One of the things I keep wanting to say (but can never quite find the right words for) is that not everything is political — at least not in the sense that most secularists seem to be worried about when they crow about the separation of Church and State.

You see, I’m yet to be convinced that church-sponsored school chaplaincy, for example, is quite the erosion of Church-State separation that some people feel it is.

And that’s because I believe what James Davison Hunter says about there being a wider realm of public engagement than politics.

In fact, I suspect that initiatives like school chaplaincy programmes are the very things that might help us decouple the public from the political in the way Hunter recommends (To Change The World, page 186):

To decouple the public from the political will open up other options for engaging the world and addressing its problems in ways that do not require the state, the law, or a political party. There are innumerable opportunities not only in art, education, the care for the environment, and the provision of relief for the widow, orphaned, and sick, but in the market itself to engage the world for the better.

If the churches sponsoring chaplaincy programmes were running a particular, narrowly political agenda — recruiting members for Very Young Labor or something — then the secularists might have a reason to be worried.

But as I understand them (and I may be imperfectly informed on this), the church-sponsored chaplaincy programmes in Australian public schools are operating more like a charity or like private education.

Charities and private schools offer services that the government wants to offer (or that its constituency says it wants offered) — e.g., emergency relief or universal education — but can’t, especially not on its own.

That’s why the government contributes money to those organisations that are involved in delivering them.

It’s perfectly legitimate.

And I don’t see why school chaplaincy programmes should be any different.

Of course, the government (rightly in my view) attaches strings to tax-payer money invested in these ways. It requires certain reporting standards to be met. It may set targets and goals for that funding.

It will certainly reserve the right to sanction any organisations that do things like take government money and pour it into campaign funding for partisan interests (a rival political party, a terrorist group, etc).

So the key question initiatives like school chaplaincy programmes (and the churches involved in them) need to answer is: Does it serve the public good? Or is it just about us and our interests (growing our church, etc)?

maybe I need to stop asking God for help

I’ve been slowly grazing my way through Psalm 119 recently.

I’m loving it!

Although I usually get grabbed by something in the Bible and find that I have lots to say about it — too much, in fact — I’m finding Psalm 119 different. It’s far too challenging for that.

The Psalmist’s almost desperate craving for God and his word leaves me blushing.

But it’s nourishing my soul all the same. One of the ways it’s doing this is very simple:

Instead of always asking God for help — ‘Help me love you, Lord’, ‘Help me treasure your word’, etc — the Psalmist hands more agency to God — ‘Teach me…’, ‘Lead me…’, ‘Guide me…’, ‘Open my eyes…’.

Not that this denies our agency or the effort we’re invited to exert in pursuing and delighting in God.

And yet it’s definitely got me wondering if maybe I need to stop asking God for help all the time.

What better way to put my deep convictions about the priority of God — his grace and his initiative — into action?

“the trouble with young people today…”

I hate that sentence. No matter how it gets finished.


Because it’s typically a cue to launch into an unflattering portrait of Gen Y — Mark Sayers’ recent coming-of-age tribute being a welcome exception.

I’m part of Gen Y. And I’m fed up with social commentators, politicians and church leaders talking about me rather than to me.

Let me give you an example.

We often get told that Gen Y is wrapped up in technology, eternally connected but never really connecting — at least not with the people physically in front of us.

Of course, there are plenty of ways for the connecting we do through Facebook, etc to go haywire.

I certainly wouldn’t want to defend the rampant shallowness or Make Nice And Put A Happy Face On Even When Life Is In Meltdown-ness of lots of what I see (and sometimes contribute to) on Facebook.

And don’t even get me started on the bullying or desperate late night messaging with ill concealed Pay Attention To Me Or I May Hurt Myself-style subtext.

But perhaps the time we spend hunched over our keyboards isn’t totally wrong-headed — or, more aptly, wrong-hearted.

What if it speaks of our yawning hunger for connection — shot through with yearning for relationships that are close and real, in which we’re accepted and allowed to be ourselves even as we accept others and allow them to be themselves?

Or what if it taps into a deep longing for transcendence — for there to be more to life than the small, frustrating, boring distractions that so often characterise everyday life?

I’m more and more convinced that desires like these should drive us to the Lord Jesus as only one who can truly satisfy them.

Better still, having our desires satisfied in the acceptance, love, transformation and hope we find in him, is the only reliable path to genuine connection with others — both online and off.

For it’s the only way to avoid weighing others down with impossible expectations, and instead to accept and love them like Jesus as we point them to him…

why political participation may be irresponsible

OK. I’m going to lay another bit of To Change The World on you.

Brace yourself.

This one’s going to sting…

Christians are urged to vote and become involved in politics as an expression of their civic duty and public responsibility. This is a credible argument and good advice up to a point. Yet in our day, given the size of the state and the expectations people place on it to solve so many problems, politics can also be a way of saying, in effect, that the problems should be solved by others besides myself and by institutions other than the church. It is, after all, much easier to vote for a politician who champions child welfare than to adopt a baby born in poverty, to vote for referendum that would expand health care benefits for seniors than to care for an elderly and infirmed [sic] parent, and to rally for racial harmony than to get to know someone of a different race than yours. True responsibility invariably costs. Political participation, then, can and often does amount to an avoidance of responsibility.

According to Hunter, this is the third irony of Christian engagement in the modern West. And it certainly cuts pretty deep when I reflect on my own approach to political participation.

I know that I’m way more willing to speak out and agitate for change than I am to shoulder the responsibility to make changes where I am — or to take the trouble to get myself into a position to make more effective and wide-reaching changes.

It also reminds me of something Lesslie Newbigin once wrote about the need to anchor Christian social action in the life of the local congregations.

Not only can our common worship of the one who is Lord over both church and world prevent social action from setting sail for a distant country which bears little resemblance to the gospel-motivations that launched it.

But, better still, it helps ensure that we can’t avoid taking responsibility and owning it ourselves.

the second irony of Christian cultural engagement

At its heart, the Christian good news speaks of One who conquered death– the living Lord who not only promises life, fullness, and satisfaction but can actually deliver the goods.

Before this Lord, all the overwhelming variety of regimes and regimens clamouring to deliver fullness and satisfaction can only fall silent.

Whether we’re talking about modern diets, ancient emperors, luxury cars and holidays, or political ideologies — they’re all left shuffling their feet awkwardly in his presence.

At least, that’s the claim.

Problem is, Christians only rarely seem to be able to bring themselves to believe it.

After noting the first irony of Christian cultural engagement, it is this ‘deeper irony’ that James Davison Hunter highlights (To Change The World, page 172):

[I]n the Christian faith, one has the possibility of relatively autonomous institutions and practices that could … be a source of ideals and values capable of elevating politics to more than the quest for power. But the consequences of the whole-hearted and uncritical embrace of politics by Christians has been, in effect, to reduce Christian faith to a political ideology…

What is it that stops us believing that compared with every short-term fix and provisional band-aid, Jesus can actually deliver the life we crave?

Is it addiction to instant gratification — a pleasing return on any investment, without needing to wait too long?

Or is it capitulation to the consumer-shaped myth of freedom as ever-expanding choice — so that we lack the ability to see that genuine freedom, as Stanley Hauerwas puts it, ‘lies not in creating our lives, but in learning to recognize our lives as a gift’.

Unless we can answer this question, I doubt we’ll ever escape from the deadly cycle of big promises being defaulted on by people out to grab and hold onto as much power as possible…