Newsletter 24 (Spring '99)
On being in control of your life
Why are the mainstream news media so unrelentingly hostile to religion? Why does it take a sex scandal for religion to hit the headlines? Her editor once quipped to Madeleine Bunting, the Guardian's Religious Affairs Correspondent, that hers was a most appropriate job title. Why this bias against religion?
In an illuminating lecture 'The Media and Religion', Bunting identifies five causes: (1) the loss of deference - a cultural phenomenon which affects all institutions and professions which claim authority - monarchy, political process, police, teachers, doctors; (2) an inevitable conflict between the values of the news media and religious faith which is being exacerbated as broadsheets turn into tabloids; (3) the ingrained hostility of a secular media elite; (4) a fundamental clash between religion and the nature of modern media; and (5) a clash between religious faith and the illusions of the consumer culture which modern media is designed to promote.
Enlarging on these, Bunting describes forces at work against religion not only in the media but in other areas of our culture too. These invite the attention of everyone concerned for Christian faith in today's fragmenting world.
The final cause which she describes has to do with being a consumer and 'in control'. A clash arises with religious faith, says Bunting, insofar as the media work to maintain among their readership/audience a consumer attitude. This involves offering reassurance in the face of anything which threatens to break down this attitude. One such threat is that of feeling swamped by terrifying amounts of information. Another is an overwhelming sense of impotence when presented with vast human suffering in the world. What she writes here deserves quoting at length:
'In broadsheet newspapers such as the Independent, Guardian and to some extent The Times and Telegraph, I would identify the reassurance as a tone of knowingness: it is irreverent, cynical, sophisticated. It has few, if any, articulated ideals, it scorns naivete, prides itself on being fast-moving and au courant. It has no concept of the sacred or of holiness; in fact it delights in confounding exactly such concepts. I think of Benetton's advertising - a baby being born still with umbelical cord and blood, a man on his death bed surrounded by family. Birth and death are used to shift jumpers. A trivialisation of the most profound points of human existence. The proliferating newspaper supplements are redolent of this. To the predominantly AB readership, it is implicitly saying, you are in control of your life. Control, a key word. Because being in control of your life is the litmus test of meaningful existence. Having control in your relationships, in your career, having control over the quality of your life to achieve the maximum possible amount of happiness. Control is essentially a consumer concept, it means making informed, intelligent choices about consumer products and it is advertising driven, but it has seeped into the way we view every aspect of our lives. It is also a fabulous deceit. In an age of unprecedently high job-insecurity and marriage breakdown, control is a fond, cherished illusion, a sort of sugar coating - if we believe ourselves to be in control we feel better - to the pill of reality. There is a gap here, between appearance and reality, between how people perceive themselves and reality. A gap which newspapers carefully negotiate around, rather than expose.
Religion falls into that yawning gap. Religion recognises the limits of an individual's control over their own life; at its most raw, it is about encountering and confronting on a daily basis the limits of human existence, our own unpredictable mortality and frailty. Religion challenges the cherished illusions of control, and critiques the purpose of life as a consumer experience; with the collapse of Communism, it is the most powerful and most extensive critique of consumerist society - and thus finds itself silenced. Such a challenge is unacceptable to the hegemony of consumption, and the culture spawned to facilitate it, legitimise it, expand and develop it, continually in a restless search for ephemeral perfection in a particular consumer good. This search is what has replaced the wider questions of the purpose of existence, the meaning of death. What other culture in the known history of humankind has so marginalised death, tidied it away and sanitised it into insignificance?'
The control which Bunting describes here is not the proper business of managing our affairs in a manner consistent with Christian responsibility. Rather it is about 'an illusion of control' which conflicts both with the fact of our mortality and frailty - our limits - and with our calling to trust God and entrust ourselves to God. Particularly it is about the idolatry of 'tesco, ergo sum': I shop, therefore I am. And this is something from which we require conversion.
The church's converting message here is, in short, 'You are not in control: God is in control. Trust God. God is trustworthy.' The trouble, as ever, is that this message gets interpreted within the outlook on life which it challenges rather than converting this outlook itself. Thus when for us life exists in control, we hear the message 'you are not in control' as like a death threat. And when our human limits themselves press upon us we feel them, and resist them, as an arbitrary imposition; they evoke in us the unresolved anguish of victimhood, for which God becomes the ultimate symbol of oppression.
How can the church get past this block? How intimate another life, beyond this death? The challenge is to tell - and to live - another and deeper story, one which does not start with or aim at our being in control. The story is well told by David Ford in his recent book 'The Shape of Living': from start to finish our lives are shaped in ways beyond our control. This is not a story about being socially or genetically 'determined' but about being personally overwhelmed for good or bad. For we have a choice: whether to let our lives be shaped in ways which diminish ourselves and others, or in ways which enlarge ourselves and others.
At the heart of this deeper story lives Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. His story addresses alike our passion for control and our anguished sense of victimhood, in the following ways.
Our passion for control is met in Jesus with one who is radically beyond our control. He is who he is no matter what we do. Even when, entering imaginatively into the story of his crucifixion, we identify with the most extreme efforts to control him, we are met with our failure. He remains free of our grasp. And in his freedom he simply goes on loving us; in so doing he remains who he is. Now, as light dawns for us, this disclosure of a free love embracing the very worst we can do in our passion for control shows us that our controlling behaviour is in truth both futile and unnecessary. We may entrust ourselves to his sovereign love, daring at last to believe that we do not need to live by exercising control.
Equally, our anguished sense of victimhood is addressed as we enter imaginatively into Jesus' crucifixion. For Jesus fathoms our victimhood to the depths. On the one hand he is God the ultimate victim: God's final initiative, love's final offering, rejected by God's own people. On the other hand he is the ultimate human victim: the one who most faithful trusted God and deserved to be upheld by a good God, here abandoned by God. We are met with the most compelling grounds for outrage, hatred and despair. And yet now, as light dawns for us, we meet in Jesus one who is not overwhelmed by this nightmare of victimhood, but who embraces it responsibly and in trust. Once again he stays himself - alive with hope where hope is utterly without ground, alive with trust where trust is utterly gratuitous, alive with meaning where life has been revealed senseless.
In the resurrection light Jesus is revealed, and with him God, and we are healed. We are empowered at once to let go our passion for control and our anguished sense of victimhood, and take responsibility with Jesus for believing and trusting God who unfailingly holds us in his hand.
Such a story, such a mystery is not just for telling, of course; it is for living. Only so can God use the story to transform those for whom being in control of one's life offers the illusion of salvation.
Seduction of Evangelism?
This was the title of a day conference held at Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education on 5 February 1998. The conference was organised and hosted by the School of Theology and Religious Studies. The conference was about consumerism and 20th century Christianity, with Andrew Walker (Kings College, London), Graham Cray (Ridley Hall, Cambridge) and Colin Greene (Bible Society, Swindon) as the three main speakers. Consumerism has become a dominant ideology in Western culture, and the aim was to help people think through critically the relationship between the church and our culture.
Andrew Walker gave a very useful paper on Consumerism, Personhood and the Future of Christian Mission. He began by noting that while evangelism must be driven by the content of the gospel, we must pay close attention to the culture in which we evangelise. And our culture has in the 1940’s and 50’s seen a shift in capitalism to a consumer culture. Economic and ethical arguments are made in favour of consumerism, and there is substance to these arguments. We may not all be able to afford a Porsche but many of us can manage a Ford! And there is a certain freedom that comes with a consumer culture. However, it is increasingly recognised that the Reaganite and Thatcherite legacies have not been all good. Consumerism has reinforced a strong individualism and in particular a hedonistic understanding of the self with devastating moral implications for society.
Andrew elaborated on the danger of a consumer culture for Christian mission. Success could be sought by trying to find and fill a niche in the market through satisfying the desires of customers. Such an approach embodies a view of God as author of our satisfaction. Andrew concluded by arguing that we need Christian communities in which alternative virtues are nurtured.
The Toronto Blessing exploded on the scene in recent years and it is a moot question how we should interpret it and to what extent it represents an unhealthy consumer Christianity. Graham Cray is well equipped to explore this question. He took over from the internationally known charismatic evangelical David Watson as Rector of St. Michael le Belfrey and is presently principal of Ridley College, Cambridge. Graham gave a very interesting paper in which he refused the simple dichotomy of blessing or curse as a means of evaluating the Toronto experience. In essence Graham argued that the Toronto experience is a gift of God to his church and that within and without the charismatic churches this move of the Spirit has shown up our need for a theological mind to shape our reception of this gift.
The day concluded with a paper by Colin Greene, looking at the different ways in which Christ and culture have been related historically and with some proposals for the way ahead. This is a crucial question if Christians are to shape their culture rather than just being shaped by it. Colin identified the following models of relating church and culture: the apostolic model, the Christendom model, the pluralist model and the postmodern model. In developing a response to these models Colin focused our attention on the following areas. The church needs to return to the public domain, the Bible needs to be recovered as Scripture, we need to recover a sense of wonder in the face of creation and we need to reinvent the human person.
More than 150 people attended the conference - far more than we anticipated. Among them were a good number of young people. It was a great day overall, and a day conference of this sort is now an annual event on the calendar of the School of Theology and Religious Studies in Cheltenham. In connection with the conference on consumerism Thorsten Moritz and Craig Bartholomew of the School of Theology and Religious Studies are editing a collection of essays on Christ and Consumerism, to be published in the near future by Paternoster Press. In 1999 the conference will takes place on Tuesday, February 9th, and the theme will be Rethinking Church in Biblical Perspective.
Inquiries should be directed to Mrs. Patricia Downes, Centre for the Study of Religion, Park Campus, C&GCHE, Cheltenham, GL 50 2QF. Phone: 01242-532747.
The renewal of the Gospel and Our Culture network
'if you are looking at the total mission of the worldwide church,
the number one question is: 'Can the West be converted?'
(Lesslie Newbigin, Witnesses to the World)
Gospel and Our Culture network in Britain is now entering a new stage, following a period in recess. In November 1996 the decision was made reluctantly to close down the Gospel and Our Culture network, and its assets and its future were entrusted to Bible Society. Bible Society is now acting to set the network 'back on the road'.
The reasons for the renewal of the network are easy to see in context. When Lesslie Newbigin initiated the Gospel and Our Culture programme in the 1980's in association with the British Council of Churches, he envisaged a process of reflection and study culminating in a substantial conference. In so doing he chose to follow the model adopted by J. H. Oldham in preparation for the 1937 Oxford Conference on Church, Community and State. The process was carried forward by a series of books from his hand, the first of these being 'The Other Side of 1984', and by the distribution, from 1989 onwards, of a regular newsletter. The culmination of the process was the national Swanwick Consultation of 1992, 'The Gospel as Public Truth'.
However, what had been set in motion did not stop at Swanwick. There was much enthusiasm for the Gospel and Our Culture programme to continue, which it did first under Lawrence Osborn and then under Andrew Walker. Newbigin, well into his eighties, continued to lecture and write, and his influence went on growing internationally. Today in the United States George Hunsberger sees emerging clear evidence of Newbigin's vision and perspective 'finding deep resonance in the soul of a newly emerging younger generation of leadership across the church… my prediction is that Lesslie's writings these last two decades will not wane in their influence but will in fact blossom in ways we have only begun to imagine.'
Meanwhile under Newbigin's influence Gospel & Culture networks had been founded in New Zealand (led by Harold Turner) and in North America (led by Hunsberger). Today Canada also proposes its own. More widely, in recent decades cultural issues have been a matter of lively debate among Christians around the world, and are pursued by scholars of diverse traditions. Those of us in Britain who believe that Newbigin has faithfully identified key tasks for the Christian mission to western society have a responsibility to contribute to this international debate.
In Britain, however, after Swanwick the Gospel and Our Culture programme struggled with inadequate funding or institutional base, contributing to its eventual recess. These problems have now been resolved by the programme's incorporation by Bible Society, with which it has long enjoyed close association. Lesslie Newbigin always hoped for the network's renewal. I corresponded personally with about this, while involved in Gospel & Culture ministry as an Anglican University Chaplain in New Zealand and in contact with that country's Gospel & Cultures Trust. When I returned to Britain in 1997, and from then until Lesslie Newbigin's death, we remained in touch as Bible Society and I discussed how I might contribute to the future of the network. Bible Society has now commissioned me to coordinate a renewed Gospel and Our Culture network.
First and foremost it must be said that the key mission tasks identified by Newbigin remain on the agenda of the western Church today, and we must keep them before our eyes and do more work on them. No doubt in a culture which encourages us to give our hopeful attention to whatever is the latest, newest and most fashionable it may feel distinctly against the grain for us to stay with what is by now, at least for some of us, a very familiar agenda. But this is our responsibility when the heart of the matter has been exposed. And when it comes to western mission, many feel that Newbigin has brought insight into the heart of the matter.
This is not to say that there is nothing of importance to add to his work, or no careful enlargements to be undertaken. Newbigin was the first to say that Gospel & Culture reflection must move on from his own. But much work also remains, keeping Christians awake to the mission task he has identified, enabling this task to be recognised and pursued in ever wider circles, and planting these things more firmly in the life of the church and its institutions. This dual task of development and consolidation now lies before the renewed Gospel and Our Culture network.
For all the brilliance of his writing, Lesslie Newbigin denied that he was an academic, pointing out that he had never held an academic post. The lucid writing which was so appreciated began with a missionary's perception of the heart of the matter and was pitched at a middle level between that of academic theology and popular reading. A challenge facing the renewed Gospel and Our Culture network will be to honour the place of such reflection in our time and feed it into the thinking and ministry of Christian people. Again, there is both new work to be pioneered, and much uncovering and sharing to be done regarding work already under way. There are also two other major tasks to be addressed: on the one hand, to foster further sustained interaction between Gospel & Culture reflection and academic theology; and on the other hand, to help such reflection further nourish popular spirituality and culture.
Initially, renewal of the Gospel and Our Culture network will include:
The vitality of the renewed network will depend upon the enthusiasm of many people to contribute to this continuing, shared reflection; who are alert to, and draw attention to, incidents and issues which provoke and shape Christian thinking; and who pass on news of insights and initiatives which commend themselves as catching the mission of Christ to western culture. The challenge is immense, of us all awakening as Christian people from the domestication of our faith by western culture to fulfil the task to which God is calling us at this period in our history. Your lively participation and your heartfelt prayers are invited.
Features of the Missional Church: Some Directions and Pathways
George R. Hunsberger
Along with many others, I have come to use the language of "missional church" to describe the manner of church life and identity necessary for the churches of North America as we move into the uncharted waters of a post-Christian and postmodern world. This is not without a certain potential for ambiguity. The term "missional" picks up the freight of all the ways people have become accustomed to thinking about "missions" or about "missionaries." To many, the mere hint of the word carries them off to distant places and cultures, or if the reference point is closer to home, to distinctly "other" ethnic groups than their own or to people in deprived economic circumstances. To most, the word connects immediately with activities, projects, or programs in which the church goes out to those arenas and does something.
But in the way I use the phrase, it has to do with something more at the heart of what it means to be the church. It is not about what ventures the church sends out, but about how the church itself is a "sent" community. It is not about mission as activities, but about mission as the essential character of the church.
This is the vision expressed in the book written by six of us in the Gospel and Our Culture Network and entitled Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America.i In it, we suggest that the church’s long history of either legal or functional Christendom in Western societies has somehow left it without a sufficient memory of its missional identity. Instead, the church came to be conceived as a "chapel" providing religious chaplaincy services for what was assumed to be an essentially Christianized society. As we in today’s North American churches take a closer look at ourselves, we discover further that the contemporary form of that heritage is to assume that a church is basically a vendor of religious goods and services in a competitive religious marketplace. Members and non-members alike are viewed as religious consumers and church staff and governance structures are assumed to be responsible for producing programs and offering services that supply what the body of consumers wants or needs. In these circumstances, it is harder and harder for "members" to live together as a called and sent community.
But that is exactly what we discover we are when we allow the gospel of the coming of the reign of God in Jesus Christ to read us and define us. And if ever we needed to recover a sense of this missional identity and live out such a missional vocation, we must do so now when we inhabit a social environment in which the church’s chaplaincy is over and the territory is distinctly missional. There is a growing ferment among people in a wide spectrum of churches who are drawn to this vision. And when they see the implications of the new challenges before the church and catch something of the dream to live and witness as a body of people sent into God’s own mission, the next question becomes a crucial one: What would such a missional church look like? To be sure, this question is sometimes asked in a dismissive way: "If you cannot show me exactly how to go and do this, the vision you propose is invalidated." But it is also asked over and over as a genuine request for help for taking first steps into a new direction. Are there examples? Are there pictures of the difference it would make to live this way? How can we begin to grasp something of the tangible way a church would act if this vision were to become a lived reality?
Answering the crucial question is hard. We are moving into new territory. Our history leaves us with too few memories. Our heavy investment in the vendor model of recruiting and retaining members gives us little to go on. But the question demands an answer, however preliminary. What follows is my attempt to offer what I believe to be among the most important marks of a genuinely missional church in our present context. They are offered here in the hope of stirring Christian communities to put flesh on these bones as they live in a missional way.
The Consuming Passion: Christianity and the Consumer Culture
Rodney Clapp (ed.), IVP, 1998.
by Craig Bartholomew - to be inserted
back to newsletter index
Newsletter 25 (Summer '99)
On finding personal worth
'When I grow up, I want to be a customer'. So asserts the little three-year old girl smiling from a newspaper advertisement. She explains: 'What's a customer? I don't know, but he sounds real important. My dad says the people at his office work all day just to make the customer happy. My Dad works for …. And he told me that when customers need something, everyone in the office tries to get it for them. That sounds great. When I grow up I want to be a customer. Then I will be real important.'
How do you react to this? Leaving aside questions of humour, and the merit of customers as role-models, and accepting that children have heroes, may we not imagine ourselves saying to this child: 'Never mind about being a customer, or anything else. You are important. You are important because God made you and loves you. You don't have to do anything to become important; it's God's gift to you. And you can't lose it. You don't need to worry about that.'
The advertisement repeats a lie: the lie that being someone who 'counts' is something which we badly want, but by nature lack; that such worth is given by the regard of others and our consequent self-image; and that we can take steps to achieve this worth by aiming for it. It is the lie, fundamentally, of our personal redundancy. It makes us self-regarding and vulnerable.
When we come under the spell of this lie, it provides advertisers with a special opportunity. Instead of having to convince us of the usefulness or attractive properties of a product, the advertiser needs only to associate a product persuasively with being 'someone' in the eyes of others and of ourselves. Our vulnerability is the advertiser's dream: it is the means to unlimited market creation. It turns us from hard-headed, discerning purchasers into malleable, fashion-conscious, impulse-driven consumers with insatiable needs. No product ever meets these needs, of course; yet this fact does not lessen the effectiveness of a new appeal to them when the next new product is advertised. The needy self within us 'never learns'. In this way contemporary advertising practices resonate with and reinforce the lie of our personal redundancy.
The spell of this lie and its vulnerable self-surveillance may be woven early. According to Christopher Lasch such vulnerability has been fuelled during the course of the twentieth century by the decline of the family and the quality of parent-child relationships. Matters can only get worse in future if the movement of young mothers into the workforce places children too early and too long in creches, or TV is used regularly as an electronic baby-sitter. Penelope Leach points out that in western societies the total amount of time parents and children spend together has dropped by 40% in a single generation.
The lie has also been fed by a range of developments in recent decades. Because of these the world we inhabit and which holds our attention is much less a world in which we are personal, creative participants, and much more a world 'out there' in which we are personally unknown and redundant. Consider the range of such developments: consider our loss of personal participation in community life (as city life and high mobility have increased our anonymity); in production (as vegetable gardening, home baking, car maintenance, knitting etc fade, and are increasingly seen as a substitute for the 'professional job', instead of themselves being 'the real thing'); in making and influencing joint decisions (as small businesses give way to chain stores; government becomes more centralised; and more recently the school curriculum gets more proscribed centrally). In particular, the mass media bring us news of a world beyond our influence and in which we do not feature, soap dramas in which we do not participate, and products which we have not sought to buy.
I do not want to suggest that all these developments are necessarily contrary to human thriving. But taken together, one can see how they function as a 'plausibility structure' for the lie of personal redundancy. This lie is not just a story-line aimed at us by people wanting to sell us their products. It is also a story-line embedded in the shape of our society.
In a Christian direction
What would it mean here for society to turn in a Christian direction? Firstly, and fundamentally, this would require a deepening public belief in the healing truth that we are of immeasurable worth in the eyes of God who made us in relationship with himself and with other people, and who calls us responsibly to participate together in celebrating and pursuing his loving purposes.
Secondly it would require that this story-line finds, as does the lie of our personal redundancy today, a 'plausibility structure' in the shape of society. And at this point, if positive suggestions are not to be mere 'pie in the sky', we must take account of the forces which have shaped our society in such a way that it lends itself today as a plausibility structure for the lie of our personal redundancy. These are the forces which, throughout the period of modernity, have tended towards exaltation either of the individual or alternatively of the state as an end in itself and in opposition to the other. This tendency has displaced personal participation in the more complex, informal 'mediating structures' of family and free association.. I am suggesting that in the lie of our personal redundancy, the secular polarisation between the individual and the state (or mass producer, mass media, or whatever) generates the basis on which we see ourselves as persons in the world.
Dan Hardy sees this modern tendency as reflecting the marginalisation of God: the individual and the state no longer find their meaning together in intrinsic relation to God and to each other. Accordingly, if God were no longer pushed to the margins, society could take another direction. The story-line of our worth in intrinsic relation to God as Trinity and of our participation in God's purposes might be embedded in the renewal of the mediating structures of society, directed towards human thriving.
As for that advertisement: the renewal of mediating structures must include the family, and reach to the beginning of life. We must therefore ask what a renewed society would look like, which valued more highly the unique relationship which each infant has with its mother. When an infant finds herself reliably reflected in her mother's loving attention, is this of little importance to the One of whom all loving attention is a reflection, and image, an icon? We might hope that such experience would ward off the spell of personal redundancy for every child. There would no doubt be less chasing after importance; perhaps even, fewer customers; but there might be more inner freedom humbly to serve the God who gives all life and worth, and gives it abundantly in Jesus Christ.
On the decline of the family in the Unites States and its consequences, see Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, Norton, 1979. On mediating structures see Peter Berger, 'In praise of particularity: the concept of mediating structures', Facing up to Modernity, Basic Books, 1977, pp.167-79; for a theological analysis see Daniel Hardy, 'God and the Form of Society', in D. W. Hardy & P. H. Sedgewick (eds), The Weight of Glory, T & T Clark, 1991, pp.131-143. Very relevant is the doctrine of 'subsidiarity'. This is discussed briefly in ACCESS U.K. No.55: Neil Summerton, 'Identity Crisis? The nation state, nationality, regionalism, language and religion', Themelios, Vol.21, No.3, April 1996, pp.16-20. On the place of children in our society today, see Penelope Leach, Children First, Penguin, 1994.
Features of the Missional Church:
Some Directions and Pathways
George R. Hunsberger
In the last newsletter George Hunsberger introduced us to the debate on what it means to be a 'Missional' church in the context of Western Culture. This debate has occupied the Gospel and Our Culture network in North America considerably. Here he attempts to identify eight of the most important marks of an authentically missional church.
1.The action of God in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus functions as the charter story for the missional church’s life together.That story is not merely treated as a doctrinal affirmation or creed. It is the controlling vision by which everything in the life of the community is measured. The missional church is one that knows that its life is always undergoing renovation and is willing to receive the impact of its founding story over and over again. It actively receives the account of God’s action in Jesus as the orienting story which gives the church its reason for existing. It remembers, re-tells, and rehearses that story as its life code.
Elsewhere I have argued that the church sits on both sides of what Lesslie Newbigin has called the "missionary encounter of the gospel with our Western culture."ii That is to say, the church must recognize that it sits on the culture side, as fully participant in its own culture’s ways of seeing, thinking, knowing, feeling, and acting and therefore as a community that experiences firsthand all the ways the gospel’s account of things challenges and re-patterns those cultural assumptions. Only then does it become the community that sits on the gospel side in the encounter, as a community whose character has been made to show the dynamic message of the gospel in living form and thus is that gospel’s vivid incarnation among companions who share the same culture.
The result of this posture is that the church possesses a spirit of ongoing, continuing conversion. Newbigin spoke often about this as the inner, internal dialogue in which the church must always be engaged as the prerequisite for its outer dialogue with companions in the world. This happens when the community has the habit of welcoming the Scriptures into its hearing and being engaged by their disturbing and liberating influence. This is different from Bible study that feels more like engaging the Bible than being engaged by it. The key question is, who is in charge in the encounter? Is it we who determine the meaning of the text and decide how it applies to us? Or is it God, who through the Bible determines our meaning and decides how the script for our life will read? Reading the Bible with the recognition that it is reading us turns the tables on the normal patterns of reading it at arm’s length, with objective distance. It lets the reign of God come in the act of reading.
Paul Hiebert has said that our culture is not what we think about, but what we think with.iii In a missional church, the Bible grows to have that quality for the church. It is not what we think or talk about, but what we think and talk with! Instead of interpreting the Bible through the lens we bring to the text, we interpret ourselves and our world through the lens of the Bible.
Nowhere is this inner dialogue more critical today than when we ask how the most central features of the gospel must affect the shape of our life together. How does Jesus’ death and resurrection come into living form in a particular church? How do we wear that as the fabric that defines us? How are we properly a people of the cross? How are suffering and crucifixion received as the style of our life over against our cultural tendencies to be governed by success and achievement? Douglas John Hall has said that in Christendom the church grew accustomed to telling its story as a success story. Now, as Christendom dissolves, we must learn again a theology of the cross to shape our way.iv This is what it will mean for the gospel to be the church’s charter story.
2. The missional church gives priority to its formation by the Spirit as a community of mutual discipleship and corporate discernment. What is most important for churches today is not producing programmes—however fine and necessary they appear—but being formed to be a community, a distinctly Christian community. Often Christian discipleship has been taken to be an individual matter, a matter of one’s own "personal relationship" with God. Being together with other disciples is important to encourage the growth of one’s own discipleship. But all of this operates out of the high value placed on the individual self as an essentially autonomous unit of reasoning, choosing, and acting. The gospel speaks otherwise and shows salvation as something experienced and borne corporately.
The work of the Holy Spirit is primarily community formation. The very word "church" has reference to a "called out people," a community marked and shaped by God. Because a missional church knows itself to be church in this sense, it gives priority to its formation as a community by the Spirit.
The issue of discipleship is as much corporate as it is personal. A missional church asks, How must we follow Jesus? It knows itself to be a "corporate disciple," not merely a collectivity of individual disciples. Each one’s personal commitments in following Christ are important to that, but are understood to be part of a larger whole. Thus, the issue of communal discernment, grasping together the will of God for this particular Christian community and the path it follows, becomes an essential practice.
The role of leadership is also affected by the priority placed on community formation. In the missional church, the pastoral leadership’s foremost task is the cultivation of what it means for this company of people to be, in all their life together, a distinctly Christian community.
3. The missional church participates together in gathering and offering its worship to God in full view of the world for which Christ has sent it. Saying it this way involves a subtle but important shift from what is normally true in both so-called traditional and so-called contemporary church worship. Both operate from the unquestioned assumption that it is the task of the pastor and/or other staff "to offer the body of believers the opportunity to worship and glorify God together." (The phrase is from the purpose statement of a famous mega-church.) There are problems with that notion, even when there is proper recognition that worship is not about us but about God, not about what we get out of it but what God gets out of it. What is still lacking is a sense that the church, the missional people of God, is a community which gathers and presents its corporate worship to God, not the recipient of worship as something offered for it to attend. The people are not the ones gathered for worship (as though they are pawns for the program). Rather, the people gather their worship together. People are the subject, not the object.
This has important consequences. It means that the work of designing particular occasions of worship (including the weekly worship) belongs to the whole community. Those with the appropriate gifts of the Spirit will work to gather and give expression to the praises and yearnings of the people. They will not ask, How can we plan a service people will get something out of? Rather, they will ask, How can the worship of this whole community best be offered to God?
This leads to a far deeper kind of participation in worship than is usually imagined when the gathered people are invited to "participate." In the missional church each person is deeply invested in the shape and content of worship, for it is giving expression to the praise of God that arises from life together.
4. There is harmony between the missional church’s gathered moments (for worship, discernment, and action) and its dispersed life within the wider social fabric. There is a serious divide in contemporary church life between the things that happen in church and those that happen outside. Things in church include churchly kinds of activities for the spiritual and social purposes of the organization. Things outside include much of family life, many hours in the working world, and extended social networks of friends and associates. One of the great sources of stress felt in the pew is the large gap between what is done and said in church and what happens the rest of the week. How about my work world? How about my social and leisure world? How about my home world? Is there any connection (besides personal advice for coping with pressures and for maintaining personal morality and integrity) between my church world and these others?
In this situation, the provision of church activities and services seven days a week is no help, and in sharp contrast to what it means to be a missional church. The seven-day-a-week vision would be a good one only if by the church it meant fundamentally a body of people, a body that exists as a community not only when visibly gathered on Sunday morning (or Tuesday evening), but seven days a week—while scattered and dispersed into numerous work worlds and social webs.
The interesting language in the opening sentence of 1 Peter illumines this point. Most literally, it begins: ". . . to the called out ones, aliens, dispersed in Pontus, Galatia. . . ." The dynamic of being at once called out of the world’s social orbits and pressed into them is the incarnational character of the missional church. The position of the community not on the edge but squarely in the midst of the work and play of the world is what the missional character of the church implies. The daily life and workplace is where its missional vocation is most vividly lived out. That is, it displays the gospel it believes no less when it is enmeshed in the struggles and pursuits everybody shares, than when it gathers. The missional church is best pictured not only as one distilled out, extracted from, precipitated from its surrounding social setting, but also pressed and kneaded into that dough, woven into that fabric, dissolved into that solution.
In most churches, the topic of peoples’ work worlds hardly arises. Yet here is the missional frontier. In the missional church, vocation is not only a topic engaged in its gatherings but the recognized location of its collective missional calling. Gatherings of the church are designed to be supportive of, not competitive with that calling.
5. The public presence of the missional church’s life together in mutual forgiveness, accountability, and love displays the qualities of God’s reign. People today are not looking for a better argument that God exists and that the gospel is true. Rather, they are looking for a demonstration that life can be lived this way. Can you show me what this would look like in living color? Is it possible to live this way in today’s kind of world? Is it imaginable that I could put all my eggs in this basket and survive? Who is doing that and how? Show me. In other words, the church’s mission includes playing out in public view a community that lives by the patterns of the alternative regime called the reign of God. Jesus made the presence of that reign vivid by living in and under and by it, and the church is sent to do the same.
Perhaps the most critical features which beg for public display have to do with forgiveness and restitution. Has it become true that, just like politicians who never dare admit failure or wrong-doing, church members can never say "I failed," or "I was wrong" or "I sinned"? Safe space for public confession of sin (at whatever level is appropriate) and communal support for granting one another the same forgiveness we so badly need from God must be built. Such safety never comes naturally, and today few even remember that it ought to be true of the church’s mutual life. When forgiveness is not a part of mutual life, real love is hardly finding a place there. Love that exceeds sentimentality implies mutual accountability, expecting from one another the treatment we also intend to give. We need that love precisely at those points where we are most vulnerable and most in need of the assurance of God’s mercy. The missional church demonstrates the gospel of God’s mercy by being a mercy-full community.
6. The missional church acts according to God’s passion for justice, peace, and the wholeness of creation, whether it has promise of success or not. It is not possible for a church genuinely gripped and constantly being changed by the gospel of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to live in general isolation from the pain and brokenness of the world, or worse, in some aloof refusal to be responsive. Not if it knows the God of the Bible who comes to reign with grace and to reconcile human affairs to the justice, peace, and joy that are God’s own qualities.
To be God’s sent people means to be so caught up into God’s mission to bring wholeness and healing to the world that it can do nothing else than seek those things itself. As Abraham Heschel has put it, the heart of what it means to be a prophet is to share the pathos of God, to care about what God cares about, to feel the things that God feels, and to be drawn by those things that motivate God’s own action.
The missional church must act in ways shaped by the horizon of the coming reign of God, and that action must be clear and precise in the political and economic arenas. Especially important today is to recognize how much the heritage of Christendom led the church to see such action primarily in terms of intended and expected success. However, it has become increasingly evident today that in a pluralist society, the majority rules may not be Christian ones. A missional church knows that it will not always win when it makes an effort to be clear about the directions of God’s justice and the forms of God’s peace. The church’s representation of these features and action in those directions is not only a calling when there is promise of successful transformation of the society. It is also a calling when success is doubtful, when failure is likely, and when the consequence is suffering.
7. The missional church risks the expansion of its circle by heralding the coming reign of God and welcoming those who respond by receiving and entering it. There is something very overt about a missional church that is neither brash nor coercive. It has joy in speaking about the central story that forms its life. It knows how to talk to people about the Jesus it follows so that it is clear to people that in Jesus they are meeting the good news of God’s action on behalf of the world’s healing—and their own! It wants to illumine the meaning of the world’s life with the light of this good news.
One could say that the missional church "preaches the gospel." But today the word "preach" is used almost exclusively of the Sunday morning sermon. In the New Testament, however, the Greek verb behind the English "to preach" never has that meaning. It always means "to herald" or "to announce" and is used to describe the heralding in life’s public arenas the news that in Jesus Christ God is reconciling the world. It is a word about evangelism, not about sermon-given exhortation or instruction.
In our setting "to preach" suggests an attitude or posture in which some people are telling others how to live. Our pluralist social environment responds with negatives: "Quit preaching at me," or "Stop being so preachy." This also is foreign to the New Testament term. The good news is heralded in the interests of the benefit and well-being of the hearers. It is heralded in humility because this is news from God who is the sole authority for its announcement.
The fact that there is risk when a community welcomes "new believers" into its company explains why, in so many of our churches, it is hard for genuine evangelism to take place. I suspect that deep down, we are reluctant because we instinctively know that if ever someone from outside our circle, someone without our history of Christian identity, someone from a different economic or cultural style, were to hear our gospel, believe it, and join our company, it would alter the equation. That person’s newborn appreciation of the gospel and sense of its implications would become part of the conversation. The equilibrium would inevitably be disturbed. A missional church is open to the changes the gospel brings!
8. The qualities of peace, joy, and hope so pervade the missional church’s life together that life and hope are presented as tangible options for people around it. Here is the bottom line. Peace, joy, and hope are the fruit of a church that is missional in all the ways indicated above. But it is also true that the missional church longs to be a community pregnant with such things as the by-product of its first order intention to belong to God, heart and soul.
While these are God’s gifts, not the church’s self-achievements, their presence does imply conscious effort by its leadership to ensure that there are spaces for the peace, joy, and hope of the congregation to be expressed in ways that make them genuinely visible and accessible to all who come around. These qualities are so natural to the life of a missional church that they need no fabrication. Peace and joy are evident because life and hope are its daily experience. The missional church has received the healing of God in its own identification with the suffering and death of its Messiah, and has received its nourishment from the resurrected life of its Lord. And that healing becomes infectious. Tasted and experienced in the life of the community, it makes life and hope believable options.
I submit that a missional church is known by the presence of these eight features, and that churches earnestly seeking to recover their missional character or to be founded on it will find them to be the important directions and pathways to travel. Although the specific forms of life that serve these ends will vary, certain choices are likely to recur. For example, a pattern of small groups in a church is likely to be the most important structure for being engaged by the Scriptures, for forming community, and for living in mutual accountability and forgiveness. Lay teams for the design and leadership of worship will help shift from staff providing worship for the community toward a gathering of the community’s worship together. Local context will influence which structures make sense in a particular place.
In any case, the church’s present circumstances and the calling of God as we know it through the Scriptures converge on this point: the church is missional by its very nature; it is the way we are made by the Spirit! As the church moves into a new era, we have no more exciting challenge than to pursue the tangible expression of that vocation in every way we know.
1. George R. Hunsberger, "Acquiring the Posture of a Missionary Church," in The Church Between Gospel and Culture, eds. George R. Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 289-297.
2. Paul G. Hiebert, "The Gospel in Our Culture: Methods of Social and Cultural Analysis," in The Church Between Gospel and Culture, 142.
3. Douglas John Hall, Has the Church a Future? (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980).
Peter S Heslam
Engaging our Culture: An Unfinished Agendawas the title of a day conference held at Westminster College on 6th March 1999 in honour of one of its most famous alumni: the late Lesslie Newbigin. An impressive line-up of main speakers addressed the conference. David Ford, Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University provided a powerful argument that for Christians in universities the biblical command to love God with all their minds means that they are to be at least as intelligent in their faith as they are in their academic subjects. He backed up this claim by outlining what he saw as the role of the chaplain in the modern university. Jeremy Begbie, Vice Principal of Ridley Hall and Director of the Theology Through the Arts project at Cambridge University sought to account for the fact that although Newbigin paid only scant regard to the arts, he had succeeded in inspiring large numbers of Christian artists in a similar way to the Kuyperian gurus of the 1960s and 70s Hans Rookmaaker and Francis Schaeffer. The key to Newbigin’s influence amongst Christian artists, Begbie insisted, was that his faithfulness to the gospel was both cross-centred and culturally liberating. Murray Rae of Kings College London provided an erudite argument that in the face of postmodern society’s loss of epistemological nerve we are to insist along with Newbigin that the Christian story is the only true story about the way things really are, and that this truth is to be embodied in the life of the church as a living community. Colin Greene of the Bible Society ended the series of talks with an impassioned plea for theology to venture out into the public domain, and, from the vantage point of scripture, to work towards the creation of a new social imagination. Newbigin’s agenda is still far from finished, but the day held in his honour revealed something of the strength and vitality of the work of those inspired by his legacy.
Wishing it would all go away
Watching the News on T.V. has been more disturbing than usual lately. As the war in Kosovo has unfolded, I found myself watching snatches of Schindler’s List in between Scottish devolution and the murder of Jill Dando. Part of me is screaming that every single one of these atrocities should be headline news. Every day we are hearing and reading stories of men being separated from their families and taken away to be killed in cold blood or used as forced labour. Rape, pillage, burning of homes, unspeakable cruelty to children, to women, to old people. It is all going on right now even as I am writing this. How on earth does anyone with a conscience deal with this?
It is all too easy to find oneself wishing it would all go away, and thinking instead about cricket or motor racing. But in this conflict the consequences for Europe are not going to go away. The refugee crisis is going to go on and on, and every country in Europe will be affected. I have before me a Refugee Council report stating that at the time of writing there are a total of almost 1.4 million displaced Kosovars. Many of these are now deeply traumatised people who are not going to be able to simply return home. All of Europe is going to have to share in the responsibility of caring for these people.
There is no short answer to the question of how we deal with the knowledge of what is happening in and around Kosovo. There are some things we can do. We can give money and essential items that are being collected by many different groups involved in bringing aid to the refugees. We can become aware of the needs of refugees arriving in Britain and help to create a climate in which they will be welcomed and cared for in this country. We can pray.
All of these things can and will make a real difference. But they can also seem terribly inadequate and pathetic, especially when compared to the comfort and trivial preoccupations that fill up much of daily life in Britain. So perhaps one other important thing is just this: that we do not allow ourselves to forget the realities of life as part of the one human family, sharing this one small planet. We are all bound together, whether we like it or not, whether we live in Britain or in Kosovo, in Rwanda or in East Timor. "Never send to know for whom the bell tolls," wrote John Donne, "It tolls for thee."
ACCESS for you
Would you like to share more fully in reflection on the Gospel and western culture around the world? If so, you should appreciate the free Supplement to this newsletter, ACCESS U.K. This allows you to order, for the cost only of photocopying and postage, selected items from a wide range of publications, and also some unpublished material.
There is a rich variety of material in ACCESS U.K.:
BECAUSE it is important to bridge the gulf between academic theology and popular faith, therefore you will find material written at many levels between academic and popular. You can often anticipate the level of material from its source - e.g. articles from Third Way or Christianity Today will normally be at a more popular level than articles from Theology or Themelios.
BECAUSE Lesslie Newbigin's account of the Gospel and western culture, which has been so formative for the network, connects with a wide range of issues, therefore you will find material on a wide range of topics. This gives you the opportunity to follow up special interests.
BECAUSE the domestication of Christian faith to western culture is such a pervasive threat, thinking Christians need to draw from a richly 'biodiverse' pool of responses with many voices resonating and debating with each other. You will find such resonance and debate in ACCESS U.K.
BECAUSE the big issues arising between Christian faith and western culture are long-standing, and many of today's battles have been fought before, ACCESS U.K. includes pickings from the littered trail of the Christisn reflection - past insights which are not to be discarded but to be heard afresh today.
ACCESS U.K. has its origins in a similar service established by Rev'd Dr Harold Turner in New Zealand, and many of the items listed were first identified and collected by him.
THE COPYRIGHT ISSUE: some journals have kindly granted blanket permission to list articles, whereas other valuable articles are missing from ACCESS U.K. because it has not been possible to secure copyright permission to offer them. ACCESS U.K. provides only single copies for private study upon request by newsletter subscribers.
Bearing the Witness of the Spirit: Lesslie Newbigin's Theology of Cultural Plurality,George Hunsberger, Eerdmans, 1998.
This book arises out of PhD studies by George Hunsberger, the Co-ordinator of the Gospel and Our Culture network in North America and Professor of Missiology at Western Theological Seminary, Michigan, U.S. In it Hunsberger traces Newbigin's thought from the very beginning, following his life as a student, missionary to India, bishop in India, Associate General Secretary of the World Council of Churches and finally, after retiring, becoming a teacher, pastor, world church leader and missionary prophet to six continents and to global modern culture. We see growth and change in Newbigin's thought as he responds to each new challenge, threat and opportunity, developing a missionary theology, like Paul's, which grew out of a passionate missionary zeal, church leadership, loving pastoring, faithful prayer, preaching, lecturing and always incessant writing.
We are shown considerable development but always there were constants. Newbigin was biblical, never happier than when he was wrestling with the Scriptures - expounding to the illiterate or agonising with Indian or Western scholars. He was Trinitarian with a great emphasis on the Holy Spirit before the Charismatic movement; he was a brilliant theologian but not primarily for the classroom and he rarely used footnotes; he was a splendid administrator, gifted in all kinds of dialogue but never ceased to be missionary and evangelist.
Hunsberger serves us extremely well in many ways; I choose but three of them. Newbigin on the church writes systematically (and prophetically) in The Household of God and on Mission in The Open Secret but he never wrote on his whole system. Hunsberger does much to supply this want. Second, while stressing that Newbigin lived, preached and taught by faith in the cross and resurrection he maintains that it is 'election' which provides the 'inner logic' of his thought. Finally, he shows his subject rooted in the historical fact of Jesus Christ but at the same time always in a missionary encounter with contemporary cultures. The book's title explains its contents exactly and these are exciting, necessary and worth very careful reading.
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Newsletter 26 (Autumn '99)
Mission, Coercion and Christendom
After a millennium and a half of respectfulness on the part of Gentile lords, what claim has "Christendom" upon our interest now?' Oliver O'Donovan answers: 'the more the problem of our modernity engages us, the more we need to see modernity against its background.'
The corresponding term to 'secular' is not 'sacred', nor 'spiritual', but 'eternal'. Applied to political authorities, the term 'secular' should tell us that they are not agents of Christ, but are marked for displacement when the rule of God in Christ is finally disclosed. They are Christ's conquered enemies; yet they have an indirect testimony to give, bearing the marks of his sovereignty imposed upon them, negating their pretensions and evoking their acknowledgment… This witness of the secular is the central core of Christendom…
The Christendom idea has to be located correctly as an aspect of the church's understanding of mission. The church is not at liberty to withdraw from mission; nor may it undertake its mission without confident hope of success. It was the missionary imperative that compelled the church to take the conversion of the Roman Empire seriously and to seize the opportunities it offered. These were not merely opportunities for 'power'. They were opportunities for preaching the Gospel, baptising believers, curbing the violence and cruelty of empire and, perhaps most important of all, forgiving their former persecutors. The same energy drove the church-state dialectic at subsequent moments of transition. What was required for mission in the eleventh century was a co-ordinated and free church-structure; but this had become an obstacle to mission by the fourteenth, when the Fransiscans attempted to dissociate themselves from the worldly implications of that structure. But that same dissociation had itself become a liability to mission when the Calvinists attempted to reconstruct ecclesiastical jurisdiction. The ambiguities of Christendom, meanwhile, arose from a loss of focus on its missionary context. Once the two societies of church and nation came to be seen as a single society, it was more difficult to frame the church-state partnership in terms of the coming Kingdom. It could seem, by a kind of optical illusion, that there was no more mission to be done. The peril of the Christendom idea - precisely the same peril that attends upon the post-Christendom idea of the religiously neutral state - was that of negative collusion: the pretence that there was now no further challenge to be issued to the rulers in the name of the ruling Christ.
Mission is not merely an urge to expand the scope and sway of the church's influence. It is to be at the disposal of the Holy Spirit in making Christ's victory known. It requires, therefore, a discernment of the working of the Spirit and of the Antichrist. These two discernments must accompany each other: to trace the outline of Christ's dawning reign on earth requires that one trace the false pretension too… The rejection of Antichrist is the rejection of a unified political and theological authority other than that which is vested in Christ's own person.
To reckon with the possibility of Antichrist is to reckon with the ultimate conflict between false and true Messianism. It is to reckon with the perennial possibility of faithful martyrdom for the Kingdom of Christ, which is never to be omitted from an account of the church's mission even if, in some generations, martyrdom is not demanded. Not all faithful martyrdom, of course, presupposes Antichrist. Much martyrdom is suffered simply at the hands of barbarians and others for whom the combination of irreligion and violence is more attractive than the rule of law. One can be martyred for refusing sexual demands, for opposing ruthless landlords, for asking embarrassing questions about forgotten prisoners, and for many other things. But these occasions for martyrdom are sporadic and unpredictable. The martyrdom to which the church must always be looking forward is the martyrdom exacted by civilisation itself when it lifts its arms against God. A church too determined to be at home in the world will be unprepared for this, and so unprepared for mission.
Yet readiness for martyrdom is not the only form the church's mission must take, Since true martyrdom is a powerful force and its resistance to Antichrist effective, the church must be prepared to welcome the homage of the kings when it is offered to the Lord of the martyrs. The growth of the church, its enablement to reconstruct civilisational practices and institutions, its effectiveness in communicating the Gospel: these follow from the courage of the martyrs, and the church honours them when it seizes the opportunities they have made available to it. No honour is paid to martyrs if they are presented as mere dissidents, whose sole glory was to refuse the cultural order that was on offer to them. Martyrdom is, as the word itself indicates, witness, pointing to an alternative offer. The witness is vindicated when it is carried through in a positive mode, saying yes as well as saying no, encouraging the acts of repentance and change by which the powers offer homage to Christ.
Here I must define an affectionate parting of the ways with my friend Stanley Hauerwas, whose insights into the imprisoning constraints of modern cliché have done so much to free us to envisage the church as a social presence. His attack on Christendom, which he often calls 'Constantinianism', seems to be founded on the premise: Christendom/Constantinianism is constituted by the improper acquisition of worldly power by the church. 'By taking up Rome's project', he tells us in a flagship article ("Why there is No Salvation Outside the Church', in After Christendom?, p.39), 'Christians were attempting to further the kingdom through the power of this world.' No historical justification is offered for this claim, and I am afraid I think it is simply wrong. That is not what Christians were attempting to do. Their own account of what happened was that those who held power became subject to the rule of Christ. Of course, clear-sighted individuals could see the temptations this situation posed. Criticism of worldly churchmanship or papal pretension did not begin with the dawn of modernity. But they did not think this danger a reason to refuse the triumph Christ had won among the nations.
Hauerwas has a theological difficulty about this reading of Christendom, "I do not believe', he once declared to me with customary irony, 'in justification by faith!' But the subjection of the angelic powers of government to the rule of Christ is one aspect of justification, the fruit of Christ's triumph over death and hell. Christians who believed in Christendom believed that they could discern this in world-historical developments. Yet they knew they could not count on it as a permanent right. So Augustine knew that the thesis he had to contest in his contemporaries' celebration of the Christian epoch was not that the empire had been converted to Christ, which was true, but that there would never be another persecution of Christians, which nobody could be sure of. (Ep.199).
This triumph of Christ among the nations Hauerwas is not prepared to see. His Christianity is marked by a kind of return to the catacombs. This is not 'sectarian'; I have the greatest sympathy with his scornful repudiation of that epithet. For was it not the catholic church that sheltered in the catacombs and which Augustine thought might be called on at any minute to return to them? The categories of 'church' and 'sect' to which this epithet appeals are a dishonest device, theologically speaking, to suggest that catholics may always, as a matter of their own decision, be respectable - as though martyrdom were a temperamental decision or an ecclesiastical policy rather than a vocation thrust upon us terrifyingly from on high! Few modern theologians have been so conscientious in recalling the witness of the martyrs as has Hauerwas. His natural allegiance in the patristic age is not with Augustine's City of God but with Origen's Exhortation to Martyrdom. 'Genuine politics', he tells us in the same article, 'is about the art of dying'.
And yet - an observation offered in the spirit of his own remark that 'you can't learn to lay a brick without learning to talk right' (p.101) - Hauerwas does not talk about martyrdom in the way the master-builders did. ''The martyrs could go to their deaths confident that the story to which their killers were trying to subject them was not the true story of their death… "You can kill us"', he imagines them saying, '"but you cannot determine the meaning of our death"' (p.38). Is there not something missing here, something essential to the practice of dying constituted as a political and churchly, and not simply as a philosophical, act? Where is confidence in the resurrection? Has Hauerwas not suppressed it precisely because it means 'justification', the vindication of the martyrs' cause? For someone who is striving to recover pre-Constantinian innocence in these post-Constantinian times the very hope of vindication, which gave the martyrs their courage, has come to look like a temptation. Pre-Constantinian Christians themselves, of course, always expected vindication, and when the moment came they embraced it - all too incautiously, perhaps. Lactantius' Institutes, composed for a martyr-church at the height of the Roman Emperor Diocletian's persecution, was easily repackaged in a second edition, with a dedicatory preface to… Constantine!
(Reproduced from Oliver O'Donovan, The Desire of the Nations, Cambridge University Press, 1996, by permission of the author and the publishers.)
a dynamic ethos
'No civilisation, not even that of ancient Greece, has ever undergone such a continuous and profound process of change as Western Europe has done during the last 900 years. It is impossible to explain this fact in purely economic terms by a materialistic interpretation of history. The principle of change has been a spiritual one and the progress of Western civilisation is intimately related to the dynamic ethos of Western Christianity, which has gradually made Western man conscious of his moral responsibility and his duty to change the world'
(Christopher Dawson, The Judgement of the Nations, 1943)
tracing two millennia of Christianity:
Vulnerable, interacting, incarnate faith
The history of the expansion of the two great missionary faiths, Christianity and Islam, suggest a contrast. While each has spread across vast areas of the world and each claims the allegiance of very diverse peoples, Islam seems hitherto to have been markedly more successful in retaining that allegiance. While relatively few (although admittedly important) exceptions, the areas and peoples that accepted Islam have remained Islamic ever since: Arabia seems now so immutably Islamic that it is hard to remember that it once had Jewish tribes and Christian towns, as well as shrines of gods and goddesses to which the bulk of its population gave homage. Contrast the position with that of Jerusalem, the first major centre of Christianity; or of Egypt and Syria, once almost as axiomatically Christian as Arabia is now Islamic; or of the cities once stirred by the preaching of John Knox or John Wesley, now full of unwanted churches doing duty as furniture stores or night clubs. It is as though there is some inherent fragility, some built-in vulnerability, in Christianity, considered as a popular profession, which is not to the same extent a feature of Islam. This vulnerability is engraved into the Christian foundational documents themselves, with their recurrent theme of the impending rejection of apostate Israel, and their warnings to early Christian churches of the possible removal of their candlestick. Neither of these eventualities are seen as jeopardising the saving activity of God for humanity. I have argued elsewhere1 that this vulnerability is also linked with the essentially vernacular nature of Christian faith, which rests on a massive act of translation, the Word made flesh, God translated into a specific segment of social reality as Christ is received there. Christian faith must go on being translated, must continually enter into vernacular culture and interact with it, or it withers and fades. Islamic absolutes are fixed in a particular language, and in the conditions of a particular period of human history. The divine Word is the Qur'an, fixed in heaven for ever in Arabic, the language of original revelation. For Christians, however, the divine Word is translatable, infinitely translatable. The very words of Christ himself were transmitted in translated form in the earliest documents we have - a fact surely inseparable from the conviction that in Christ God was himself translated into human form. Much misunderstanding between Christians and Muslims has arisen from the assumption that the Qur'an is for Muslims what the Bible is for Christians. It would be truer to say that the Qur'an is for Muslims what Christ is for Christians.
It is quite in line with fundamental Islamic convictions that Islamic expansion has been progressive in concept and, to a large extent, in experience also. Mecca, the original theatre of the revelation, retains its cosmic significance for all the faithful, demonstrated in the qiblah, the direction in which they turn in prayer. And the missionary preaching which calls all humankind to surrender to Allah has produced a progressive, generally continuous, and remarkably durable geographical expansion. The rhetoric of Christian expansion has often been similarly progressive; images of the triumphant host streaming out from Christendom to bring the whole world into it come to mind readily enough. But the actual experience of Christian expansion has been different. As its most comprehensive historian, K. S. Latourette, noted long ago, recession is a feature of Christian history as well as advance.2 He might have gone on to note that the recessions typically take place in the Christian heartlands, in the areas of greatest Christian strength and influence, its Arabias, as on might say; while the advances typically take place at or beyond its periphery.
This feature means that Christian faith is repeatedlly coming into creative interaction with new cultures, with different systems of thought and different patterns of tradition; that (again in contrast to Islam, whose Arabic absolutes provide cultural norms applying throughout the Islamic world), its profoundest expressions are often local and vernacular. It also means that the demographic and geographical centre of gravity of Christianity is subject to periodic shifts. Christians have no abiding city, no permanent sacred sites, no earthly Mecca; their new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven at the last day. Meanwhile, Christian history has been one of successive penetration of diverse cultures. Islamic expansion is progressive; Christian expansion is serial.
The first change in the centre of gravity of the Christian world, entirely representative of what was to follow, took place within the first century of the Christian era, and its pathway is marked within the New testament itself. Within a remarkably short time, Christianity ceased to be a demographically Jewish phenomenon, centred in Jewish Palestine and expressed in terms of the fulfilment of God's promises to Israel. It moved towards a new expression as a demographically and culturally Hellenistic one, dispersed across the Eastern Mediterranean, and then beyond it. The Gentile mission, which had originated from the Messianic movement centred in Jerusalem and had been sparked off, the Acts of the Apostles tells us, by the forced removal from the (Acts 8.1) city of many of the leading activists, turned out to be the means of the movement's very survival. The crux was the fall of Jerusalem in AD70, and the accompanying destruction of the Jewish state. With that state, the original Jewish model of Christianity typified by James the Just, the righteous, deeply observant Jew who was the very brother of the Lord, was swept away for ever. That Christianity itself was not swept away was due to the cross-cultural diffusion that had already begun, and the consequent emergence of a new Hellenistic model of Christian expression.
The Hellenistic-Roman model of Christianity was by the fourth century quite as secure in its identity and its place in the world as the now vanished elders and apostles at Jerusalem had been in their vision. The Hellenistic-Roman model, has a by-product, too, which proved crucial for the future; the movement or series of movements which transmitted the faith, no doubt in partly assimilated forms, to the peoples beyond the imperial frontiers whom the Hellenistic-Roman world called barbarians and feared as the likely destroyers of civilisation. The significance of this process of transmission only became evident when the over-extended frontiers of the Western Empire collapsed under the weight of the barbarians in a sequence of fierce and nasty little wars; and when the provinces of the Eastern Empire which could point to the tombs of the most glorious martyrs and to the brightest treasures of Christian spirituality and scholarship, took on a new existence as Islamic states. Once again the survival of the Christian faith as a major force in the world depended on its having crossed a cultural frontier. Against all expectations, the future of Christianity lay with the barbarians, The Christian heartlands moved from the urban centres of Mediterranean civilisation with their advanced technology and developed literary tradition to a new setting among peasant cultivators and semi-settled raiders. A new model of Christianity developed among the Celtic and Germanic peoples between the Atlantic and the Carpathians, and another took its most distinctive shape among the Slavic peoples.
But the serial process of recession and advance, of withering heartland and emergence within a new cultural setting, can be seen in much more recent times. I would not wish to go to the stake for figures given in the World Christian Encyclopedia, but I am sure that the direction which they indicate, the situation which can be extrapolated from them, is broadly correct. On this basis on can reckon that in the year 1800 well over 90% of the world's professing Christians lived in Europe or North America. Today, something like 60% of them live in Africa, Asia, Latin America, or the Pacific, and that proportion is rising year by year. Still more strikingly, there were as recently As 1900 perhaps ten millions of professing Christians in the African continent. An educated guess today might put the figure at something over 250 millions, and that figure, too, is rising.3
In other words, the period bounded by out two anniversaries of 1492 and 1792, and substantially the period since the second of them, has seen the Christian centre of gravity steadily move a way from the West and towards the southern continents. That same movement has accelerated in the present century, and is now in spate. The last hundred years has seen the most considerable recession from the Christian faith to occur since the early expansion of Islam, and the area most affected has been Europe. A rather longer period has seen the most substantial accession to the Christian faith for at least a millennium; and that accession has taken place in the southern continents, especially in Africa, Latin America, and the Pacific. Always predicted by gloomy prophets, the pace of Christian recession in the West has probably been faster than even the gloomiest expected. If the first open sign of recession came when Holy Russia embraced an officially atheistic ideology, it eventually became clear that it but most deeply within the open, liberal regimes of the West. And the accession of Christians in the southern continents, so often regarded as the marginal effect of a misdirected missionary activity that largely failed, has been such as would have startled the most sanguine of the missionary fathers of 1792. When the delegates of the World Missionary Conference gathered as recently as 1910, they did so with a view to organising the resources of the Christian West to bring the Christian Gospel to the rest of the world. A symbolic handful of Indian, Chinese, and Japanese Christians pointed to the future of the Church; there was not a single African present. Today, the signs suggest that what the Christianity of the twenty-first century will be like, in its theology, its worship, its effect on society, its penetration of new areas, whether geographically or culturally, will depend on what happens in Africa, in Latin America, and in some parts of Asia.
1. Andrew Walls, 'The Translation Principle in Christian History', in P. C. Stine (ed), Bible Translation and the Spread of the Church, Brill, 1990, pp.24-39.
2. K. S. Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, London, 1945.
3. David Barrett, World Christian Encyclopedia, Nairobi, 1982
Reproduced with permission from Andrew Walls, 'Christianity in the non-Western world: a study in the serial nature of Christian expansion', in Studies in World Christianity, 1(1), 1995. The full article is listed in the ACCESS U.K. Supplement to this newsletter.
Enter the Pleasure Dome
"Enter the Pleasure Dome", says a headline in my newspaper. Tickets for the Dome are now on sale, although at present it seems that not many people are buying. I have myself already been to the Dome, in my capacity as Millennium Officer for the Diocese of Ely. Together with a group from the Greater Cambridgeshire Millennium Association, I was given a tour around the Dome, while it was still under construction. I was impressed. The Dome is a Big Idea and I am almost always impressed by Big Ideas.
But the millennium is an even Bigger Idea. It is said that the Millennium will be the biggest public celebration of our lifetimes. Already the media are gearing up in all sorts of ways for this great time of transition. We may feel that we would like to simply ignore it all, and pretend that the 1st January 2000 is just another day. But if you live in Britain it will be very difficult to avoid the Millennium.
However for over one billion people on this earth, the 1st January 2000 is likely to be just another hungry day. So, as we in Britain celebrate the Millennium, it is important for us to ask, "What is the big idea behind the Millennium?" Surely it is that God has broken through into human history, 2000 years ago. It is that God cares about the world, and that He wants it to be a different kind of place from what it is now. It is that Jesus Christ came into the world to reconcile us to God and to His ways and purposes for His creation.
The fact is that the world at the end of the twentieth century is by no means the place that God wants it to be. The Kingdom of God has broken through, but the task of bringing the message and values of the Kingdom to our world is now in our hands. The affluence of our society, and Big Ideas like the Dome, must not blind us to the demands placed upon us by the greatest Big Idea of them all, the One which is at the heart of the Millennium – the Kingdom of God.
Our society may be shy about commending right rather than wrong, but it is certainly not shy about commending what is 'healthy' rather than 'unhealthy'…
Streams of reflection
Mission and the Public Life of Western Culture: the Kuyperian Tradition
On 21 June 1996 Lesslie Newbigin commented that "the Gospel and Our Culture network has hardly begun to answer the questions of mission in the public square" and that the "Reformational, Kuyperian tradition has obviously been at work long ago spelling out concretely in the various spheres of society what it means to say 'Jesus is Lord.'" He continued, "unfortunately this Kuyperian tradition is almost unknown in Britain" and expressed his fervent wish that it "would become a powerful voice in the life of British Christianity." Such were Newbigin's closing remarks at a colloquium held at the West Yorkshire School of Christian Studies in Leeds, England on the topic of 'A Christian Society? Witnessing to the Gospel of the Kingdom in the Public Life of Western Culture.' The comments followed three days of dialogue between Newbigin and twenty-five leading Kuyperian scholars from five different countries on the subject of mission and the public square.
The Reformational tradition (called also Kuyperian and neo-Calvinist) was born in response to the secularisation of cultural, intellectual and political life as represented in the French Revolution and introduced in the Netherlands after 1795. It became a powerful culturally formative force in the Netherlands under the efforts of Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) and Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) but its founding fathers were a number of precursors of both of these men. The Kuyperian tradition parted company with theological liberalism, pietism, and scholastic orthodoxy which they believed to involve false accommodations to the Enlightenment. The tradition developed with a commitment to the gospel of the kingdom as the starting point for understanding and living in the world. Especially characteristic is the concern to embody the comprehensive claims of Christ's Lordship in all of societal life. An oft quoted statement by Kuyper summarizes this concern: "There is not a square inch within the entire domain of human life of which Christ, the Sovereign of all, does not claim: 'Mine'". From Holland its influence has included Canada, United States, South Africa, Australia, South Korea, Japan, and Britain. The Kuyperian vision is embodied in various institutions that struggle with a witness to the gospel in the public square: for example (in North America) Citizens for Public Justice (politics), Christian Farmers' Association (farming), Christian Labour Association (labour union), networks of Christian primary and secondary schools, the Institute for Christian Studies (graduate school), and Redeemer College (undergraduate university). Perhaps its greatest strides have been taken in the area of higher education. A number of universities have been established in Holland, Canada, South Africa, and the U.S.A that consciously embody the Reformational vision. The entire Coalition of Christian Colleges in North America has been affected by the Kuyperian worldview. In 1987 the American historian George Marsden spoke of "the triumph of Kuyperian presuppositionalism" in the North American evangelical scholarly community.
While the Reformational tradition has not had a powerful presence in Britain, it has directly or indirectly inspired such diverse actions and movements as The Shaftesbury Project, The Third Way Magazine, the West Yorkshire School of Christian Studies in Leeds, Christian Impact, and the movement for Christian Democracy. Via Hans Rookmaker, the Art Historian from Amsterdam, it has inspired the formation of the Arts Centre Group with its annual conference attended by nearly a thousand practising Christian artists. It is one of the roots of the Christian school movement in England today. Working in Britain today out of the Kuyperian vision are (among many others) Craig Bartholomew, Peter Heslam, David and Ruth Hanson, Arthur Jones, Richard Russell, Alan and Elaine Storkey.
To get to the heart of the Reformational tradition, I begin with a basic definition of the Christian faith given by the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck. "God the Father has reconciled His created but fallen world through the death of His Son, and renews it into a Kingdom of God by His Spirit." The reformational tradition takes all the key phrases in this definition as cosmic in scope. The terms 'reconciled', 'created', 'fallen', 'world', 'renews', and 'kingdom of God' are related to everything except for God. The kingdom of God announced and embodied by Jesus was the power of God to heal and restore his fallen world. Thus God's healing and renewing power extends to the full range of God's creation. Salvation is restorative in nature and comprehensive in scope. Salvation is comprehensive because the breadth of sin's power also extends to the ends of creation. However, since God did not bring his final judgement upon sin and the powers of darkness, there remains at this time a titanic struggle between the power of God's reign in Jesus Christ and by the Spirit to renew the creation and the parasitic power of darkness to twist and distort the creation in all of human life. In other words, there are two spiritual regimes and powers struggling for control of every aspect of the one creational domain. The church's mission is to be engaged in this struggle as bearers and instruments of God's rule in Christ.
In this brief description of the heart of the Reformational worldview, we can identify a number of common concerns that shape both the neo-Calvinist and Newbigin's vision of mission in the public life of western culture. First, neo-Calvinism and Newbigin share a common commitment to understand western culture from the standpoint of the gospel rather than the gospel from within the presuppositions of modernity. Second, both neo-Calvinism and Newbigin are centred in the confession of the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all of life. It is instructive to compare Newbigin's confession of the church's obligation "to declare the sovereignty of Christ over every sphere of human life without exception" with the famous statement of Kuyper quoted above. Third, both the Reformational tradition and Newbigin understand salvation to be restorative and comprehensive. In this regard, it is instructive to note the different contexts in which this developed. The Kuyperian tradition has developed over against the Platonizing of salvation in Pietism while Newbigin's understanding has been shaped in an encounter with Hinduism. Platonism and Hinduism understand salvation to be an escape from this world. Fourth, both Newbigin and the Reformational tradition understand the church to be more than a "religious" community; it is the new humankind that shares in the comprehensive salvation of the kingdom. Fifth, both recognize the antithesis-the struggle between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of darkness-during this already/not yet time of the kingdom. Since the salvation of the kingdom and sin are comprehensive in scope, there is an encounter at every point in creation. At the same time neither Newbigin nor Kuyperianism absolutize the antithesis in such a way that mission is simply protest. Both recognize the positive task of cultural development that the church has as a result of being part of a particular culture. Sixth, both Newbigin and the Reformational tradition hold a high view of Biblical authority. If the church is not to be absorbed into the reigning idolatry of culture, the Biblical story must become the starting point. This does not mean a fundamentalist capitulation for either Newbigin or neo-Calvinism. Rather both recognize that the Bible tells one story about the whole creation (universal history) with a creation, sin, redemption, consummation story line. Seventh, a recognition of the creational good and the distortions of idolatry in the public square lead to a similar understanding of the missional task of the church. Newbigin speaks of 'challenging relevance' or 'subversive fulfillment.' In the public square this means that the people of God are subversive agents who neither pursue revolution nor conservatism. This is quite similar to the neo-Calvinist notion of 'inner reformation.' Both want to preserve what is creationally good and oppose what is distorted by idolatry.
There are a number of differences that emerge in a close study of Newbigin's work and the Reformational tradition. I believe that there is the possibility for mutual enrichment and correction. I will only mention a couple of differences. First, while the Reformational tradition stresses creation (including law, creation order, and cultural development) in their understanding of the social witness of the church, Newbigin emphasizes the cross and eschatology. This leads to strengths and weaknesses on both sides. The strength of Newbigin is his stress on the missionary implications of eschatology-on mission as the meaning of this already/not yet time period, on the antithesis and a "missionary encounter." There is a tendency for many in the Reformational tradition when emphasising creation to tone down this eschatological and missionary thrust of Scripture. On the other hand, the Kuyperian stress on the doctrine of creation has enabled that tradition to develop a much more positive and defined agenda in politics, education, and other areas of public life. The neo-Calvinist tradition has much to learn from Newbigin's stress on missionary encounter, the cross, and eschatology while those who embrace Newbigin's vision have much to gain from a deepened understanding of the Reformational understanding of creation. (A good introduction to the Reformational understanding of creation is chapter two of Wolters' book listed below.) Second, for Newbigin the local church is the primary instrument of the church's mission in public life while in the Kuyperian tradition, the complexity of politics, education, and other spheres has led to specialized organizations of Christians devoted to an area of public life disconnected from the local Eucharistic community. The lack of connection with the local congregation is a weakness in the Reformational tradition. Newbigin did speak of 'frontier groups' and other kinds of Christian bodies that resemble what the Kuyperians have developed but always stressed their connection to the local congregation. About these 'frontier groups' in Newbigin's writing, little has been cultivated beyond generalizations; the Reformational tradition has developed a clearly defined witness in many areas of the public square as embodied in these groups.
The Reformational tradition has a rich history of distinctive and fruitful involvement in public life and reflection upon it. The literature is vast and has addressed many different subjects. Those who have been galvanized by Newbigin's call to a missionary encounter with the public life of western culture can benefit greatly from the insights of this tradition.
Dooyeweerd, Herman. 1979. Roots of Western Culture: Pagan, Secular, and Christian Options. Toronto: Wedge Books.
Dooyeweerd, Herman. 1980. In the Twilight of Western Thought. Nutley, New Jersey: Craig Press.
Goudzwaard, Bob. 1979. Capitalism and Progress: A Diagnosis of Western Society. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Heslam, Peter. 1998. Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press.
Kuyper, Abraham. Reprinted 1987. Lectures on Calvinism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Walsh, Brian and Richard Middleton. 1984. The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press.
Wolters, Albert M. 1985. Creation Regained: Biblical Basis for a Reformational Worldview. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Extensive suggestions for further reading can be obtained from the Canadian historian Harry Van Dyke (email address:firstname.lastname@example.org).
Moving Between Times: Modernity and Postmodernity: a Christian View
Brian Carrell, DeepSight Trust, New Zealand, 1998
This book aims to help thoughtful Christians identify the shifting mood, the changes in attitudes, the uncertainty in values, the search for something to search for, that is taking place around them.
"Accessibility" is surely the touchstone of this well-written and beautifully presented book. Its clarity, of both content and design, is a credit to its author and his publisher. Of particular note is the innovative layout. Extended quotes and relevant reflections, parallel to the text, are set in screened rectangles. Good use of bulleting is made and the type is well leaded/ These features further enhance the readability and comprehension of this well-organised text. Bishop Brian Carrell has already gained a reputation as being a thinker to consult about postmodernity. Many will welcome this particular presentation of his insights.
Moving between times is an introductory reference, providing a general understanding of modern and postmodern developments in Western culture. Carrell provides a bridge between difficult academic publications and Christians who find themselves struggling to understand what is happening to their world and how it relates to their faith. In this Carrell has succeeded mightily by distilling a significant sample of observers of contemporary culture. The book surveys the origins of modernity and relates them to postmodernity, by unpacking the characteristics of both paradigms, showing the commonalities and continuities, as well as the marked differences and departures. In this way, Carrell brings to the surface unseen forces and factors that are shaping contemporary assumptions, thoughts, actions and aspirations.
We Christians are not immune, of course. Carrell indicates how the contemporary rejection that there are firm foundations is affecting us, and will affect, the spiritual environment of the twenty-first century. What will be our place in that spiritual environment? How might Christians get to grips with it? The book suggests changes the Church will need to make. To this task the author brings all the concerns and practical insights of a mission-minded pastor in this down-to earth book.
(reprinted with permission from Stimulus)
The Roots of Science: An Investigative Journey Through the World's Religions
Harold Turner, DeepSight Trust (NZ), 1998
Harold Turner will be well-known to many in the network. He was involved from an early stage with Newbigin in England and founded The Gospel and Cultures Trust in his native New Zealand. He has been one of the key elders of the movement. You realise how important elders are when you read the writings of, e.g., Newbigin, Beeby and Turner. The Christian reflection on a long and wide-ranging experience is a crucial aspect of the power of their written word.
One of the buzz-words today is 'worldview' and the focus on the 'whole picture' that it conveys is at the heart of what these elders have given us. In this book Harold reconsiders the history of science. At first I thought it was going to be a more popular (more readable!) version of the work of Stanley Jaki. It is, but much more than that. While not academic in style (and there are some very helpful diagrams) it is a ground-breaking book. Harold brings to the task his vast knowledge of religions and especially of the tribal religions and new religious movements. The whole picture he presents makes everything look different and the latter part of the book is full of 'unexpected' insights. Reading it - and I thought I had some expertise in the history of science - has been a richly educational experience.
Harold shows - more powerfully than his predecessors have done - why it was that science arose only in a culture that had a Biblical cosmology that repudiated both the tribal religions that sacralise everything and the dualisms that depreciate either the material or spiritual. Instead we have a duality that distinguishes without separating or opposing. He argues that the belief in a open, contingent, de-sacralised, but appreciated universe was crucial for science. Conversely, the loss of that faith augurs ill for both the nature and future of today's science.
He opens up well-known and little-known episodes of Christian history in exciting ways and presents some incisive critiques of modern developments. He leaves much detail to be filled out and there will surely need to be revisions, but I have no doubt that we will look back on this book as truly significant and give thanks for another faithful elder.
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