Newsletter 36 (Spring '03)

The Church as host

The Church's calling to hospitality - including hosting public life

Eugene Peterson has suggested Christians might use the word 'hospitality' in place of 'evangelism'. Wilbert Shenk has urged the importance of the same theme. The early church fathers referred to the gift of hospitality more times than any other gift…

Elizabeth Newman

Our lives, Christians believe, are a gift from God. Who we are is given by God; the place where we stand is the place given us by God, to share in his purposeful work in the world; and from this place we are called to offer hospitality - that same hospitality which God first offers to us.

But there are other offers of hospitality in our world. What are they like?

The pluralist 'hotel'

In a well-known passage, William James enthusiastically compares our modern situation (particularly in the university) to a kind of hotel. Innumerable rooms open out of a common corridor. In each room something different is going on, 'but they all own the corridor, and all must pass through it if they want a practicable way of getting into or out of their respective rooms'1.

The trouble is, in our own time the corridor is becoming narrow and bare. There is less and less of anything like a 'common room'. There are just people in their own rooms. Communities are reducing to like minded individuals who see little reason to interact with those who are not like-minded and who lack either the means or resolve to negotiate differences. The corridor remains, however: the 'pluralism' of these rooms really operates, as William Cavanaugh has remarked, only at the private level: 'In the public sphere, the State itself is the ultimate good whose prerogatives must be defended coercively… it defends and imposes a particular set of goods - e.g., the value of the market, scientific progress, the importance of choice itself - which excludes its rivals'2. State, market, and the ethic of individual choice are the bare corridors which measure out public hospitality to us today.

The hospitality of Christ

The 'home' from which Christians offer hospitality, God's 'household', reflects an economy that differs radically from the market economy, which operates on assumptions of scarcity and savings. God's household rests by contrast on the assumption of superabundance, where there is no need to hoard and save. This abundance is reflected in the well-known biblical stories where God provides daily manna in the wilderness, and loaves and fish for the multitudes. Gerhard Lohfink argues in fact that the fish and loaves parable, in the way it orders the people in groups, recalls the manna in the wilderness story. The abundance of God's provisions in these biblical stories points not only to the continuity of God's hospitality across time, but points forward to the abundance of life itself which becomes reality after Easter. Even death cannot make of life a scarce commodity. Thus Lohfink rightly claims, 'Excess, wealth, and profligate luxury are thus the signs of the time of salvation - not economy, meagerness, wretchedness, and neediness. Why is that so? - because God is overflowing Life itself, and because God's whole desire is to share that life. God's love is beyond all measure, and God's gifts to human beings are not measured by their good behaviour or deservingness.'3

This extravagant hospitality draws people together without obliterating their differences. Indeed the uniqueness of each person is necessary so that there will be a fuller abundance, a genuine giving to another and receiving of what we do not already have. Recalling James' analogy, a hotel with a common corridor through which people merely pass fails to grasp the extravagance and abundance of this hospitality; it is better captured by a household, the heart of which is a large common table where strangers are welcome and food and wine are generously shared with thanksgiving ('eucharist'). Such hospitality is rooted in an understanding of our lives as gift; its purpose is to practice and to participate in God's own hospitality to us.

Exile and hospitality

Now this raises two questions. Firstly, are not Christians 'homeless travellers' in this world? Surely we are called to have no place, as Jesus had no place to 'lay his head'? St Augustine described a person as a Christian who, 'even his own house and in his own country, acknowledges himself to be a stranger'4. Today various authors call Christians to live 'in exile'. How can Christians be called to hospitality if this is our situation?

The resolution lies in understanding our 'place' or identity as resting in God's purposeful activity. We are called to be strangers to all that denies or negates that purpose. Thus, for example, we are called to be strangers to the idea that our families or our nations are our primary identity-givers. But we still find a 'home' in the world (and thus can become good hosts) because our home or place is in God's kingdom which is now present although not yet fully realised.

Truth and hospitality

This raises a second question: in what sense might there be such a thing as true hospitality? How does the hospitality to which Christians are called relate to testimony to the truth of God?

The answer is that being guests in God's house, we reflect this in our hospitality; receiving the truth of our lives as gifts, we become good hosts to others. If, on the other hand, who we are is primarily self-generated - if our choices constitute the essence of our identity - then the practice of hospitality will quickly atrophy as we see no need to truly receive from another. However, as others have noted, such hoarding - refusing to give and receive - paradoxically leads to scarcity rather than abundance. If it is true that who we are is a gift from others and ultimately from God, then by refusing to receive from another, we deny ourselves and others abundance.

Reinhard Hutter puts it as follows. Discussing C. S. Lewis's The Great Divorce, he remarks: 'Acknowledging and therefore receiving the truth of who and whose one is liberates one for genuine hospitality. Yet because the inhabitants of Twilight City lack this truth, they are intensely absorbed in themselves - the self-absorption of a void in search of a substance. They want to grasp and own what can only be received as a gift: the gift of a self transparent to the truth that it owes its existence not to itself, but rather to the Giver of Life. Honouring this truth in its constant reception is what makes the self open to the other, to genuine hospitality'5.

Wherever and whenever we live with the conviction that our lives and callings are gifts from a gracious God, we have no 'choice' but to practice hospitality - hospitality sustained by faithful worship of God. The life of God is the dwelling place that sustains genuine hospitality, and it is our vocation to dwell in this life and to extend it to others.

Notes

  1. As quoted by George Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, Oxford, 1997, p.45.
  2. William T. Cavanaugh, 'A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House': the Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State', Modern Theology, 11, October 1995, p.409.
  3. Gerhard Lohfink, Does God need the Church? Liturgical Press, 1999, p.147.
  4. As quoted by Amy Oden (ed), And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity, Abingdon Press, p.45.
  5. Reinhard Hutter, 'Hospitality and Truth', in Volf and Bass (eds), Practising Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, Eerdmans, p.202.

 

Comment

I believe in the power of ideas to change and mould the future of our world. True leadership is about vision and ideas. Leaders are people who know what they believe and what they want. They are those who have the faith, the energy and the perseverance to hold to the vision, come what may, and to seek tirelessly to communicate that vision to others.

The appointment of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury has been widely welcomed in the secular media because he is seen to be a leader who has ideas of real significance for our society. John Humphrys wrote in the Sunday Times, "I think what many of us want is a voice to talk about the values and morality of our world in the widest possible sense. We want somebody to put countercultural thoughts in our head. We want a voice that we can trust, or at least respect. We want somebody who will use his authority to challenge the politicians and the peddlers of purely materialistic dreams."

Already Rowan Williams has shown that he is a leader whose ideas and intellectual stature have the potential to influence the future direction of this nation. The future is not already determined for us. We determine what kind of world our children will inherit. We do this primarily by the decisions we make about what we believe in, and what we will choose to serve with our lives.

If we have eyes to see then we will observe that even at this moment certain ideas are changing society and changing us. Radical lesbian and gay writers and thinkers, such as Monica Wittig who died recently, have profoundly affected the way we think about sex and gender. The church by and large continues to struggle woefully to come to terms with these changes. The idea that pornography is good for us is being widely and actively promoted. Porn is being made intellectually respectable. Unless we can counter this kind of subtle persuasion in the battleground of ideas we are in real trouble.

There are many in our society who do not see themselves as Christian but who are nonetheless looking to the church for leadership in the arena of values and morality. What ideas do we have? That is what they want to know. It is a truly significant question.

Ian Cowley

Human Rights seen in Christian Context

Jeremy Cooke reports on the Network Conference in September

About 50 people came to Oxford from all parts of the country for this day conference led by Oliver O' Donovan and his wife Joan Lockwood O' Donovan. Each of their five main presentations were followed either by questions and discussion in plenary session, or by discussion in smaller groups, and the day concluded with responses from participants.

Dr Joan opened with a very helpful introduction to the origins and conceptual roots of rights discourses, which forms the background against which discussion of the subject of human rights takes place today. Whereas, prior to the 14th Century, justice was seen as synonymous with what was objectively right - and with which all people were bound to conform - from then on there was some perception of individual rights; however this always retained its connection with what was objectively right, i.e. with natural law. Dr Joan then traced the movement of thought from the late medieval theological tradition of natural rights and the Renaissance tradition of civic corporatism through to the liberal views of the 17th Century and the eclipse of any biblical idea of a created community governed by natural law. This came about through the emergence of thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke, with their view of the primacy of individuals who create a society rather like a joint stock company in which they hold vested interests and upon the capital of which they draw as a matter of right. The concept of welfare rights, she suggested, then emerged from property rights - in a move from non-interference to the imposition of positive obligations on the joint stock community as a whole. Rousseau's social contract and the ideas of apologists for the US and French Revolution then led on to individual rights being tied in with liberal democracy, liberal economic capitalism and utilitarianism. The language of rights became linked to self-conscious freedom and self-conscious determination. Now rights became more than the subject of juridical obligation; they became the ethical foundation of society itself.

Professor Oliver then explored the relation between Justice and Equality. He considered first the ideas of Exchange Justice and of Distributive Justice as put forward by Aristotle and as revised in a Christian context by Grotius, suggesting that neither of these offered an adequate model of acting justly. What about, for example, the wrong done to a man who is ideally suited to a job, but finds the appointment given to a person less qualified than himself? Although the former has not been deprived of a "right", he has still been wronged; but there is no correlative claim of "right" in relation to the wrong done.

Again, justice cannot be reduced to equality in the sense of equal treatment. For example, it is just that a pupil should not have the same right to decide on the syllabus as her teacher. Nevertheless there remain areas where substantive equality is needed as part of justice: where human life is in danger; where access to making a social contribution is at stake; and where individuals stand before judgement. Equality is not however a foundational principle for treatment of classes of people - save in the sense of the negative statement of Gal 3 v 26, which is a theological claim about equality in human relationship to God.

Professor Oliver then turned to Courts of Rights and the purpose of civil government to exercise judgements. In Thomism, the right of making law lay in the sovereign, but this was subject always to and dependent on divine law. Law was not law if it contradicted divine law. Slowly, however, perceptions changed so that legislation became the basis of society and not merely something that rulers did. By the time of the Renaissance legislation had become fundamental as a conscious spring of rationality which sustained political society. In practice however, this conscious spring was invested in a legislative body which then laid claim to a sovereignty previously held by the Head of State. The rule of law now became the practice of the legislature, bringing in democracy by the back door. Our late modern crisis lies in the failure of such democracy, leading to attempts to get back behind the legislature to a pre-political ground for law. But it can't be done; in practice we can't break with a positive, legislating government, despite the 'religious' pretensions of rights discourse to do so. The claims of rights need the operation of a legislating body. However, Courts of Rights must acknowledge their limitations and be subject to correction in their judgements. Their job is to remain focussed on particular cases, insulated all the while from matters of public concern and making conservative judgements because law need to be applied consistently. Good government, however, requires a broader approach than this; it requires maintaining an overview and listening and responding to public concern. Where competition arises in the matter of making judgements - between Executive and Legislature, or Legislature and Judiciary, or English Judiciary and European Judiciary - somewhere there must reside power to resolve conflict. In all this, justice and law must remain the presupposition of government and not its creation; never is human existence found prior to the demands of justice and law.

Dr Joan traced further the ascendancy of "rights" today as an effect of the collapse of democracy and the nation state. Now whereas adjudication has to proceed on the basis of moral community, she noted, liberal groupings pressing for rights want freedom of choice as the prime principle, exempt from spiritual constraints. However the need remains always for a moral framework: conflict inevitably arises among competing rights and this requires for its resolution a hierarchy of rights enabling them to be weighed against each other morally. The language of entrenched rights is of no help at this point.

'Redeeming our culture' was the concluding theme of the day, addressed by Professor Oliver. The message of the Gospel challenges society and all its present concrete forms; final judgement, however, is always deferred. Meanwhile the Church has to judge, as it goes, whether human rights are a derivation or a perversion of Christian thinking. It has to be descriptive in assessing the position and then prescriptive in saying what is to be done; and it must responsibly make prescriptive judgements of a generic kind even when it lacks full information about the facts. In particular, in its attitude to "rights" the Church's prescriptions must be informed by analytical reflection and set in a moral context which bears witness to God's purposes and affirms that which, ultimately, Christ will perfect.

The conference closed with responses, and all expressed their enormous gratitude to the O'Donovans for their presentations. The depth of thinking was apparent and the addresses marvellously stimulating. It was a privilege to be there.

The Centre for Faith & Culture in Oxford

Introduced by Stratford Caldecott, Director of the Centre

The decade leading up to 2000 was defined by the Pope John Paul II and many other Christian leaders as a "Decade of Evangelization". But what did that really mean in practice, and was it at all effective?

Church attendance is sinking, vocations to the priesthood were low even before the current crisis over abuse claims, seminaries are closing or merging, and the media are dominated by a mentality that is hostile to the Church and to religious belief in general.

Yet at the same time religiosity or spirituality is not in decline in Britain, even if it takes unorthodox or ‘implicit’ forms. People still need answers, meaning, community, unconditional love, moral certainties, hope and beauty – things which religion has traditionally provided for them.

England has too few Christian organisations concerned with the ever-growing gap between faith and culture. This was a weakness in the various official attempts at evangelization. Without a real understanding of the contemporary cultural situation, how could the Church find a language in which to reach out to the new generation?

In 1994 my wife and I started a small cultural research centre at Westminster College in Oxford, with support from the publisher T&T Clark. Westminster at that time was a Methodist institution, although the Centre itself was explicitly Catholic in inspiration, and in 1998 it moved to Plater College (the "Catholic Workers’ College’) on the other side of town.

Our work was influenced particularly by the cultural analysis of theologians such as Henri de Lubac and H.U. von Balthasar, the historian Christopher Dawson and the far-seeing journalist G.K. Chesterton. It was the latter who said (in Toronto, as early as 1930): The coming peril is the intellectual, educational, psychological and artistic overproduction, which, equally with economic overproduction, threatens the wellbeing of contemporary civilisation. People are inundated, blinded, deafened, and mentally paralysed by a flood of vulgar and tasteless externals, leaving them no time for leisure, thought, or creation from within themselves.

Chesterton was right: but what do we do about it?

Well, we think, we write, we debate, we encourage, we collaborate, and we try to inspire others. Above all, we pray and we try to encourage a spiritual revival among Christians, so that our religion can be seen to have something meaningful to offer people who at present are more attracted to the New Age.

The Centre’s own activities have included book publishing, conferences, a series of sponsored "Balthasar Lectures" (published in Communio), ecumenical colloquia, and my own research work. An important G.K. Chesterton archive of books, papers and memorabilia was brought under our umbrella also. We started a Sane Economy project to examine mainstream and alternative economic theories in the light of Christian principles. At Plater I taught a course called "Christianity and Society" (the details are on our web-site and in a booklet I published with the Catholic Truth Society), and developed a proposal for a Masters Degree in Catholic Social Teaching – although the latter may now not happen for lack of funding at Plater. My wife Leonie meanwhile developed our youth work, including catechesis, retreats, musical and theatrical events, culminating in a deeply enjoyable pilgrimage of girls to various shrines in northern France in 1999.

In 2001 we organised a Summer School at Plater on the role of the laity, which brought together representatives from many of the new ecclesial movements (such as Charismatic Renewal, Focolare, Youth 2000, and Faith). We were blessed with the presence of Cardinal Francis Stafford, who heads the Pontifical Council for the Laity in Rome. The experience of this conference gave hope to many that the tide is turning: there are creative forces beginning to stir within the old Church - new attempts to live the Gospel, which is the only way to create a new culture worthy of the name.

In the next few months our contract with Plater expires, and we are trying to decide on a new location. The research library, too, which is expanding beyond the works of Chesterton to include Christopher Dawson, John Henry Newman and the Inklings, needs to find a more appropriate home. Happily, although we still need to raise some money in the UK for our work, the future of the Centre itself has been secured by merging it with a larger international organization, the Chesterton Institute for Faith & Culture, the publisher of The Chesterton Review. In fact, the main thrust of our work at the moment is in publishing, since we started a twice-yearly illustrated journal of our own called Second Spring. If you anyone is interested in knowing more, please look up our web-site, www.secondspring.co.uk. There is a contact button there, also, if you want to write.

Short & Sweet

Once pagan festivals were adopted and redefined by Christians, and the seasons mapped out. In our own age retailers have appropriated Christian celebrations and shaped them into festivals of consumerism. The presents of Christ's Mass, which followed hard on the witches' costumes of All Hallow's Eve, now give way to the throbbing hearts of the feast of St Valentine, a much needed interval before Easter bunnies multiply in our high streets like, well, like rabbits. We jump from one strategic marketing opportunity to another. Time is measured out in shop-front displays.'

Nick Spencer (L.i.c.c.)

Book Reviews

The Laughter of Providence: Stories from a Life on the Margins, Harold Turner, DeepSight Trust (NZ), 2001, 160pp., £9.90 (including p&p) from the Gospel and Our Culture Network

The late Harold Turner was well-known to many in the network and his earlier books (e.g. Roots of Science and Frames of Mind) have been reviewed in the newsletter. This book is quite different. It consists of seven personal stories that serve as case studies on ‘the fragility of religious freedom, and on the readily aroused public hostility to religion in Western secular societies that leads to harassment or even outright persecution.’ (page 7)

Of course books on persecution have been a staple of Christian reading down the centuries from, say, Eusebius’ Church History (4th century) to John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (16th century) to Paul Marshall’s Their Blood Cries Out (1997). But, still, this book is different. Yes, Harold reminds us of the secular inability, or refusal to take religion seriously, and its frequent suspicion of those that do. But he does not tell of persecution ‘over there’ or ‘back then’. His personal case studies cover Moral Rearmament, African and Maori indigenous churches, Rastafarians, the Unification church (‘Moonies’), Mormons, Scientologists, and the Afrikaaner churches of South Africa (and their own struggles over apartheid). I learnt much from every chapter that I had not known and it has been a humbling experience. As Harold says, a common thread running through them is that of ‘harassment to the point of persecution of small, marginal, unorthodox, or politically incorrect religious bodies on the part of both secular governments and mainline churches in Western societies.’ (page 133, his emphasis).

We detail and deplore religious persecution in the non-Western world, but have been inconscionably silent about religious persecution in our own Western societies today, and our Christian compliance in it. The professions of tolerance, respect for human rights and religious pluralism sit very uneasily with these stories. Over two hundred years ago John Curran wrote that ‘The condition upon which God has given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.’ That vigilance must not neglect our own thought and practice as Christians. All of Harold’s Gospel and Culture books have been significant, but I suspect that this may ultimately be judged the most significant. Oh, and yes, it is an easy and exciting read.

Arthur Jones

The Gospel According to the Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World's Most Animated Family,-

Mark I. Pinsky, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001, 160 pp., pb. £7.99

Comedy may be, as Peter Berger observes, more profound than tragedy, but how can anyone take a TV cartoon seriously? What about one in its 12th season, and one of the most successful comedy programmes ever made? What about one whose plots feature religion in a far higher proportion than any other non-religious programme? How about when its stock evangelical character, Ned Flanders, appears in polls of US high school students as the second most well known Christian figure (after Jesus)?

Mark Pinsky, a religious affairs journalist, writes with detached sympathy on how the programme treats the image of God, prayer, morality, fundamentalist evangelicals, liberal Protestants, Catholics and the Bible. He discusses – as a Jew - how Judaism and other religions are portrayed. He finds many in the faith communities who are offended, but equally he quotes those who with humility and a sense of humour accept that we often deserve such satirical targeting.

He canvasses the views of the writers of the show, and along the way we get sharp insights into the forces that shape the entertainment industry. Pinsky’s conclusions mark the beginnings of a theological approach that is useful for students of mission and culture learning responsible ways to critique the mass media.

Sure, religion comes off badly, but then as Pinsky points out, so does every other aspect of American civic, social and cultural life. Satire motivates the writers, but whether the target is a Pentecostal huckster or a vapid Protestant preacher, capitalist depravity or governmental incompetence, there is moral heart. Somewhere in the writers’ collective mind there is perhaps a Simpsons anti-world, a perfect Springfield where nobody fails, or oppresses another, and sin and evil are absent. I suspect that neither they nor I would want to live there, for then there would be no comedy. Without humour, it might be heaven – or it might be hell – but it wouldn’t be this glorious, fallen world. This is what The Simpsons celebrates. Hope gleams through every episode, humanist maybe, but hope that goes before us, prevenient grace, if you will, and – oops it’s 6.00, time to tune in…

Geoffrey Stevenson

God and Globalization: The Spirit and the Modern Authorities, ed. Max L. Stackhouse with Don S. Browning, Trinity Press International, 2001, 240pp., £35.00 hb

Authorities here are the seemingly autonomous professions and practices that "largely defined modernity": education, law and medicine (inspected by Osmer, Witte, Verhey). Such differentiated spheres of authority, encapsulated in institutions that transmit truth, render fair judgements and reduce suffering, have introduced every dynamic culture to universalistic thinking and global civilization (Stackhouse). The responsibility of (natural) science and technology for the processes of globalization (Cole-Turner), and the ecological crisis they have fuelled (Moltmann) are examined. Some universal exemplars of public virtue encourage us to ask (Paris) how individuals and communities "become morally good".

The homogenization of cultures by media or market isn’t inevitable. "Global reflexivity" may flag up cultural other-ness and reaffirm difference, yet relativism pressures public education to avoid teaching substantive, particular notions of the good or cultivating virtues vigorous enough to resist consumer culture. Contrariwise, global acquisition and enshrinement of human rights in recent years has, by a "Dickensian" reflex, catalyzed some of the worst religious and ethnic conflicts.

Science and technology, in medicine or the information industry, have demonstrated alongside many benefits, their capacity to alienate us from our own flesh as does disease. The "Baconian project", an espousal of the practical and rejection of the speculative sciences, has accumulated knowledge as "power over nature", isolating "useful" knowledge from religious and cultural guidance. So, there is "no empirical normative past, no Garden-of-Eden benchmark for health…correct version of genes…atmospheric gases or anything else; our vision of normal is …infinitely elastic." Medical technology is the boundless provider, the sufferer something manipulable. Compassion arms itself blindly with artifice yielding no space "for the tasks of reconciliation and forgiveness and community."

Moltmann asks if such changes advance God’s children’s "glorious liberty" or Earth’s future as the place where God will tabernacle with us.

In this book’s "globalization", swift (Gadarene!) progress seems to rule, but hopeful islands of perspective, ancient wisdom, compassion, virtue persist and religion has its role. But questions abound. Will it offer more than conservatism? Can a "religious" contribution per se much help us? Can we bank on its developing a "new human rights hermeneutic"? Would we do the right if we knew it? Do we not overtax the ability of institutional church and theology? We need to inspire, activate and direct practitioners of Christian economics, education, politics, medicine, ecology also towards God’s shalom. Without triumphalism, for we wrestle not against flesh and blood and the Spirit finally says: "Come Lord Jesus!"

David R. Hanson

Europe: The Exceptional Case, Grace Davie, Darton Longman & Todd, 2002, 180pp., £10.95 pb.

The secularisation thesis continues to be vigorously debated. Just how secular is contemporary Europe? Is the pattern of fast-declining, church-going populations all over the continent (most recently in the former communist states) a phenomenon likely to be repeated in other parts of the world sometime soon? Is Europe, in this sense, every other continent’s future? Many observers believe that as the rationalisation processes and technological impact of modernity spread throughout the globe, so religious practices will decline on all continents.

The author of this book, as the title suggests, believes that Europe, not the rest of the world, is the anomaly. She sets out her case by exploring in five chapters the parameters of faith in Europe, the USA, Latin America, Africa and the Far East. European readers will be familiar with the arguments concerning the nature and practice of faith in their own respective countries. Here the evidence for a general theory of secularisation seems overwhelming. Most Europeans do not appear to allow any supposed reality beyond the natural to have anything other than the most fleeting influence on their lives. If not in theory, most Europeans are atheists or agnostics in practice. Do they not, in this scientific age, adhere to naturalistic evolution as the most credible explanation for the universe and life within it? In the beginning was matter in motion, and that is all there is to it. There is no intelligence, purpose, or design, instructing and guiding the development of sentient beings. And, if that hypothesis does not seem to make much sense of human experience, then most of us are too occupied with mundane matters to look into possible alternatives. Is it not true to experience that God is an unnecessary hypothesis for most people most of the time?

It is well known that Grace Davie dissents from this view. In her much debated theory that most Europeans continue to believe, without belonging to believing institutions, she makes out a case for separating numinous religious experience from ritual participation in formal religious structures. This, in her opinion, makes Europeans largely un-churched populations rather than being strictly secular. The problem with the debate is that the term secular (secularisation, secularity) is about as slippery as the word religion. If heterogeneous creeds and religious sensitivity continue to be part of the horizon of most people, it would be interesting to know what exactly could count in favour of a theory of increasing secularity. If all kinds of weird and wonderful private beliefs are evidence against the thesis, would a conscious disassociation from any form of religious realism be sufficient to confirm one’s secular credentials? I am not sure that Davie would allow even that.

However, this book is not just about secularisation in Europe. It is about the USA, a famous counter-example to the modernisation/secularisation connection, for there church-attendance has kept remarkably buoyant, despite the availability of myriads of choices for leisure-time activities. It is about Latin America that has seen an explosion in the growth of Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal churches. Likewise, Africa (north and south of the Sahara) shows a population that is overwhelmingly religious in its consciousness and practice. Asia in general and even those parts most affected by modernising tendencies (the Pacific rim) is hardly indifferent to religion. Davie divides each chapter into four sections: a report of the situation, different sociological explanations of the data, a description of religious participation and an evaluation. The final chapter returns to the theme of the exceptional religious character of Europe. It tries to make sense of this particular and extraordinary history, which has thrown up such an unparalleled attitude to religious belief and practice.

The discussion of the book is stimulating, not merely as an academic piece of research, but as an aide to serious mission reflection. Davie asks the question whether the religious establishments of Europe are capable of helping the populace to recapture the (best elements of the) memory of its religious past, or whether they belong intrinsically to the past that is already forgotten. The book raises many crucial questions (and not only for Christianity): can patterns that are successful in one context be reproduced in another? What social, cultural and economic factors are likely to shape believing and belonging in the future? Why do Europeans in general feel that their situation is historically normal and the rest of the world aberrant? To what extent is religious observance mainly a matter of innovative production and successful marketing? The book will achieve much if it causes all of us interested in the cultural challenges to living and communicating the Gospel to read the signs of the times more intelligently. Nevertheless, we still need much more clarification on the criteria adduced to denominate people’s beliefs and experiences either religious, spiritual or secular and to discern patterns of secularisation in a society.

J. Andrew Kirk

The Transformation Principle: Impacting your Community through Radical Discipleship, Ian Cowley, Kingsway, 2002, 175 pp., £8.99 pb.

Church Next: Quantum changes in Christian ministry, Eddie Gibbs and Ian Coffey, IVP, 2001, 260pp, £7.99 pb.

The subject of Ian Cowley's book is vital. Increasingly, church leaders are coming to see that the church does not grow merely by means of good evangelistic practice alone. Mission has to include the transformation of communities and cannot be reduced to evangelism alone. Ian Cowley writes a book which tells of a personal journey of transformation. The great strength of the book lies in his attractive account of his encounter with the church in both Africa and the West.

The book is short and easy to read. It seeks to inspire vision, but does not pursue far suggestions as to how a local church could make community transformation happen on the ground. One looks forward with eager anticipation to a longer book that takes much further the suggestions in last five pages.

Church Next is designed to offer some suggestions as to the kind of church that might be equipped to engage in a genuine missionary encounter with its context. Unusually for any book there are two editions, one written only by Eddie Gibbs for a North American audience and one that has been edited with the help of Ian Coffey for a British audience.

Eddie is no stranger to British audiences, but because he has spent the majority of his last twenty years in the USA he has enlisted the help of one who knows the British scene well. The result is a book that is well tuned to the British scene. Two features of this fine book are worth noting.

The first is an excellent analysis of the situation of the church in North America and the United Kingdom. It might come as some surprise to British leaders, accustomed as we are to "solutions" coming to us from successful American churches to learn that all is far from well in the American scene.

Eddie offers the American church a wake up call designed to help the church adjust to the immense changes that are impacting culture across the whole western world. The book would be worth reading for this analysis alone but not content with this, the authors offer a second element in the shape of some constructive suggestions for the way ahead.

The most helpful aspect is the way in which the subject of leadership is tackled. Leadership is identified as the key issue for the church and offers a valuable assessment of the role of apostolic gifting in producing a new style of networking for church life.

I would suggest that Church Next is essential reading for those seeking to build meaningful Christian communities equipped for mission in the 21st century.

Martin Robinson

Lesslie Newbigin: new publications

In Signs Amid the Rubble: God's Purposes in Human History Geoffrey Wainwright brings together previously unpublished material from three moments widely spanning Newbigin's ministry: his Bangalore Lectures (1941), his Henry Martyn Lectures (1986), and his address at Salvador de Bahia (1996). Due publication by Eerdmans in the immediate future.

Newbigin greatly enjoyed teaching at Holy Trinity, Brompton in the late 1990's - and they greatly enjoyed him too. His teaching tapes on Christian doctrine have now been edited as two books which are due publication by Alpha around Easter. Their titles are Discovering Truth in a Changing World and Living Hope in a Changing World.

We plan to publish reviews of these books in forthcoming newsletters.

This issue's contributors

Stratford Caldecott is Director of the Centre for Faith and Culture, Oxford

Jeremy Cooke is a High Court Judge

Ian Cowley is vicar of All Saints, Milton, and an author

David R. Hanson is a Surgeon at Leeds General Infirmary

Arthur Jones is a Science and Education consultant

J. Andrew Kirk is a mission theologian, educator and author

Elizabeth Newman is Professor of Theology and Ethics at Baptist Theological Seminary, Richmond,

Martin Robinson is an author and National Director of Together in Mission

Geoffrey Stevenson is Director of the Centre for Christian Communication, St John's College, Durham

 

Newsletter 37 (Summer '03)

Re-framing public life

towards a gospel framework for engaging public issues

Ian Barns

One of Lesslie Newbigin’s central claims was that, in order to communicate the Gospel to people in western societies, we need to contest the ‘fiduciary framework’ that has shaped our modern experience and understanding of reality. The Gospel is not just a message of personal salvation; it provides an alternative framework which can ground a distinctively Christian public practice. That sounds good; but what does it mean, particularly in the context of lay involvement in public life, professional work and engagement in public issues? Let me sketch briefly four tasks in articulating the Gospel as a public vision.

(1) Recovering the ‘grand narrative’ of the public Lordship of Jesus

We need to recover of the story of Jesus' Lordship as a ‘grand narrative’ ultimately ‘trumping’ all other accounts of reality. Typically we tell the story of Jesus' life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension focussing primarily – even exclusively - on the benefits it brings to the individual sinner. Yet the Gospel tells a larger public story: beginning with Israel’s calling to be a special people, its chequered history involved both covenant blessing and national disaster and the hope of a promised Messiah who would restore Israel’s fortunes. The story climaxes in the coming of Jesus: truly the Messiah of Israel, yet so different from what was expected - prevailing as king through humble obedience, crucifixion and death. Because of this, Jesus’ kingship now extends beyond that of Israel. He is the king of the nations, the Lord of all the earth. Moreover, in his resurrection it becomes clear that Jesus is not merely a human figure, but the ‘first-born’ of all creation, and the incarnation of the divine Word through whom and for whom all things were created (Col 1, John 1, Hebrews 1).

Accordingly the Gospel story is not a secondary story, limited to a 'religious' sphere and framed by the supposedly greater story told by science or told of the moral progress of mankind. It encompasses the story of creation and of the lives and destinies of all peoples who make up humankind in their remarkable diversity. It is a cosmic story into which all of us are invited to enter through baptism. Of course the consummation of the story still lies ahead of us. We experience it now only provisionally by faith. Our present lives are thus lived in an irreducible tension - between the anticipation of its freedom and our lives within a world that ‘receives him not’ (John 1).

(2) Recovering the Church as a sign of God’s new ‘polis’

We need to live the story first and foremost as church communities looking to Jesus to shape us according to the counter politics of his kingdom. The principal purpose of the Church is to be a public sign of the kingdom, demonstrating the true ‘public-ness’ of the people of God. Sadly, in the aftermath of the 'Constantinian settlement' which shaped European culture for 1500 years, ‘church’ has been progressively relegated to the private sphere, becoming a gathering for the sharing of private spiritual concerns. In resistance to our continuing ‘Constantinian captivity’ our task is to recover, in our gathered worship, communal life and participation in the world, the alternative politics flowing from the work of Jesus .

John Yoder's Body Politics provides a model for what this might look like. Yoder describes communal worship in terms of a set of five practices which embody the way of Jesus: baptism, the sharing of the holy meal, the exercise of different gifts within the life of the body, forms of communal deliberation and forms of community discipline. Yoder points out that these are not other-worldly 'spiritual 'practices, but ordinary 'political' practices made different by their orientation towards the rule of Jesus. Thus they provide the 'praxis' framework for discovering and bearing witness to the meaning of Jesus’ story for the shape of human community.

(3) Recovering a Trinitarian vision of reality

In concert with this we need to spell out the world-view implicit in the Gospel story: i.e. the Church’s doctrine. Christian doctrine is not simply a set of propositional beliefs, but an ‘interpretive package’, grounded in a Trinitarian vision of God, which enables us to engage with the intellectual challenges of the world in which we live. Thus, in response to the core enlightenment concepts which frame our modern view of reality (scientific truth, purpose-less nature, progressive history, rational politics and autonomous personhood) Christian doctrine articulates an alternative conceptual framework: (Trinity, creation, eschatology, the rule of Christ and the image of God). The implication of this, as argued by John Milbank in particular, is that ‘theology’ is not one specialised discipline within the modern secular academy, but a meta-discourse developing in a dialectical relationship with the range of disciplines and knowledge practices of modernity, constantly interrogating their assumptions and appropriating their provisional findings within a Christian vision of God, reality and human existence.

(4) Recovering a truly secular public sphere

We need to develop a theology of the secular public sphere. In the aftermath of the Christendom era, we seem to be caught between two unpalatable options. One is to try to restore a ‘Constantinian’ dominance over society, by achieving power and changing the rules of society through legislation, regulation, the control of knowledge and so forth; the other is to accept the modernist separation between the spheres of church and state and the religious and the secular. However, the public vision of Christ’s kingdom entails neither of these. Instead, it interprets the ‘secular’ public sphere in terms of the eschatological tension produced the presence of the kingdom in the world.

This is often discussed in terms of a tension between the ‘already’ of the kingdom, anticipated most visibly in the life of the church, and the ‘not yet’ of the world, still seemingly ruled by the principalities and powers. However the ‘not yet’ is not simply negative. Positively the preaching of the kingdom re-constitutes political society as an open public space of fragile human freedom. Faithful preaching is not coercive, but dialogical. It constitutes its hearers as persons with freedom, dignity and responsibility, inviting them to freely consider the claims of the kingdom. It addresses people as responsible persons, no longer controlled by their traditions or historical circumstances, but able to enter a new relationship of freedom with the risen Jesus. This does not negate the cultures and traditions from which people come. Rather it re-frames them in terms of the truth of the kingdom.

In other words, the communication of the gospel creates a ‘discursive space’ in which Christian belief is not enforced, only argued and commended. Yet, this space is not natural or self-sustaining. Genuine freedom is ultimately dependent upon and sustained by the preaching of the gospel. There is a constant tendency towards closure in new forms of idolatry, suppression of truth, propaganda and sacralising power. Thus Gospel communication should be always wary of holding power. Hence there is continuing theological support for a separation of church and state, not in terms of the self sufficient autonomy of the secular sphere, but in terms of the gracious self-limiting nature of God’s communication.

 

Comment: Not in my name?

I was in San Francisco on Thursday 20th March when the war against Iraq began. The streets were filled with anti-war demonstrators. public transport around the city was seriously affected, and many shops and businesses were closed. While I waited for a shuttle to the Airport for my flight back to the U.K. I spoke to a woman pilot for a domestic U.S. airline. She said that she had hardly slept during the night, that she had cried and cried because she could not come to terms with what America was doing in Iraq. Today she was flying home to her husband in the Mid-West. He was very much in favour of the war.

In the couple of weeks that I spent in the U.S., again and again I came across a nation deeply divided within itself. I met many people who opposed the war, but I met others who felt that France and Germany and even Canada were simply showing their true colours now that the chips were down. "No-one messes with America and gets away with it," was the attitude I sometimes encountered. Somehow the events of September 11th have left a deep wound in the American psyche. America is scared, and that makes the world a more dangerous place for all of us.

On a number of occasions I was asked about my own views on the war. I said that I really did not know whether or not war was justified. I felt deeply uneasy, particularly when it became clear that the U.S. and Britain were going to war with or without the backing of the United Nations. But on the other hand, I said, I trust Tony Blair. He is a leader of undoubted stature, statesmanship and integrity. I said that to me it all depended on the presence of weapons of mass destruction within Iraq. If Iraq possessed weapons which were a clear and serious threat to the Western world, then I could see the need for military action.

This all happened over two months ago. The war is now history. However, as I write, there is still no sign of Saddam Hussein and his sons, and no sign of weapons of mass destruction. Thousands of lives have been lost. Millions within Iraq have suffered, and continue to suffer, enormous trauma and dislocation. Many will be scarred psychologically and physically for life. The legacy of the war may last for generations.

Saddam Hussein was an unspeakably evil tyrant, but does that justify Britain's involvement in the war? Who are we and George W. Bush likely to be sorting out next? My conscience is deeply troubled. We now live in a world where America, the only global super power, has asserted its right to overthrow any government anywhere in the world by force, if it perceives that government to be a threat to its own security. Britain has stood shoulder to shoulder with America in asserting this right. It is now critically important that strong prophetic voices are raised in this nation to ask very serious questions about any future U.S./ British military action.

And let us not forget that we are all accountable. Biblically speaking, sin is not only personal, but social and national. "Not in my name" was the declaration of many before the war began. Many of us may yet have to stand and be counted in this cry of protest against wars to which our conscience simply cannot agree.

Ian Cowley

The Distracted Public

David Kettle

Distractions surround us today as never before. Advertisers catch our eye by every possible means, sound-bites grab our fleeting attention, and information floods over us. 'Vast enterprises described as the communications industry inform, misinform, or dis-inform the public about politics, wars, and revolutions, about religious and racial conflicts, and also about education, law, medicine, books, theatre, music, cookery', writes author Saul Bellow1. 'To make such lists', he adds, 'gives a misleading impression of order. The truth is that we are in an unbearable state of confusion, or distraction'.

A state of dispersed attention does however seem to offer certain advantages, Bellow notes. 'It may be compared to a sport like hang gliding. In distraction we are suspended, we hover, we reserve our options'.

But how shall we then grasp the deep things of life? These, by contrast, call for deep, sustained attention; they invite unreserved commitment. But in a state of distraction we are drained of the will to pay such deep attention, or to commit ourselves seriously to anything.

Theologian P. T. Forsyth already saw this as a problem nearly a century ago. In language now quaint to our ears he regretted that people 'will not attend, they will not force themselves to attend, gravely to the gravest things…. they read everything in a vagrant, browsing fashion. They turn on the most serious subjects the holiday, seaside, newspaper habit of mind'2. Today this appetite for casual diversion finds new forms of expression such as 'grazing' between TV channels and 'surfing' the web.

Three and a half centuries ago Blaise Pascal issued the dire warning: 'Diversion prevents us thinking about ourselves and leads us imperceptibly to destruction. But for it we should be bored, and boredom would drive us to seek some more solid means of escape, but diversion passes our time and brings us imperceptibly to our death'3. We hear an echo of this warning in our own generation in the title of Neil Postman's book on television: 'Amusing Ourselves to Death'. Distractedness is a serious matter for spiritual concern today.

Seeing everything, grasping nothing

At his enthronement as Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams recalled Jesus' warning to those who had seen his miracles and heard his message but who would not pay them the attention they deserved: 'On the Day of Judgement, says Jesus, the people who are in trouble are those who have seen everything and grasped nothing'.

In the Television Studio where Elaine Storkey watched his enthronement and provided some commentary, these warnings 'spoke with ironic accuracy'. In the studio, caught up in the minutiae of their own agendas, no one listened, and no-one cared. The enthronement offered words which were 'profound, arresting, challenging, drawing us to the heart of God through scripture, sermon and song'; and yet 'in that alien studio it felt as if the real meaning was draining away, subordinated to endless repetition of trivial details by people whose entire attention was elsewhere… For nearly two hours, we had watched the enthronement of an archbishop in all its colourful splendour. But who had listened? We had seen everything - seen images on screens, heard instant opinions - but grasped nothing.'4

Paying attention - deeply

Distraction, diversion and narrow preoccupation stand at odds with the deep attention demanded by the loving truth and purposes of God. The Cambridge philosopher John Wisdom compares such deep attention to that shown by a child when it sees something for the first time: 'when we, wishing to help him to understand, tell him what it is, he hardly seems to hear us… perhaps this is part of why we are told that if we wish to find the truth, we must become like little children… We need to be at once like someone who has seen much and forgotten nothing, and also like one who is seeing everything for the first time'.

It is a vital challenge for Christians today, to foster such deep attention to the things of God.

Notes

  1. Saul Bellow, 'The Distracted Public', 1990.
  2. P. T. Forsyth, 'A Rallying Ground for the Free Churches: The Reality of Grace', Hibbert Journal, IV, 1906.
  3. Blaise Pascal, Pensees.
  4. Elaine Storkey, 'There are none so blind as those with eight television monitors', The Independent Newspaper.
  5. John Wisdom, 'Paradox and Discovery', 1965.

 

Words to recall

'they are more drawn to the gnosis of speculation, the occultism of science, the romance of the heart, the mysticism of the imagination, than to the historical and ethical spirituality of the evangelical Christ the crucified. Now there will be no doubt of your popularity if you take that gnostic course with due eloquence, taste and confidence. For it expresses the formless longings and dim cravings of the subjectivity of the day. But it has not the future…'

P. T. Forsyth, 1907

Maranatha Community

Introduced by Dennis Wrigley, Leader and co-founder

What is Maranatha?

We are a scattered community of listening, praying people who seek to live and speak the simple Gospel as public truth.

We are a growing movement of thousands of Christians committed to strengthening our local churches and standing with the poor. We are not a church.

We are a network of Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox, Baptists, Methodist, Pentecostalists, Salvationists and Members of the United Reformed and new churches. Together we listen, share, explore, pray and praise. We provide each other with opportunities for encouragement, reflection and spiritual growth. We stand for the non-negotiables of the Gospel. We find that what unites is far more important than what divided us. We speak with one voice.

We claim nothing for Maranatha. We are simply a band of people, travelling light, nothing more than "little brothers and sisters of Jesus".

The Vision

At the formation of the Maranatha Community 20 years ago we received three words in prayer – Unity, Healing, Renewal. These became our calling.

We recognise that Christians cannot effectively proclaim the Gospel of reconciliation in a world torn apart by conflict and division, when we ourselves are not reconciled with each other.

Ecumenical gestures and ‘dialogues’ are not enough. Invited to Northern Ireland, 22 years ago we have been involved in work with both communities. We have seen paramilitaries from both sides turn to the Lord, abandon violence and work together for peace. We have seen innocent victims who have lost loved ones publicly forgive the perpetrators. We have felt the pain of the divisions of centuries. We have seen what God does when His people commit themselves to walk together as one in unity. Whether in Northern Ireland or in England, when Protestants and Catholics come together to pray, there are profound spiritual consequences. We brought a team from both sides of the community to London where they prayed in four different churches and then went forward to pray in Parliament. The outcome of this has been profound. Similarly, Christians of different traditions now meet together regularly to pray and to share, in local Maranatha groups and weekly Prayer Triplets.

From its inception Maranatha has asserted that the healing ministry must have a central role in the life of the Church. Confronted with a sick society and vast numbers of people in emotional, physical and spiritual need, our calling is to be instruments of healing. Consequently, Maranatha began an ambitious programme of training for the healing ministry, with a wide range of intensive residential courses. There has been a constant emphasis on the understanding of the nature of the Body of Christ. Life prayer and generational healing has been developed, with considerable fruit.

In recent years as Maranatha has embraced more people from other countries we have become profoundly aware that the countries to which we sent missionaries, are now directly contributing to renewal of faith in our land. They are enriching and awakening our churches. A new vitality is available from Asian, African, Caribbean and Hispanic Christians already in Britain, and bold new initiatives are currently being planned.

The Discipline

We have learnt the great importance of securing a balance between listening and contemplation on the one hand, and service and witness on the other.

Mother Teresa wrote to Maranatha saying "If you pray without serving, your prayers will be in vain. If you serve without praying, your service will be in vain. Go out to pray and serve in the power of the Spirit". This Catholic warning matched the practice of the Wesleyans over a century ago who preached personal holiness and social righteousness with equal passion.

We believed that for too long the Gospel had been cruelly divided between an in-ward looking evangelicalism, which tends to turn its back on the world and privatise faith, and a sterile liberalism, which appears to reduce the Gospel to a code of ethics and a programme of social action.

Alan Dale, Carlo Caretto and many others, with whom we walked closely encouraged us to be committed to a Gospel of Change which transforms individual men and women and society as a whole. We were influenced and inspired by the work of Lesslie Newbigin, who in his later years, became a valued member of our Community.

Praying for many of the casualties of a dysfunctional society, we became immersed in work amongst the homeless on city streets, the drug addicts and the suffering abroad.

Our prayer sheets became an agenda for social action. A ‘Call to the Nation’ was presented in Parliament, which evoked an enormous response. This led to the production of the manifesto ‘What on Earth are We doing to our Children?’, launched in the House of Lords and debated in the House of Commons. This in turn led to a range of initiatives for reform, but at the same time generated the formation of Mothers’ Prayers, which now has thousands of mothers praying for their children in over 80 countries.

We believe that it is important for Christians to consider the fundamental changes currently taking place in our culture. For that reason Maranatha has a daily review of published information in ‘Factfile’. This in turn forms the basis of ‘Trumpet Call’ which campaigns nationally on a range of issues, such as family breakdown, drug addiction, violent crime, abortion, euthanasia and cloning. It also speaks out for persecuted Christians overseas.

Prayer led immediately to work amongst street children in Peru, a centre for mentally handicapped young people in Sudan and a unit for under-privileged boys and girls in Kenya. It generated countless initiatives for aid projects in the poorer nations.

An intensive three-year study ‘Western Culture and the Christian Gospel’* has just been completed. This will form the basis for a special consultation in Parliament later this year.

Conclusion

Maranatha is a provisional movement. It is now rapidly extending to many countries overseas.

It has been described as an army of ordinary people. All, with the exception of office staff, are volunteers.

We endeavour to pray for each other every day.

In the face of a growing crisis in both church and state we join together with a great sense of urgency and hope to pray ‘Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus’.

*Available from the Maranatha Office at £6.50 + p&p, 102 Irlam Road, Flixton, Manchester M41 6JT Tel: 0161 748 4858

Email: office@maranathacommunity.freeserve.co.uk

www.maranathacommunity.org.uk

Newbigin.Net

It is exciting to announce that the website www.Newbigin.Net now holds over 200 texts of articles and books written by Lesslie Newbigin, in searchable form. Publishers have been wonderfully co-operative in granting us permission for this. These texts are in addition to the comprehensive bibliography on the web-site, which is also searchable. We are now in process of pressing 1,000 CD's containing the same materials together with AskSam software which is a easy-to-use search programme. The Newbigin.Net project has now largely completed it task as a joint project between the British network and our sister networks in North America and New Zealand. We are especially grateful to the sacrificial work of John Flett in New Zealand, and wish him well as he heads off to Princeton for PhD studies.

Culture snips:

www.faithproducts.com: sounds interesting? In fact it is the website of 'Faith in Nature', whose products are developed 'with the best ingredients from Mother Nature'. We have already seen the word 'spirituality' changing...…

Obituary: Professor Colin Ewart Gunton 1941-2003
It is with great sadness that we record the death of Professor Colin Gunton on May 6th, 2003. Colin had a long-standing association with the Gospel & Our Culture Network and was one of our patrons at the time of his death.

Only four days prior to his death Colin presented a paper at the conference on Christian Theology and Michael Polanyi, jointly hosted by the Network and the Research Institute in Systematic Theology at King's College London where he was Professor of Christian Doctrine.

Colin had been on the staff at King's College since 1969. He studied at Oxford University trained for ministry at Mansfield College and, since 1975, was Associate Minister at Brentwood URC.

It is difficult to over-estimate the importance of Colin's contribution to English theology over the past thirty years. Against the popular stream, he remained committed to the responsibility of systematic theologians to explicate the doctrinal content of the Christian faith and to bring to bear upon the modern and postmodern cultural contexts the content of the Christian proclamation.

Among many important books The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (CUP, 1993) stands out. The book offers a profound analysis of the paradoxes and contradictions of Modernity. In Part One Professor Gunton seeks the roots of the modern crisis of culture - its fragmentation and decline into subjectivism and relativism - in a failure of the Christian tradition to interpret adequately the opening chapters of Genesis and the other biblical treatments of creation. Then in Part Two, he offers a Trinitarian approach to the texts which overcome the Platonising tendencies of the tradition and yield the essential clues for a reshaping of theology and culture alike. The book is a magisterial survey of the western intellectual tradition and a penetrating analysis of the modern condition.

Colin is survived by his wife Jenny, and by his children, Sarah, Carolyn,
Jonathan and Christopher.

Murray Rae

 

Book Reviews
Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History. Lesslie Newbigin, edited by Geoffrey Wainwright, Eerdmans, 2003, 121pp., £10.99 pb.

Newbigin enthusiasts and others will be delighted with the labours of Geoffrey Wainwright in compiling this collection of unpublished material from the hand of Newbigin. Spanning 55 years, this short book comprises three elements. Firstly – and perhaps of greatest interest – is a set of four lectures given by Newbigin at the United Theological College in Bangalore, India, in 1941 addressing the theme ‘The Kingdom of God and the Idea of Progress’. Secondly, there are three ‘Henry Martyn Lectures’ given in Cambridge in 1986 on broad themes on the relationship between ‘gospel’ and ‘culture’. Finally, there are two fascinating contributions given by Newbigin in the course of the ‘World Conference on Mission and Evangelism’ at Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, in December 1996.

There are many points of interest in the collection, but the inclusion of the 1941 lectures is particularly significant. By his own reckoning these represented a first attempt to put into coherent form some substantial themes that were to occupy him for the remainder of his life, and they are fascinating as a foretaste of what was to come. Here we see (from a 32 year old Newbigin!) an overture to many of his later themes: in particular the critique of secular models of ‘progress’ and the dialectic between a Christian conception of the kingdom of God as a future eschatological reality and its present manifestation in the life of the church in the world – with its wide-ranging implications both for political involvement and missionary engagement.

It is this sense of continuity which most struck me as I read the other two contributions delivered 45 and 55 years later. The 1986 lectures prefigure much of his later ‘missionary encounter’ material, but what emerges again is the discussion of the relationship between the ‘future’ and ‘presence’ of the Kingdom. It is this dual aspect of the Kingdom that enables Newbigin to critique both ‘this-worldly’ misunderstandings of mission which do not adequately embrace the future certainty and completeness of the Kingdom, and ‘other-worldly’ misunderstandings in which Christians effectively disengage from the public sphere.

The two 1996 pieces (delivered a little over a year before his death) demonstrate right to the end Newbigin’s continuing passionate commitment both to involvement and to proclamation. Once more, one is left with the sense that it is this lifelong grappling with the implications of the appearance and future certainty of the Kingdom (with all its promises and obligations) that lends Newbigin’s work its prophetic character. Though in one sense an historical collection, this book shows just how contemporary Newbigin’s challenge remains. I recommend it – to newcomers and enthusiasts alike.

Paul Weston

Living in the Presence of the Future, Roy Mc Cloughry, Intervarsity Press, 2000, 192pp., £8.99 pb.

Roy McCloughry’s book Living in the Presence of the Future originates from the 1996 London Lectures in Contemporary Christianity called ‘The Spirit of the Age: Christianity and the Future of Our Culture’ together with subsequent lecturing and experience from conducting interviews with cultural and political leaders for Third Way magazine. Thus the book is not a monograph with a particular argument; rather it touches upon a number of central themes of relevance to Christian living and presence in contemporary society. It helps us to recognize where we are, reflect, and respond voicing responsibility, celebration, prophecy and suffering. In its eight chapters, the book deals with culture in a Biblical perspective, globalization, truth in a post-modern consumerist world, personal identity, personal relationships, political community, and technological change and its meanings.

Clearly the book is not able to go into any depth on any of these huge issues. Much of what is being said could be learned in greater depth by reading specialized works on each of these subjects in the wide array of books that is published by both Christian and secular authors these years. But that does not in any way mean that McCloughry’s contribution is unimportant. Each of the selected themes is indeed of huge importance to anyone grappling with challenges to Christian faith from the contemporary world. And the compilation of the themes in one book helps the reader to consider integrated responses to the global, philosophical, personal, societal and technological issues.

The best elaborated chapter is the one on Living in a political community. It offers a number of valuable insights and is very finely balanced, which is of great value in our present situation where media driven macro-political manipulation (pro or con the Iraq war, etc.) only increases cynicism towards both democratic and authoritarian political systems. In a most helpful way McCloughry elaborates the argument that politics are to be rooted in the ethos of a people. Laws and regulations that are not under girded by the commitments of people themselves are most ineffective in building society and community. In a very balanced way McCloughry is able to relate the vision of the Kingdom of God, religion, morality, community to politics without getting into the kind of party political manipulation where God is always 'on my side'. I would buy the book for this chapter alone.

Birger Nygaard

God is Dead: Secularization in the West, Steve Bruce, Blackwell, 2002, 272pp., £14.99 pb.

In the preface to this book the author confesses that it 'aspires to be a rather old-fashioned social science'. This is a tongue-in-cheek admission on the part of Steve Bruce since he goes on to explain that what he means by this is that he will attempt to 'bring appropriate evidence to bear' on various theories and explanations concerning the fate of religion in the West, so that those that are 'least persuasive' can be discarded. The statement is related to the author's awareness that the sociological study of religion enters into areas that are sensitive, controversial and challenging with the result that scientific objectivity and detachment are as difficult to achieve here as anywhere in academia.

However, Bruce is also aware that the thesis he defends here has itself been treated as rather 'old fashioned' as increasing doubts have surfaced within his own discipline concerning the classic, or 'strong' theory of secularization. This theory, built on Weberian foundations and developed by sociologists like Bryan Wilson and Peter Berger, linked the decline of socially significant religion with the emergence of modernity, since, as Bruce states it, 'modernisation creates problems for religion'. In fact, this is understatement: sociologists working in this tradition have tended to argue that in modern societies religion is banished to the private sphere of life and seems unlikely to ever recover a socially significant role in such cultures.

In this volume Bruce defends this thesis against scholars, particularly the growing number of his sociological colleagues who have repudiated it, with conviction, clarity and considerable eloquence. Without conceding that Europe constitutes an 'exceptional case' Bruce is careful to indicate that his theory does not necessarily apply universally but is 'an account of what has happened to religion in western Europe' and its American and Australian 'offshoots'. At the same time, one has the distinct impression that the author believes that wherever societies take a modernising path it is likely that secularisation will follow. He deals with the counter-evidence to the classic theory, from the emergence of New Age religion to the phenomenon of Charismatic Christianity and concludes that none of this constitutes grounds on which to abandon the inherited paradigm, since it in no way precludes 'periodic resurgences of interest in enthusiastic or sectarian religion'. In summary, Bruce makes a convincing case for the classic sociological understanding of religion and modernity and, as David Martin acknowledges, within the specific context of Europe (a crucially important qualification) the argument remains 'difficult to refute'.

My question (not one that Bruce deals with as a sociologist) concerns the theological and missiological response to material like this. the provocative title of this book is not, of course, a theological statement, but a sociological one, indicating the cultural marginalisation of religion in the West. The theological question which this prompts concerns what exactly God is doing this situation? That question is not a new one, it goes back at least as far as the psalms of communal lament and it leads us to answers that are bound to invoke the neglected notions of divine justice and judgement. In other words, if Bruce's analysis of the condition of Western cultures is anywhere near to being correct (and I for one believe that, within the limits he sets himself, it is), then Christians must recognise a divine providence at work in this situation and acknowledge that the painful ending of the long phase of European history which is described here is willed by God. Beyond that, of course, something utterly unexpected and new may emerge, but such newness comes from beyond the horizons provided by sociology, and even those existing within received theological traditions.

David Smith

Renewing the Center: Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Age, Stanley J. Grenz, Paternoster, 2001, pp.224, £14.99 pb.

Stanley Grenz has established himself both as a helpful guide to contemporary evangelical thought, and as a skilled advocate of rapprochement between evangelical theology and the postmodern situation. In this new study, he marries these two approaches in what he himself calls a 'distillation' of his work.

First, Grenz reviews developments in evangelical scholarship since the Reformation, and sees them converging on the so-called 'Neo-Evangelical' movement, which, he says, has come to dominate what is now thought of as evangelical theology. This historical account is fluent enough, but it unaccountably bypasses Anabaptist, Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal influences on evangelical thinking. An equally significant drawback is that Grenz' analysis of the last few decades of evangelical theology is confined almost exclusively to the USA and Canada. Indeed, so heedless is he of developments on other continents through the same period that his book might more accurately have been sub-titled 'North American Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era'.

Despite such oversights, Grenz deals with his focal theme of Neo-Evangelicalism and its future in a lively and challenging way. Catalysed by Carl Henry's critique of Fundamentalist insularity in the late 1940s, Neo-Evangelicalism is shown to have recovered the social concern of its eighteenth and nineteenth century forbears, and to have re-engaged with the academy as it has sought to articulate an authentic evangelical worldview in the face of liberalism and secularism. The problem, Grenz argues, is that in so doing, it has co-opted the same philosophical rationalism which underlies the very liberal and secular projects it affects to resist. In practice, this has led Neo-Evangelicalism to define its parameters too much in terms of assent to propositional doctrinal formulae, and not enough in terms the 'convertive piety' which so profoundly distinguished its pre-Enlightenment antecedents. Nowhere does Grenz see this shift more starkly demonstrated than in the recent battle-lines drawn by American Evangelicals over biblical inerrancy. Seeking to move beyond this and other such introspective struggles, he calls for a new approach to evangelical theology which recognises that its reliance on the root paradigms of modernity - from correspondence views of truth and reality to hard foundationalism - has been effectively challenged by the epistemological turn associated with postmodernity. This turn, writes Grenz, includes a shift from individualized models of cognition towards a more coherentist, communitarian account of knowledge, and has its corollary in George Lindbeck's 'cultural linguistic' approach to doctrine.

Prone as it can be to relativism and voluntarism, Grenz argues that this new perspective is in fact more amenable to the kind of 'ecclesial' theologizing which has been so sorely lacking from the evangelical scene over the past two centuries or so, since it devolved its formal theological responsibilities to a few 'academic' specialists. Now, in a pluralistic society which is looking increasingly to its constituent faith groups to generate their own religious education, evangelicals are entering the 'post-theological' era of Grenz' sub-title, in the sense that the discipline of 'theology' (as distinct from 'religious studies') is ceasing to function institutionally apart from the Church. This, however, is regarded by Grenz as a potentially positive development - an opportunity to reconnect the theological task to its congregational roots, and to recover its 'missional' imperative.

Grenz' thesis is provocative and passionately conveyed, but it suffers somewhat from a lack of exemplification. One may warm to it in conceptual terms, but given that it is oriented so intently towards the life of the church, one may also wonder how Grenz more specifically sees such things as 'convertive piety' and 'eschatological realism' manifesting themselves in 21st century evangelical polity, preaching and evangelism. At times, one is also left unsure about his own opinion of more overtly 'postmodern' evangelical thinkers like Clark Pinnock and John Sanders. None of this, however, should deter those concerned about the future of evangelical theology from reading this book: its reach may at times exceed its grasp, but its grasp is nonetheless impressive.

David Hilborn

Ian Barns lectures at Murdoch University, Perth, Australia

Ian Cowley is vicar of All Saints, Milton, and author of 'The Transformation Principle'

David Hilborn is Theological Advisor to the Evangelical Alliance

Birger Nygaard works with the Danish/Norwegian mission foundation Areopagos and is General Secretary of the International Association for Mission Studies

David Smith lectures at International Christian College, Glasgow.

Paul Weston is an associate lecturer at Ridley Hall, Cambridge and visiting professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Chicago

Dennis Wrigley is leader of the Maranatha Community

 

Newsletter 38 (Autumn '03)

Daring to hope, daring to grieve

a Gospel challenge to our culture

'Alternative' therapists turn away our thoughts from death, invoking the power of positive thinking. According to Rowan Williams our culture is losing the capacity for remorse. A Canadian writes of funeral rituals being dropped: 'there will be no formal service' has become a familiar notice on the obituary page of city newspapers there*. Yet at the same time David Hay and Kate Hunt, researching contemporary spirituality, wonder about the resurgence of the Greek tragic sense of life, long buried by 'Judaeo-Christian optimism'. What is happening? Geoff Walters, author of Why Do Christians Find It Hard To Grieve?, reflects on our Christian calling.

"We don’t want a mournful funeral. We want it to be a celebration of her life."

These are the kind of words I often hear as a hospice chaplain following the death of one of our patients. Sometimes they are spoken by family members struggling to hold back the tears. What is it that makes people, so obviously experiencing the pangs of grief, deny their need for a public expression of the sense of loss? Sometimes it is the dying themselves who, like Socrates many centuries ago1, lay an intolerable burden of cheerfulness on their surviving loved ones: "Now, I don’t want you to be sad. No tears at my funeral. Have a party for me!" But there is also a sense that in our society mourning is out of fashion.

Death as a topical subject

It is not that the old taboo against speaking about death, so characteristic of modernity2, still persists to the same degree. In the influence of palliative care upon the medical world, in the debates around euthanasia and the "right to die", in the theories of survival discussed in New Age circles, in the themes of a million films, plays and novels, death has almost become a fashionable subject.3 It is rather that we seem unable or reluctant to admit its full emotional impact. People who attend our hospice bereavement support groups, for example, often seem shocked at the force of the feelings that assail them in grief and are surprised and relieved to discover that others have similar experiences. What bereavement actually feels like is still one of our best kept emotional secrets! What is going on? Is this a rather more subtle manifestation of the tendency to deny death identified by the psychoanalyst Ernest Becker4 as an ineradicable element of the human condition? Or are there more specific cultural forces at work?

These questions are important to church representatives faced with this demand for grief free funerals. It seems that the churches find themselves in something of a double bind here. On the one hand they are viewed by some in our society as the very purveyors of mournfulness. Indeed, some choose to discuss the funeral with the chaplain, whom they have got to know as a fellow human being and with whom they have laughed and shared stories., because they fear that if they approach their local church they will become involved in unwanted dreariness and "mumbo jumbo".

On the other hand, there is a strong temptations for Christians to collude in the suppression of grief. After all, the idea of the funeral as celebration has an ancient Christian pedigree. The second century apologist Aristeides, for example, commended Christians on the basis that, "…if any righteous person of their number passes from the world they rejoice and give thanks to God, and they follow his body, as if he were moving from one place to another ….5" Two centuries later, and far more influentially, Augustine of Hippo, the neoplatonist recently converted to Christianity, prided himself on the restraint of all emotion at his mother’s funeral and at the same time confessed as sinful the tears which later fell on his pillow6.

Biblical perspectives

All this, however belongs to a different atmosphere than that which predominates in Old and New Testaments. Here the grief of a succession of protagonists, including Jesus himself7, is portrayed with a vividness that would grace the pages of a modern handbook on bereavement. Death, including the death of Christ is portrayed in a realistic, no-nonsense way which makes no attempt to avoid reality.

If Christians are to be of real help to grieving people in our culture, we must learn to recognise the identity and origins of these two attitudes to grief. In 1958, the theologian Oscar Cullman8 laid an important foundation in his book Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead. Here he drew attention to the contrast between the gospel accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus with Plato’s account of the death of Socrates entwined with his exposition of the doctrine of the immortal soul9. The first, in which grief has its rightful place, is rooted in hebraic anthropology which sees humanity as a unity of body and soul; the second, in which grief is suppressed, is based on the platonic dualism of body and soul for which death is merely escape from base matter. Ironically, it is to Christianity itself that Western culture owes this theory of grief-denying immortality – adopted by early church fathers10 in an attempt to make the gospel philosophically acceptable, and perpetuated through Augustine’s immense influence on both sides of the Reformation.11 Here, washed up on the beach after the "sea of faith" has receded, lies the desire in our culture to celebrate without grief, along with a host of other theories which owe their existence to belief in the immortality of the soul.

How then, can all this be of help to the grieving family and their request for celebration? If Christians can be aware of their heritage of an incarnate faith, in which the body matters, death is tragic and hope lies in resurrection, then we can offer our family three things which they need:

  1. Celebration in its proper place as the sense of appreciation of the value of a bodily life, created and loved by God.
  2. Permission to grieve without any sense of inappropriateness to belief or to thankfulness.
  3. A hope which lies in the future and does not attempt to assuage the pain of present experience.

In this vital area it is when we are most biblical that we shall find ourselves to be most culturally relevant and most therapeutically effective.

Notes

* An editorial in the Canadian magazine Touchstone lists the following as typical press announcements: "'In accordance with Dad's wishes, cremation has taken place, and there will be no service'; 'There will be no formal service'; 'Friends are asked to remember Bert in their own way'; 'A private family service will be held at a later date'; 'A luncheon to celebrate Edna's life will be held on Thursday, from 2.00-4.00pm at the Windsor Legion'.

  1. Plato’s Phaedo in Tredennick, Hugh. The Last Days of Socrates. London, Penguin, 1954, 111-183.
  2. e.g. Gorer, Geoffrey. Death Grief and Mourning in Contemporary Britain. London, Tavistock, 1965.
  3. Walter, Tony. The Revival of Death, London, Routledge, 1994.
  4. Becker, Ernest, The Denial of Death, New York, Free Press, 1973.
  5. Apology of Aristeides in Stevenson, J. A New Eusebius. London, SPCK, 1957, 57.
  6. Confessions of Augustine trans. Pine-Coffin, R.S. London, Penguin, 1961, 200-203.
  7. e.g. Genesis 23; 37:31-35; 2 Samuel 1; 3:31-39; 12:15-23; 18:31-19:8; Matthew 14:13; John 11:33-38; Luke 24:13-24; Acts 8:2; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.
  8. Cullman, Oscar. Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? London, Epworth, 1958.
  9. Phaedo op. cit.
  10. For a good account of this see Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Shape of Death. London, Macmillan, 1962.
  11. Chadwick, Henry. Augustine. Oxford, OUP, 1986, 3.

Comings and goings

We wish Craig Bartholomew well as he becomes Professor of Philosophy and Biblical Studies at Redeemer College, Canada, but regret losing him as a valued trustee and member of management council. Colin Greene's appointment as Professor of Systematic Theology at Seattle Pacific University is another loss to the British Gospel and Our Culture scene, in which Colin has been closely involved ever since Bible Society first gave support to Lesslie Newbigin's programme.

This year the Network has welcomed Carol Walker and Paul Weston as new members of Management Council. Meanwhile John Flett, honorary secretary of our sister organisation in New Zealand, DeepSight Trust, has moved to Princeton, U.S. to pursue PhD studies.

ACCESS U.K. themes

Following our conference Michael Polanyi and Christian Theology (May, jointly with Kings College London), two pieces relating to Polanyi's work are offered (379 and 390). Although neither engage explicitly with Christian faith, both promise fruitful dialogue.

Yeager (390) has written a fine study of 'moral inversion', in which Polanyi probed the paradox 'that the twentieth century's unprecedented lake of blood had its springs, nor in moral decay or complete amorality, but in pathological moralism'. Polanyi's account of the distorted moral impulses feeding into totalitarianism remain relevant today when we need to be as wary of new forms of totalitarianism as we do of moral relativism.

With sadness we report the death of Robin Hodgkin, a friend of Harold Turner and of the Network. He died peacefully at his home in Oxford in August. He was a lively Christian contributor to education theory whose work deserves further attention. It is fitting to offer (379) a paper by him drawing on Polanyi, John MacMurray, Suzanne Langer and Donald Winnicott to probe the emergence of meaning and its implications for the vision and practice of education.

Pursuit of partnerships between government and religious agencies is discussed in Britain today and several ACCESS items have a bearing on this. Both 371 and 380 deal with issues arising for such partnerships in the U.S. today; 385 tells of Habitat for Humanity resisting the pressure to secularize; in 383, Newbigin describes the vocation of a Christian College in India.

Finally, following the controversy surrounding Jeffrey John, you will find two pieces on truth and tolerance (373 and 389) and a personal testimony (388).

Newbigin matters…

CD-Rom released

We can now offer a CD-Rom containing (1) over two hundred texts written by Lesslie Newbigin including twelve of his books and some responses to him, and (2) a comprehensive bibliography of Newbigin's works and of substantial responses to him. The CD-Rom incorporates askSam software for searching both texts and bibliography.

This has been made possible by a grant from the Council for World Mission and the ready co-operation of the Newbigin Estate and of many publishers. It is part of the Newbigin.Net joint project between ourselves, the North American GOCN, and DeepSight Trust in New Zealand.

The Newbigin.Net CD-Rom offers a CD version of the searchable database which can be found online at http://www.Newbigin.Net. The CD offers a simpler search facility than the online version, locating words within texts in a single rather than two-stage process. The CD also enables extensive study without consuming internet time. The very best results will be achieved by using both the CD and the online version.

Access to the full range of Newbigin's work has been hindered so far by the fact that a number of his books have gone out of print; his shorter writings have been published in over 80 journals etc. some of which are not easily accessible; and a number of his valuable lectures and discussion papers have never been published. The Newbigin.Net CD-Rom and its online version makes a significant proportion of this material available at a low price.

Price: £20 including p&p from the Network. Payment should be made by cheque (in pounds sterling) or banker's draft. If you are ordering from outside Europe, please add £1.50 for postage.

and two new books:

Lesslie Newbigin, Discovering Truth in a Changing World, (foreword by Sandy Millar), Alpha International, 2003, 116pp., £5.99 pb.

Lesslie Newbigin, Living Hope in a Changing World, (foreword by Nicky Gumbel), Alpha International, 2003, 113pp., £5.99 pb.

Review by Dan Beeby:

Before he died in 1998 Bishop Newbigin was asked to give two series of lectures to the School of Theology at the Brompton church. The Bishop was already losing his sight and walked with a white stick so much of the content of the lectures was drawn from his remarkable memory and he was speaking to a thoughtful lay-audience.

The fact that it was an unusual audience, in a sense, made the contents of the lectures all the more valuable because, in a somewhat straightforward, even simplified form, he gave us the content of his whole theology. Discovering Truth really begins at the beginning with "How Do We Know?" and proceeds with "Authority" where he discusses Scripture, Reason, Tradition, Experience. From there he goes to Creation, Salvation, The Church and The Last Things.

Having laid this foundation in the first course of lectures, the second series then builds on them with the whole Christian content which he had been pondering and living throughout his long life. Beginning with the Trinity, he then proceeds to Jesus the Incarnate Son. From there he then outlines Life Together in the Holy Spirit, followed by Christian Faith in the World of Science, Christian Faith Among the World Religions and finally The Gospel in the Public Square.

Lesslie brought to these books not only a magnificent power of lucid thinking but a life’s experience which was perhaps, unique. Brought up in the United Kingdom, he spent so many years as a missionary in India that he could think, talk and act like an Indian. The vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton wrote about him, "There was certainly a prophetic anointing on him – for instance, his wisdom and insight in sensing that the beginning of the twenty first century would see a clash between Western materialism and fundamentalist Islam. In his book, The Household of God Lesslie had much earlier identified the major streams of world Christianity as the Catholic, Protestant and Charismatic." After retiring, I myself spent several years working alongside Lesslie as the monkey on his barrel organ. Few men have been so greatly blessed.

 

Growth is the only evidence of life

I am writing this a few days after my induction as the new Vicar of the parishes of Yaxley and Holme with Conington, just south of Peterborough. So for me this is a time of change and also a time of new beginnings. Change is not easy for many of us, and yet we live in a time of constant end ever-accelerating change. New beginnings are exciting but they are also challenging and scary. They involve a measure of faith, risk and courage.

After nine years as a Rector near Cambridge the time has come to move on to a new place and a new ministry. Newman once said that growth is the only evidence of life. It is very tempting for us to cling to that which is safe and comfortable, but in following Christ we must embrace the truth that it is through change and risk that growth takes place. New challenges are important in life, because they are the means by which we continue to grow and develop as human beings.

Leaving a church that I have led for nine years has left a big hole in my life. There are, inevitably, feelings of loss and pain. Above all, times like these are times for deepening our trust in God. In a culture which so values security and status we should never forget that we are a pilgrim people , and the way is always onward and upward.

Ian Cowley

Book Reviews

The Strange New Word of the Gospel: Re-Evangelizing in the Postmodern World , C.E. Braaten and R.W. Jenson (eds), Eerdmans, 2002, 176pp., £16.99 pb.

These nine essays offer some fascinating perspectives on the need for re-evangelizing postmodern society. They are written from within and with reference to the North American culture, and range from fundamental theology, through to ethics and then on to worship, catechesis, ministry and mission. They do not follow a party line but all incorporate a critique of the postmodern world as an essential part of re-evangelization. This critique takes as its starting point the strangeness and newness of the word of the gospel within postmodernity from which standpoint each author offers a distancing from, and engagement with, contemporary culture. In what follows I pull out some key concerns and proposals from wide-ranging and sometimes complex discussions.

The Gospel of affinity

What is postmodernity? In his essay, Milbank suggests that "it is the obliteration of boundaries, the confusion of categories" … "in consequence, the asymmetrical teleological and hierarchical aspects of human existence tend to get flattened" leading to a loss of an essential human identity and the dissolving of fixed limits. There is some affinity between Christianity and postmodernity: "For Christianity did, indeed, explode all limits: between nations, between races, between sexes, between the household and the city, between …" This explosion is grounded in the Incarnation which is itself the breaking of the boundaries between the created and the creator.

However, Christianity is also the religion of the limit in which there is a going beyond the law in order to preserve and elevate (or deepen) the law. This is not a dialectic of law and grace but the co-belonging of grace and law. This leads up to Milbank identifying "affinity" between difference as the issue which concerns the gospel for today (he also explores the importance of reconciliation, embodiment, city of God and transcendence!). Affinity is relational not similarity; thus Jesus is God because in his character he is God yet he is metaphysically, distinctively, both human and divine. The maintaining of the divine-human difference whilst affirming an affinity through character is what Jesus communicates to his disciples thus making possible "a community of differences in identity - but identity diffused through the non-identical repetition of character, or of affinity."

Milbank has some fairly strong (whilst nuanced) things to say about what this means, for example, about human sexuality. He maintains the importance of the difference between male and female and will not accept that homosexual unions are the same as heterosexual marriage. One implication is that the affinity found in heterosexual relations is at the heart of what it means to proclaim the gospel of affinity where culture affirms a transcendental homosexuality of undifferentiated identity.

What is a post-Christian?

Jenson’s key insight is that the postmodern world is moving into a post-Christian world where the myths, which the Christian scriptures once exposed, may return to enhance a variety of moralities. The spectre of nihilism beckons; here the abstracted values of the Christian meta-narrative are revived only by using new myths. Thus the (unknowingly) ex-Christian who wishes to avow what modernity has strained out of the Christian story – love, acceptance, empowerment, and peace-and-justice – must chose either a godless world re-mythologised or a full bodied Christianity. Jenson believes that it is the latter which must now be made plain again to the contemporary context. No longer should the world set the agenda; rather this is set by the ‘strange’ gospel of the church.

…in a Culture of Abstraction

It is another variation of abstraction which concerns Schindler who diagnoses a misguided polarisation of religious and secular. He believes that this polarisation is false as these are two sides of one coin. The true challenge lies in the abstraction of faith from life that arises from the separation of God from the world – a fundamental dualism that is reflected in the separation of church life from wider social life, and spirituality from theology. This has implications for space, time, matter and motion. Schindler identifies a particularly north American variation of this postmodern issue: the voluntaristic nature of the one-sided faith. Voluntaristic moralised faith is one that fails to recognise the Creator’s relationship with creation as constitutive and therefore cannot integrate faith and life. Faith is voluntary and must separate itself from its own representation in institutions or art.

Irony and humanism: new challenges

Reno tackles the postmodern alternative to the Promethean assertiveness of modernism. Postmodernism makes no attempts to mount a grand alternative to Christian claims; rather there is just a low key cynicism which keeps everything at a distance through a "différance" based on personal preference. There is suspicion of both authority and discipline and any language which implies a need for change: "the serene complacency made possible by the dogmatic belief that all truth is relative: these and other habits of mind keep our souls free from the disturbing need to change". Change is at the heart of the gospel and yet contemporary culture keeps all change at a distance by denying both the place of authority and discipline. Effective (re)evangelisation in this context need not therefore hide its claims. In fact, Reno suggests that, for example, "unless you preach chastity, and not the easy chastity of sex governed by commitment and love, but hard chastity taught by St Paul, you will fail to meet the moral challenge of evangelism in the postmodern age". Sexual freedom is one of the symbols which represents our defence against change.

Re-evangelisation and ethics

Philip Turner questions whether an accommodation to culture can any longer be an appropriate form of evangelism in postmodernity. The emphasis must now be on counter-cultural ethics in which there is more of a confrontation than a conversation. Today the emphasis should no longer be on cultural evangelism but on the building up the Christian community in which the counter-cultural view of life is expressed. What is needed is therefore not the repentance and transformation of either the individual or society, but rather the ongoing transformation of the church as envisaged, for example, in Ephesians where the transformation of the church is the focus for mission.

The Re-awakening of Faith

Ugolnik suggests that re-evangelization must include a de-familiarisation of the gospel within a postmodern culture which has previously appropriated it for its own purposes. There needs to be a re-awakening from the triteness of familiarised Christianity. With reference to three Orthodox theologians (Pavel Florensky, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Alexander Men), who were part of a re-evangelisation within the Russian context, Ugolnik shows what a new awakening to an unfamiliar gospel in the postmodern context might mean. It includes the uncovering of the embedded gospel in a given context, the articulating of a dialogic gospel derived from listening to others, and expressing of an immanent gospel within the artistic life of society. Ugolik’s vision is that people discover their true human identity in the gospel: "our nature as creatures of God is ever to struggle, ever to quest, ever to disturb each other and ourselves in the discovery of what can never ever be familiar" and, he concludes, "even in the next life, we ever grow from ‘glory to glory’"

Truth Decay

Todd Johnson suggests that the development of evangelization in the postmodern context has seen a truth decay. In tracing the emergence (from frontier revivalism) of the response to the social phenomenon of youth culture, he shows how the differentiation between a relational outreach aimed at non-Christians and a believers gathering focused on worship was eventually translated into the mega-church seeker service evangelism on Sunday and a midweek worship services for believers. Johnson finds in this split between outreach and worship, the root cause for the contemporary separation between truth and evangelism. He argues that it is primarily in ritual that people learn about the truth and if outreach services are not designed to introduce discipleship in the truth, then the truth dimension will decay in the church’s evangelization. What is needed is the kind of evangelization that leads people into truthful discipleship through a range of rituals that gives them a language for God, that relates to bearing the cross, and incorporates the move from culture into community whose membership is costly. For Johnson the pattern of adult catechesis is the most integrated approach to keeping together outreach, discipleship, worship and ministry.

Orthodoxis, orthopraxis, and seekers

Senn is no less concerned than Johnson with the question of truth and ritual; however he is even more convinced of the importance of the language that we use in liturgy. He sees a shift in emphasis in public worship from a focus on God to a focus on humanity through the rise in the importance of the feeling dimension. Senn suggest that the impact of the Romantic movement in liturgy saw the attempt to bring together historic forms of worship, which had been jettisoned by Rationalism with the more subjective approach of Revivalism, yet the result was to turn the transcendence of God into an experience of intimacy. The grammar of such worship can so easily slip into a pattern which is not Trinitarian, but a ‘Jesus-and-me’ pattern. This actually represents a capitulation to contemporary culture; a pattern of worship which takes this approach to the extreme is the seeker service. Senn suggests that one of the presuppositions of the seeker service is that unbelievers cannot worship God. In contrast Senn states: "I would say that the public worship of God can be done by believers or unbelievers, that public worship does not depend on an inward disposition but rather on a public affirmation of the reality of God by performing the liturgy." The seeker should therefore have their lack of belief deconstructed through participation in the liturgy, the performance of which should also reflect orthodox Trinitarianism by ministers who, in their variety of ministries, are themselves a reflection of the community of the divine persons.

Evangelisation: at the crossroads

Lastly, Braaten suggests that modern mission faces some new challenges: the centre of Christianity has moved to the two-thirds world, the West now needs evangelising, and the believers that remain in the Western contexts are largely nominal. These challenges all call for a re-evangelization. But they also reveal the legacy of Christendom in which it was forgotten that mission gives rise to both theology and church. Thus theology is generated from mission engagement and the church is essentially missionary rather than mission being about what happens outside the church elsewhere. For Braaten the task of re-evangelizing postmodernity (with its concerns about foundationalism and referentialism) is too big for one denomination. What is needed are the resources of the Great Ecclesial Tradition where each denomination offers its particular contribution in developing a counter-cultural theology. This great tradition does not include liberal or modernist compromises that promote the kind of mission as dialogue in which the question of truth and difference is not acknowledged. It is the question of truth which is central to engaging postmodernity. In a statement that could summarise the general perspective of this collection, Braaten concludes: "Our supposition has been that what lies at the root of the problem is not methodology but theology – confusion about the message and the medium, the gospel and the church. The threat of postmodernity is the same as that of modernity – not how to communicate but what truth to communicate. In the days ahead the missionary encounter with Western post-Christian culture will get rough."

These essays are worth reading if only to challenge presuppositions, yet they are far more than that: they represent a significant statement from a group of senior theologians that the way we have been doing theology has been too accommodating. However, I think postmodernity includes globalisation and this raises the question of the global church. So I would have liked to see a clear understanding of the significance of the global church for re-evangelising postmodernity. I cannot see a thorough re-evangelising of postmodernity happening without including this vital dimension. But with this proviso I would recommend this book as offering, from within the context of North American culture, some significant insights on the challenge of re-evangelizing Western culture.

Tim Dakin

 

Postmission: World Mission by a Postmodern Generation, Richard Tiplady (ed.), Paternoster Press, 2002, 129pp., £10.99

In March 2001, a small group of young people strongly committed to world mission met together on Holy Island for four days of prayer, fellowship, and discussion about the state of contemporary missionary organisations. They were accompanied by one older couple with a lifetime of experience in cross-cultural mission. They describe themselves as belonging to Generation X, deeply influenced by some of the values of the post-modern condition and set apart decisively from the generation of ‘baby-boomers,’ still heavily influenced, they believe, by the thought-forms of modernity.

Some of the book is devoted to exploring the differences between these two generations and the alleged cultural shift that has been taking place over the last 30 years. The main purpose of the book, however, is to ‘begin to ask what contextually appropriate ways of doing mission need to exist for a postmodern generation and for those that follow.’ In the opinion of the various authors of this survey, the way missionary agencies are run today has to be changed comprehensively. They are, it is claimed, far too wedded to organisational structures derived from the rational principles associated with modernity: for example, respect for authority figures, measurable success and unwillingness to recognise failure. In contrast, Generation X is looking for missionary organisations which reflect quite different virtues: openness, vulnerability, absence of hierarchy, inclusiveness. It is the over-emphasis on the former and the lack of the latter which has led many young people to abandon the traditional societies.

The book is written by a younger generation largely for their peers. As one might expect, it does not advocate great strategies to change the present situation, for that would fall prey to modernity. Rather, it suggests ways in which the next generation can begin to change the culture of existing organisations or, if necessary, form their own which will express the qualities they find attractive.

The intention of the book may be laudable: Christian organisations constantly need to be tested against the core postulates of the Gospel and, if found wanting, changed. However, the approach advocated in this collection of articles is strange. Its guiding principle seems to be that modernity and post-modernity are polar opposites and the latter, because it follows the former chronologically, should be given preference in shaping our attitudes to contemporary world mission. There are three major issues connected to this way of structuring the argument. First, most contemporary people (including Generation X) are a mixture of both cultural expressions. Secondly, to use the epithet modern or post-modern, of itself, says nothing. Unfortunately, the various excursions into cultural analysis in this volume are superficial and dubious, resorting too often to clichés and rhetoric. Thirdly, a sound Christian procedure would surely seek to discern the good and reject the detrimental in each cultural embodiment.

The style of the book might be characterised as post-modern in that it does not pay much attention to careful evidence, logical argument and precise detail; it is full of unsubstantiated generalisations based on feelings and a declared relativity of perspective. Although chapter and verse could be given for each of these comments, no doubt the authors would dismiss them as belonging to an unregenerate modernist frame of mind.

J. Andrew Kirk

 

Discerning the Spirit of the Age, Derek Tidball, Kingsway, 2002, 156pp., £8.99 pb.

Whatever people might claim, it is obvious from history that there has never been a golden age when the perfect Christian community existed. This is because of us human beings and our fallen nature. Each generation and culture, however, has different temptations in its struggle to incarnate the gospel.

Derek Tidball, the principal of the London Bible College, who is a sociologist and bible teacher, had produced a lively and easy to read book uncovering the temptations and challenges the Church today faces in our consumerist, post modernist culture. He does this by identifying five powers and principalities which he sees as having a huge effect on our society and the way we think. These include three global corporations - Nike , McDonalds and Disney - and two cultural metaphors - tourism and the consumer.

He gives a quick synopsis of the rise of the three global corporations and the secret of their success. He shows how through clever marketing and their ability to reach the masses, what is basically their company ethos, has been absorbed by a whole generation of people, including Christians. He then contrasts these values with gospel ones.

Despite their different emphases these modern powers and principalities all basically encourage people to put themselves and their own needs at the centre of existence instead of god and his kingdom. These consumerist attitudes affect not only our choices of sports equipment or where we spend our holidays but can also be transferred to our attitude to the church and to life in general. Thus we judge a church by whether it is providing what we need in terms of music, preaching, social care? If not we're off somewhere where we can get what we want. In this way Christians imperceptibly become consumers of spiritual products rather than radical disciples serving those around them. The Church too, in an effort to be successful, in worldly terms can stop preaching the radical message and start treating its members as units to be managed rather than individuals to be discipled. Because these are underlying attitudes rather than concrete identifiable sins, like adultery or stealing, it becomes possible for Christians to feel quite smug and righteous about their lives, without realising how far they have strayed from the gospel. Derek Tidball, in producing such a popular book, has done a service in unmasking these powers and principalities, which undermine true faith and discipleship. The question is do we want to do anything about it? I have to confess in reading Derek Tidball's book, I found his comments and information about the powers and principalities more interesting reading than the bits about the gospel alternative. But then Christianity is not about ideas but about meeting people who incarnate Christ. That's the challenge!

Kristina Cooper

Word to recall

Nietzsche is by no means exceptional, but proclaims as its herald the future of our modern life.

Abraham Kuyper, 1898

WYSOCS

Introduced by David and Ruth Hanson

Listed by Peter Heslam in his book Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism as representative of the Kuyperian worldview in Britain, WYSOCS – the West Yorkshire School of Christian Studies – has as much an international as a provincial flavour. The die was cast when John Stott persuaded David Lyon (then teaching at Bradford University) to consider starting a northern counterpart to the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. Lyon’s friendship of many years with us gave access to the contact lists of the Ilkley Group (of sociologists) and the IARFA (International Association for Reformed Faith and Action) as well as many individual Christians and churches "up north". The Christian Studies Unit booklist1 of Richard Russell, then as ever since, was quarried as an essential resource and, using church halls for accommodation and Ruth’s organising skills, a programme of lectures, courses and conferences began.

Between 1964 and 1983, my wife and I were closely involved in IARFA and, of its nine international conferences, had organised six. We were in touch with scholars, colleges and universities, and Christian organisations in politics, labour relations, art or agriculture – mostly working in Kuyper’s "reformational" line; hence, the international, Kuyperian flavour. Before WYSOCS, we made several attempts, with modest success, to let these "reformationals" meet British audiences. Hans Rookmaaker, in 1967, dismayed art college Christian Union students, when revealed as a taxi-riding, pipe-smoking, whisky-liking and pugnacious art historian who revelled in an intellectual punch-up with their Marxist teachers. "We’ve more important things to do than evangelism" was a one-liner guaranteed to give him a thirsty audience for a week. Henk van Riessen, Bob Goudzwaard, Paul Schrotenboer met audiences of medical students, church congregations, Pall Mall club members and university CU types.

By 1983 it seemed clear, however, that IARFA would not go far in Britain. The word "Reformed" in its title seemed doomed to be mis-spelt, associated with crime or drink, assumed to luxuriate in committee structures or to mean ecclesiastically narrow-mindedness. We can only hope that we furthered none of those misapprehensions.

The birth of WYSOCS allowed much more. Ge