Newsletter 39 (Spring '04)
Whatever Happened to Religious Education?
In 1977 Lesslie Newbigin reviewed the 1975 Birmingham Agreed Syllabus. The syllabus had broken new ground in that it specified, in addition to Christianity, several religions and non-religious philosophies for study. Furthermore it refused to ‘foster the claims of particular religious standpoints’. Pupils were to engage in their own ‘search for personal meaning’. Newbigin’s article challenged the implicit neutrality of the syllabus. He insisted that, philosophically, there was no standpoint above all standpoints. By not attempting to foster belief in any of the religions prescribed for study, the Birmingham syllabus encouraged scepticism towards them all, a position that was as surely ‘indoctrinated’ as the position that one particular faith was true. Newbigin warned: ‘The critical faculty is not self-sustaining. It can only develop on the basis of beliefs which are accepted - in the first instance - uncritically. If the capacity to believe is not developed along with the capacity to criticise, the result can only be fanaticism or nihilism.’
An unfolding tale
My book, recently published by Lutterworth Press, tells the story of events that led to the Birmingham syllabus and what has happened to RE in England and Wales since then. The problems started in the early 1960s when humanists (again) challenged the Christian monopoly of RE. Rather than argue the case for the central place of Christian teaching in religious education, leaders of the profession sided with the humanists, in some cases because they were losing faith themselves. ‘Open RE’ became all the rage and lessons on the occult, fetishism, transpersonal psychology etc. rushed in to fill the vacuum. Ninian Smart offered a new theory of RE, the ‘phenomenological’ approach, which appeared to offer solid ground. However, in practical terms, it too could only offer ‘curiously self-multiplying objectives’ which offered little direction to the teacher. A series of negatives became watchwords for RE: non-confessional, non-directive, non-indoctrinatory. Health warnings as to which books and resources were ‘confessional’ were given, and attempts were made to take control away from the syllabus conferences since it was thought that the churches on the conferences would not allow the new RE to flourish. Teachers were instructed that they must no longer teach as if the Christian faith were true.
Current RE standpoints
But, as Newbigin argued, it is not possible to find a neutral standpoint. My book therefore identifies some of the standpoints of current theories of RE, including approaches recommended by QCA. Modern RE either adopts a form of essentialism, which holds that all religions are expressions of some basic essence and therefore reduces religions to some lowest common denominator, or it adopts (like the Birmingham syllabus) scepticism based on agnosticism. Neither approach does any religion any good and indeed could be found to be undermining children’s faith. A choice has to be made in the matter of what sort of RE we want. RE cannot be neutral and we must ask whether we are happy to teach (for that is what we are doing) essentialism or scepticism? What are the alternatives? My argument is that we need to recover the sense of teaching a religion for its own sake. But which religion? I argue that for most pupils the religion should be Christianity, but that, in accordance with the law, provision should be made for pupils to learn by means of the religion/s that they belong to. This in fact, was the meaning of the phrase ‘taking account of the teachings and practices of the principal religious traditions represented in Great Britain’ and I have a chapter showing how this understanding of the Act, clearly stated in Hansard, has been overlaid (and obscured) with a quite contrary interpretation, developed within the RE profession itself.
It may be objected…
Objections to my proposal are likely to centre on the appropriateness of teaching the Christian faith in today’s society. It depends to a large extent on what parents want and to what extent society generally wants to undergird the faith in its schools. Census results surprised everyone when they showed that over 70% of the population considered themselves to be Christian. This in itself might suggest that the faith still exerts a hold, even if church-going is in decline.
If religious education is to have a future, we have to find a way of answering the question ‘where is Wisdom to be found?’ and encouraging those RE teachers who are possessed of a biblical answer not to be ashamed of pointing children in this direction. I hope that my book will contribute towards this end.
Whatever Happened to Religious Education?, by Penny Thompson, is published by Lutterworth Press (ISBN 0 7188 3039 32004, 192 pages, £17.50 pb.)
To have one’s book described as "feisty, provocative and argued with passion" by an Anglican Bishop is excellent publicity. But it is an accurate description of Penny Thompson’s book. Potential readers will not be disappointed if they were looking for a robust alternative to the multifaith mantras of the "new RE".
The strength of Penny’s book is its concern to pursue the logic of the Gospel as public truth into the realm of school religious education. Particularly commendable is Penny’s careful documentary work, complemented by fascinating snippets from personal interviews. For example, Kenneth Baker spills the beans as to what he really thought was intended by his Education Reform Act. The result is a intriguing retelling of the story of RE since 1963. Penny’s thesis is that the prevalent orthodoxy of multifaith religious education was never intended in the legal reforms, is not wanted in the country at large and was foisted on the British people by a professional elite. Penny’s alternative is to argue the case for teaching Christianity as if it "were true". And what Christian could disagree with that? After all, Christianity is true.
In her article, Penny says that objections to her proposal "are likely to centre on the appropriateness of teaching the Christian faith in today’s society". Maybe the British Humanist Association would take that line, but as someone who has consistently worked to promote the teaching of Christianity in schools, I have other concerns to do with how we should teach it. For now, a brief résumé of two will have to suffice.
Teaching Christianity as true - how?
Firstly, it is not always clear to me what Penny means by teaching Christianity as true. Her analogy is with teaching sums with one right answer which the teacher knows (p143). In other places recognition is given to a more nuanced view. Truth in other religions is acknowledged and openness to changing one’s view is deemed a worthy characteristic (p158). However, promoting both these views leaves the reader confused as to exactly what is meant by teaching Christianity as true. For example, is it rationally tenable for pupils to believe in religions other than Christianity? Is Christian truth controversial or not? Is openness to other religions a good thing? Penny’s answer to all three of these questions seems to be yes. But this seems to be contradicted by her sums analogy. I suggest that the difference between teaching Christianity as true (the sums approach) and teaching Christianity as believed to be true by Christians (the nuanced approach) is not sufficiently explored in the book.
Secondly, Penny is critical of those who adopt relativist theories of truth as the foundation for school religious education. And rightly so. However her own arguments themselves seem to rest sometimes on relativistic assumptions. For example, she supports the notion that children should be taught "the religion they belong to". She also defends the idea that Christianity should be taught because it is "our" culture (e.g. p153). But does this not reduce the Gospel as public truth to the Gospel as the Christian cultural heritage of Britain?
The quality of this book is in its dismantling of the dominating, multifaith philosophy behind much school religious education and its call to put the language of Christian truth back into the classroom. It would be stronger if it offered workable proposals for how this can be achieved with Christian integrity in the schools of a multifaith, heavily secular democracy. I am not persuaded that it does not after all rely too heavily on concepts of Christendom and cultural heritage, rather than an alternative approach that draws on insights from studies of the contextualisation of the Gospel.
Penny Thompson comments:
How can we judge whether religious beliefs are rational? To claim that grounds for such judgement lie not in Christian faith but elsewhere, or equally between religions, would be to undermine the insights of Christian faith. I argue that we can only teach Christianity as true and rational, and as affirming truth and rationality wherever they can be found, including in other religions.
On relativism: there is a minimum legal requirement that a syllabus reflect the fact that the religious traditions of Great Britain are, in the main, Christian. Is this requirement relativistic? Rather, it surely takes seriously the fact that in religious matters the majority of people in Britain have long identified with Christianity, in various ways consciously and tacitly, as being true. May we not reflect this when teaching RE to pupils belonging to other religions?
Shortly before Christmas there was public celebration of the centenary of the Wright brothers' historic flight. As the beginnings of human flight were revisited, however, some thought-provoking aspects of the story came to light. Another figure was remembered - Santos Dumont, known in his day as 'the father of flight'. The contrast between him and the Wright brothers was striking. The latter, in the U.S., were highly secretive about their invention because they wanted to patent it and sell it to a government which would see its military potential; that is why hardly anyone witnessed their first flight. Santos Dumont, by contrast, was a very public figure in Paris who believed that airplanes would bring peace as distant peoples got to know each other (many had believed the same about railways) and who sought no patent but wanted to leave his invention a gift to humankind. Tragically, as he lived to see airplanes used to drop bombs, he fell into despair and finally took his own life.
This story may be read as the tale of two faces of the Enlightenment: on the one side absolute private property rights fostering capitalism, proprietorial initiative and economic rationalisation, and on the other, philanthropy and implicit faith in progress predicated upon human goodness and universal moral rationality. There is food for thought here: how does each face of Enlightenment fare today? Where does the Gospel undergird, or challenge, each of them in their current form?
'The world has grown old and sterile because charity has grown cold. The love of men must grow weak and ineffective unless it is rooted in and expressive of the love of God; the love of God also must be thought to be dwindling and decaying into love of self unless it leads us to share in the redeeming activity of Christ. And perhaps it is true to say that outside the Church that zeal for doing good in the world which is the glory of the west is losing its power because it is losing its roots in the love of God; whereas within the Church, on the contrary, the chief danger we have to fight against is the danger of self-centred piety which neglects its duties to the world'.
Gerald Vann, The Divine Pity, 1945
In July 2003 a major church conference called SACLA2 was held in Pretoria, South Africa. The aim of the conference was to bring together the full spectrum of South African church leaders to tackle some of the giants facing the nation. These giants include HIV/Aids, violence, racism, poverty, sexism, and the family in crisis. On the first full day of the conference a keynote address was given by Mrs. Janet Museveni, the First Lady of Uganda. She said, "It takes a village to raise a child." Her message was that it is not just the parents and the family who raise the child but the community around them.
Western individualism tells us that it is our individual rights and happiness
that come first. Africans tell us that it is the community to which we belong
that makes us who we are.
The Zulu language has a word for this, which has no parallel in English. The word is Ubuntu. It means one-anotherness, a quality of belonging, that we are who we are only through our relationships with one another. Our very identity as persons comes from that community of which we are a part.
This is why villages and towns, schools and congregations are so important.
Children cannot become Chistian in any real sense without the experience of a
community which is in some distinct sense Christian. Words are not enough. We
are formed by relationship. Our deepest need is for relationship with one
another and the relationship with God that only Christ can bring.
The Centre for Christianity and Culture
Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford
Introduced by the Director, Nicholas Wood
A comment overheard one day in an Oxford street went something like this: "Hmm … Christianity and culture? What a pity you can’t have both!" The comment was a response to the plaque indicating the presence of the Centre for Christianity and Culture at Regent’s Park College, and it perhaps sums up the feeling of many, whether Christian or not. It is a response that goes back to the earliest days of the Church: "What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?" asked Tertullian. Subsequent history revealed just how much Christianity was to learn from and contribute to the culture of Europe as represented by Athens, and many other cultural centres worldwide. Today there is a continuing need for a critical engagement between the Christian faith and the various cultures of our contemporary world.
The main aim of the Centre for Christianity and Culture at Regent’s Park College, Oxford, is to contribute towards ‘the formation of a Christian mind’. The Centre has been in existence for some nine years since the appointment of the Mennonite theologian and church historian, Alan Kreider, as its first director in 1995, but the vision is essentially that of the College itself since its foundation in the late 18th century. It is now indebted especially to the energy of its present Principal, Paul Fiddes, Professor of Systematic Theology in Oxford.
From its roots in a London Baptist Education Society of 1752, through its various lives, first in Stepney and later in Regent’s Park London, and now as a Permanent Private Hall of the University of Oxford, Regent’s Park College has offered both theological education for those preparing for ordained ministry, and a general arts education for those preparing for life in business and the professions. Now a lively community of some 150 students at the very centre of Oxford’s dreaming spires, Regent’s offers all its students and the wider community of both ‘town and gown’ the opportunity to bring together Christian faith and key issues in society and culture.
Each term the Centre arranges series of Public Lectures on a range of issues in contemporary church and society. These have included the visual arts, music and literature which one might expect from a Centre concerned to relate Christianity and culture, but have also reflected issues facing our technological society including global warming, the information revolution, approaches to time and eternity, economics, law and governance. Recent speakers have included former Cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken, Konrad Raiser of the World Council of Churches, sociologist Grace Davie, children’s author Gillian Cross, theologian Grace Jantzen, and the poets Les Murray, Micheal O’Siadhail and U.A. Fanthorpe.
A number of studies are now available to a wider audience through the publication of several volumes including ‘Celts and Christians’ (edited by Mark Atherton) a well-received collection in relation to Celtic studies and Christianity; ‘Christianity and the Culture of Economics’ (edited by Alan Kreider and Donald Hay) with contributions as diverse as Brian Griffiths former economics adviser to the Thatcher government, Oxfam’s David Nussbaum and Andrew Dilnot, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. ‘The Novel, Spirituality and Modern Culture’ (edited by Paul Fiddes) includes essays by such major novelists as Susan Howatch, Jill Paton Walsh and Donna Tartt, while the most recent book ‘Composing Music for Worship’ (edited by Alan Kreider and Stephen Darlington) includes perspectives from Graham Kendrick to John Bell, and Howard Goodall to Roxanna Panufnik.
The Centre also hosts one day consultations and weekend conferences on a range of topics, and in conjunction with the College’s Community Learning Department, contributes to evening and weekend courses for churches and individuals about issues in mission and contemporary culture. This is an area of the Centre’s work which is still developing, but the whole operation is run on a very tight budget since it currently has no separate funding. Equally the Centre lives in a virtual reality since other than the Director’s office it has no accommodation of its own.
For my own part I am a Baptist minister and theologian who teaches and researches in the area of Study of Religion and Inter-Faith Relations, but the Centre also has a number of Research Fellows with a wide range of theological and cultural interests which include contemporary philosophy, science and technology, history, literature and education. Some are scholars with appointments at other institutions (for example Oliver Davies, University of Wales, Lampeter, Michael Humpheys, Oxford Brookes University, John Taylor, Rugby School, Pete Ward, Kings College, London) whilst others are based in and around Oxford.
The Associate Director Isabella Bunn, divides her time between Oxford and her native America and works in the field of Ethics and International Law and as a Consultant to Christian Aid. Mark Atherton teaches for the English Department at Regent’s and edited and introduced the Penguins Classics edition of Hildegard of Bingen. Frances Kennett is an established author whose current work focuses on feminism and spirituality, and Peggy Heeks is well-known for her work in education and children’s literature. Andrew Moore has just published an acclaimed study of Christian Realism, whilst Myra Blyth, widely known through her work in ecumenical spheres at the WCC and the Baptist Union, is heading up a project on ‘Following Jesus in a Violent World’.
The Centre also aims to help a new generation of Christian thinkers by providing scholarships for post-graduate research in theology and related subjects in Oxford. At any one time, up to five graduate students share in the life and work of the Centre whilst pursuing their own research in the University of Oxford.
Any one interested in the work of the Centre is invited to contact the Director, the Revd Dr Nicholas Wood at Regent’s Park College, Oxford, OX1 2LB. E-mail: email@example.com
Worldview: The History of a Concept, David K. Naugle, Eerdmans, 2002, 384 pp., £18.99.
During this century the term ‘worldview’ has become increasingly important in evangelical circles in North America. Its popularity has emerged as many in the Christian church have come to see the comprehensive scope and religious threat of the modern worldview which shapes the cultures of Europe and North America. They have sought to encounter those dominant beliefs with an equally comprehensive understanding of the world rooted in the gospel. The concept of ‘worldview’ has served this purpose well.
In this book Naugle sets out to investigate the historical development of the concept of worldview. He begins by examining the two primary sources of worldview thinking in evangelical protestantism – James Orr (1844-1913) and Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) along with some of their followers (chapter 1). He then looks at how some in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox tradition have also appropriated this notion (chapter 2). He offers a philological history of the term ‘worldview’ tracing it from its first use in Immanuel Kant to its use today in continental European countries and the English-speaking world. He traces the use of the word and concept as it has been employed in philosophy (chapters 4-6), in the natural sciences (chapters 7), and in the social sciences (chapter 8).
After narrating this history he asks whether or not the term, saturated as it is with the idolatry of the modern worldview, can be employed in a way faithful to the gospel to express the comprehensive claims of Christ. He believes it can and in chapter 9 he fills the term with Christian content: a worldview must take account of the way God has ordered the creation; a worldview is rooted in the human heart that is fundamentally religious; worldviews not shaped by the gospel will be directed by the power of idolatry; a true worldview must be shaped by the gospel. In his concluding chapters he offers some philosophical reflections on worldview (chapters 10), and then closes considering some dangers and benefits of the notion of worldview (chapter 11).
Naugle succeeds admirably in what he sets out to do. His book is well-written and well-researched, but it is an academic investigation and does have the narrow goal of tracing the concept of worldview. Naugle’s book nicely opens up the dangers and possibilities of that concept for the Christian life. A careful study of this book will repay the reader with rich dividends but if you don’t have the time to work your way through the entire book, the preface, the first and ninth chapters will offer much good food for thought.
For readers of this newsletter the concept of worldview should have considerable interest. Newbigin called for a missionary encounter with modern culture. It is precisely for this reason that the notion of worldview developed in the first place. In my own experience of teaching worldview on four continents I have found that this is one of the most helpful ways to help folk see that the church is in an advanced state of syncretism, that the gospel is public truth, and that our missionary engagement extends to every area of the public square.
Some readers may be disappointed in Naugle’s treatment of story. It is treated in the philosophical section and does not have the kind of foundational importance displayed in Newbigin’s notion of the Bible and modernity as competing claims to interpret universal history. Nevertheless rich insight is plentiful into the way worldview could function to shape a missionary encounter in the West.
For the Glory of God: How monotheism led to reformations, science, witch-hunts, and the end of slavery
Rodney Stark, Princeton University Press, 2003, 496pp., £24.95 pb.
In his latest book, Professor Rodney Stark sets himself ambitious goals in surveying the history of the three great monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam over the last 2000 years. He provides focus to his study by addressing four key themes: reformation, the engagement with science, the response to heresy, and attitudes to slavery.
Stark sets out to debunk a number of myths, with popular misconceptions providing one of his primary targets. He challenges a widespread scepticism in the modern West that sees religion as the cause of wars, massacres, schism and general social disarray, arguing instead that monotheistic religion has been the basis for much good.
Some historians feel the sting of Stark’s scrutiny. He argues that contrary to much scholarly opinion, there never was an inherent conflict between religion and science, and that in fact Christian theology was essential for the surge in scientific knowledge. In his examination of the tragic history of witch-hunts across Europe in the Middle Ages, Stark meticulously considers the extent of these events, arguing that the heresy purges were greatly overstated in previous studies.
Stark asks some hard questions of Muslim historians, who claim that life for minorities under medieval Islam was far more enlightened than under Christianity in the same period. He responds that the 1492 expulsion of Jews from Spain "merely reimposed the Muslim edict of 1148 that expelled all Jews from Spain, upon penalty of death, unless they embraced Islam." (49) He cites eleventh century Muslim massacres of Jews in both Spain and Morocco in further support of his argument.
Stark has little time for the exponents of political correctness, who have "all but erased awareness that slavery was once nearly universal to all societies able to afford it, and that only in the West did significant moral opposition ever arise and lead to abolition." (291) On this particular question Stark subjects Islam to particular scrutiny, pointing out that the Muslim practice of slavery predated the European colonial slave-trade by some considerable time, and has continued up until the present day, adding that "the very recent abolition of slavery in some Islamic nations was undertaken entirely in response to intense Western pressure." (304)
This is an important study which deserves to be widely read by both a scholarly and non-specialist audience. Stark’s challenges to received opinion on a range of topics is long overdue, especially on the issue of slavery. And his work will provide welcome relief to those Christians who feel under siege from a somewhat sceptical and at times hostile Western public, which is increasingly unaware of the debt owed by Western liberal democracy to its Judeo-Christian foundations.
Peter G. Riddell
(adapted by the author from his review published in the Church Times)
The Word of Christ and the World of Culture, Paul L Metzger, Eerdmans, 2003, 276pp., £27.99 pb.
Wittgenstein’s reaction to reading Volume 1 of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics is reported as: ‘This writing must have come from a remarkable religious experience’. It is a tribute to this monograph on Barth and culture, which originated as a doctorate supervised by the late Colin Gunton, that it manages to convey something of the passion of Barth’s theology.
Barth is presented here as a modern, or even post-modern thinker, who understood God as fundamentally free to reveal himself as Creator and Redeemer, yet whose revelation takes place in the mystery of concealment. This almost apophatic element was to guarantee an appropriate space for creation to be itself, independent of God amid its dependence, autonomous under the divine rule.
Paul Metzger explores the dialectic wherein Barth attempts to avoid the twin poles of sacramentalism and secularism, by portraying the very creatureliness and secularity of creation as itself sacred, because willed and embraced by God, and therefore able to offer God its secular praise. Grace neither destroys nature nor perfects it; rather it elevates nature before God, by relating nature to God.
Metzger examines the relation between creation and redemption, and repeats the oft-expressed view that Barth gives too great a priority to redemption, thus endangering the status of the material world as a whole. This leads Metzger to prefer to speak of two covenants, of creation and of redemption, even if Jesus Christ is both Lord and partner in each covenant. This implies ‘the rejection of Barth’s singular conception of the mediation in the history of the world’ (p.108).
I heard a distant echo of Barth’s famous ‘Nein’ to Brunner at this point. The problem seems to lie with a less than adequate understanding on Metzger’s part of how time and eternity relate for Barth. Barth takes quite literally the statement in Hebrews 13 ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever’, as a basic axiom. All God’s activity in creation and redemption revolve around, reflect, and derive, from the one Lord Jesus Christ. Pace Gunton, and Metzger, this does not court a Platonic doctrine of eternal creation according to which God is bound to create, because the axiom of God’s freedom is equally fundamental. The combination, in some sense, of freedom and constancy in God is one of the mysteries which no human logic can resolve.
Metzger’s account seems stronger in its latter stages, when he concentrates upon Barth’s political and wider cultural theology. Here he rightly emphasises the unitary character of Barth’s approach, and his desire to allow creation simply as creation (which for Barth is creation illumined by the risen Christ) to glorify God, even in its apparent lostness. His vision was not so much the divinisation of the world as its humanisation. Metzger’s criticism of Barth’s unwillingness to see the evils of Soviet Marxism seem fair, because in its own way it was almost as idolatrous and pseudo-Christian as National Socialism.
The best books on Barth evoke something like Witgenstein’s response in 1940. In parts at least, Metzger’s confident study meets this test.
In One Body through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity, Carl Braaten & Robert Jenson (eds), Eerdmans, 2003, 62pp., £7.99.
Perceiving official ecumenism to be faltering, sixteen well-known North American theologians - Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox - issued, following a three year study, this manifesto calling for a return to earlier goals. The authors see the declaration of the 1961 New Delhi assembly of the World Council of Churches as the proper ecumenical orientation point:
'a unity of Christians "made visible as all in each place who are baptised into Jesus Christ…brought into one fully committed fellowship, holding one apostolic faith, preaching the one Gospel, breaking the one bread…'(p.11)
This defining purpose, they believe, has been marginalized by the preoccupation of national and world ecumenical bodies with other agendas, notably social action and interfaith ones. While they do not deny the importance of these, the theologians believe them to be sub-sets of the organizing centre of ecumenism as stated in the New Delhi declaration.
After developing their understanding of New Delhi in terms of a unity both already given and yet to be sought, and a brief history of the ecumenical movement tracing its notable achievements (as in the convergence document, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry) and its current problems, the writers outline some steps that could be taken to rectify the erosion which they observe. This outline ranges from advice to specific constituencies - pentecostal to papal - to counsel for congregations in local communities.
This reviewer’s guess is that Lesslie Newbigin would have gladly added his signature to this statement. Indeed, his theological biographer, Geoffrey Wainwright, appears to have had an important hand in its drafting. While the reviews of the book by establishment figures have not been kind, the document is attracting much attention. A sequel with background papers is about to be published in 2004 and a major conference will be held on it at Notre Dame this summer. May its tribe increase.
Christianity in a Post-Atheist Age, Clive Marsh, SCM Press, 2002, 149pp., £9.95
As so many of us today are speaking the language of emerging church with all its concomitant alternative worship, we should be grateful for folk like Clive Marsh who are helping us think more deeply about how Christianity might position itself in today’s culture. In this book the author sketches the outline of a way of thinking about our faith and our traditions that will carry us forward into the future. The book takes the form of 95 theses, which are propositions for a new ‘liberal protestantism’. Marsh argues that the essence of liberalism is found in a concern for a process of theological education that will take in all that own the faith and many that are on the edge, a process that is about exploring, openness and being constantly critical, even of oneself. He suggests that the present time also calls for a new Protestantism , which is about putting God first and is Christocentric, yet free to imagine today’s outworkings of Christ’s teachings and join hands with others who protest against injustice. The last thesis summarises the book. He says,
‘Christianity will only reveal itself to be a viable form of religion in contemporary Britain if it begins to work again for people as a source of personal, social and political transformation.’
To someone like me with a passion for applied theology, this whole approach is a delight. I warmed to the evident personal integrity and openness of his approach, the carefully balanced judgements and depth of understanding of complex theological traditions.
This book is designed to provoke discussion and its 95 theses are proposed as starter points for group work. I imagine that the approach may be of most interest to ministers, who have the interest and knowledge to fill out the 95 theses into a conversation. Others, I think, would need more help than the text provides.
The questions I would now want to explore with the author were about how we help churches to break out of the confines of the ghettoised cultures, which Marsh describes. How can we develop and use language that overlaps with the concerns of the wider society and yet is faithful to our tradition? Where does biblical authority fit into this? Marsh argues from the liberal tradition and evangelicals will find several ‘red flags’ within the text, but I hope that will not prevent them from giving this book the careful consideration it deserves.
A new edition of Michael Paul Gallagher's fine Clashing Symbols: an Introduction to Faith and Culture has been issued by Darton Longman & Todd at £12.95 pb.
Just as Penny Thompson's Whatever Happened to Religious Education? contains valuable documentation of what has actually happened in the teaching of R.E. in recent decades, so E. S. Williams' Lessons in Depravity: Sex education and the sexual revolution (Belmont House Press, 2003, 328pp, £8.00 pb) documents closely the course of sex education in recent decades and the people and policies involved. This mine of information derives its stark title from the kind of advice sometimes given out of a desire to promote 'safer sex' activities. Some may respond to this by seeking reform in sex education; others will argue that such education should be left to the family. The author favours the latter.
Alan Reynold's Reading the Bible for the Love of God (Brazos Press, 2003, 143pp.) 'could spur the first step by jaded dropouts from the churches back, or forward into the reality of a living faith', writes Jim Packer on the dust jacket. Eugene Peterson, in his foreword, commends it for promoting the radical shift from 'reading-for-information' to 'personal reading-as-listening', in which readers of the bible 'do not know more, they become more'.
Trevor Cooling is BA Course Leader at the Open Theological College, University of Gloucestershire
Ian Cowley is an author and vicar of Yaxley and Holme with Conington, in the Diocese of Ely
Gabriel Fackre is is Emeritus Professor of Christian Theology at Andover Newton Theological School, Massachusetts, U.S., and author of numerous books on theology and ethics
Peter Forster is Bishop of Chester
Michael Goheen is Associate Professor, Worldview Studies, Mission and World Christianity, Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ontario, Canada.
Peter G. Riddell is Director of the London Bible College Centre for Islamic Studies
Chris Sunderland is Co-ordinator of AGORA
Penny Thompson is an experienced R.E. teacher and visiting lecturer at Hope University College, Liverpool
Nicholas Wood is Director of the Centre for Christianity and Culture, Regent's Park College, Oxford
Newsletter 40 (Summer '04)
The culture of feelings
"With no effort other than paying attention to how we're feeling, we can mould our lives exactly as we choose with relative ease and speed". So claims a self-help book.1
In the past, the path of self-determination has commonly been promoted through 'thinking for oneself'. Today it is more commonly promoted through getting in touch with one's feelings.
In practice the former vision often bred only what has been called the 'herd of independent minds'; the rhetoric of free thinking was simply incorporated into habits of thought ruled by ideology.
But perhaps our feelings are more reliably our own than this? Do we not have here a sure guide to self-determination? So it is claimed today. But Stjepan Meštrovic argues not. He claims that not only our thinking but also our feelings are widely manufactured in mass society. In his book Postemotional Society2 he argues that the modern rationalisation of life has extended beyond thinking to feeling, in a kind of 'McDonaldization of emotions': bite-size, pre-packaged emotions are manufactured and cued in a new kind of mass manipulation. Vicarious indignation is a familiar example of this. Such feelings are post-emotional, not in the sense of lacking emotion but in being synthetic, quasi-emotions severed from thought and yielding no action.
Patrick West draws on this analysis in his recent book Conspicuous Compassion3. He writes 'We live in a post-emotional age, one characterised by crocodile tears and manufactured emotion'. He describes extravagant public displays of grief for people one has never met as 'recreational' grief, 'undertaken as an enjoyable event, much like going to a football match or the last night at the proms'. 'Mourning sickness', he calls it. The phoney character of these displays leads, he says, to 'compassion inflation'. Consider, by way of illustration the two-minute silence which originates in Remembrance Day: 'When a group called Hedgeline calls for a two-minute silence to remember all the 'victims' whose neighbours have grown towering hedges, we truly have reached the stage where this gesture has been emptied of meaning'.
Patrick West writes about emotions shaped and channelled by the mass media (a phenomenon as apparent in European Cup football fever as in 'conspicuous compassion'), but the vital thing is how he interprets and judges this. He berates 'conspicuous compassion' as selfish when it appears to be altruistic, and as about feeling good, not doing good. It is fake.
Madeleine Bunting favours another interpretation4. Responding to Patrick West, she remarks that Right-Wing think tanks have a habit of claiming that people today bleat about things endured by previous generations without fuss. However there really is an escalating weight of emotional distress abroad, she thinks, and it comes precisely from the disorienting experience of rapid and apparently senseless change driven by market capitalism, and it is an inevitable consequence of these policies.
In other words, the impotence of the gestures of compassion described by Patrick West may not be evidence that distress does not exist, but evidence that people cannot handle it.
Edward Farley, writing in the U.S., captures succinctly this disorienting social change:
'The predominantly marketing and consumer society in which most Westerners live has transformed virtually all traditional institutions (governments, corporations, universities) and created new or transformed institutions (the media, entertainment and leisure, professional sports, communications)... Moreover, the social shift I describe has isolated certain powerful institutions (corporate, military, governmental, media, entertainment) from the influence of the co-called normative institutions such as education, religion and the arts. Indeed, the great cultural transformation of our time has changed the character of these normative institutions, drawing them into the marketplace and the world of image-making, of salesmanship and of managerial orientations. This massive shift has had a devastating effect on the once-deep cultural values that exerted their force upon most of society's institutions - values of truth, duty, discipline, reading, beauty, family, tradition, justice among many others.'5
The resulting personal disorientation is dramatically portrayed by Australian poet Michael Leunig: 'Something is amiss. It's like when birds suddenly can't find their flight to Alaska. We're in a particular time in history when it's immensely stressful to be alive. I would say we are in the midst of pillaging and rape of the psychological eco-system, the ecology of the soul. There's a great, delicate, interconnected ecology that goes on in people's lives. We're defiling it, exploiting it, and this will have tremendous consequences for the emotional health of society.'6
Despite the confident mood projected publicly, then, by political rhetoric of modernisation and progressive innovation, people are feeling disoriented; and it is painful. Melvyn Matthews has written of the pain of modern life: 'It is the pain, the actual deadening, horrifying pain of living in the modern which is at the heart of things. Most of us totally underestimate the existence and importance of this pain as a factor in our lives. It is glossed consistently. But the pain forces us to disown responsibility, to say No to the task of confronting and assimilating the problems of modern existence. We have too much pain to be able to choose the good. The existence of this pain deadens and numbs our moral existence. Our reserves of compassion seep away, our desire for real living is undermined by the task of moving from one day to another with the minimum of disaster. There is a sickness of the spirit abroad which forces us into cheap or sentimental theological solutions. An avoidance of moral conflict, a ready acceptance of so-called religious experience, whatever its origin or quality, these are the signs of a cheapening of the religious spirit in men and women.'7
There are clear dangers here for the churches. One is to allow their role to be defined as to offer comfort. At our recent day conference on the Spirit of God and the Spirit of the Age it was noted that many non-churchgoers today see this as the role of the church.
In her article 'Whatever Happened to Repentance?', Frederika Mathewes-Green compares God to a surgeon8. His intention is to heal, not to comfort. 'It's when the surgeon says, "All we can do is keep him comfortable", that you're really in trouble', she writes. God has higher expectations than this and they involve our repentance - our metanoia or change in 'the "nous" or the innermost consciousness, a region that lies below both rational thought and emotion'.
A disorienting Gospel
Repentance is a disorienting change but fundamentally it is about God orienting us more deeply, towards himself. To be re-oriented towards God is to break with the myth that either 'free thinking' or 'attention to one's feelings' have autonomous power radically to orient human life; it is to offer one's thinking and feeling alike to be transformed by orientation towards God. This, and not providing comfort, defines the fundamental role of the church today.
Islam and the West: Fruitful Dialogue or …?
The media turned its attention upon Lord Carey of Clifton earlier this year when, following press reports of a lecture he gave in Rome, he was taken to be hostile to the Muslim world. In another, more recent lecture, the previous Archbishop of Canterbury has again raised, without apology, similar concerns and criticisms. Against his own critics, he insists that his motives in doing so are entirely constructive.
We are grateful to him for granting permission to offer this latest lecture - 'Islam and the West: The Challenge to the Human Family' - in the current ACCESS list*.
In his lecture Lord Carey expresses appreciation for Islam accompanied by 'an increasing frustration that we have not yet managed to achieve a real and fruitful dialogue based upon understanding and truth.' This is vital because, as he says, our world is in great peril: the perceived association of Islam as such with terrorism together with uncritical acceptance of the 'Clash of Civilisations' prediction by Samuel Huntingdon could become self-fulfilling prophecies. We dare not be content with this prospect, but are bound to seek fruitful dialogue.
Such dialogue will involve acknowledging the stereotypes of each other which mischievously distort the truth. We must ask why, in the Muslim mind, the West is associated with decadence and lack of faith, and why in the Western mind Islam as such is associated with terrorism. Again, we must recognise the mistrust on both sides. Many Muslims are convinced that a secular West is pursuing its own interests through globalisation and destroying their own values in the process; many people in Britain are convinced Muslims want to take over the country and eventually make it Islamic.
Behind this mutual mistrust lies, partly, a real clash of civilisations in the early medieval period. Muslims remember, as Europeans do not, that Crusaders came upon the Muslim world like barbarians; Europeans may remember, as Muslims do not, that the aim of the Crusades was to take back lands captured by Muslim armies centuries earlier. However, there has also been historical co-operation and dialogue, notably following the commitment of early Islam to scholarship and learning. The failure of this to bear fruit later - as it did in the West - in science and in political developments raises issues to do with authority and freedom. These issues arise in connection with grievances from both sides today which need to be aired in candid debates between Muslim, Christian and other thinkers.
Having set out these grievances, Lord Carey calls for them to be incorporated in a deepening dialogue to be pursued drawing upon insights from our scriptures and cultures. Here we should pay close attention to elements in the Bible which make a strong case for inclusion and not separation. And he urges that everyone has their part to play resisting a violent future and pursing freedom and peace.
The increasing frustration felt by Lord Carey at the failure to achieve such dialogue invites reflection. What is it that frustrates such dialogue? The narrow interest shown by the media - seizing upon the potentially controversial or offensive - hardly contributes towards rich, mature public debate. On the other hand our postmodern celebration of 'difference' easily fades into indifference; it does not inspire the effort to listen well and understand. Perhaps such frustrations point, among other things, to the importance of a project such as AGORA, described later in this newsletter…
* See ACCESS No. 412 for Lord Carey's text. For another interesting study on Islam and the West (which gives special attention to contemporary political, economic and social policy) see M. A. Casey's article 'How to Think About Globalization' (ACCESS No. 413)
What is a Christian?
What are we to make of this? In the often beleaguered and overburdened British church this may seem like good news. Things are not as bad as we thought . There are lots and lots of Christians out there. They just don't belong to any of our churches.
Or is this really what these statistics are saying? I recently spoke to two couples (neither of them married) who were seeking to have their babies christened. I tried to explain the meaning of baptism for Christians, and asked what they thought a Christian is. All four agreed that a Christian is someone who is able to choose for themselves what they believe and how they live. Christianity is different from other religions, such as Islam, where all the adherents of those faiths are required to hold to certain beliefs. Christians, these couples said, can make up their own minds about what the Bible teaches, because everyone sees things differently.
Perhaps this is the logical outcome of living in a liberal democracy. But what use is a religion that does not have any firm foundation of belief, at least in the minds of many who claim to belong to that faith? I suspect that many clergy and ministers are torn between collaborating with the "anything goes" view of Christianity and the need to hold on to some distinctives .After all, how does one tell someone who thinks they are a Christian that maybe they are not? But the church is surely called to tell people about Christ. And to call Jesus our Lord does not leave us free to do what we like.
More on Religious Education
'Whatever Happened to Religious Education?', asked Penny Thompson in our last newsletter1. As it turned out, within a short time public debate was under way on religious education. This followed a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research2 which supposedly recommended that 'atheism' should be among the belief systems taught in Religious Education in schools.
In response Archbishop Rowan Williams took the opportunity to discuss assumptions and confusions evident in the IPPR report, in Michael Hand's background paper to the report, and in the ensuing public discussion. He did so in a paper presented to an invited group at 10 Downing Street on 8th March. In his paper 'Belief, unbelief and religious education' he holds up these assumptions and confusions to the light of religious and philosophical reflection. We are grateful for permission to include this paper in the current ACCESS list3.
Rowan Williams begins by challenging the idea that 'atheism' is a self-contained system which gains coherence from a central conviction. The attempt to teach it as such is 'a deeply confused aspiration'. Rather, atheism takes diverse forms, and is defined often by the gods it rejects and why it rejects them. After all, Bishop Polycarp was martyred for being an atheist: he refused to participate in the religious rites of the Roman Empire…
The archbishop's leading themes are flagged in the following paragraph:
'So the question of whether the God rejected by this or that version of atheistic philosophy is in fact the God religious people claim to worship becomes crucial to the enterprise. The immense importance for religious education of serious exposure to the inner tensions of belief has to be granted. To see large school parties in the audience of the Pullman plays at the National Theatre is vastly encouraging; I only hope that teachers are equipped to tease out what in Pullman’s world is and is not reflective of Christian teaching as Christians understand it. Equally, for an RE course to incorporate Dostoevsky’s Inquisitor parable or Camus’ The Plague is a mark of some maturity in approaching the subject. These are the things that make belief difficult; to recognise this is also to recognise that reflective belief systems have strategies for living with difficulty that are both intellectually and imaginatively sophisticated.'
If schools will explore the role of internal critique in the historic faiths, and how they cope with change and challenge - if teachers are equipped to do this - understanding of religion will be furthered. Such understanding will involve more than the supposed uncritical 'empathy' imparted, Michael Hand worries, by RE teaching today. But it also involves more than Hand's preferred strategy: evaluation of religious beliefs through a supposedly neutral procedure of criticism which leads to a rational conclusion safely based on evidence. Hand's strategy presupposes that religious beliefs are essentially prejudices which can be appraised by following a 'determined rational process, a key to fit all locks', administered by educational professionals. But this will never bring understanding of religion. Illuminating, by contrast, would be the study of how people concretely reason on a religious basis.
As a constructive illustration, Rowan Williams imagines a Religious Studies course in which 15+ year-olds would focus especially upon biography/autobiography and the expression of faith in creative arts such as novels and contemporary film, looking for the kind of 'reasoning' at work in them.
'I am not in the business of planning a curriculum', he concludes, 'but I do want to urge that the categories in which we think about RE need to be released from both the rather tame assumptions of some current practice (the benign description of the exotic) and the confusion represented by the IPPR report.'
We are left with an important practical question: how might it come about that the insights expressed in Rowan William's paper feed seriously into reform of the RE curriculum? Are there presently effective channels through which this might happen? If not, what new initiatives or structures might carry this forward?
Introduced by the Co-ordinator, Chris Sunderland
Readers of this newsletter are familiar with the profound and complex issues that we face as we try to relate the Christian faith to today’s world. This short article is to introduce the work of a new type of organisation that has deliberately positioned itself in the interface between church and culture. Styled ‘Agora’ it takes its vision from the civic centre of a Greek city, and aims to create new opportunities in our society for people to meet and discuss the issues of the day. Just as Paul chose the Agora as the place to argue for the faith so today’s Agora believes that faith perspectives must be a part of the conversation of the public square and works to make that happen.
What’s the problem?
Some analysts believe that Western Democracy is in trouble. People are increasingly cynical, even angry, about politics. Young people do not vote and show no interest in political institutions. The trust on which democracy depends may be foundering. At the heart of this problem may be the decline of face to face conversation. There are simply less opportunities for individuals to explore what they think about the issues of the day, hear the perspectives of others and so sense that they are participant members of society.
At the same time there is no doubt that the church is struggling. Financial buffers mask the real issue. Centuries of creeping marginalisation have led the church into a twilight world where its thoughts and language no longer relate to public life. Like a beached whale, the church is a massive organisation that has found itself in a context that can no longer support its life.
What can be done?
Agora’s overall aim is to create new opportunities in society for
Agora’s life began simply by exploring a new sort of event in pubs. Starting from an issue in working life or politics, people would be sat round small tables and invited to contribute from their own experience. An interactive session would build to big picture thinking on the issue at hand, stories would be told, and perspectives from the Christian faith weaved in, sometimes with ‘tellings’ from the Bible. It proved to be a powerful mix. And it led to a whole range of opportunities all based on the idea that we could do work that would both genuinely benefit the society and allow the church to re-imagine itself in the process.
So what actually do you do?
Agora is currently exploring several different approaches on this basic theme. Much of our church work is pursued in partnership with Bible Society and with local Anglican Trusts. Our portfolio at present includes:
Show me how it might make a difference…
Agora’s ultimate aim is to grow a partnership of creative and innovative people across the nation united in our core aims and trying out new ideas to engage with people and the situation of life today.
Imagine, for example, that we could replay the process of going to war in Iraq, but that there are now thousands of Christian leaders up and down the country who are competent at facilitating discussions with a broad range of people. After 9/11 they begin a process of conversation in pubs, cafes, halls. Hundreds of thousands of people are talking and talking well about the issues. Christian perspectives are being presented. Government takes an interest. It has to. New ideas are arising. People have a sense of participation. They are becoming responsibly active in all sorts of ways.
If this had happened, I believe it would have made a significant difference. Of course we are a long way from that sort of impact. It is still early days. Agora is young and there is much to be done. If you like the idea please get in touch. Ask to receive our news. Our website makes resources for conversations available on a regular basis. Our aim is to recruit hundreds of people to the vision and encourage one another to explore all that God makes possible.
Agora may be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org
Website address: www.agoraspace.org
Christology in Cultural Perspective: Marking out the horizons, Colin Greene, Paternoster 2003, 434pp., £19.99 pb.
In both scope and ambition this is an impressive book, from the (until recently) Head of Theology and Public Policy at the Bible Society. Its aim is to show how the Church’s Christology has repeatedly become marooned amidst the varying forces of cultural history, and to indicate how a more authentic Christology might emerge from the current cultural change associated with the move into postmodernity.
The early and rather brief discussion of patristic Christology struck me as the weakest section of the book, with too much dependence upon some unreliable secondary works. Is the concept of logos the key to Nicene and Chalcedonian Christology, and as such heavily dependent upon Platonism? From Irenaeus to Athanasius one arguably sees more fundamentally a reconstruction of earlier Logos Christology, in terms of the eternal Sonship of Christ, and in the process a transformation of Platonic categories.
Colin Greene is more convincing when he tackles the themes of the Enlightenment, and post-Enlightenment theology. Through a detailed, if sometimes rather breathless, discussion of major figures from Descartes and Kant to Troeltsch and Bultmann and thence the ‘new quest’ for the historical Jesus, he shows how easily Christology accommodated to modern views of history, with its myths of explanation and progress. In the process the older dialogue with philosophy became rather lost to view, a matter which grieved the late Donald Mackinnon. Yet it is interesting that although this book refers generously to the prophets of postmodernism, there is no reference to Mackinnon, and only cursory mention of Wittgenstein.
An important chapter is devoted to Karl Barth, which builds in particular upon the recent work by Bruce McCormack. Barth’s great strength, according to Greene, is that he saw through the self-centred character of modern culture, and vowed to base theological understanding solely upon the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. According to taste, this has been labelled as subjectivism, idealism or fideism, but, with Barth, Greene asserts that all knowledge of God must be secured in the objectivity, if mystery, of a God who genuinely reveals himself. Election and incarnation are two sides of the coin which might be envisaged as the open hub of the complex wheel of theological knowledge. In modern theology, Barth is the original anti-foundationalist, in that the foundation of theological knowledge can only rest in God himself.
Greene concludes that ‘Barth is now a real force to be reckoned with in the postmodern world. He does appear to have almost unwittingly anticipated some of the main criticisms and objections of postmodern theory to the modernity project’. His failure was to leave theology isolated too much in a self-defining ecclesial culture. Moltmann tried to address these limitations, but in the process lost something of Barth’s clarity of focus, and continuity with the historic Christology of the church’s tradition.
The final chapter contains slightly elusive pointers to a Christology which is based upon an apocalyptic, eschatological, interpretation of cross and resurrection, as a kind of postmodern rupture of history, a definitive statement that only where the Spirit of the Lord acts can there be real freedom. This, according to Greene, provides the only Christian response to modernism and postmodernism alike.
This is a book with which scholars will surely need to reckon. The test, perhaps, is how this Christology will relate to the other loci of theology, and especially the doctrines of creation, and salvation, relationships which are largely ignored here.
A Time for Mission: The Challenge for Global Christianity, Samuel Escobar, Inter-Varsity Press, 2003, 192 pp., pb. £5.99.
The missionary context of today demands a combination of biblical faithfulness and openness to new patterns of mission. Samuel Escobar, a Peruvian Baptist in the Lausanne evangelical tradition, is well placed to expound this synthesis of biblical orthodoxy and methodological radicalism. His book is one of a series sponsored by Langham Literature which aims to publish literature written by Christians from the developing world and intended to reflect the southwards shift in the composition of Christianity. Escobar delineates four features of the contemporary context which are determinative for Christian mission.
The first is a redrawing of spiritual geography. The growth of the Church in Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia, has been paralleled by the secularization of Europe and ‘the paganization of North America’ (33). In consequence the ‘unreached peoples’ who have always stirred evangelical hearts are no longer to be found exclusively, or even primarily, in the non-western world: rather they are now headed by the denizens of ‘affluent postmodernity’ (75).
Second, Escobar has noticed that many of the churches that have taken the missionary context of the West most seriously do not conform to the denominational or even theological categories of the past. They retain some marks of traditional evangelical faith, notably a passion for evangelism, but in their cultural forms, structures and symbols reflect postmodern rather than modern assumptions. Theological identities, including evangelical ones, are thus being re-shaped.
Third, Escobar discusses globalization as the dominating economic framework for the world church today, just as formal western imperialism supplied the framework for mission in the nineteenth century. He eschews both the common sweeping rejection of globalization as intrinsically evil and the uncritical idolization of technological and economic efficiency characteristic of western society.
The fourth emphasis of the book is on the central role played by the poor in contemporary mission. As a result, evangelicals have been forced to rediscover a holistic approach to mission. There are issues here that deserve further exploration than Escobar gives. Prosperity theologies are the enemy of holistic mission since they promise miraculous and individualistic economic solutions to deep structural problems. Yet they offer an alluring attraction to the poor (153). There is also the problem of how international partnership in mission can operate when economic disparities between northern and southern Christians are widening. Escobar notes the difficulty, but has not discovered a resolution. Is there one?
2000 Years and Beyond: Faith, Identity and the 'common era', ed. Paul Gifford with D. Archard, T.A Hart & N. Rapport, Routledge, London & New York, 2003, 227 pp., £15.99 pb.
It seems hard now to take it seriously but there was a whiff of Millenarian hysteria in the run up to January 1, 2000. Predictions of chaos if computers crashed seem daft now but at the time there was a rush on tinned goods. Many refused to fly. This makes more striking the contrast between 1/01/00 and that other date that has put the fuss into perspective: 9/11/02. It is too soon to know what the collapse of the twin towers will mean but we can already guess it will be as significant as any date in the previous century. The contributors are not clairvoyants. But the plausibility of the editors’ claim to give an account of the future of faith should now be measured against the backdrop of Al Qaeda, Afghanistan and the grim ‘free-world’ response at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.
Jürgen Moltmann argues that humanity's way to the future has to begin from the destruction of the 19th century's optimism in human progress at the Somme and Auschwitz. John Gray’s bravura essay suggests the Enlightenment project is a relic of Christian monotheism which should be replaced by a genuinely naturalistic account of human good. Paul Ricoeur, at the end of his long life, has rediscovered his Huguenot roots and his rich essay is tinged with a sense of the durability and ‘abiding’ of Christian tradition. Richard Schacht wonders if there is anything other than a biological meaning to the idea of human nature. Drawing on Hume and Nietzsche he proposes ‘we’ are no longer merely animal animals. René Girard seeks the singularities of the Christian tradition by locating it in a fundamental account of human experience of the sacred. Anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff see in neo-Protestant new religious movements in Africa a renewal of the Weberian link between Protestant faith and capitalism. Anthony Thiselton asks if the gap between the world(s) of the biblical writers and the Bible’s modern readers are too far apart to permit meaningful communication. He concludes that many supposedly new post-modern issues are known and addressed in the New Testament. A lengthy concluding discussion between the book’s editors tries to bring coherence to the book but tends to repeat and compress what was said better in the original contributions.
With only three references to Islam the book’s claim to investigate faith in a 'fast-globalizing world', at first glance, looks overblown. But it marks the second millennium since Christ’s birth and it is reasonable to ask if "the modern, secularised West" has "outgrown its originating faith matrix". Few collections can put such intellectual talent on display and I’d have paid the money for Gray, or Ricoeur or Girard alone.
Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture, Frances M. Young, Hendrickson, 2002, pp. 325, £17.99.
This is a reprint, with no significant changes, of an important book Professor Frances Young published several years ago. It brings together concerns that have long exercised her over the interpretation of Scripture in the patristic period. This is an area in which there has been intense controversy since the revival of patristic learning in the first half of the last century. It was a controversy that was far from 'academic': the advocacy of 'typology' (notably by Jean Cardinal Daniélou) was linked to concern for liturgical reform and a recovery of the way biblical symbolism had shaped, and expressed itself through, liturgical symbolism. The influential liturgical office of Taizé and the liturgical reforms of the Roman Catholic Church in the wake of Vatican II were alike influenced by the attempt to rediscover a patristic understanding of Scripture. The very contemporary relevance of what might have been an academic debate meant that modern preoccupations guided the analysis of the patristic exegesis.
Professor Young's guiding principle is that we should look at how early Christians interpreted Scripture, and points to the overwhelming influence of the educational system of late antiquity, which was essentially concerned with interpreting 'classical' texts, especially Homer and Vergil. In the light of this influence, differences between different patristic ‘schools’ dissolve, and we realize that the very fact of interpreting the scriptures by the methods used to interpret classical texts inevitably turns the bible into a 'classic', inaugurating a 'Christian' culture, in contrast to the 'pagan' culture, the hermeneutical tools of which the Christians were using.
Since the book was first published, the debate has been taken further, notably in two works by David Dawson concerned with what he calls the ‘figural reading’ of Scripture, and also in the Cambridge History of Early Christian Literature, just published, of which Young was one of the general editors.
Nonetheless, this book sets out an approach that promises to transform the study of patristic exegesis, and at the same time helps us to understand what was involved in the engagement with the scriptures—both at the liturgical and the individual level—that lay at the heart of Christian life, as the Fathers understood it.
The Message of Mission, Howard Peskett & Vinoth Ramachandra, Inter-Varsity Press, 2003, 288pp., £9.99 pb.
This is a most refreshing book on a vital theme that runs throughout the whole of Scripture. The message of mission in Scripture is examined through a detailed study of seven Old Testament and eight New Testament passages. Some of these passages are a few verses while others are several chapters long.
The book is co-authored by Howard Peskett, now Vice-Principal of Trinity College, Bristol and formerly an OMF missionary in S.E.Asia, with Vinoth Ramachandra who is Secretary for Dialogue and Social Engagement with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students based in Sri Lanka. This East-West partnership works well as they engage in missiological exploration of a wide range of issues from their chosen texts.
They clearly state that "this book is a book of Bible expositions, not a mission-strategy document." However all mission executives from any part of the world would do well to ponder the themes and issues that are explored in a creative and challenging way. This book will also inform and encourage all expositors and preachers as to the breadth depth and height of mission in Scripture. "Mission" is defined widely to incorporate a vital range of issues that come from an examination of the text of Scripture.
The book is divided into four sections entitled – world horizons; the international purpose of God; three-in-one mission; and doxology. It incorporates a host of themes including - ethical proclamation; the relationship between compassion, justice and human rights; transformational ministry; creation praise; mission begins with an explosion of joy; great cities in need of God; mission as the overflow of joy and energy given by the Holy Spirit.; and many more. It ends with a useful study-guide for personal or group use.
Both authors draw widely from other writers throughout the ages, as well as comparing and contrasting Christian mission from other world religions and philosophies. They do so with sensitivity and clarity while confidently expounding how God has revealed Himself uniquely through the Scriptures to the world through Jesus Christ. Their expressed desire that Jesus Christ be glorified more and more in the church and in the world is certainly one that shines throughout the book. They have written a readable and engaging book that provides many insights and challenges to all involved in contemporary mission at local, national or global levels.
I heartily commend this study to all engaged in mission with God as it will provide a Biblical refresher course as you re-examine the truth of Scripture for yourself. May that lead to the blessing of the world and the glory of God.
Truth and Scripture: Challenging Underlying Assumptions, Brenda Watson, Aureus, 2004, 207pp., £15.99 pb. (e-mail email@example.com)
Professor Roger Trigg writes 'This important, stimulating and timely book lays bare the basic assumptions that are often built in to different approaches to Biblical interpretation. Whilst discouraging any irrational dogmatism, it helps us to question the hidden presuppositions of Biblical scholarship…' Dr Richard Jones writes that the book 'merits very careful study by preachers and all concerned to hear the Word of God in our day.' Dr Watson's roles have included Director of the Farmington Institute for Christian Studies in Oxford.
This issue's contributors
Ian Cowley is an author and vicar of Yaxley and Holme with Conington, in the Diocese of Ely
Stanley Davies is Executive Director of Global Connections
Peter Forster is Bishop of Chester
Andrew Louth is Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies, University of Durham
Stephen Plant is Senior Tutor at Wesley House, Cambridge
Brian Stanley is Director of the Henry Martyn Centre for the Study of Mission and World Christianity, Cambridge
Chris Sunderland is Co-ordinator of AGORA
Newsletter 41 (Autumn '04)
Liquid Church for Liquid Modernity?
The title 'postmodernity' is applied often to changing Western society today. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, however, has offered another title: 'liquid modernity'.1
Bauman explains in the following way. The rise of modern society transformed a medieval world in which traditional culture and religion had carried final authority over human life. Responsibility for this transformation was placed in the hands of new authorities - the nation-state and its public bureaucracies. One set of 'solid' institutions was replaced by another, 'better' set. Today, Bauman says, these modern authorities in turn are being subverted, but not as part of a search for better still 'solid' structures; rather society itself is becoming fluid and changing. Modernity is becoming 'liquid'.
Pete Ward argues that liquid modernity calls for a liquid church. 'To be liquid church means that we are able to combine with water to become fluid, changeable, flexible and so on. We need to embrace and internalise the liquid nature of culture'.2
Change and the Church
The Church is called here to conceive itself in new, flexible ways responsive to a fluid society. Pete Ward's book is itself one of a flood of books being published these days on the need for change in the Church. The question is, what kind of church reflects the fluidity of the Spirit? It is one thing for the Church to engage people 'where they are at' in culture; it is quite another, to 'go with the flow'. Can we tell the difference?
Change is certainly a challenge for the Church today. The core challenge, however, is this: can the Church show flexibility in pursuing faithfulness? Can it pursue faithful change?
35 years ago Lesslie Newbigin wrote:
'We are at the beginning of a period in which organised structures of society are being broken up, accepted patterns of behaviour overturned, venerable axioms disputed… It is easy to say that the current ecclesiastical structures are inadequate for such a time and that we need new, varied and flexible structures. But it is also easy - very easy - to go on from this to a whole series of futile essays in assimilation and adaptation by which the Church loses its own authentic being and message… We have to look forward to a time when Christians have to bear witness from within a great variety of new and changing human groupings which are being shaped by all kinds of violent and often contrary forces. If they are to do this it is not only necessary - negatively - to set loose to the forms of church life inherited from the past: it is even more necessary - positively - to strengthen mightily these things by which alone the Church lives as an ordered society within a disordered world.' Central to the search for relevant forms for such a pluriform church, he writes, is 'strength, not weakness, in the elements from which the forms are wrought'. This requires the 'deepening of the personal experience of every member of the reality and power of the Holy Spirit'.3
Depth and direction
To emphasise the deepening of experience, understanding and equipping among Christian people is not to resist change but to seek direction and discernment from the Spirit for such change. Most certainly today such deepening will involve immersion in 'liquid' modernity; more fundamentally, however, it will involve deeper immersion in the Gospel which breaks open to new possibilities, the mould in which liquid modernity flows.
For although liquid is in the first instance free-flowing, its flow is constrained by the channels in which it runs. The Gospel should alert us to the mould in which liquid modernity runs. What Bauman calls the 'solid' stage of modernity was already dynamic, but it was cast in a certain mould. It was committed, not to a particular, 'solid' form of society as an end in itself, but to a particular vision of the way of social progress. The modernisation of society is a particular process, a trajectory pointing society in a particular direction. The scope of this process (in which the Gospel helps us to recognise distortions and inner contradictions) has expanded greatly in our age.
In what direction does the 'modern' vision point society? Central, historically, has been the guiding vision of 'Enlightenment presuppositions' of autonomy and critical reason increasingly disembedded from a Christian context. Increasingly dominant today is the mould created for the flow of goods in the free market: the economic rationalisation of global society. Bauman sees global powers, their interests and techniques, as driving liquid modernity. Related to this is the mass moulding of sentiment (as distinct from reasoning) described by Meštrovic4 and considered in the last newsletter. Another description of the mould in which free society flows today, introduced by David Lyon below, is Alan Bryman's account of 'Disneyization'.
The calling of the Church
Theological discernment is required towards the vision, presuppositions and forces directing the flux of modernity today. Vinoth Ramachandra writes: 'In our technology- and market-driven environment, the real theological challenges are being faced by our children and by Christians who are at the cutting edge of scientific and medical research, or who are engaging with new artistic media thrown up by the communications revolution, or who are caught up in the complex arenas of economic modelling and social policy, are asking questions of a profound theological character that professional theologians need to address. It is they who should be setting the agenda for our theological schools. Is it too late to envision a theological fraternity in every nation, indeed every city, that encompasses such folk and their work? If the Church is to be true to its calling, theology needs to be taken out of our seminary classrooms, even our church buildings, and into the boardrooms, urban council meetings, research laboratories and national newspapers.'5
If 'liquid church' is to be church faithful in its calling, this requires theological reflection by Christians who are both immersed in liquid modernity and who, within this setting, are culturally self-aware and self-critical because immersed in the deep currents of God-given life and thought. More such theological reflection is needed; where already done well it needs to be better known and appreciated; and resistance to this in the secular media needs further attention as a mission task.
'Much is now being said about evangelism; but before we get effective evangelism, we have to get effective evangelists. Evangelism is useless unless it is the work of one devoted to God, willing and glad to suffer all things for God, penetrated by the attractiveness of God. New machinery, adaptations and adjustments, are not the first need… but more devoted, adoring, sacrificial souls.'
Evelyn Underhill, 'The Priest's Life of Prayer'
In a Theme Park World
Alan Bryman defines 'Disneyization' as 'a process by which the principles of the Disney theme parks are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as the rest of the world.'2 He isolates four aspects within this process. In the passage below, David Lyon outlines these four aspects. They invite the question: how does the Gospel engage with these dominating principles? How might the Church work with them in ways which embody the Gospel, and where must the Church shun them in order boldly to present a Christian alternative?
The first aspect is "theming" which can of course be found in many contexts not directly touched by Disney. Thus cafes and bars may be themed, along with hotels and shopping malls. Well-known examples include the Hard Rock Café and the Subway outlets. Theming lends coherence to a site, giving it a story line. Theming creates connections and thereby gives a particular ambience to a complete environment. Today, that environment may be physical, at a permanent theme park site. But may also by virtual. All computer users have become aware of particular kinds of "environments" that are themed in idiosyncratic ways, the "Mac" environment, or the "Netscape" one, and so on. Theming may be seen as postmodern surrogates for narratives (even "metanarratives") which, however fragmentary or temporary, tell tales within which lives may be located.
Bryman's second aspect is the "dedifferentiation of consumption". This technical term refers to ways that "forms of consumption associated with different institutional spheres become interlocked with each other and increasingly difficult to distinguish." It is a breaking down of conventional cultural differences between kinds of consumption and between consuming and other activities. In the World Showcase of the EPCOT Center, visitors to Disneyland think they are sampling cultures from around the world, whereas in reality they are entering a thinly disguised shopping area. Conversely, sites where one expects to shop seem to spawn attractions. You can find rides and leisure zones within shopping malls. Airports and train stations provide evidence of the same phenomenon. Authentic crafts and current CDs can be bought, haircuts and massages obtained, tickets bought and checked. Increasingly, then, in more and more daily life contexts, one may expect to consume across a broad range of items. Such dedifferentation accentuates the consumer culture, in which consumption becomes an order of life. The dedifferentiated environment privileges consumer outlooks and consumer skills.
Thirdly, Disneyization means merchandising. Images and logos are used to promote goods for sale, or are themselves for sale. The parks are both places where such merchandise is sold and the source of images and logos. Likewise the films are a source of images and logos that appear on merchandise, sometimes even before a film has been released. Many others, from sports teams to universities, have learned the Disneyesque techniques and advantages of merchandising. From our point of view, merchandising points up the power of an image, both in its own right and as something than can be bought. Merchandising also refers to itself and thus connects with a more general trend towards self-referentiality, which is a prime component of the post-modern. A recent example of this is the picture of the classic Coke bottle that appears on Coke cans, to reassure imbibers that it is the "real thing."
Fourthly, Disneyization involves emotional labour. Rather as McDonald's restaurants attempt to control the ways their employees view themselves and how they feel, so the Disney Corporation encourages scripted interactions using its staff. Theme park employees are well know for their smiling friendliness and helpfulness. Disney employees are supposed to give the impression that they are having fun too and not really working. This focus on the self, and how the self is expressed, is again a feature of the postmodern. The modes of self expression in postmodern times relate to the religious realm in interesting ways.
Bryman explores the possibility that while McDonaldization exudes some very modern features associated with bureaucratic organization, Disneyization portends a shift into the postmodern. Disneyization spells consumerism and a concern with the sign value of goods, with style and identity projects. Disneyization breaks down differences, is depthless, and deals in cultivated nostalgia and in playfulness about reality. These are certainly themes that I think are deeply significant, both for the worlds of Disney and for the worlds of the postmodern. How far these features are affecting - and are affected by - contemporary religious spheres remains to be seen….
CLEAR THE DEBT
I've just taken out my second credit card. I was offered O% on balance transfers plus 15.9% APR as well as a free personal CD player. That could be helpful I thought, as there are some big expenses coming up over the next few months. And so I am proceeding along what potentially could be a slippery slope. It certainly is for many people. This week a local man took his own life after running up nearly £100,000 of debt on a large range of credit cards.
Fortunately I was brought up on the virtues of frugality and the dangers of hire purchase. I hate paying interest and will avoid it if at all possible. But for many people, and for many families, debt is a big problem. The hidden persuaders all around us say that debt is OK. As Christians we should be promoting a very different message. Yet how often is the subject of personal debt addressed in our churches?
My understanding is that the Bible does not tell us that debt is a sin, but it does say that debt is foolish and dangerous. Proverbs 22:7 says, "The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender." Proverbs also repeatedly warns against becoming a surety for the debts of others. It is wise to steer well clear of personal debt, and if we have debts, to clear them as soon as possible.
One of the most telling sermons I have heard in my own church was preached by a local businessman on the subject of personal debt and what to do about it. I suspect that we should be hearing much more on this issue in our congregations. Surely this is a highly relevant subject in our consumer-centred culture, and one which directly affects the lives of more Christian people than we might want to believe.
Beyond what limits? Stem cell research, abortion and euthanasia
The Act of Parliament which introduced legal abortion to Britain in 1968 permitted abortion where there was 'risk of injury to the mental health of the woman'. This opened the door to what is today virtually 'abortion on demand': 500 abortions are now performed daily in England and Wales (nearly a quarter of all conceptions) and the number is still rising.
Initially following the Abortion Act, if anyone protested against the practice of abortion they would be thought probably to be Roman Catholics. It was over twenty years later that, when parliament debated what became the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, the annual conference of the Evangelical Association of the Church of England expressed opposition. Since then evangelical organisations such as CARE have become committed in opposing opposition and caring for women wanting to exercise the freedom to reject this choice. In 2002 - after thirty-five years - the General Synod of the Church of England reached the point of passing a motion calling on the government to 'bring in urgent legislation to restrict the abuses of the Abortion Act'.
During the last WCC conference he attended, Lesslie Newbigin joined in two minutes silence in the old slave market at Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. In that silence, he later reported, 'I thought first how unbelievable that Christians could have connived in that inhuman trade. And then there came to my mind the question: Will it not be the case that our great-grandchildren will be equally astonished at the way in which we in our generation, in our so-called modern, Western, rich, developed culture, connive at the wholesale slaughter of unborn children in the name of the central idol of our culture: freedom of choice?'1
Today attention has turned increasingly to putting to use human life in its earliest stages, in embryonic stem-cell research. Now legalised, the first license for such research in the U.K. has been recently granted. Meanwhile attention is being given (once again!) to allowing the termination of life at the other end of the human span: Lord Joffe has made a new bid for the legalisation of 'assisted dying', which is to say, assisted suicide.
The value of a human life is, for Christians, the value of one made in the image of God and for whom the ultimate gift and promise of God in Christ is named life. Such eternal life is a blessed choice urged upon humankind by God. It reflects God's own choice of life for each one of us - God's choice given unqualified expression in Jesus Christ. It is a choice which, whenever and insofar as we make it for ourselves and pursue it for others, is already an intimation of that that life within us.
This connection between choice and life affects how we see the choice to terminate one's own human life or that of another. It alerts us to beware of making an idol of choice detached from the life which is God's choice for us, and which is reflected in our human life.
When does choice become an idol in this way? With regard to euthanasia, it will certainly become an idol if ever the obligation to nurture the life of a fellow human-being is seen as set aside unless that person has made a choice for life. To make a person's 'choice to live' the whole basis of our responsibility towards them in this way would undermine the actual reality of their right to life, deriving from the intention of God. In so doing it would abandon them to possible pressure to choose death. Our choice of this would prove evil: the right to choose death will subvert the right to life.
With regard to abortion and embryonic stem-cell research, similarly, the choice for life is foundational. From the moment of conception an unborn child needs only the normal environment of the womb to develop and survive as a human being. Dependence upon a normal environment remains lifelong for a person (viz. ambient temperature, air, food, and diverse acts of support by other human beings). The choice for life concerns itself with such needs; for the first nine months of life, however, a mother has a unique responsibility towards the life of her child. This is not a responsibility or choice fundamentally different from other choices for life.
Certainly there arise extreme and distressing situations from time to time where the choice for life makes great demands of one kind or another, and where limited medical skills and social resources make difficult decisions necessary. And our society is at risk of losing the capacity for weighty moral reflection demanded by such situations. Alasdair MacIntyre has lamented the reduction of moral discourse to the incommensurate rhetoric of individual rights on the one hand and of utilitarian ethics on the other.2 As Christians we need to pursue and promote a constructive, coherent alternative, rooting the right of choice within God's overwhelming choice of life for us.3
The Catholic Agency to Support Evangelisation
Introduced by CASE worker Philip Knights
The Catholic Agency to Support Evangelisation (CASE) began in September 2003 and we were formally launched in April 2004. The origins of CASE lie in a combinations of historical, practical, pastoral and theological impulses. The future of Catholic Missionary Society had been discussed for many years and it was decided that this should be succeeded by a new body. This would have a new status (as an Agency of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales), maintain some continuity (through The Catholic Enquiry Office and maintaining the existing ecumenical commitments) and introduce some change (especially in the decision to move away from organising parish missions and to take on new kinds of work).
This new body would be able to respond to the need for a ‘New Evangelisation’. This need is not only for a revived emphasis on the proclamation of the Gospel, but also for its proclamation in a new setting where the Gospel has been long proclaimed and the Church established but there has been an apparent loss of Christian memory and a rise of religious indifference. Pope John Paul II has sought to initiate a change of culture in the world-wide Catholic Church: ‘I sense that the moment has come to commit all the Church’s energies to a new evangelisation.’ (Redemptoris Missio 3). CASE has been created to catalyse just such an outward looking change of culture in the Catholic Church in England and Wales. This ‘New Evangelisation’ is to be ‘new in its ardour, new in its methods, and new in its means of expression.’ (Pope John Paul II to Bishops of Latin America, Haiti, 1983). Our agency seeks to enthuse the Catholic community to undertake this task, to engage with contemporary culture and to equip people to live, celebrate and share the Good News of Jesus.
The Bishops have given CASE a remit:
It is worthwhile examining here some more of the specific ‘Faith and Culture’ elements of this remit. CASE is obliged to be two-faced! Not in the sense of being duplicitous, but because we must face both the world and the Church. We must take the cultures we meet seriously and engage with them with respect and in a spirit of dialogue. Pope Paul VI wrote: ‘The split between the Gospel and culture is without a doubt the drama of our time’ (Evangelii Nuntiandi 20). This has, at least in Europe, become even more dramatic over the last thirty years. This demands that we ask a whole series of questions: What are the meaning systems and values which inform the cultures we meet? Why are people disconnected from the Gospel? What signs of grace can we discern in the world today? What symbols and signs are present which we might ‘baptize’? What opportunities are there for us to listen to contemporary cultures? How can we communicate between the horizons of where people are and where we have journeyed as Church? What have we to say which is meaningful for a contemporary audience?
However, as well as engaging in dialogue, CASE is also charged with providing resources for the Church. We are beginning to amass a portfolio of material: articles, lectures, contacts and ideas. We are running (normally with partners) workshops, publishing information and analysis, and hosting seminars. Our websites and newsletters contain ‘faith and culture’ reflections and we count it a priority to work with other Christians as we grapple with the issues of the moment.
Amongst our specific areas of interest are the analysis of major cultural trends such as Post-Modernism, Religious Indifference and Multiculturalism. We are reflecting on cultural products from both popular and ‘high’ culture; we are committed to dialogue in specific areas, not least in the areas of science, civil society, social work and the voluntary welfare sector; we are following developments in connected academic disciplines including theology, sociology and anthropology; and we are examining issues in society which impinge on Christian mission such as violence, poverty, and ‘lifestyles’. One area of major interest for us is contemporary spirituality, from which we wish to learn but to which we feel we have resources to contribute.
CASE websites may be visited at: www.caseresources.org.uk; www.life4seekers.co.uk
Railing against postmodernity
Meic Pearseon Francis Wheen's How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions, Fourth Estate, 2004, 352 pp., £16.99 hb.
The advent of postmodern society, that phenomenon now so widely remarked upon that it stands in danger of becoming tedious, has certainly divided some of the old houses against themselves. Political conservatism, for example, has for many a long year been less concerned with the defence of monarchy, the class system and traditional social furniture than it is with advancing the freedom of the individual to be a self-obsessed consumer and with getting government off our backs. Evangelicals are now divided between those who insist upon modernist language such as ‘moral absolutes’, ‘absolute truth’ and so on, and postmoderns who try to push each worship session to a crescendo of emotional orgasm, or who bang on about ‘relationality’ and ‘empathy’.
Well, just because the political-social left has been so good at making all the postmodern denials (of traditional morality, of culture, or of meaning) part of its natural territory doesn’t mean that there aren’t some on the left who are feeling jolly uncomfortable with it all. For such stranded souls, the death of socialism and of materialist, dogmatic atheism really hurts. And it’s not just the dinosaurs like Arthur Scargill and his Really-Really-Socialist Party (or whatever it’s called) who are appalled at the tidal wave of luvvie-ness that has engulfed the formerly rationalist, iconoclastic, no-nonsense left.
Francis Wheen is one of these agonised individuals. He sees himself, probably correctly, as a man of the Enlightenment. And all around him he sees the rise of cranky, New Age tomfoolery threatening to undo the progress of the previous two centuries towards a scientific, secular society. So, in his new book, he treats us to scornful accounts of Tony and Cherie Blair’s ‘rebirthing experience’ while on holiday in Mexico; of the Reagans’ reliance on astrologers; the ever-rising market for books about Nostradamus and the apparent imperviousness of his reputation to repeated disproof; the bizarre and frantic anxieties with which workers at Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory have to deal among determinedly terrified members of the public every time there is a close configuration of the planets. And so on.
Everywhere I took Wheen’s How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World (onto trains, into cafés, into a waiting room at the U.S. Embassy), complete strangers would crane their necks to get a better view of the earnest-looking lunatic wearing the bright yellow duckling costume. And no, that’s not me; it was the front cover. Honest.
Eye-catching dust-jackets apart, there is certainly plenty about Wheen’s book that is, as they say, arresting. He is highly entertaining, writing easily and fluently, bringing flashes of illumination to a wide range of subjects.
But that range is, in a way, part of the book’s problem. His subtitle is "A Short History of Modern Delusions" - a clear indication that the reader is about to inhale an unabashed diatribe. And that’s fine too, of course. However, the temptation for anyone writing in this vein is to rope together all of the things about the contemporary world which really get up the writer’s nose, put them in a bundle and then - presto! - claim that they are all somehow part of the general phenomenon selected for attack. (Dear reader, I speak whereof I know; I have but recently perpetrated a slim volume of indubitably diatribinous nature. And though - in the nature of the case - I should insist that I myself have successfully resisted the temptation to which I refer, there are those who may beg to differ. The reviewer I most fear is the one who re-christens Why the Rest Hates the West as "Why Pearse Hates the West".)
And, alas! I judge Wheen to have succumbed. Whatever one’s views about economic policy, it is not at all clear that belief in the free market and the ‘trickle-down’ effect is on a par with trusting in the power of crystals, an obsession with UFOs or claims to have seen Elvis. Yet Wheen endeavours to make it so. A number of his other targets have less to do with real mumbo-jumbo-ness or New-Age fruit-cakery than with intellectual or political trends that offend him as a man of the left. American foreign policy over the past forty years or so gets a thorough working over; it is shown to have been inconsistent, hypocritical and, in its encouragement and then betrayal of various rebel movements around the world, utterly perfidious. No doubt the exposure to public ridicule and contempt is well deserved. All the same, it is by no means apparent that incompetent attempts to follow the counsels of Machiavelli constitute postmodern mumbo-jumbo.
And, of course, the atheist Wheen endeavours to bring religious belief within his field of fire. This is a shame. Even if the present reviewer could become a ‘functional agnostic’ for the purposes of this article, the very most that could be conceded is that certain kinds of Christians (the inconsistent Blairs, perhaps, or some of the more far-out charismatics of the deliverance-ministering, spiritual-mapping variety) had indeed succumbed to what Wheen calls ‘mumbo-jumbo’. But, of course, he cannot be content to leave it at that. His problem is with the persistence (or rather, the resurgence) of religious belief tout court.
This is a major problem for the entire enterprise of his book. His professed task is to show how some wide phenomenon (‘mumbo-jumbo’) has taken hold recently - at how it has ‘conquered the world’. But in attacking Christian fundamentalism or Islamist resurgence - even though they are more recent forms of those faiths than their defenders would ever admit - he is railing at the defence mechanisms of pre-Enlightenment systems of belief, not at some new, irrationalist tomfoolery.
This book is a very good, lively guide to the beliefs and grudges of Francis Wheen. And, if that sounds a sniffy judgement, his hopes and grudges are not entirely to be sniffed at. But, in his dogged adherence to the Enlightenment project long after some of its central tenets have become worn at the edges, he shows that he, too, is not entirely beyond a little mumbo-jumbo of his own.
The Logic of Renewal, William J Abraham, SPCK, 2003, 176 pp., £12.99.
This is an unusual book. Because I enjoyed The Logic of Evangelism I looked forward to this latest work and was not disappointed though it is a very different kind of book.
Abraham’s concern is, as the title suggests, the renewal of the church. His method in approaching this difficult topic is to compare and contrast 6 pairs of thinkers who, Abraham believes come from similar avenues of thought but each of whom represents radically different visions and solutions for the renewal of the church.
I have met five of the twelve personally and have some familiarity with their thought and with the thinking of several others. A few were entirely new to me. Abraham’s approach requires that he first presents an overview of the thought of each theologian in order that he might offer his own assessment of their contribution to the overall debate. His sketches are masterful and although one could quarrel with some small details overall they are fair and balanced. I particularly enjoyed touches such as the description of Spong as a kind of fundamentalist. To paraphrase Abraham, you can take the man out of fundamentalism but you can’t take fundamentalism out of the man.
As one might expect Abraham offers a meaty critique of the thinkers he reviews and although one might question the inclusion of Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero, the selection is generally well made, balanced and imaginative. These are people with substantial viewpoints who have and are impacting the church in the West. Abraham’s own insights contained in the final chapter are illuminating.
My one difficulty with the book is to wonder whether the real issue that we face in the west is truly one of the renewal of the church. Granted the church does need to continually review its life and witness in order to remain true to its nature and call but are we not in a more cataclysmic situation than merely the need for renewal? Would it not be more accurate to speak in terms of Bosch’s paradigm shifts in terms of the life of the church. Can renewal really equip the church to face a radical reshaping of its life which is potentially much more far reaching?
Having raised this objection it is still the case that some key issues raised by Abraham are pertinent to the debate. He is surely correct to point out that those who advocate a liberal accommodation to culture offer no hope to the church while those who seek to embrace a broadly orthodox, catholic and credal approach, do. At its most basic the Cupitts and Spongs of this world always proselytise and do not evangelise. They are always parasitic in terms of the church precisely because they rely on those of a more substantial Christian faith to evangelise to enable them to proselytise.
Invading Secular Space: Strategies for Tomorrow's Church, Martin Robinson & Dwight Smith, Monarch, 2003, 221pp., £7.99 pb.
This book outlines, in bold brush strokes, the challenges facing the 21st century church in the West. And it does it well. Aimed primarily at the church-leader with limited time for reading, the authors set out to give an overview of how the church in the West has got to where it has, and what might need to be done to begin reversing some of the processes of evident decline. ‘The new . . . missionary paradigm that beckons to us,’ they write, ‘necessitates a shift from institution to movement, from structures that invite people into sacred space to an infectious spirituality that invades secular space’ (p.109). The shape of this ‘paradigm shift’ is described in historical, contemporary and future dimensions. The first chapters map the development of the ‘Christendom’ model of church and state (and describe the accompanying ‘mindset’ which still largely informs the outlook of the contemporary church). The central section offers biblical and contemporary reflections on the kind of leadership that the church must model more effectively if it is to take forward God’s missionary strategy into the contemporary world. The book concludes by promoting a radical church-planting strategy as one means of breaking out of our present missional boundaries.
The authors’ tone throughout is positive and constructive, and though this book is not unique in the kind of material that it covers, there is enough that is fresh – both in terms of analysis and practical insight – to welcome its publication. If used wisely, it will surely encourage and equip churches to engage in some serious reflection and ‘change-management’ in response to the crucial issues raised. (To this end, perhaps some questions for group discussion at the end of each chapter would have further enhanced its usefulness.)
The book also hints at the kind of work that is still to be done. If the weight of its material heads down some relatively well-trodden (but nonetheless necessary) paths of ecclesiastical renewal and multiplication, there are also hints towards other kinds of engagement which beg further exploration. What began to feed my imagination, for example, was the material in chapter 3 about the societal context in which significant revival has been experienced in past centuries. Though clearly beyond the scope of human ‘management’, these periods of growth nonetheless presume a level of cultural engagement which the church is presently struggling to regain – whatever its inner dynamic. Martin Robinson mentions in the introduction that he is engaged in a book on this wider subject of societal transformation. Whilst valuing this present contribution therefore, we may eagerly await the fruits of these further labours.
Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World, Richard Bauckham, Paternoster Press, 2003, 112 pp., £5.99 pb.
For any seeking a fresh mandate for the mission of the Church in the West's postmodern climate, this slight book by the Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of St Andrews will be compelling reading. It will appeal more to mission executives and supporters with an enquiring mind than to the general public; its arguments will have maximum leverage with those who generally embrace an evangelical theology.
Bauckham picks up the postmodern appreciation off the particular rather than the universal and of diversity rather than uniformity, and argues eloquently from both Old and New Testaments that this reflects how God's purposes in creation and redemption are in fact worked out. God's mission from the beginning has been a movement from the particular to the universal. This is amply demonstrated from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Bauckham argues that while the concept of mission may not be found as such in the Old Testament, the foundation for all missiology rests squarely on the theology of the Old Testament.
Of special significance is the way he addresses the dilemma presented by the postmodern rejection of metanarratives (as overall explanations of the world and its meaning concealing their true character as projects of domination) in relation to the essential metanarrative of the biblical story at the heart of the Christian faith. He is careful to distinguish between metanarratives of modernity (whether Marxism or materialism) on the one hand, which are universalising tools of one or other form of Western domination, and the biblical story on the other hand as a 'non-modern metanarrative' which respects the integrity of the local ('the particular') within the context of a universal truth.
In his final chapter Bauckham also takes a helpful, hard look at globalization as an increasingly dominant feature of the contemporary world which reaches well beyond the West, and he examines how this impinges on the call of the Church to witness to the truth of God in Christ.
This issue's contributors
Ian Cowley is an author and vicar of Yaxley and Holme with Conington, in the Diocese of Ely
Brian Carrell is retired Assistant Bishop of Wellington, New Zealand
Philip Knights works with The Catholic Agency to Support Evangelisation
David Lyon is Professor of Sociology at Queens University, Richmond, Canada
Meic Pearse is Associate Professor of History at Houghton College, New York, and the author of Why the Rest Hates the West
Martin Robinson is National Director of Together in Mission
Paul Weston is an Associate Lecturer at Ridley Hall, Cambridge