Newsletter 42 (Spring '05)
Telling a truer story
‘How could God allow it?’: the angry question on so many lips this Christmas as people unused to god talk tried to articulate the enormity of the tsunami horror. The PR woman I had drinks with, a lapsed Catholic who’d listened to Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor on the radio, found his answers wanting. Furious with him, she kept hitting the table and just repeating the question over and over.
I suggested that all great suffering feels like a tsunami wave crashing in on your puny life; and talked about my mother’s suicide. We discussed Job whose family was wiped out by a typhoon and re-discovered God – and his precious part in it - precisely through the immensity of creation. Nothing was hitting the spot. Then I quoted Jim Wallis on Hiroshima as I had done in intercessions on Sunday, provoking tears in some in the congregation: ‘Jesus was there. Jesus was the central victim. Jesus would be there with every father, mother, and terrified child in thousands of infernos. What was done to them was done to him.’
The bright hubbub of middle-class opinionating immediately drained away. The name went off rudely over the olives and cocktail morceaux like a party popper, stunning everyone: the Scottish Enterprise executive, the Jewish lawyer, the teacher. And the penny slowly dropped for the PR woman – who had been bold enough to bring God into the conversation in the first place - that Christianity’s central character had had no place in her reaction to the tsunami.
Public discourse has excluded the Christ of God, and meaning and challenge are absent from our conversation. Most people now have nothing to bolster them when things go wrong: they pack their bags and lug their poor kids and their ungrown souls to Australia for ‘a better life’.
Foucault taught that the episteme of our time – the system of possible discourse – is always the product of a structure of exclusion. The episteme is how a society comes to identify itself. In our case that episteme is secular, despite 72% ticking the ‘Christian’ box on their census form. The church has largely gone along with this, and its language has become thin and useless because it no longer identifies itself with incarnate love and struggle: with real stuff. The Church of England has become just an anachronistic aspect of the power game of Britain plc because power and the love of it undermines our ability to witness, making us cautious and afraid of rivals.
PR guru George Pitcher, Anglican ordinand and author of the best-selling Death of Spin, says the Church over the past 25 years has been as much affected by spin as business and politics. ‘It has begun to concentrate on how it looks, what its image is, what its position on something is and how that reflects on it, rather than tackling the issues themselves.’ Pitcher, an award-winning former Observer Business Editor believes PR is about ‘issues management’; about starting an argument. ‘It’s out of arguments that progress and conclusions develop.’
The church’s mission is to argue with society, but only on the basis of credibility won from its work especially in the desperate places of the world. That work is too often invisible - and hence that credibility is not there either, so argument cannot commence.
This could change – with vision and investment and perhaps disestablishment. Many people identify our times as a kairos moment of realignments, new thoughts, new possibilities. And indeed postmodernism’s analytical tools are now being grasped by some in the church. Two projects seeking to subvert the dominant discourse – or rather re-invest it with content on their own terms - are seeking funding right now. One is the Bible Society’s Discourse Project, run by their Senior Parliamentary Officer, David Landrum, a Liverpudlian and recent convert who worships at a Pioneer Church. The other is Faithworks, founded by Anglo-Indian Baptist minister Steve Chalke. Both are ‘outsiders’, both are converts. It is easier to identify the discontinuities and silences within a discourse that already disempowers you.
Part of their answer is to find new ways of telling the story – so that a truer story is told by the media than is generally told about us now. Loony archbishops, abusive priests and a global row about sex give everyone the impression that the church is a sort of opinion factory run by dysfunctional men in dresses. It rarely occurs to any journalist that the church does something; that it incarnates the love of Jesus in actual bodily ways that transform hopelessness, build nations and liberate people miraculously from forms of enslavement – literal and habitual - that have no other redress. At CMS I tried telling some of these stories: the heroism of Northern Uganda’s church leaders became a compelling campaign to ‘Break the Silence’ commended in Parliament and contributing directly to the end of the 19-year war there. In 2007 the nation will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the end of the British slave trade – thanks to Evangelicals who were prepared to risk charges of treason and of bankrupting the Empire; a peg to tell stories of contemporary redemptions, and perhaps rehabilitate the bogey ‘e’ word into the bargain.
Telling the story is the mission for today’s valiant pioneers. It can be done. Religion is huge news today - and Christ incarnate is incomparably interesting. CMS stories were constantly in demand during my time there from 2001 to 2004: Radio 4’s Today programme carried two live interviews, one from Congo on a mobile phone!; the front page of the Guardian reported our comments on how the sex debate could jeopardise mission; the Times loved our Christmas cards made by deaf Tanzanian youngsters out of elephant dung; Woman’s Hour were struck by our openness discussing sex. Radio 5 Live, BBC TV, Channel 4 News, the World Service, News 24 all carried different stories, and several times - and we only spent £10,000 on it a year. For very little cost, we joined the national conversation; put our oar in; showed where we were central to some of the most pressing international issues and events of the day – and responded with alacrity and professionalism to requests for reaction.
But the spiritual and emotional demands of such participation are great, and can only be sustained with major long-term investment and committed support. It can be done. A truer story can be told.
1. Wallis, J., The Call to Conversion, 1982, p. 101.
2. Third Way, Winter issue 2004, p. 16.
Dr Jenny Taylor is a journalist and academic. She is a section editor forThird Way magazine.
Jenny Taylor and business partner Mike Holdsworth have set up LAPIDO MEDIA, a new consultancy whose name means ‘to speak up for’ in Acholi, the language of Northern Uganda – a scenario which has clearly demonstrated the creative role of the Church in international affairs. LAPIDO MEDIA draws on the skills and insights of academics, journalists and PR professionals to harness news values and media professionalism to the church’s mission in the UK and abroad.
Mockery, protest -
and the hope for more serious public debate
Concerted Christian protest over the televising of Jerry Springer - The Opera served, new departure that it was, to remind our society of an anomaly: it is deemed acceptable to make public mockery of Christianity although not of any other religion.
Why the anomaly?
The most positive explanation of this anomaly is that it reflects a healthy, good-humoured spirit of self-criticism in our Christian culture. This explanation is losing conviction as our culture drifts away from faith - although we do well to remind ourselves that many who dismiss or mock Christian faith today have themselves once belonged to churchgoing families.
Another explanation for the anomaly is that churchgoers are not generally enraged by mockery of their faith whereas people of other religions are, and that this makes the former mockery appear acceptable whereas the latter is not. The difference is real, although it should not be overstated. The question remains, however, why the difference?
Is it that churchgoers do not take seriously the dignity of God and his Son Jesus Christ, whereas people of other religions take seriously the dignity of what they hold sacred?
Is rather it that, on the contrary, churchgoers understand this dignity perfectly well, but understand also that it is their vocation to share the indignity which was first suffered by Christ himself, in witness to the dignity of God's forbearing love?
One reason for difference is surely social. People of other religions living in Britain, especially those who have immigrated here, easily feel threatened by public mockery in a way that churchgoers do not. They interpret it as a personal attack upon themselves and who they are.
Creating personal offense?
This interpretation reflects more than the social fact of their belonging to an immigrant group. It echoes the way differences of belief and practice are viewed and handled in our society today. Religion itself is seen as private property - something to which individuals have a right in their own private lives. This falls short of religious tolerance, of course. Tolerance is about forbearance in dispute over questions of right and wrong, truth and falsehood, in matters of shared or public concern. However, 'private' religion is attributed no such concerns in the first place. As private property, on the other hand, it is regarded as having a right to protection from violation by public mockery.
From debate to management
Such views, in turn, are part of a wider scene. Whenever people today find themselves drawn to particular concerns about right and wrong, truth and falsehood, and then join in action with others drawn to the same concerns, they are liable to find themselves treated as a 'pressure-group': they find their power managed, rather than their concerns seriously debated.That is to say, their public concern is treated as if driven by a ‘private agenda’. Private interests account for their activity. Similarly, whenever people challenge the beliefs or practices of a group of people, they are liable to find themselves treated as simply 'against' that group - treated as, say, anti-American, anti-semitic, islamophobic, or whatever - rather than heard as calling for serious pursuit of true beliefs and right practices.
Religious roots of tolerance
In such ways debate is stifled more widely than the realm of religion. It is too much to see this as deriving from the reduction of religion freedom itself from a matter of costly public tolerance to one of public indifference to private preference? Michael Polanyi has written of the religious roots of tolerance in England: 'It is true that tolerance was eventually achieved on the Continent as the outcome of growing indifference to religion. But the English doctrine of tolerance was established in the 17th century by the kind of people who would abandon their homes for the wilderness overseas rather than agree that the communion table in the village church should be moved to the eastern window. Tolerance in England was a religious doctrine' 1 He adds, 'In religious tolerance can be found the main origins of modern British democracy'. In contrast to this were developments on the Continent assuming a doctrinaire anti-religious quality to be embodied eventually in a materialist conception of public life exalting in brute power. We are reminded here of the historical provenance of Continental postmodern writers including Foucault.
Christian faith cannot be confined to a private enclave sealed off from public space. It represents a deeper context embracing, informing and enriching public life. For this reason, Christians can hardly complain that mockery of Christian faith is a violation of their private 'property' rights. Protest at such mockery is warranted, indeed; but our Christian protest is rather that the One we worship deserves the worship equally of those who mock. We urge that Christ the Son of God deserves serious attention and debate, rather than mockery. If this brings renewed mockery, the pain of this is the price we pay for witnessing to the public truth of our faith. Mockery of God may be painful to us, but it is not this pain we protest at.
Purpose beyond glasnost
Angus Macqueen, reviewing David Satter's book Darkness at Dawn in the Guardian Weekly, writes 'Russia has one of the lowest birth rates in the world and the death rate of a country at war. The capitalist shock therapy of the early 1990's caused a huge increase in the death rate. Some of it was caused by poverty, some by alcoholism. But David Satter quotes the head of Russia's State Centre for Prophylactic Medicine as saying that the critical reason was 'the spiritual condition of the Russian people' and the failure of the new society to provide a new purpose after the fall of communism'.
Back in 1998, Vaclac Havel, then President of the Czech Republic, wrote in the journal Civilisation: 'I have become increasingly convinced that the crisis of the much-needed global responsibility is in principle due to the fact that we have lost the certainty that the universe, nature, existence and our lives are the work of creation guided by a definite intention, that it has definite meaning and follows a definite purpose'.
Meanwhile here in Britain, what has recently been blamed for binge drinking and drug abuse among the young?: the failure of society to provide them with convincing purpose.
Societies which set out to appeal fundamentally to self-interest are missing something of great consequence..
FINDING OUR TRUE HOME
Part of this is about roots. My roots are in Africa because that is where I grew up. However, much of my cultural background is English and European. And I am a Christian, so I would say that my true citizenship is in heaven. The fact is that the world now is a place where people move around in a way that was unthinkable even fifty years ago. It is not easy for many of us to work out where we really belong. This means that it is doubly important that we find our true home in our inner sense of calling and identity. It also means that we should be generous in our acceptance of those who now share our cities and towns, our roads and schools and hospitals, who have, like many of us, come here after long and complex journeys.
On the public space offered to religion by the BBC
'The doors are open. The scene is set. Tonight I'd like to invite all of you in the religious communities to work with us to fill this space. To help us make programmes that inspire and challenge. To help us find people with passion and energy who can bring the reality of faith alive. It puzzles me why this isn't happening more often and more consistently already. After all, almost by definition you have powerful things to say. Your exploration of deeper truths leads you to firm views about the world and gives you a story to tell. Together with a sense of purpose and identity, and a community to belong to, surely your faith can also give you the confidence to speak out?'
Alan Bookbinder, The Beckly Lecture, 2003
To the point…
The disciplines we need are those that good modernity-critics display: to see the marks of our time as the products of our past; to notice the danger civilisation poses to itself, not only the danger of barbarian reaction; to attend specially not to those features which strike our contemporaries as controversial, but to those which would have astonished an onlooker from the past but which seem to us too obvious to question.
Oliver O'Donovan, The Desire of the Nations
Evangelism – Which way now?,Mike Booker & Mark Ireland, Church House Publishing, 2004, 256pp, £10.95 (pb)
This book is to be welcomed because it is written by enthusiasts for evangelism who also feel that critical reflection is necessary. That is a rare phenomenon.
The book looks at several approaches to evangelism – some well known, others less so. Alpha and Emmaus and similar "process evangelism" schemes are examined closely in what is the best part of the book, while consideration is also given to traditional missions, "natural church development", Church Planting, evangelism and social action, and spirituality related activities.
One chapter, however, stands out in a different light and gladdens my heart (as well as quoting some of my words!). This is a chapter on evangelising children and the basic critique is not about what is being done but rather about the tragic fact that too little is being done. There could, however, have been more content in this chapter. I looked in vain for a critique of the Kids Klub approach which has been dubbed "the children’s Alpha".
It is difficult to summarise and review a book that, while compact, manages to cover an immense number of issues. I can only pick out one or two findings.
The first of these relates to courses such as Alpha, Emmaus, Credo, and Christianity Rediscovered. What becomes clear is that the success of Alpha (which is matched by the similar courses) lies in the dynamic rather than the doctrine. People take time to grasp and respond to the gospel and these courses create a helpful context of "belonging" from which comes believing. Perhaps some will be surprised that one finding of the book is that home brewed courses, produced by those who know their communities, are probably more effective than any well publicised package.
The study of cell church revealed that it had many virtues, but success in evangelism was not always one of them. The revelation that smaller churches are more likely to grow than big ones will encourage many, and the chapter on Church planting is especially valuable.
So the book is a must for those concerned for the spread of the Gospel, but more work needs to be done. For me there remains a need for serious reflection on the theme of evangelising cultures as well as people. It could be argued that our biggest failing in recent years is that we have not kept the cultural memory of Christ fresh, and the reason may be that we have not realised that we were supposed to be doing that!
The High Price of Materialism, Tim Kasser, MIT Press, 2002, 149pp, £9.99 (pb).
Does money make you happy? In our world today, contradictory anecdotes and mixed messages spawn a wealth of conflicting guidance. Tim Kasser and those who have worked with him over the last decade have sought empirical evidence for an answer, and this book is the fruit of that research.
At one level, the thesis of this book is deceptively simple: a commitment to materialistic values is likely to make you less happy and less well adjusted to life in the very society that promotes these values. In chapter 2, he supports this conclusion with a wealth of social research from amongst different age groups and social backgrounds and using a wide range of methodologies. Moreover, he supports his research with reference to work done by other researchers in the same and different cultures that have arrived at the same conclusion. Though this chapter is short, it is backed by extensive research which is fully referenced for those who want to pursue it in more detail.
However, the central part of the book takes the argument further. He seeks to give reasons why materialism has such a hold on us when it conspicuously fails to deliver, and why it is so counter-intuitive for us to resist the blandishments of consumerism. With reference to what he considers as four key psychological needs (security, self-worth, connectedness and autonomy/authenticity), he argues that materialism is both a symptom and a cause of unhappiness that subtly enslaves us even as it offers us the road to fulfilment. Once again he supports this with a good deal of social research.
I have a few criticisms of the book. As the argument broadens, the weight of the conclusions can be too heavy a burden for the evidence. This is particularly true in chapter 8 which enthusiastically throws the net so wide as to place most of the ills of society and the environment at the door of materialism, and in doing so greatly oversimplifies. I have questions too about some of the value judgements implicit in his definition of happy and healthy living, particularly in his commitment to autonomy and in his assumption that intrinsic values are automatically more healthy than extrinsic. Finally, though his chapter on change has some creative suggestions for action, I don’t think it takes seriously enough the enslavement of the human spirit to materialism in our culture that his own evidence suggests. Release from enslavement to the worship of created things takes more than a few practical strategies.
As I read this book, I found myself reflecting a lot on Paul’s teaching on contentment in 1 Timothy 6, and on how much the Christian gospel has to offer not simply as critique but as solution to the malaise that Kasser delineates so well in this book. For those who are exercised by the darker side of the consumerist dream, this book provides some useful evidence on which to reflect.
The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, Philip Jenkins, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 270, £8.99 (pb).
'Southern Christianity, the Third Church, is not just a transplanted version of the familiar religion of the older Christian states: the New Christendom is no mirror image of the Old. It is a truly new and developing entity. Just how different from its predecessors remains to be seen.’ In these words, the author summarises the conclusions of his study of the Christian faith as it is emerging in what is often called the Global South. Those of us living at the dawn of a new millenium are witnessing the birth of a remarkable new phenomenon on a world scale. The Third Church is now in many ways the dominant force in world Christianity. We are at the beginning of a new phase in Church and mission history, as distinctive as the pre-Constantine and post- Constantine eras.
Philip Jenkins paints this phenomenon on a broad canvas. He begins by showing how little the West understands this reality, because secular prejudice hinders an interpretation that takes the religious impulse seriously. The West, in its ignorance, seems to think that Christianity is in its death-throes. The book sets out to demonstrate vigorously that such a supposition is ludicrous. He also emphasises by a brief historical survey that Christianity always existed beyond the confines of Europe before the missionary movement of the 16th century onwards.
The bulk of the book is devoted to cataloguing the exponential growth of the Church outside Europe during the 20th century. Particular attention is given to the Roman Catholic and independent, indigenous churches. Although basically descriptive and typological, Jenkins attempts some analysis related to possible future developments. Here, in particular, he speculates about possible future confrontations with the major world religions.
The book covers an immense amount of ground, giving a vivid insight into a faith unfamiliar at first hand to most Western Christians. It throws into sharp relief the many differences between the beliefs and practices of the Third Church (speaking generally) and the (particularly liberal) Christianity of the industrialised world. Jenkins accepts the thesis that modernisation does not necessarily lead to secularisation. He is realistic about the unreliability of statistics; yet, chooses to treat them as if they are approximately accurate. His comments are uneven: sometimes full of challenging insight, sometimes (as in the case of the Mormons, the cult of Mary and interreligious wars) quite bizarre. It is a book to be read with both an imaginative and critical mind. It is sure to astonish!
J. Andrew Kirk
Why the Rest Hates the West, Meic Pearse, SPCK, 2003, 178pp, £9.99pb.
This book is not to be confused with Professor Roger Scruton’s "The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorism Threat". Both titles are actually quite precise. Roger Scruton’s book offers excellent, perceptive analyses of ideologies and histories that have produced globalization on the one hand and the terrorist threat on the other (these do not entirely meet with Pearse's agreement). For those seeking a good, clear mind who will explain the phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalism or take them beyond clichéd analyses of globalization, Scruton’s book makes satisfying reading. Meic Pearse’s book, by comparison, grapples specifically with what it is that provokes animosity towards the West.
This is a Christian book about the way convictions and values and their loss have consequences. Exactly who, what or where the West is, is not spelt out, beyond that it has boundaries bearing some relationship to NATO, the EU and historic Western Christendom. The thesis of the book is that ‘the primary cause of the conflict is cultural’.
By his style, his disdain for political correctness, and his determination to point out how few clothes the king really is wearing (thus, how the Western world has been bamboozled into confusing such things as freedom with licence, and progress with growing commercial power), Pearse seeks to provoke response from his Western readers. He wants them to confront the ‘anti-culture’ in which we in the West live, warning that ‘by forbidding ourselves to discriminate, we forbid ourselves to discern’ (p147).
Mark Greene aptly commends the book as ‘uncomfortable but liberating’; the Bishop of London has described it as 'unfashionable'. In actual fact, its plain talking in both title and content is helpful as it touches a raw nerve for many of us, speaking to our present thoughts and concerns in a way which makes fashion irrelevant. I read it on my commuter journeys and gained a couple of new friends as people who were intrigued by the title opened up conversation. Clearly W.H. Smith should be stocking copies in their platform shops. It’s size, limited endnotes, and lack of pretension make it suitable for the popular market.
Pearse is quick to explain that "this book constitutes neither an attack on the Western world-view as a whole, nor a defence of it." On the one hand he holds that "fashionable Western self-loathing is fundamentally misplaced." (p16) On the other hand he exposes the vacuum created in the modern, post-Enlightenment era through the substitution of tradition by shallow fashion. The latter is widely seen by The Rest as a betrayal of tradition into which The West is now trying to seduce their young.
In recent years Pearse has spent much of his time lecturing in church history in the UK and in the Balkans. This has equipped him with a sensitive understanding (reflected in his writing) of issues that arise when the West and the Rest come together. Whilst neither Pearse nor Scruton embrace fully Huntington's "Clash of Civilisations" thesis, both see him as astute rather than reactionary, and aver that we all, as responsible people, need to spend time and energy today understanding better ourselves and others.
Pearse reaches occasional conclusions that I would not share, such as his easy dismissal of the idea that issues of trade lie in some way behind Islamic opposition to the West: I am personally intrigued by the possibility that they have been a contributing element ever since the widow Khadija employed a young man called Muhammed. Not everyone will approve a writing style which employs many bracketed asides - often politically incorrect ones - such as: ‘…many non-nationalistic (or merely prudent) inhabitants of Bosnia..’ (p 119).
Nevertheless, here is a bold popular Christian critique of the dynamics of international and inter-communal relations. It is informed by breadth of historical knowledge and philosophical understanding, and includes proposals for constructive change through a ‘renewed religious and moral vision’. Embracing practical concerns of family and sexuality, community values, authority and tradition, rights and obligations, it is a book I would recommend to people going to work in other cultures in order to clarify the 'baggage' they take with them; also to those coming to work in the UK., to begin clarifying for them our incomprehensible Western ‘culture’.
It is rarely easy to see ourselves as others see us. Yet so often, in situations of conflict, tensions abate when we stop trying to justify ourselves and begin to face our own failings. For those willing to work at this in the encounter between the West and the Rest, Meic Pearse provides an accessible start.
Mediating Religion: Conversations in Media, Religion and Culture, Jolyon Mitchell and Sophia Marriage (eds), T&T Clark, 2003, 400pp., £50.
The combination of high technology with advancing capitalism finds us living in an unprecedented, ongoing time of clash and conversation between cultures. From Jerry Springer – The Opera to the global outpouring of compassion at the tsunami disaster, there has never been a greater need for understanding of, and responsible participation in, the complex interaction of media, religion and culture. Mediating Religion makes a valuable and readable contribution to that project. It consists of 29 essays by a distinguished group of scholars from around the world writing from a wide range of theological positions and religious traditions, largely Protestant (orthodox and liberal), but with vital work from Catholic as well as Mormon and Muslim scholars. The editors are working from the Media and Theology Project in the University of Edinburgh; this book arises from the huge and exciting international conference they hosted there in 1999, now developed in this book so as to provide a comprehensive picture of the major trends in studies of media and religion.
The book is helpfully arranged into seven sections covering the relationship of media and religion to Identity, Conflict, Popular Piety, Media Literacy, Film Studies, ‘New Media’ and Media Ethics. Essay titles include: the Ethics of Broadcasting, Towards a New Religious Film Criticism, Islam and the American News Media post September 11, The Decent Society and Cyberspace, and many others equally interesting and pertinent. The Introduction repays careful reading, for it evidences a sustained and thoughtful creative process in the construction of the book: clearly the editors have chosen topics and contributors with care. They conclude with not one but four impressive and helpful annotated bibliographies covering Media Ethics, New Media and Religion, Film and Religion, and Communication Theology. These alone, to my mind would make the book worth having for any serious student of these rapidly evolving fields of research and debate. The reader occasionally needs to be prepared to deal with the specialised vocabularies of academic discourse, for example "an ideological economy of alterities" as well as religious standpoints that may be alien. The value and beauty of this book is in the fertile and shalom-building dialogue that the editors have made possible by bringing together such a wide range of superb and thoughtful scholars. Such interdisciplinary, faith-based dialogue is essential if we are to build communication bridges that will span the gulfs that increasingly divide us from God, from one another and even from ourselves.
Fitting Out the Framework: how to use the national framework to deliver good religious education, Penny Thompson, obtainable from the author at 14 Chestnut Avenue, Crosby, Liverpool, L23 2SZ, £3.50.
Martyn Relf, a member of East Sussex SACRE, writes: 'Penny Thompson reviews the Framework with insight, revealing its strengths while drawing attention to its unresolved tensions and possible contradictions. She argues persuasively that a Christian theological grounding would give the Framework the coherence and clarity it currently lacks. This a ‘must’ read for all RE professionals and SACRE members who want to draw on the Framework to enhance the provision of Religious Education in their own area.'
The Churches' Commission on Mission
How ecumenism can resource mission
Mission and ecumenism belong together. But the search for common witness - rather than division and counter-witness - has proved long and tough over the past 100 years.
Among its fruits has been the unprecedented sharing of ideas and resources among Christian traditions that were once mutually exclusive. Among the difficulties has been the periodic domestication of the mission impulse as ecumenism struggled with institutional politics and ecclesiastical joinery.
CCOM, an ecumenical alliance of the major mission departments and agencies of the national denominations in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, was originally founded as the Conference of British Missionary Societies (CBMS) in 1912, in the immediate aftermath of the Edinburgh 1910 international missionary conference. By 1982 CBMS had become a division of the British Council of Churches: the Conference for World Mission (CFWM). This created a positive partnership between the voluntary mission societies and the denominational mission structures.
In 1991 CFWM became part of the new Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland (today CTBI – Churches Together in Britain and Ireland), as the Churches’ Commission on Mission. The designation is significant. Mission is seen as primarily the responsibility of the churches, and it constitutes almost a quarter of the activity of CTBI’s work.
CCOM is a broad alliance – Anglican, Catholic, Free Church, Orthodox and Evangelical. Its function is to open up space for practical co-operation, theological dialogue and mutual encouragement among its member churches and societies - an ecumenical space where the concerns of mission, development and Christian engagement with global society can meet.
In the tradition of missio Dei, CCOM believes that mission across six continents is indivisible, that witness to the redeeming life offered to all in Jesus Christ is central; and that mission is not primarily a set of discreet activities. Rather, mission concerns the challenge to reshape everything the church says, does, and is, so that it bears faithful witness to God’s gift of the coming kingdom.
CCOM is small. It has six staff and a budget of under £300,000. At the core of its work is a set of world region forums that bring together specialists involved with mission and development across the globe.
CCOM’s 33 members have become involved in three major areas of endeavour over the last 15 years: support for the fast-growing church in China, changing patterns of missional church, and the engagement of Gospel and culture.
Our work in China work arises from historic commitments the need today for co-operation among churches and agencies in the complex post-denominational situation in which both the Protestant and Catholic Chinese churches find themselves. The CCOM China desk supports theological education, church formation, and youth and women’s programmes set up between partners in Britain and Ireland and their counterparts in China. It also assists inter-church relations, produces The China Study Journal and participates in dialogues on issues such as religious freedom.
Meanwhile the CCOM Building Bridges of Hope (BBH) programme has been concerned with renewing the missionary shape of the churches in Britain and Ireland and northwest Europe. Originating in dialogue with German churches, BBH has sponsored detailed research on diverse patterns of local mission. Out of this has come the piloting of seven key ‘learning indicators’ across 27 different contexts. The major emphasis is now upon providing practical ‘mission accompaniment’: a long-term befriending process involving elements of consultation, mentoring, coaching and facilitating.
The theological dialogue about the Gospel in culture and society has also been strengthened by CCOM: it publishes the journal Connections, and is publishing an important series of books on mission (present and future titles include Changing Churches, Changing Communities, Changing Mission and Changing Evangelisation).
CCOM also supports mission studies locally and internationally, and jointly runs the Mission Theological Advisory Group (MTAG) with the Church of England. MTAG has recently published high-profile reports on The Search for Faith and the Witness of the Church (on evangelism in a plural society) and Presence and Prophecy (on mission as the basis of theological training). It is now preparing materials for local churches on using the senses and the body to explore Christian belief with those outside the household of faith.
In view of its impending 100th birthday (2012), CCOM has recently established the Edinburgh Centenary Mission Fund to reinvest around £250,000 of legacies in the task of reformulating mission as a global task on the cusp of a new era.
More difficult is the news that with continuing financial constraints upon the denominations and a desire to re-engineer the ‘ecumenical architecture’ for co-operation among the churches in Britain and Ireland, more change is on the way for us.
CCOM is currently in transition towards a ‘global mission network’. This will be a new kind of ecumenical body based on networking rather than bureaucracy, and upon reformed partnerships between voluntary mission societies and church mission departments. This will involve some tough pruning. However, in the long run we believe it will enable the re-visioning of mission as the core challenge of ecumenism.
For more information, visitwww.ccom.org.uk.
Our best wishes accompany Rev'd Dr Murray Rae as he returns to his homeland, New Zealand, to take up a Chair in Theology at the University of Otago. Murray, who has lectured in recent years in Kings College, London, has been a Trustee and member of Management Council since 1999, serving as secretary of both. We are deeply grateful for all he has done in support of the Network in the midst of his busy life.
We welcome Rev'd Dr Stephen May to Management Council. Stephen completed his doctoral studies on C. S. Lewis. He lectured in systematic theology in New Zealand for a dozen years before returning to England in 2001. He is author of Stardust and Ashes: Science Fiction in Christian Perspective, (SPCK, 1998) and is now writing a book on Tolkien.
This issue's contributors
Simon Barrowis General Secretary, CCOM, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland
Ian Cowley is an author and Vicar of Yaxley and Holme with Conington, in the Diocese of Ely
J. Andrew Kirk is a mission theologian and author
Nick Ladd is Vicar of St Barnabas' Church, Cambridge
Gavin Reid is retired Bishop of Maidstone and an author
Geoffrey Stevenson is Director of the Centre for Christian Communication, St John's College, Durham
Jenny Taylor is a journalist and academic, and founder of Lapido Media
Carol Walker is Learning Manager for the Church Mission
Newsletter 43 (Summer '05)
'Vague faith' or 'Vague Christianity'?
shifting perceptions of popular belief
'Although it occasionally forgets this, the BBC is not here to promote a secular worldview as opposed to a religious one, or so-called progressive values over traditional ones but rather to give voice and space to a full range of perspectives'. So commented Mark Thompson, Director General of the BBC in a lecture earlier this year.1
'In my view', he went on, 'we have plenty more to do to reflect religion positively on our airwaves – particularly Christianity where, despite some real advances in recent years, there is still something of a creative deficit. The BBC's coverage of the UK's minority faiths is much richer and more interesting than it used to be, but we live in a country where more than 70% of the population describe themselves as Christian. There is more we could do to connect with them – especially those who align themselves with Christianity yet are not regular churchgoers.
Sometimes in the past, the BBC has been tempted to divide the world into practising Christians, agnostics and people of "vague faith". In fact we live in a country of millions of people of 'vague Christianity' and we need to find ways of serving them too.'
Joyce McMillan similarly acknowledges the failure to engage with Britain's living Christian inheritance. In her column in The Scotsman, two days before Thompson's lecture, the Chair of the Scottish Civic Forum wrote:2
'nowhere at all is the voice of that 50 per cent who apparently want their children to experience something of the Christian faith that is their heritage but are no longer willing to pass on that faith in any institutionalised form, or interested enough to make representations to the (Scottish) Executive…we should be clear that we now urgently need, as a society, to find ways of expressing Britain’s mainstream Christian inheritance that reflect its cultural and historical importance to a majority of British citizens, without denying that most of us now live our lives according to a set of values - justice, integrity, compassion - which are both more secular and more universal than those associated with strict traditional Christianity.
For if we feel we have no culture of our own, or that we have lost touch with it over two generations of breakneck social change, then we are bound to feel threatened by others who seem more certain of who they are…
But if we can begin to see the powerful moral connections between the tradition in which we were raised and the way we live now, and to pass that story on to our children and grandchildren, then we may find ourselves more confident of who we are and where we came from; and therefore better able to enter into a real conversation with people of other faiths and traditions.' 2
But how far are the gatekeepers of public culture prepared to take seriously the British inheritance of what Mark Thompson calls 'vague Christianity'? Intending to serve those whose beliefs are 'vaguely Christian', will the BBC limit itself to echoing these beliefs, their prevalence and their vagueness, all unexplored, to its viewers and listeners? Or will it be go further: will it allow that people of 'vague Christianity' may be most deeply served by uncovering for their consideration the positive Christian revelation which lies deep below their vague beliefs, their values (including the value of 'service') and their cultural landscape? The recent series 'The Monastery' on BBC2 is just one illustration of the kind of exploration possible here.
Or suppose social policy-makers sought to strengthen awareness of the Christian tradition we bring unacknowledged to conversation in a multi-faith society. Would they promote this as awareness of the 'private' cultural history we bring into contemporary public conversation? Or would they allow a further possibility: that Christian faith offers a deeper context for, and understanding of, conversation itself, as that human vocation in which people are turned towards each other as together they are turned wholly (con-verted) towards God?
The cultivation of a new awareness of British Christian tradition will properly assist people to hear and respond to the Gospel anew, and in this context to appreciate their Christian heritage with all its achievements and failures.
Harry Blamires wrote: 'historically speaking, the environment is covered with the marks of past efforts to Christianise our culture and our civilisation…. (however) the atheist… thinks that the great works of Christian culture are great in spite of their Christian substance and inspiration and in no degree because of their Christian substance and inspiration… You will certainly not hear our secularised contemporaries say of you or me: 'Oh Yes, he's a Christian. Like Bach and Milton, like Leonardo and Raphael, like the people who built our cathedrals and gave us our first schools: he's one of those'.3
It is not only atheists, however, but also those of 'vague Christianity' who lack such appreciation of their religious heritage, as Dee Dyas reminds us in this newsletter. How, therefore, might Christians and churches resource those who shape public understanding, so as to help people explore their Christian cultural formation? And help them not merely as a means to an end, but allow the Gospel to be heard as a living summons today?
An atheist's advocacy for Christians
'As a liberal democrat atheist, I believe all persecuted people should be helped equally, irrespective of their religion. But the guilt-ridden West is ignoring people because of their religion'. So writes Anthony Browne in the Spectator (26 March '05).
Browne has a particular religion in mind: Christianity. He surveys Christians persecuted around the world (300 million of them, he says, either threatened with violence or legally discriminated against simply because of their faith). Western Christians, for all their global influence, remain largely silent about them. Muslims (and Jews) show much more worldwide solidarity with their own, remarks Browne. So why the difference? Browne attributes this to post-colonial guilt among Western Christians. Whatever other factors may be involved, the high price paid by victims when ignored remains the same.
Meanwhile such persecution is growing. For the reason, Browne turns to Patrick Sookhdeo, Director of the Barnabas Trust. He blames rising global religious tension. ‘More and more Christians are seen as the odd ones out they are seen as transplants from the West, and not really trusted. It is getting very much worse.’
Sookhdeo's reference to 'transplants from the West' points, however, to another factor than religion per se behind growing persecution of Christians: dislike of Western power and ideology.
This issue is not new, of course. Kenneth Cragg (1999, see ACCESS No. 472) writes of 'the old suspicion that the Christians in the East provide a way for Western interests to gain a toehold in Eastern societies' - a suspicion arising despite the sometimes ancient origins of the Christian traditions in question. 'Christians in places like Egypt and Palestine want to cast their lot with the others of their own societies; they don't want to be thought of as dubious citizens. We don’t want to compromise their situations still more by making them seem a kind of enemy in the camp'.
How, then, should Western advocacy for Christian minorities proceed? Cragg urges that the West should 'be concerned with how Muslim, as well as Christian, minorities are treated in Islamic countries (and) concerned about Muslim scholars who are persecuted in their own countries or are forced into exile.'
In other words, we should certainly listen when a self-avowed atheist calls upon us as Christians responsibly to speak up for 'our own'; however we should be concerned as much as any such atheist for all who are persecuted.…
Anthony Browne's article can be found at www.lewrockwell.com/spectator2/spec575.html.
A CHANGED CHURCH
Did you watch the funeral of Pope John Paul II on television? I wasn't able to see it all, but I did follow a lot of the coverage, both on television and in the press. I found myself increasing aware that something very moving and significant was taking place.
Somehow the Roman Catholic Church looks very different now from the way
things appeared before Easter 2005. I was at a meeting of Evangelical leaders in
the week after the Pope's funeral. A discussion took place about our response to
what we had seen and heard of the events in Rome. I was
amazed to see how much we felt inspired by what had taken place, and that we were able to identify with much of the message that had gone out to the world from the witness of Pope John Paul II and from his funeral.
Now there is a new Pope. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has become Pope Benedict
XVI. In one of his first homilies, he said that the Pope "must not proclaim
his own ideas, but ever link himself and the Church to obedience to the word of
God even when faced with all attempts of adaptation or of watering down, as with
all opportunism." Of course the election of Joseph Ratzinger was greeted
with dismay by many Western commentators who had hoped for a more liberal
direction from the Vatican. But for those in the wider church who increasingly
find themselves contending for orthodoxy in doctrine and
morality, there is a new sense of solidarity with the Roman Catholics.
Why did so many people want to pay their respects to Pope John Paul II? Was not this a man who had shown himself to be out of step with the modern world? Yet his evident holiness and unswerving orthodoxy have given his life an immense authority. He pointed not to himself but to God and to Jesus, and he did so with unfailing courage and conviction and character, regardless of whether his views were popular or unpopular. That counts for a lot in a culture where we are constantly exposed to superficiality and half-truths.
Finally, we have seen again at this time that Christianity is not dying. Its message is still enormously powerful, whenever it is lived out with faith and courage and conviction. The Times described Pope John Paul II as "a pilgrim Pope whose resolute faith and unbending insistence on moral and doctrinal orthodoxy moved peoples, challenged moral mores, and rattled the foundations of political systems." The impact of his life and legacy will be felt upon the whole Christian church for a long time to come.
The Christianity and Culture Project
Introduced by Dee Dyas, Director
‘I never realised that Jesus Christ was crucified on Good Friday – what a coincidence!’ This was said not by a student but a teacher – after a possibly somewhat overdue schools training course.
We all know that most people today don’t know much about Christianity. What we may not always fully appreciate is the problem this poses within education - for teachers and students, at all levels and across a wide range of subject areas. Anyone who tries to teach literature (or history or art) knows only too well that most students are completely bemused – even panic-stricken -when confronted with writers, images or events which assume some knowledge, indeed any knowledge, of Christianity. As a colleague said of her bright University of London students: ‘They don’t know what the Crucifixion or the Resurrection mean – they’re not even sure which came first!’ Another colleague at Oxford told a student that it would really help her studies if she read the Bible ‘OK,’ said the student brightly, ‘How many volumes? Who wrote it?’
The problem for teachers and students alike is that this knowledge isn’t optional – it’s essential. The Bible is a necessary key to unlock western culture and if you don’t happen to possess that key it can be very frustrating. Some students belong to faiths other than Christianity; some have no real understanding of any major faith; even those who are Christians may not know the Bible very well or have the historical perspective enabling them to use what they do know. They talk about feeling disenfranchised – somehow cut off from a culture which they feel should be theirs but struggle to access. Teachers at all levels express the need to create an open environment in which all can contribute without feeling embarrassed or alienated. This concern is expressed regardless of personal attitudes to faith; this is a serious academic problem which is getting worse all the time. Teachers and students welcome appropriately-presented resources which enable understanding of Christianity and so support learning.
The Christianity and Culture Project emerged in 1999 as one attempt to address this need and is now based jointly at the University of York and St John’s Theological College in Nottingham. Its primary aim was to act as a forum for the discussion of needs and solutions so that university lecturers worldwide can share approaches and resources through conferences, workshops and publications. The interest and willingness to contribute of leading scholars has been extraordinary.
The Project has also focused on the need to develop teaching and learning resources which offer information in a scholarly but accessible way. The first of these, a CD-ROM called Images of Salvation: the Story of the Bible through Medieval Art was produced in June 2004. Images are a wonderfully accessible way of teaching Christian understanding, creating a situation in teacher and students can together unpack meaning. Medieval Christian images are a tremendous resource because they were designed both to teach and engage, to challenge and change those who saw them. The Church, then as now, had a big task on its hands, with a population which on the whole knew very little about the Christian faith, and it used all the means at its disposal - art, poetry, drama, and music - to communicate meaning and transform lives. We are once more an intensely visual culture, used to learning through seeing, and the communication possibilities offered by word plus image can be very considerable. However, finding the right images and knowing that they can be used legally isn’t easy. Moreover, the images alone aren’t enough. Many teachers now don’t feel that they have sufficient knowledge of the Bible to teach stories and concepts. So the CD-ROM provides 180 images illustrating forty-four biblical themes, together with bible passages, summaries of relevant doctrines, detailed art history commentary and an interactive reference section in which every term and person is explained. The CD-ROM seeks to provide layers of understanding that can be accessed easily whatever the starting point of an individual or group. It is now used widely in universities, schools and colleges and church members have identified it as a resource for teaching and worship and for enhancing individual understanding and spirituality.
A second resource is The Bible in Western Culture: The Student’s Guide which will be published in June 2005. This provides extracts from the Bible with concise introductions, brief explanations of key terms and characters, and together with this, indications of works of art, literature and music in which biblical themes play a significant role.
Following this phase of work on the Bible, Christianity and Culture is now developing a CD-ROM, Website and Reader on Pilgrimage, a concept common to virtually all cultures and faiths which has been especially significant in shaping the physical, literary and spiritual landscapes of England. Pilgrimage as an image of life not only fired the imaginations of writers such as Chaucer and Bunyan through the centuries but now also provides a key interface between the riches of Christian tradition and present-day explorations in spirituality. The CD-ROM seeks to explore a range of expressions of the pilgrimage motif – as an image of daily life, as a journey to a holy place, as inner journey through prayer, mysticism and monasticism.
This is a very small project facing a large and growing need. We are encouraged by the response from those engaged in education at all levels and their eagerness for resources. We are daunted by the scale of the task and intensely aware that our contribution is very small. But the ongoing exchange between Christian thought and cultural heritage remains a very stimulating and exciting arena in which to work!
The CD-Rom Images of Salvation can be ordered online at www.york.ac.uk/inst/cms/candc/ or by sending a cheque payable to St John's College, Nottingham for £15 per CD plus p&p (£1 UK/£2 EEC/£2.50 rest of the world per CD) to Christianity and Culture, St John's College, Chilwell Lane, Nottingham NG9 3DS.
Sadly, due to ill health Dan Beeby will no longer be able to serve as a Trustee and member of Management Council. Dan was first co-ordinator of the Gospel and Our Culture in the late 1980's. His conviction of the importance of the Gospel and Our Culture, his generous efforts on behalf of the Network, and his love for the Lord and for the Scriptures which have impelled him have been a continuing inspiration. Despite Dan's insistence that he was only ever 'the monkey on Lesslie's barrel-organ', he has been far more than that! We thank Dan for all we owe him, and hold him and Sue in our prayers.
We welcome Rev'd Dr Paul Weston as new chair of the Board of Trustees and of Management Council, and thank Matthew Baynham for his chairmanship these past four years.
The Myths We live By
Mary Midgley, Routledge, 2003, 202 pp, £10.99pb.
Review article by Arthur Jones
For most of us metaphor and myth are a matter of poetry and rhetoric: part of extraordinary rather than ordinary life and language. We assume that we could manage without them. Midgley’s theme is that they are however central to all human thought. In this book she focuses on the myths that we find in science. These myths are neither lies, nor mere stories, but networks of powerful symbols that shape our understanding of reality. Today, these myths - whether old or new – tend to be cast in reductive and technological form.
The opening chapters (2-4) tackle the social-contract myth (that citizens are essentially separate, autonomous, selfish individuals), the progress myth, and the myth of omnicompetent science (that all real knowledge is scientific knowledge). Next come three chapters (5-7) on reductionism; then a series of chapters (8-15 and also 19) that consider the centrality of our gendered, bodily and enculturated life to human thought and action. Chapters 16-18 look at biotechnology; chapters 20-27 at the relationship of humans with nature (and with animals in particular). In passing there is helpful comment on other topics such as the supposed warfare between science and religion ((pp 17-18, 40). Midgley is generally well-informed and up to date, though she does focus on the ancient behaviourism of B.F. Skinner rather than on the modern reductionisms in neurophysiology.
Midgley promotes an anti-reductionist scientific pluralism (p 27) and her discussions are rich and insightful. Christian readers will be sympathetic and find much material for helpful reflection on the topics chosen. But much as I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to others, it left me with two concerns: about access to truth, and about the implications for scientific research.
Midgley provides no justification for her cognitive pluralism, except perhaps that it is more humane and ecologically sensitive. In contrast, the dominant scientistic myth portrays a meaningless world in which all species are doomed to eventual extinction, often purely through the accident of natural disasters. Is either myth true? Are the values and virtues we want to applaud an intrinsic part of reality, or is that just wishful thinking on our part? Why should we pay any attention to Midgley’s myth, if cruelty and exploitation lead to gain? In other words, do we have access to truth, or only to competing myths, which we individually and arbitrarily select?
To expand on this concern, consider another example: Alister McGrath’s response to Richard Dawkins (Dawkins God, Blackwell, 2005). McGrath argues that the methods of science are incapable of adjudicating between theism and atheism and that Darwinism can be held to be consistent with either. He then proceeds to expose and critique the misrepresentations and stereotypes of Christianity that abound in Dawkins’ writings. All this makes for good fun, but the serious proponent of evolutionary naturalism can plead guilty, disown the simplifications and misrepresentations, and then carry on as usual. He can concede that science and religion don’t overlap or contradict, but remain bolstered in his belief that science can ignore religion, whereas religion must adapt to the theories of naturalistic science. In short, there is no radical challenge to naturalism, nor any credible reason to believe in God. Does the secularist really have bomb-proof excuses for unbelief?
Midgley’s title must surely strike many readers as an allusion to Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By (1980, 2003). Considering the similarity of theme, it is strange indeed that Midgley makes no reference to their work. Their systematic analysis highlights my second concern. As a scientist I enjoy Midgley’s books, yet feel unable to do anything with them. Her pluralism is too vague; it doesn’t feed anything into the general theory that my scientific work cannot help presupposing. As Roy Clouser demonstrates (The Myth of Religious Neutrality, 2nd edn, 2005), the very activity of abstraction necessary to construct scientific theories forces me to a general theory of how the different aspects of experience (mathematical, physical, biological, historical, logical etc) are connected.1 In relation to Midgley’s discussions, what roles do the metaphors, and analogies that abound in science play in these connections? The many philosophical decisions that scientific work presupposes ought to be explicit. But since modern education rarely if ever addresses the connection between beliefs and knowledge, it is much more likely that they will be unconsciously presupposed. Either way general theories of reality are unavoidable. Furthermore they either contain, or presuppose, some kind of divinity belief, i.e. a belief in what has unconditional reality. This ultimate reality may be the theist’s God, the materialist’s matter, or whatever, but a commitment to a specific answer is demonstrably unavoidable.
Are different aspects - say the physical and biological - irreducibly distinct? Do the probabilistic resources exist to sustain the Darwinian mechanism of evolution? Does the genic vision of organisms (with its mechanistic and atomistic background) really explain life and development? These seem to be scientific questions, but research is driven far more by prior worldview commitments than by any evidence-based theories. This is where the Christian scholar needs systematic guidance and vision. For all its brilliance, Midgley’s book is too superficial. For the Christian reader the discussions are steps in the right direction, but there are no tools to take the thinking further. For the committed naturalist there is a call to spring clean his worldview, but no incentive to develop a better one.
Note:1. A valuable resource here is Andrew Basden’s user-friendly Dooyeweerd pages: http://www.isi.salford.ac.uk/dooy/index.html
Other book reviews
Secret Fire: the spiritual vision of J.R.R. Tolkien,Stratford Caldecott, Darton Longman & Todd, 2003, 260pp, £9.95 (pb).
The recent film King Arthur inverts the traditional ‘Knights of the Round Table’ story we have inherited from Malory: it portrays Christians as cruel, persecuting bigots and Arthur’s knights as defiant pagans. Our repaganising society sees an increasing number of these revisionist anti-Christian accounts (think Pullman). In a world where Christianity is now given a bad press in the imagination stakes as well as the media, this book reminds us of Tolkien’s strikingly successful and deeply Christian mythopoetic achievement - one that through Peter Jackson’s films has reached a huge audience.
The blurb tells us that Tolkien is ‘enchanting a new generation with his Christ-inspired vision of virtue and heroism, of beauty, honour and majesty’. Caldecott sets out to unfold some of this back story, with a heavy emphasis on Tolkien’s devout Catholicism.
It is disappointing that this book has at times an uncomfortably sectarian tone. Tolkien’s great friend and fellow-worker C.S. Lewis wrote a book called Mere Christianity, but he is rebuked by Caldecott for his failure to overcome ‘his remaining Ulster prejudices sufficiently to become a Catholic’ (p.11)!
Caldecott unfolds themes of The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and the important short story ‘Leaf by Niggle’, mixing some standard exposition with intriguing new insights. He explains clearly and concisely key theological concepts. However, despite the book’s title, there is comparatively little on fire and the Holy Spirit (more in fact on light). Discipleship and the interaction of free-will and providence (a la Tom Shippey) in The Lord of the Rings are also lightly treated. However, one cannot do everything and Caldecott covers much else.
There has been a repeated tendency in critical circles to ignore Tolkien’s protestations that he ‘cordially detested allegory in all its manifestations’. He has been accordingly interpreted as an ecological sage, a prophet on substance abuse, an anti-war novelist or all at once - as in the BBC’s ‘Big Read’, where an apologist attempted unsuccessfully to defuse the pathological hatred of his critics.
Tolkien set out to produce an internally coherent imagined ‘secondary world’, one which inevitably reflected his own beliefs. This book seeks (in the words of the blurb) to examine exactly how he re-opened ‘the world of the imagination for theological exploration’. It would be worth further rigorous investigation into how he and others did this, and how this task might be pursued in the realm of realistic as well as fantastic fiction. This book raises the important question whether Christians should be engaging in this task much more intentionally than at present, perhaps thus (as C.S. Lewis put it) ‘stealing past the watchful dragons’ of modernity.
Furthering Humanity: A Theology of Culture, T. J. Gorringe, Ashgate Press, 2004, 290pp, £17.99 (pb).
From many perspectives, this is a crucial book. It is the most thorough theological treatment of culture to appear for many years. It is inter-disciplinary to a degree unparalleled in any comparable volume. It ranges effortlessly between the highest echelons of theory and the hard-nosed practicalities of daily living. And it seeks to be rigorously Christian, when so many books on these themes retreat from Christian distinctiveness.
The book is arranged under three headings – ‘culture’, ‘power’ and ‘mission’. Gorringe offers a trinitarian understanding of culture (defined as ‘the totality of human creative effort’), arguing that culture is about ‘furthering humanity’, and insisting that the eschatological dimension (a sense of hope, meaning and direction) is the ‘central category’ of a theology of culture. This in turn means taking account of power. Gorringe resists the fashionable reduction of religion to power ploys, claiming that the Christian Scriptures have a continuing capacity to challenge our ‘taken-for-granted pieties’, and that, in the wake of the mistaken experiment of Christendom, the Church is called to create alternative, ‘counter hegemonies’ to the global dominance of the market, and to identify with the poor and marginalised (liberation theology pops up in many places in this book.)
Gorringe goes on to propound a rich theology of mission. Under attack here is colonialism, the narrowing of the Gospel to individual salvation from sin, and the common marginalisation of mission in the Church’s life. Mission springs out of Christ’s resurrection and Pentecost: it means the spreading of the good news of the death of death, the overcoming of alienation, and a new type of human community not captive to divisions of class, race and gender. These themes are related skilfully to the incarnation and a subtle doctrine of the Spirit, enabling Gorringe to treat the vexed issues of translation, inculturation and multiculturalism.
This feeble summary does little justice to a book that is breathtaking in scope. It would be hard to find more impressive summaries and treatments of, for example, Huntingdon’s ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis, theology and ideology, Niebuhr’s ‘Christ and culture’ scheme, and the role of power in the contemporary Church. But the sheer compass of the book is also its key weakness. The desire to include so many writers and positions can leave the core of the argument quite opaque. We travel through vast tracts of tangled territory at breakneck speed, the argument zig-zagging back and forth breathlessly. I often longed for the settled lucidity of, say, a Lesslie Newbigin.
That said, one could only be rewarded by reading this book, however many qualifications the reader might make about the details of Gorringe’s case. I can’t imagine it being bettered for a long time to come.
Public Theology for the 21st Century: Essays in Honour of Duncan B. Forrester, William F. Storrar & Andrew R. Morton (eds), T & T Clark, 2004, 467pp, £25(pb).
This book is offered as a tribute to Duncan Forrester, Professor Emeritus of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at the University of Edinburgh and one of Scotland’s (and Britain’s) leading public theologians. It emerged from a colloquium in Edinburgh 2001 honouring his outstanding contribution to this field: the foreword by Raymond Plant and three chapters by the editors are dedicated to recording and celebrating Forrester’s life and work and especially his innovative work in the Scottish context. This work has produced, most visibly, The Centre for Theology and Public Issues in Edinburgh which he founded and directed for many years. The book has wider significance than this, however: 24 of the 27 contributions address key contemporary themes and issues within this broader field. Indeed it provides a substantial and illuminating survey of leading current preoccupations in this field and among some of its most prominent Scottish, British, and international practitioners.
The book has four parts. The first traces key movements in the twentieth-century legacy of public theology, and includes chapters by Jürgen Moltmann (on post-war Germany), John De Gruchy (on South Africa), and José Míguez-Bonino (on Argentina). The second engages with central ideas in the legacy of modernity: Richard Bauckham (freedom); Kees Klop (liberalism and ecology); David Fergusson (tolerance); George Newlands (human rights); Ann Loades (‘the end of history’); and Raymond Plant (liberalism and religious pluralism). The third part, which contains chapters by Max Stackhouse, C. T. Kurien, Michael Northcott and Mary Grey, assesses the impact of globalization on the contemporary world and the implications of this for the project of public theology. Part four addresses pressing specific issues: Robin Gill (genetics); Alastair Campbell & Teresa Swift (health care); Stanley Hauerwas (punishment); Alan Torrance (forgiveness); Timothy Gorringe and Christopher Rowland (equality); Alistair Kee and Marcella María Althaus-Reid (exclusion); and Elaine Graham (democracy).
Among the many questions addressed by this rich and impressive collection, I note merely two. Firstly, how can ‘theology’, which is itself a particular (but not particularist) confessional narrative, be genuinely ‘public’ while retaining its confessional integrity? Secondly, when engaging with issues which demand far-reaching structural and global responses, how far can Forrester's suggestion take us, that public theology content itself merely with offering ‘theological fragments’ to public debate? There are no simple answers to these questions; however, this rich and impressive collection will prove very useful to anyone wrestling with them.
Against the Stream: Christianity and mission in an age of globalization, David W. Smith, IVP, 2003, 154pp, £7.99 (pb).
David Smith's previous book Mission After Christendom was, in my judgement, an all-round, searching study which will already be proving itself useful in many different contexts. This present book covers much the same ground, but is more clearly written for and from within the evangelical constituency with which the author, now teaching at the International Christian College in Glasgow, is most familiar. All the chapters are talks originally given to largely evangelical audiences.
In these talks he pursues intelligent Bible study, awakening sensitive awareness to the distinctive needs and priorities of the 21st century. The first two, for instance, both given to audiences at the Keswick Convention, pursue the appropriate meanings and challenges of healing and holiness for today's world, a world not so totally different from that for which the Revelation of St John was written. The vision of Revelation 10, Smith reminds, us is 'a God-given vision of an alternative community to the one centred in Rome', the great imperial city of the time. 'It is precisely as Christians catch this alternative vision and see through the blasphemous pretensions of the empire that they are able to bear faithful witness to the Crucified One who alone holds "the keys of death and of Hades".' Chapter 4, dealing with Islam, looks towards the time when out of courteous and open-hearted dialogue Islam will accept 'democratic ideals and discover ways of propagating its faith that are consonant with this context.' Chapter 8, entitled 'Preaching in a World of Clashing Civilisations', explores what the universal, missionary call given to Abraham in Genesis 12 can mean for us all, Jews and others, as we travel hopefully through world history. It ends with a strong challenge to an 'evangelical world' whose 'liturgies and hymnologies are notorious in their lack of a language that expresses pain and failure as well as joy and success'. 'The truth is that the Bible is replete with language that enables us to be honest in the presence of God about these things because, as the Old Testament scholar Robert Davidson put it, the song writers of ancient Israel discovered that the questions 'Why?' and 'How Long?' were just as valid as the shout 'Hallelujah!'
The author is admirably committed to a wide awareness of today's world. However, the sources and references of his talks miss out on many key contributors to global Christianity. He makes only passing mention of theologians from the south, with no reference whatever to such as Desmond Tutu, M. M. Thomas, the liberation theologians, or virtually any serious Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox thinkers. I shall look forward to a third book from Smith about globalization, Christian mission and the needs of tomorrow, which engages with these wider sources. There are many more audiences around the world he could serve so well with his distinctive generosity, clarity and penetrating insights into what the creator God is expecting to share with, and to expect from, the full diversity of the world and its humankind who are today being called into the one Body of Christ.
Indoctrination, Education and God, Terence Copley, SPCK, 2005, 173pp, £14.99 (pb).
In this absorbing book Professor Terence Copley examines the views which are conveyed to the young in British society today, and concludes that the media and the education system transmit an unexamined secularism.
He starts by examining the concept of indoctrination, noting that this concept is often illegitimately restricted in its application to religious ideas. Thus, in truth secularist indoctrination is going on but nobody seems to notice. Because the purpose of education has not been agreed and set out in a satisfactory way, concern is limited to imparting skills and achieving good exam results. The last great debate on education was held in Parliament in 1943 at which time legislators were concerned that the whole of education should have a Christian purpose. Today, however, no great religious or spiritual purpose is held out to children. Indeed Copley, in wider reflections on Britishness today, comes to the unhappy conclusion that this is constituted by hedonism, materialism and individual moral autonomy.
Copley traces the decline of Christian belief and practice in Britain, beginning in the 19th century up to the present day when out of town superstores have become ‘secular cathedrals’. He finds a paradigm for decline in the history of the Quakers brought about, as he believes, by the loss of creeds and definite belief. Today even the biblical narratives in our classrooms may be taught without reference to God. Stories such as David and Goliath may be taught as moral tales with God removed: the little man wins against the big man. Copley is not the first to point to the way secularism now reigns in RE. This is, indeed, a live issue: see Felderhof (2000), Watson (1993, ch.2) Thompson (2004, ch.10) and Barnes (2005).
Yet, Copley acknowledges, Christianity persists, and he speculates about a revival. Meanwhile, in a chapter on spirituality he considers the impact of 'alternative' religions and suggests that they have as much a case for inclusion in the RE syllabus as world religions.
What is to be done? At this point, it seems to me, Copley struggles. On the one hand he wants to pursue an inclusivist agenda, arguing that RE should be an induction into Christianity as our inherited religion and an engagement with world religions, popular spiritualities, and atheism - each a valid response to mystery. On the other hand he wants children to take seriously the possibility of a God who is their destiny and who reveals himself in all the vulnerability of Christ. This looks like putting a 'great purpose' before children; indeed he seems to approve of the idea of moulding the young as Christian citizens. Education must take sides (p. 140), he says. However, following this he argues that children must be inducted into the debate about religion rather than any particular notion of what is good and true. Religions must be more open to negotiation, more like open-ended spiritualities and less like institutions with creeds. He seems to have forgotten his perception of the history of Quakerism.
Perhaps Copley’s concept of indoctrination is the problem here? For Copley, indoctrination occurs when particular values are taken as true and passed on as such to the young without granting them acknowledgement and examination. By implication, when these are granted there is no indoctrination, and no problem (see Felderhof, 2000). But this leaves unconsidered the prior question as to what one should take as true. Here Copley gives no clear answer. What is needed (see Thiessen 1993, ch. 4) is a grasp of what it is we should rightly teach the young with encouragement for critical appropriation or rejection. Personally I do not see why Christian theology and practice should not provide the basic framework for this. This might show how secularism derives from Christianity in an attempt to escape from the skirts of its parent; it would also involve a certain openness to other traditions and the challenges that they present. Above all, it would allow society to set before the young a ‘great purpose’.
Barnes, L.P. (2005) ‘Comparative Analysis and Research in Religious Education: A Response to Professors English, D'Souza and Dr Chartrand.’ Religious Education 100 pp. 211-222.
Felderhof, M.C. (2000) ‘Religious Education, Indoctrination and Freedom’ in Islam and Christianity in School Religious Education, ed. by Nils G. Holm (Religionsvetenskapliga Skrifter no 52, Abo).
Thiessen, E. (1993) Teaching for Commitment, Leominster, Gracewing.
Thompson, P. (2004) Whatever Happened to Religious Education? Cambridge, Lutterworth Press.
Watson, B. (1993) The Effective Teaching of Religious Education, London and New York, Longman.
Jeremy Begbieis Associate Director, Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St Andrews and Associate Principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge
Jonathan Chaplin is Associate Professor of Political Theory, Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto, Canada
Martin Conway is former President of Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham and is Chair of the Board for Social Responsibility in the Diocese of Oxford
Ian Cowley is an author and Vicar of Yaxley and Holme with Conington, in the Diocese of Ely
Dee Dyas is Director, Christianity and Culture Centre for Medieval Studies, York University & St John's College, Nottingham
Arthur Jones is a science and education consultant and Senior Tutor for the Christian gap year programme of the West Yorkshire School of Christian Studies.
Stephen May is an author and Vicar of Norden in the Diocese of Manchester
Penny Thompson is an experienced RE teacher and visiting lecturer at Hope University College, Liverpool
Newsletter 44 (Autumn '05)
Keeping the memory
I’ve told this story for several years, and it bears telling again.
Two of us representing the Archbishops met with a government minister in the mid-nineties to discuss their forthcoming plans to celebrate the Millennium. Our first question was "how much has the Government and the Millennium Commission taken on board the fact that the Millennium is a Christian festival and has little significance apart from that?"
The minister thought for a moment and said: "What an interesting thought!"
A year or so after that interview (which turned out to be fruitful) the Daily Telegraph published a poll which suggested that only one in six of those interviewed recognised that 2000AD had anything to do with Jesus Christ. What these two incidents revealed was that we live in a Christian culture where people have lost their cultural memory.
Being involved in the Millennium project brought home to me this whole matter of how, in a country where Christianity is established, one keeps the memory of Christ alive in public awareness. It is no use blaming the media or ‘secularizing trends’ – the people charged with keeping the memory of Christ alive are those of us in the churches.
My own tradition is Evangelical. The great dream of people like myself is one of sharing the gospel and seeing individual people come to a personal faith. Perhaps our biggest weakness is that we know (or think we do) how to evangelise people, but we are less clear as to how we evangelise, and re-evangelise, a culture. Indeed, perhaps we have never thought that we have such a thing to do.
The Church and loss of cultural memory
Among the things which have worked against maintaining a cultural memory of Christ are, I believe, two developments in church life itself. In themselves good and well intentioned, both liturgical reform and charismatic renewal have been associated with a heightened sense of contrast between the gathered community of Christians and the world outside. They have hardly stirred up cultural memory in the community at large.
The collapse of childrens' outreach
I believe the biggest factor, however, in assisting cultural loss of memory has been the collapse of childrens' outreach which took place in the later nineteen fifties. Callum Brown has argued cogently that Britain de-christianised itself through changes in how women saw their roles in society, and that this change was dramatic and in the nineteen-sixties. I believe that the biggest factor was the collapse of the traditional Sunday in the mid-nineteen-fifties. Central to that collapse was the growth of motor-car ownership in the preference for family outings over Sunday School attendance. Estimates vary as to the pulling power of the old Sunday Schools but it is fairly safe to say that at least half the nation’s children were in Sunday Schools in the nineteen-thirties and by the mid sixties those numbers were down below 20% and still dropping until today we are looking at single digit figures. I believe that the Sunday School was the major evangelistic achievement of the early twentieth century churches. When they lost their hold on children the cultural memory was dealt a serious blow.
For me the greatest challenge is to find new ways to share the story of Jesus with the children of our nation. I believe it should be the highest priority of the churches – much higher than the "new ways of being church" agenda. Imaginative things are being done in after school clubs, weeknight activities, Saturday morning "Kids Klubz" and children’s missions. More are needed.
Occasions of opportunity
I believe that more use can be made of festivals and special days like Mothering Sunday and Remembrance Sunday. Christmas is crying out for more energy and imagination. In some places, however, the imagination required is to be traditional because some communities feel alienated by what they feel is the "trendiness" of their local churches – a theme beloved of our middlebrow press. Alan Billings in Secular Lives, Sacred Hearts lists several good ideas as well as stressing the value of the occasional offices. More co-operation with schools should be explored, both for the sake of the children and for their ability to mount projects that reach at least their parents.
Meanwhile there is a real need – and Billings also suggests this – to develop simple services of the word both in traditional church buildings and in places like pubs and village halls. And we need to develop a new way of talking about our faith to those around. We need to learn to relate the stories about Jesus to the issues that present themselves in our communities. Memory, be it personal or cultural, retains stories better than texts and principles.
But then, of course, the gospel writers saw that years ago.
We see the loss of cultural memory to which Gavin Reid refers when young adults cannot join in the Lord's Prayer; when teachers and curriculum writers are ignorant of the Christian dimensions of their subject1; when the media do not celebrate wholeheartedly the faith of Dame Cicely Saunders or Brother Roger of Taizé on the occasions of their deaths; when philosophers who pursue critical thinking do so with little knowledge (as John Gray laments)2 of the history of ideas and the formative role of Christian faith in this history.
Sometimes, of course, 'ignorance' is more a matter of ignoring. Madeleine Bunting writes: 'It becomes harder and harder to explain how two millennia of meditation and reasoning on the human condition may be worthy of consideration. There is an extraordinary arrogance to the modernity that tosses aside so contemptuously the traditions that have sustained generations of our forebears. Are we so different? Are we so superior?'
At other times 'ignorance' is more a matter of antagonism. Consider the prevalence of what René Girard describes as 'the most powerful anti-Christian movement today': 'the one that takes over and "radicalizes" the concern for victims in order to paganise it.… In Christian history' he writes, ' they see nothing but persecutions, acts of oppression, inquisitions.'3 When this is heard in forthcoming public celebrations of the abolition of the slave trade despite the faith of William Wilberforce, will Christians be ready to respond?
Media antagonism matters because people today often form their picture of Christian faith much more from the media than from direct contact with Christians, churches or bible. It should give pause for thought that 'The firing squads that Stalin sent to liquidate the Buddhist monks of Mongolia gained at least something of their fanaticism and hatred of religion from those who told them that religion generated fanaticism and hatred'.4 Could there be a risk today that Islamic terrorists pictured in the media may wrongly become the basis for how people picture devout Muslims - and even devout people of other religions including 'the Christian religion'?
With such antagonism in mind, it appears encouraging that 76% of 2001 census respondents who answered the question about religion identified themselves as Christian. It seems they 'stubbornly refuse to be categorised as secular'5. This is important; but we need to think how, with care, and not attribute to it a significance it does not have.
More significant, perhaps, are the Christian values and ethos which still pervade our culture in important ways and the Christian presuppositions in which 'our way of life' is rooted. Granted that so much seems to be slipping away today, we must concede that there is some truth in the claim by Andy Duncan (Channel 4) that in Big Brother 'the qualities audiences are invited to admire are honesty, integrity, constancy, kindness' and that these are 'biblical values' (although this is not the most obvious invitation the programme represents!).
Insofar as Christian faith continues to act as leaven in our wider culture, mission can indeed be hindered as Gavin Reid writes where there is 'a heightened sense of contrast between the gathered community of Christians and the world outside'. Peter Riddell warns the same in the situation where church leaders, desiring to be inclusive towards people of other faiths, talk in general of 'people of faith' in a society without faith. 'There is a touch of exclusivism about the ejection of nominal Christians from the fold by practicing Christians',6 he writes. This may provoke the former to scorn the latter as arrogant.
'Mind the gap!'
Yet there is vital need to distinguish the Christian life from the common 'way of life' in Britain today. Our culture is drifting away from Christian faith, and at an accelerating rate.
Recognition of this can wrongly prompt, to be sure, a turn to self-absorption among Christians. It can merely produce a church 'of but not in the world'.
The Christian vocation to be 'in but not of the world' is more radical than this. It is also more radical than has been acknowledged often in conventional Christianity. Mission therefore requires more than cultural retrieval.
Conventional Christianity has tended to equate ‘being Christian’ with conformity in church attendance; assent to the creed; obedience to the ten commandments; and being personally reasonable, morally principled, and of a kind disposition (the meaning and worth of which were taken to be self-evident to any civilised human being).
However, in truth these elements in a Christian life draw nourishment from a Gospel more comprehensive than they, an all-pervading Gospel which tacitly shapes our understanding of God, of the world and our place in it. When this Gospel 'worldview' gets displaced by other worldviews shaped by principalities and powers, Christian life is subverted - both beyond and even within the gathered church.
How, then, shall Christians become 'in but not of the world'?
Christian, Secular and Pagan
Basic will be the discernment that so-called ‘secular’ society is actually imbued with commitments of an (unrecognised) ‘religious’ nature - commitments by reference to which Christianity itself gets judged if it receives any attention at all. Christian thinkers who have discerned these 'religious' commitments have characterised them variously as worldview commitments; as relocating 'the sacred'; as the worship of idols; and as neo-paganism. They range from the idols of consumerism to fundamentalist versions of 'pc' ideology and free-market ideology.
Christians must necessarily engage critically with all these 'religious' commitments. But they can only do so insofar as the terms of engagement are revealed by a faith which takes seriously the 'worldview' implications of the Gospel more than conventional Christianity has often done. Christian mission points beyond the task of cultural retrieval.
Meeting the challenge
The task calls for attention at four levels:
1. Personal Christian formation: the Church might aim to deepen the biblical and doctrinal spiritual formation of every Christian through catechesis, rolling programmes, cursillo groups etc. This should be worked out in constant engagement with Western culture, equipping people to live a lay Christian life attuned to the tacit processes of worldview formation in our culture. For reflections on this in the U.S., see ACCESS nos. 505 and 510.
2. Public Christian formation: Christians might help those who shape public life, policy and education to understand the formative nurturing role of Christian faith historically in our culture, and point to the rich horizons and hope it offers today. Dee Dyas' 'Christianity and Culture Project' (Newsletter 43) provides an example of this.
3. Inter-Christian dialogue: Diverse Christian traditions might work together on the common challenge of mission to Western culture. Anglicans and anabaptists, Kuperians and communio Catholics have important insights to learn from each other in this setting.
4. Theological analysis and apologetics. Carver T. Yu writes 'If the Christian faith is to have a vital impact on culture, then the proclamation of faith needs a sharp cutting edge in its confrontation with hostile ideologies of the world. Theological reflection and research is the labour for the sharpening of that cutting edge.' The newly opened Centre for the Study of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Nottingham, for example, will hopefully contribute to this labour.7
Dr. Who and the gods of science fiction
Science fiction prides itself on its speculative and varied character, but it arguably adopts certain ‘default’ positions. One of these is reductive materialism. A stark example of this appears at the opening of the third volume of Marxist Ken Macleod's ‘Engines of Light’ science fiction saga:
‘The god who later became known as the asteroid 10049 Lora… was not unusual of its kind. Around the Sun, as with most stars, gods swarm like flies around a sacrifice. Life arises from states of matter. From some of these states of matter arise states of mind’1
For MacLeod, genuine transcendence does not exist: deity is simply a state reached by matter evolving into higher states of mind. This crude equation of godliness with power and knowledge or even information is made by many authors, seemingly without embarrassment.2
Screen as well as literary science fiction shows powerful beings as ‘gods’. The heroes of the various Star Trek TV series from Captain Kirk on have all defied such tyrannical ‘godlike’ beings.3 The moral is clear -as Jean-Luc Picard says to the god-like ‘Q’ on more than one occasion: ‘Get off my ship!’4
Nor do other series or franchises tell a different story. Rival science fiction saga Babylon 5 climaxed when its hero told star-battling aliens to ‘Get the hell out of our galaxy!’ The Enlightenment narrative predominates: such ‘godlike’ aliens are metaphors for a paternalistic God who must be shucked off so that autonomous humanity can develop.5 Science fiction stories in this way reflect the dominant intellectual paradigm of our society. And we clap ourselves on the back for our affirmation of the human spirit in the process.
Such alien ‘gods’ often discover that they should not only respect humanity, but have something to learn from it as well. Computers, robots, androids and Vulcans ( Data, Spock) all need to learn to become more human. In the Star Trek: the Next Generation episode, ‘Deathwish’ the ‘godlike’ inhabitants of the ‘Q continuum’ even found that it was preferable to acquire human mortality rather than dwell in the tediousness of a stagnant eternity. Such self-congratulation is characteristic of most American TV science fiction series.
How does that great British institution, Dr. Who compare? Previously characterised by such as sf authors Brian Aldiss and John Clute as reflecting different (British) perspectives, the new Russell T. Davies produced series is deliberately a new Dr. Who for a new generation. He says his view is optimistic.
There are many merits to the new show. It has been described ‘a triumph’, astonishingly even by a long-time enemy, Michael Grade, the man who took Doctor Who off TV screens in 1989.6 Certainly to those of us long-term fans of the show who, inured by a long history of disappointments, had been anticipating it with considerable anxiety, it has proved not only to be ‘not too bad’ but – at times – very good indeed. Christopher Ecclestone and Billie Piper (the former now sadly leaving), have inhabited the parts as if born to them. The storylines have been varied, fast and entertaining with witty scripts and high production values. There have been laughs, scares, and delights - like Rose hanging at the end of a barrage balloon cable over a Blitzed London, and the Doctor fighting with a child for the remote control to be able to watch the TV coverage of a crashed alien spacecraft. Restored decades late to its original Saturday teatime position, Dr. Who has made genuine family viewing possible again. The thirteen weeks of the series shot by; and now one waits with eager anticipation for the Christmas special and a new series in 2006 with Casanova-star David Tennant as the new Doctor.
There is much that can be said theologically about Dr. Who. There is an immediate and obvious contrast between Timelords on the one hand and the Lord of time and space on the other; there are issues of salvation, and (particularly in this last series) the giving of second chances, whether it be to the genocidal alien Slitheen ‘Margaret’ or to humans so that ‘this time everyone lives!’7There is the issue (raised by Davies himself) as to whether the Doctor is playing at being a god himself in adjudicating matters of life and death, and irresponsibly always moving on, leaving others to pick up the pieces.
The final story, ‘Parting’ however raised a host of other questions. The iconic mechanical monsters, the Daleks, reappear, worshipping their Emperor and denouncing the Doctor (arch-heretic?) as ‘blasphemer’ for his refusal to do so too. The doctor organises desperate resistance against this ‘god’. This time it is the doctor’s companion Rose who defeats them. In a confused and confusing mystical conclusion to the season, she allows herself to be somehow possessed by the ‘heart’ of the TARDIS, the Doctor’s space and time machine, and thereby enabled to annihilate the Daleks (and somehow bring at least back one human to life).
What we seem to have here is a standard polemic against religion, simultaneously associated with a kind of humanistic transcendentalism. Like many science fiction works,8 repudiation of what Christians would consider as the genuine transcendent is accompanied by a spiritualisation of matter. It is possible, of course, to contrast true worship with that of ‘false gods’ (probably the line of Stargate SG-1’s view of the Go’auld), but I doubt whether this is what Russell T. Davies has in mind. Rather we find a Star Trek-like exaltation of humanity: on several occasions through the series Ecclestone’s character has repeatedly expressed amazement at Rose, Britain’s resistance to Hitler, and humanity as a whole – ‘you’re amazing, the lot of you’.9
So, it seems, Dr. Who is now treading the same path as the USA - possibly reflecting the dominance of American culture in our world today?
More profoundly, what we see is that the rejection of God leads not to atheism, but replacement by other objects of worship. Science fiction may seem to be hostile to religion, but its default position is actually deeply religiose. It does not oppose religion; it merely proposes an alternative.10
Let's talk about poverty
Let's talk about poverty. That is the message which the MAKE POVERTY HISTORY campaign is trying to get across. Let's think about poverty and what it really means. As a result of Live 8 millions of us now know that 30,000 children die every day as a direct result of extreme poverty. That's one child every three seconds. Click. Click Click. Its a powerful message. But its not a comfortable message for a society that has sold its soul to the god of mammon and consumerism. So we shouldn't be surprised if the message of Live 8 is soon drowned out by lots of other messages, most of them telling us to go back to our old consumerist ways. Our consciences may have been disturbed a little for a few days, but television does that to us on a regular basis and most of us have got used to that now.
Its easy to be cynical about this. Yet I think that we need to recognise the nature of the battle that we are in. We cannot defeat the culture of consumerism simply by promoting another message in the marketplace. Behind MAKE POVERTY HISTORY is a very powerful message, as powerful in its way as the conviction which led to the abolition of slavery. OFCOM recently ruled that the MAKE POVERTY HISTORY alliance may not advertise the three second "click" message on television because this is a political movement. Of course its political. So is buying cheap clothing in supermarkets. How is it that a store can offer a pair of jeans for £5.00? Or are we simply not supposed to think about that?
If MAKE POVERTY HISTORY is to succeed, then those who believe in its aims will have to live accordingly. We will need to choose to live more simply and to give more of our time and energy to a long fight. At the heart of all this is a struggle between two different views of society. One is an essentially selfish, consumer centred society, and the other is a society where we are here for the purpose of serving one another and serving God.
We should be talking about poverty. But we need to do more than talk. We need to live our lives as a prophetic challenge to our consumerist age. There is nothing that Ofcom can do to stop that.
War: memories - and foresight
Many casualties of war are immediately obvious; others less so. The sixtieth anniversary of the end of World War II invites us to acknowledge the lasting scars of war - mental and emotional, as well as physical - upon its survivors. Statistics on homelessness and unemployment in the U.S. reveal the delayed appearance of war-induced trauma among war combatants; grounds for concern are appearing among British Territorialists deployed in the Iraq war. In ACCESS No. 487 (newsletter 43)1, Peter van de Kasteele reminds us that traumatic war memories are often a burden long carried in silence.
The scars of war are great, and extend beyond the immediately apparent. Yet we can only imagine with horror what price might have been paid for continuing appeasement of Hitler. The challenge has always been rather to anticipate and address potential conflict, before it becomes to late to avoid the most grim decision. There is a poignant moment in the Tolkien film The Two Towers when, poised for battle with the massed armies of darkness, a voice asks: 'How has it come to this?' We have a responsibility to pre-empt the circumstance in which this question confronts us.
Jacque Ellul believed that Christians have a unique responsibility to anticipate and warn. He wrote:
'It was in 1934 (the occupation of the Ruhr), or in 1935 (the war in Abyssinia), that Christians should have foretold the inevitable war against Naziism. That was when clarity of vision was essential. After 1937 it was too late. The fate of the world was already sealed for thirty years or more Precisely because Christians should not be rooted in the current situations of the world, they (and they alone) ought to render the outstanding service of giving warning of political issues to come, which are going to be knotty and are threatening to appear. That would be an absolutely decisive service, because it would come at a time when political situations could still be resolved.'2
Here words written in 1932 by the young Lesslie Newbigin give us pause for thought today:
'one of the strongest elements in the thinking of modern Germany is a deep distress of the individualism which is felt to have been dominant in the democratic-capitalist civilization of pre-war (i.e. WW1 - editor) Europe, a feeling after authority and authoritative forms of government, and a conviction that a man’s worth is not just in himself but finds its expression only in a group. This idea is caught up in the conception of Volkstum, the conception of the folk or people as the God-given group in which the individual finds his true worth. This passionate "folk consciousness" is the dominating thing in German though today – a feeling of the oneness and greatness of the German people, and at the same time a burning sense of the humiliations to which that great people is being subjected. Against this stand all so-called international forces which seem to stand for the levelling down and subjugation of the rich distinctiveness of national life…
Linked with this rejection of individualism is the growth of the desire for planning and control in industry and commerce, as against the anarchy of present-day capitalism, and it has been the triumph of Hitler to wed together these two forces – nationalism and socialism – into the movement which he leads.'
Are there not themes here which resonate with feelings today among Muslims and other non-Western groups, and contribute towards the potential for a 'clash of civilizations' warned by Samuel Huntingdon? Wilbur Shenk reflects (ACCESS No. 506) on the mission of the Church in this situation. It is a situation which cries out for more than either the postmodern rhetorical celebration of diversity on one hand, or the pursuit of secularist foundations for civil society on the other. Can Christians give the necessary warnings, and point to a better way?
EKKLESIA:A RESOURCE FOR CHRISTIAN POLITICAL THOUGHT AFTER CHRISTENDOM
Introduced by Director Jonathan Bartley
We live at the end of Christendom, the era when western Christianity enjoyed hegemony in public life. For the best part of 1700 years, the church located itself in and around the business of government. Now it must adjust to a new situation of plurality rather than privilege, minority rather than majority.
Recognising the epochal significance of this shift, the UK think-tank Ekklesia was set up in 2001. Its aim was to help explore what difference a post-Christendom Christian perspective could make in the political arena. At the heart of its work is the conviction that both the Gospel and the contemporary situation requires the church to relinquish the desire for political control, and instead to focus on the practical and theological challenge of witness in and to the polis.
For many in the churches, the ‘loss’ of Christendom is a threat. It is a situation in which religious symbols are being removed from public places, Christ is being derided, and that the church is being mocked and marginalised. Nothing, it seems, is sacred any more. The temptation is to ‘fight back’, to seek to wrest control back from ‘secular society’.
But there is another way of looking at all this. Post-Christendom means that the church is set free from the weight of establishment respectability. It no longer has to be the ‘glue’ in the social order. Instead it is free to think in new ways, to act more daringly, to identify with those pushed to the edges of society, and to pursue strategies of ground-up witness rather than top-down control. It also means that much of what the church lost following the colonisation of Christianity under Constantine can be rediscovered.
Stuart Murray, an Ekklesia associate, has pointed out that historically the ‘politics of Jesus’ (John Howard Yoder) proved embarrassing to a church which found itself required to support torture, imprisonment and the waging of wars. Christendom gave the church power, but at the expense of aligning it with those same forces that put Jesus to death.
By contrast, Ekklesia locates its own contribution to the dialogue about faith and public life in a modern re-engagement with Anabaptism – the ‘radical reformation’ movement that emphasised discipleship, nonconformity and non-violence at the heart of its common life and witness
‘Radical’ is perhaps the defining feature, in the sense of seeking to take the subversive roots of the Christian faith with renewed seriousness in a twenty-first century situation. Ekklesia is difficult to pigeon-hole in the usual terms of internecine church conflict. It has been dubbed ‘liberal’ by the Daily Telegraph and ‘evangelical’ by the Church Times. We find the confusion encouraging and revealing.
In practical terms, Ekklesia works cooperatively. It has two co-directors, Jonathan Bartley and Simon Barrow, and around 20 associates. But no-one is full time, most are occasional contributors, and no-one receives a salary. Much of our work is web-based, using email and the internet, so overheads are kept to a minimum. However through the web site we do raise around £50,000 a year for peace, justice and development projects around the world.
Ekklesia seeks to stimulate debate and enrich discussion by resisting angry polarisation and by providing fresh perspectives which may have been overlooked, forgotten or not even considered. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq we discussed strategies for non-violent regime change in the national media. We help promote the work of Christian Peacemaker Teams around the world, and advocate for restorative justice and alternatives to custodial punishment.
Ekklesia also responds to current events, as with our post 7/7 proposals, ‘Beyond the Politics of Fear’. During the May 2005 general election we highlighted a post-Christendom approach to Christian engagement with the political process (‘Subverting the Manifestos’). We also recently offered a theological and economic analysis of ecumenical thinking on the ethics of wealth (‘Is God redundant?’), and an appraisal of the BBC2 documentary ‘God and the Politicians’, concerning the religious manipulation of politics.
In addition to research and commentary, Ekklesia collaborates with others through conferences, events and consultancy. A current example is the Westminster Forum for policy-makers, NGOs, church agencies and politicians – where Ekklesia associate Vaughan Jones offered a radical critique of anti-immigration assumptions earlier this year.
A significant part of our work involves a daily news briefing service which goes by email to journalists around the world. Our stories, displayed and archived on the web, are picked up as far and wide as the Washington Times or CNN, ABC news in Australia, and syndicates in Africa and Asia. We seek quality and fairness in reporting, but with angles and subjects other parts of the media often miss out.
In Ekklesia’s experience, those working in radio, TV, print and the web are often keen to hear from Christians who can provide a lively, fresh and informed perspective on how faith relates to culture – and who are not just wanting to pump out ‘a line’ or defend a vested interest.
We have been called on to discuss topics as diverse as football as a new faith, church advertising, religion and conflict… even ‘Jerry Springer - The Opera’, where we found ourselves at odds with others in the church by opposing censorship and calling for a more positive, nuanced Christian engagement with the arts.
The Independent newspaper recently ranked Ekklesia as one of the top 20 British think-tanks in the UK. That’s flattering, but probably exaggerated. We certainly get tens of thousands of visitors to the website each week. But we still operate on a shoestring and our aspirations considerably outweigh our resources. Then again, we are not looking to become ‘established’, merely useful and, we hope, appreciated even by those who see things very differently to us.
Andrew Goddard, Living the Word, Resisting the World: The Life and Thought of Jacques Ellul , Paternoster, 2002, 378pp., £24.99pb.
This book provides a comprehensive account of the life and thought of the French Reformed historian, sociologist and theologian Jacques Ellul (1912-1994). As such it will prove an indispensable tool both for those interested in his theology and sociology and for Christian ethicists in general.
The biographical section of the book is particularly enlightening. It provides detail on Ellul’s life that has until now remained uncovered or little known. It also provides the context within which Goddard sets his analysis of Ellul’s work – his aim is to interpret Ellul’s thought against the historical backdrop in which it developed.
Following a global overview of Ellul’s thought, Goddard offers a detailed examination of his thinking on three areas: violence, law and politics. The three chapters devoted to these three topics comprise the core of the book. The analysis is incisive and sound, and two of the chapters end with helpful concluding summaries.
Unusually for an academic book, especially one that started out as a doctoral thesis, Goddard offers a final chapter that considers the contemporary relevance of Ellul’s legacy. This is full of perceptive reflections and readers already familiar with Ellul’s thought are likely to find this the most interesting and useful part of the book.
One of the characteristics of Ellul’s thought that is both intriguing and frustrating is its apparent inconsistency. Goddard is willing to admit this, pointing out that it suffers from frequent changes and ‘apparent chaos’. His book is therefore a brave attempt both to emphasize the overall coherence of Ellul’s thought and to interpret its development in relation to historical and biographical events.
This allows the nuances in Ellul’s arguments to be better appreciated. Take, for instance, the issue to what extent Christian engagement with the contemporary world is to be based on experience as opposed divine revelation. Although, Goddard explains, Ellul denies that revelation provides a distinctly Christian political or legal system, he does believe it shows the unique and distinctive pattern of life that Christians ought to emulate.
For Ellul, therefore, revelation does not help explain how particular human societies are structured nor how we should study them – he came to reject his earlier belief in universal divine order. Rather, revelation offers a truer perspective on society. It shows how our social and political worlds are part of a world which has broken its communion with God. Christians are thereby enabled to be more realistic about contemporary society, shunning all attempts to mask its harsh realities.
Goddard uses this argument to make the case that the church needs to get below the surface of social issues to identify the deeper, more fundamental theological perspectives involved. He insists, along with Ellul, that the church must reject not only the answers but also the questions posed by the world. Instead it should develop alternative agendas and new responses that will serve to make Christian reflection distinctive.
In so doing, Goddard explains, the church would be heeding Ellul’s prophetic call to ‘live the Word and resist the world’. This does not mean that it must constantly condemn the world for failing to conform to the revealed will of God. But it does mean offering a distinctive and faithful witness to Christ in every area of life.
Goddard’s book is not easy reading and it is not always clear where he is seeking merely to describe or interpret Ellul and where he is offering a critique. But for those who seek to live with theological integrity at the intersection of gospel and culture Goddard has provided a robust and stimulating introduction to a great Christian thinker.
Peter S Heslam
Ian Cowley is an author and Vicar of Yaxley and Holme with Conington, in the Diocese of Ely
Peter S Heslam, FRSA, is Research Associate in Social and Economic
and Director-designate, Transforming Business, Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge University
Stephen May is an author and Vicar of Norden in the Diocese of Manchester
Gavin Reid, OBE, is an author and retired Bishop of Maidstone