The Western church is about to enter stage two of its exile from the mainstream culture and the public square. And it will not be an easy time.
In case you missed it, Exile Stage One began a few decades or so ago, budding in the sexual revolution of the sixties before building up a head of steam some 20 years ago. Finally some Christians sat down to talk about it 15 or so years ago, and that set the ball, and the publishing companies rolling.
For those of us in ministry who were culture watchers, Exile Stage One was a heady time. Only we never called it Exile Stage One. We simply called it “Exile”, and poured over biblical texts such as the exilic book of Daniel and its New Testament counterpart 1Peter. After all no one ever called World War One “World War One” before World War Two came along, right? It was simply the Great War. So too with exile. Cafes were taken over for morning conversations between up and coming exilic leaders, pubs were used for exilic church, MacBooks were bought in bulk and emerging/missional trailblazers employed coffee quality as a spiritual boundary marker with a zeal that would have made any Second Temple Judaism adherent weep with recognition.
In Exile Stage One the prevailing narrative was that the Christian church was being marginalised, Christendom was over; the church needed to come up with better strategies; to strip away the dross, and all in order to reconnect Jesus with a lost world. We were all about “ad fontes“, a second Reformation getting back to the ecclesiastical source – hopefully utilising the Bible – or at the very least the Early Church Fathers and a bunch of candles (now-now – Sarcastic Ed).
The biggest problem the church had, according to Exile Stage One thinking, was that no one was talking about us anymore. And as Oscar Wilde wryly observed, the only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about. So in Exile Stage One the conferences and front-room conversations were busy talking about what it was like not being talked about. We’d been marginalised; locked out of interesting rooms; been abandoned at a rate of knots; discarded. Only a few perceptive people had seen it happening. How many? Well probably no more than in this front room with us, and perhaps a few others who meet at pub church every third Sunday.
And oh, everyone was quoting Lesslie Newbigin, or at least the only line of his they knew about the congregation being the hermeneutic of the gospel or some such. Everyone was discussing what it meant to have Christian convictions, but be post-foundational. Christendom was collapsing, and isn’t that a good thing, given all the fighting and crusades and bad stuff priests did? Were we not sick of simply being chaplains to the culture? Time to refresh. Time to do organic/total/on-the-other-side/radical church. For Exile Stage One adherents there was a kind of glee that Christendom was falling. And if it was holding out in some areas such as North America, so what? Who wants to be a Southern Baptist anyway, what with single malt and cigars being so tasty and all?
Of course, I am being a little facetious, and in a way I have a right to be. I got involved in this Exile Stage One process and it has informed much of my thinking and that won’t change. I also met amazing people, creative thinkers and theologians who deserve a hearing and a reading.
But here’s the problem. Exile Stage One thinking has left Christians completely unprepared for Exile Stage Two reality. There were a set of assumptions made by Exile Stage One-rs that have not lined up with what is going to pan out over the coming three or so decades if the last five years are any indication. Let me map out some of these misplaced assumptions briefly:
1. We Assumed Athens not Babylon
For all of the talk about exile, the language of Athens, and the need to find a voice in a culture of competing ideas, was far more prevalent than the language of the true city of exile, Babylon. We were exploring ways to deal with the culture being disinterested in us, not despising us. I well remember myself saying “People are not walking past your church and saying, ‘If I never go to church, that’s the one I am never going to.’ No, they don’t see it at all.” That’s Athens talk, and assumes that if we can just show a point of connection to the culture then the conversation will flow and we will all get along.
I have changed my mind on this one. If the last five or six years are any indication, the culture (read: elite framework that drives the culture) is increasingly interested in bringing the church back into the public square. Yes, you heard that right. But not in order to hear it, but rather in order to flay it, expose its real and alleged abuses and to render it naked and shivering before a jeering crowd. It is Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego standing up before the statue of gold, whilst everyone else is grovelling and going, “Pssst, kneel down for goodness sake!”. It is officials conspiring with the king to show that Daniel’s act of praying towards Jerusalem three times per day is not simply an archaic and foolish hope, but a very real threat to the order of the society and the new moral order that will hold it together.
If the primary characteristic of Exile Stage One was supposed to be humility, the primary characteristic of Second Stage Exiles will have to be courage. Courage does not mean bombastic pronouncements to the world, not at all. It has to be much deeper than that. It will mean, upon hearing the king’s command that no one can pray to any god save the king for thirty days, that we go into our rooms with the window open towards Jerusalem and defy that king even as our accusers hunt us down. It means looking the king in his enraged face and saying, even in our God does not rescue us from the flames, we will not serve your gods or bow down to your statue of gold. Unlike Athens, Babylon is not interested in trying to out-think us, merely overpower us. Apologetics and new ways of doing church don’t cut it in Babylon. Only courage under fire will.
2. We Assumed a Neutral Culture Not a Hostile World
How many Christian books/articles/conferences have there been over the past years that dealt with the concept of culture? How many times were were told that the role of the exiled Christian was to make a difference in the culture? That whether we were involved in church or not, the real kingdom change was going to take place out there in the culture? Google the word “culture” and the word “Christian”. Check it out.
Whilst I admire many of these works and am indebted to several exceptionally gifted culture watchers, the always impressive Scott McKnight has belled the cat on this one in his latest book – Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church. He nails the naivety of what he calls “the Skinny Jeans Crowd” over the nature of the surrounding culture. Here’s what he says:
“Not only have our efforts at culture’s transformation far underachieved the goals (except on paper), but this word “culture” seems to be replacing the Bible’s word ‘world’ (emphasis mine). Put less discreetly, just sprinkle some baptismal water on ‘world’ and we can now call it ‘culture’. in this sense, ‘culture’ becomes the redeemed elements of the world, but with the connotations of world dismissed. Why say this? Because the word ‘world’ does not come off so well in the New Testament.” (p16)
He then lists myriad texts in John’s gospel in which the world is linked with other words. Words such as “darkness”, “below”, “hate” and so on. McKnight goes on to make the point that Jesus did not come to make the world a better place, but to redeem people out of it, and that trying to make the world a better place is in fact, “a species of worldliness.”
Now I acknowledge that the whole either/or language of “worldliness” is anathema to many of us who grew up in fundamentalist faiths that tried to keep us from engaging with the world, and especially those of us who were creative types, because the “arts” were not simply “the arts” , but the “dark arts” in Fundamentalist-land. I well remember telling my Northern Irish great grandmother – Brethren to the back false teeth – that I wanted to be a journalist when I grew up. “Why would you do something so worldly?” she asked, before offering me too much cake and a cup of weak tea.
Many of us, worn out by fundamentalism’s battle scars and the gated-compound-thinking, drove Exile Stage One thinking precisely to get away from this false dichotomy. But McKnight’s baby should not be thrown out with the baptismal bath water. The creation is good, but has been corrupted; it portrays a great God, but is the theatre for all sorts of godless depravity. McKnight quotes the late, tragically worldly theologian John Howard Yoder who called the world “structured unbelief, taking with it a fragment of what should have been the Order of the Kingdom.”
So what’s the point? If we assumed neutral culture we assume we can get involved in, and play with, culture without getting infected by it. That we can remain distinct from it, undrawn to its more sickly parts, and more than capable of knowing when to say no to culture’s soft-focus, slow-motion beckoning and effete “Join us! Join us!” plea (Game of Thrones anyone? – Netflix Ed).
Simply put we assume that we can have more impact on culture than it can have on us. That is dangerously naive thinking. Jesus never said the culture will misunderstand you, he said the world will hate you. He did not say to his disciples, “Display reckless abandon and go out there and change culture,”, he said “fear not, I have overcome the world.”(John 16:33).
How have I seen this play out over the past decade? Sadly in too many ways. Whilst good has come of it, I have watched too often as burnt out evangelicals who are sick to death with fundamentalist infightings drift first from saying we must get back to the source of the gospel for the sake of the culture, to re-interpreting the gospel in the shape of the world. I have watched as what began as a series of questions beginning with “What if we changed the perspective on how we look at this traditional issue?” to “Did God really say?”. And painful though it is to say, the post-evangelical Sexuality Gospel has simply replaced the Boomer Prosperity Gospel for a generation that idolises the comfort that experience offers, rather than the comfort that money offers.
The result? All too often Exile Stage One became Exit Stage Left. Post-evangelicalism/post-foundationalism took many people down the path of post-Christian, providing a soft landing for those who wanted to jump out of the plane but were afraid of heights. I will say more on this in a later post, but that’s my nutshell thinking on this one.
3. We Loosened Our Language Just When The Cultural Elites Were Tightening Theirs.
There is a whole book in this, but suffice to say, many Exile Stage One proponents were busy loosening the bolts on their language wheels at the very time the cultural framework was tightening up theirs. And no prizes for guessing whose wheels have fallen off! Or to use another metaphor if we fail to appreciate and use the language in our armoury then someone will steal in, take it and use it against us. We’ve cultivated a half generation of Christian literature completely certain about its uncertainty when it comes to terminologies. Meanwhile the cultural framework is more and more certain about its terminologies.
A prime example relates to public ethical matters. A church that has gone all loose on language for the sake of reaching the culture – dropping the categories given to it by its time-tested theology – is suddenly finding its own terminologies and thought-forms used against it, and it is unsure how to respond. When it comes to sexual ethics now, it is not simply that traditional Christianity has “strange” or “weird” or even “interesting” perspectives, but rather “wrong”, “bad”, “unenlightened”, even “sinful” positions. Read the opinion pages.
The semantic field of “heretic” will increasingly surface in Second Stage Exile when describing traditional Christianity. Now I am not saying its the church’s role to scold the culture, it’s not, because the primary and critical place the church loosened the wheel nuts of language was in the church! Exile Stage One proponents were very often critical of the Boomer-led Mega-church which jettisoned theological language to reach an indifferent, consumer culture. But their criticism did not extend to picking the language off the floor, dusting it off and using it again. If anything they exacerbated the Boomers’ mistake of displacing theological language by distrusting theological language (the new Reformed crowd being an exception). That junking of language categories was a crucial error. If our God is a speaking God then language is deeply theological and deeply moral. It’s no mere play-thing to put to one side when we are disinterested in it. We use it or we lose it – to others.
Now that loss will surprise you if your city category is Athens, but not if it is Babylon. Listen to what Peter says to his exilic communities scattered throughout the Roman Empire:
“Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:11-12)
The Roman Empire viewed the early Christians as bad. Just think about that. For decades in Australia Christians were regarded pejoratively as “do-gooders”. In Second Stage Exile the pejorative is “do-badders”.
This is the same Peter, by the way, that can say in the very next verse “submit yourself for the Lord’s sake to every human authority, whether to the emperor as supreme authority, or to the governors…” This is not for the faint-hearted. We need to be able to pick our way through language minefields without blowing our legs off. And that will take hard work. Foaming-at-the-mouth ranting – the rage of the culturally impotent – is no option, but neither is the surrender of our thought and language categories to the culture. We need to learn to speak truth to power, just as I was taught in my Arts degree back in the 80s, only this time the roles have been reversed. What was marginal in the universities of the 80s is mainstream political language of the 21st century.
I observed even yesterday in a social media exchange that a hard secularist was more than happy to use the thought categories of “insider/outsider”, “sinner/saint”, “heresy/truth” “god/devil” in defending his position. Faced with no original language of his own to describe his anathema to the Christian position, he simply said “Don’t mind me!” leaned across and took ours! And here we were being so careful to be seen not to cut anyone with our language.
A personalised, pietistic “Jesus is my homeboy” theology-lite simply will not stand up in the face of a public reshaping of language. Exile Stage One proponents must unlock the armoury door, whet the stone and sharpen the tools of language once more, not in order to slay people, but in order “to contend for the faith once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
And what does Jude go on to say? He utilises language and terminologies that even in private usage make us blush, and are probably not for public viewing:
But, dear friends, remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ foretold. They said to you, “In the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires.” These are the people who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit. But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh. (Jude 1:23)
(By the way, there’s nothing in there about placarding parliament).
The letter of Jude is true, unadulterated exile language. It’s unadulterated precisely because his readers had never experienced the mild disinterest of Exile Stage One brought about by the eclipse of Christendom. They were hated right from the moment Jesus was nailed to a tree, but got on with contending for the faith, godly living in their communities and love towards God and others nonetheless.
That is what we must recover. Second Stage exiles do not place their hope in a city here, be it Athens or Babylon, but seek a city that is to come. (Hebrews 13). Second Stage Exiles do not need the approval of the culture, neither do they need to provoke the culture in order to feel good about themselves. No, true exiles can live out their time in exile with confidence, love and hope because they trust in him “who is able to keep [them] from stumbling and to present [them] before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy.” (Jude 1:24).
Christian, Second Stage Exile is coming. Are you ready for it?