My home town of Perth, Western Australia is a dry place. A very dry place, and it’s become drier.
Western Australia is a dry place and it’s become drier.
When my family first moved to sunny Perth in the 1970s, the long term rainfall average for our city was approximately 850mm per year. Now that sounds okay; and indeed, it is more rainfall than London receives each year; and people don’t generally move to London to get more sunshine (unless it’s from Glasgow).
But Perth is hotter—much hotter than London—and that rainfall occurs in a few select months in winter and spring. Some years we’re lucky to get any rain at all from mid-November to May. It’s just blue sky day after blue sky day. For months.
And if you do happen to live in London, you may wonder what’s wrong with that. Well, remember those hosepipe bans you have from time to time? Well double that and then times it by ten. That’s the level of caution somewhere like Perth has to apply to its water use.
When rain finally does come in Perth after a long, hot summer, it’s a relief. Indeed the fresh smell of rain washing the dust from the peppermint trees lining the streets of my old suburb, was a sign of life and cleansing. It’s a smell locked into my olfactory memory, and it’s a gentle endorphin kick.
But Perth has less rain now than in the 1970s. The long-term average has dropped 100mm in the last three decades. Occasionally we get a very wet winter and a few summer downpours that buck the trend, but the long-term average doesn’t appear to be heading north any time soon.
But here’s the double-blow. Once the long-term average drops, the odd trend-bucking rainy winter won’t undo the damage. We often rejoice when there’s been a wet month, but the good folks at the Bureau of Meteorology simply shrug their shoulders and say something like this:
The rain has been good, but we haven’t reached the run-off stage yet.”
What they mean is this: What we see as life-giving, ground-soaking rain hasn’t done anything but wet the topsoil. The local dams around our city stay stubbornly low even after a good month of rain.
That is, until the ground is so soaked by constant and heavy rain that it saturates and finally run-off occurs. Water starts to fill the dams. But that takes a lot longer than you think. The deep underground water level in Perth has dropped dramatically as the descending rainfall average waves up at the the ascending population growth which is busy sucking up water with bores. Until the rain starts to run-off, and then fill the dams, the situation will not change much, even after a wet winter.
It’s the same with gospel rain.
The long term average gospel rainfall in the West has been dropping over the past three or four secular decades. And we can get by with that for a while. The ground of the Western culture has been so well watered by gospel rain for centuries, that the run-off into the cultural dams has been something we have taken for granted. The groundwater level was high, and gospel rain replenished the dams.
So, we assumed that the cultural dams were full of gospel run-off such as:
- A common view of right and wrong.
- A common view of humanity.
- A recognition of the necessity of forgiveness.
- A belief in the reality of evil (what it might look like, and what might be the solution).
- An understanding of the binary nature of male and female, that issued from—if not belief in creation, then at least an assumption that science said much the same thing.
- Familiarity with the idea of God being the one who metes out vengeance and not us.
- The inherent dignity and value of the unborn, sick and ageing.
All of these, and more, were gospel run-off issues. They were the truths that filled the cultural dams and flowed out to the pipelines and irrigation systems of the society as almost an afterthought.
The Long Drought
And then, somewhere in the past thirty to fifty years, the rainfall level went down. Imperceptibly at first; a few millimeters every year; as Christianity’s influence on the culture was first noticed … then questioned … then loosened. Church attendance (except for Sunday School, to give mum and dad a quiet morning at home) started to fall away. The church, for so long the chaplain to the state, and which appeared like magic at every ceremony, whether religious or not, soon started to be noted for its absence. And then not noted at all.
But the rainfall kept declining. Soon it was affecting those closer to the centre of gospel life.
But the rainfall kept declining: year by year; season by season. And soon it was affecting those closer to the centre of gospel life. Those who did attend church every week, starting going once a fortnight or every third week. Other things crept in as equally important. Theological distinctions—once the bane of everyone’s existence—mattered less and less, and then mattered not at all. The main question for people joining a church today became (and is): “What do you have for kids?” as if their own discipleship was a fait accompli.
The rain had stopped falling.
And so the process continued. The ground got harder, the gospel climate became more arid. The groundwater level dropped lower, and eventually the run-off stopped running—regardless of the odd surge of gospel rainfall such as a localised revival. The dams got lower.
This created a deeper, longer term parching effect in the sub-terrain. The gospel run-off which produced an expectation that mercy should accompany justice; that forgiveness should balance vengeance; that holiness should accompany zeal; that humility would temper personality—all of that dried up. And, with the increasingly scarce rainfall, it may not be returning any time soon.
From Gospel Rain to Acid Rain
We are left with an acid rain of a post-Christian culture; a rain of vengeance, zealotry and the cult of personality.
What we are left with now is an acid rain of a post-Christian culture; a rain of vengeance, zealotry and the cult of personality. Even ordinary secularists have become dismayed at the relentless punishment of people for old mistakes on social media. See, for example, this article by SMH writer, Samantha Selinger-Morris.
Where does this new judgmentalism come from? According to Australian National University philosopher, Ben Bramble—whom Selinger-Morris quotes—it comes from the fact that things are getting better and better:
It’s also important to note, Bramble adds, that because society tends to “morally improve over time”—he mentions Martin Luther King Jr’s famous quote that, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but bends towards justice”—it is a complicated affair when we judge someone based on something they said a long time ago.
Cough, cough!! Does anyone get the irony of that? The huge assumption lying at the centre of that?
MLK made that claim about the arc of justice in the wake of a season of heavy gospel rainfall. He said it off the back of a speech steeped in the gospel rivers of justice, which flow down from a climate that had every philosophical reason to indeed bend towards justice, but had turned away to a broken cistern called racism.
MLK was shaming a Christianised culture; challenging it to repent and start slaking its thirst once again from the gospel dam! There was no sure arc of justice without a lodestar of gospel mercy in his speech.
Yet now we are being reduced to vengeance. Justice has been crowd-sourced; removed from a God who no longer occupies the public square.
Failing by Success
The Christian gospel did too good a job in western culture.
Tom Holland, who wrote that great book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, has observed that the Christian gospel did too good a job in western culture. It filled the societal dams so full and so freshly, that the assumption was that such conditions occurred naturally.
But then the water started drying up. Now we turn on the cultural tap of mercy and it’s just a puff of dust that comes out. Douglas Murray, an atheist writer, puts it well, and soberly, in his book The Madness of Crowds:
We live in a world where actions can have consequences we could never have imagined, where guilt and shame are more at hand than ever, and where we have no means whatsoever of redemption. We do not know who could offer it, who could accept it, and whether it is a desirable quality compared to an endless cycle of fiery certainty and denunciation.
Murray nails it. That’s exactly what Ben Bramble does not get.
The Downward Arc
I do admire some of the justice movements of the day. I have zero confidence that they will do anything other than what every other revolutionary response has ended up doing when it refuses the water of life found in the gospel. They will place power in the hands of a newly minted ruling class and kick-off a cycle of merciless vengeance.
It needs to rain and rain and rain. It will need decades of gospel rain to refill our cultural dams.
My prayer in the midst of all of this is for the rain to start falling again. Not the cultural rain, but the gospel rain. It needs to rain and rain and rain. Our churches are going to have to become places of grace and mercy, and yes justice, but all off the back of unseasonally heavy downpours of gospel rainfall. It will need decades of that to refill our cultural dams.
And I do mean decades. For just as Perth needs many years of rainfall to undo the parching lack of the past thirty years, so too the gospel rain will take a while to replenish the cultural dams—if indeed it ever comes. We are facing a harder, less merciful, and increasingly more zealous culture for the foreseeable future.
It’s time to start praying for gospel rain. But it’s still going to take some time for it to saturate the ground, begin to run off, and fill the cultural dams.
First published at stephenmcalpine.com