Friday, January 27, 2012

to change the world

It is one of the books of the decade for me (NB: pages 273-275 provide an excellent summary of the argument): James Davison Hunter's To Change the World (Oxford University Press, 2010).

In trying to distill its influence on me, three affirmations come to mind.


1. Our understanding of culture and change can be so wrong
Using words like 'flawed' (18), 'mistaken' (17), 'naive' (47), and 'ludicrous' (45), Hunter gets stuck into the prevailing view of culture and cultural change. It is the view that if we change the ideas, values and worldviews of individuals, the wider culture will be gradually changed. People like Charles Colson ('transformed people transform cultures') and James Dobson are in his sights, for example.

Three factors lie behind this perspective (16): (1) real change must proceed individually; (2) cultural change can be willed into being; (3) change is democratic in that it occurs from the 'bottom up', among ordinary citizens first. And so the anthem goes out, "You too can be a Wilberforce" (16). I've done it myself. But it is more nuanced than this. Hunter writes out of the American context and engages the paradox which has so fascinated me for years. How is it that a culture where 80+% of the population acknowledge a faith commitment to God which they claim impacts their values, ideas and worldviews ... how come the wider culture is increasingly godless, with such believers exerting a 'declining influence, especially in the realm of ideas and imagination' (19)? That is an awful lot of salt and light that it is not making a lot of difference.

Hunter argues that there is far more to cultural change than this and, in passing, he notes how both the Jewish and gay communities have grasped this far better than the Christian community (20). The influence of these minority communities have come by other means than embracing (1), (2), (3) in the preceding paragraph. 'If one is serious about changing the world, the first step is to discard the prevailing view of culture and cultural change and start from scratch' (27). He has a go himself, by offering the Eleven Propositions in his 'alternate view' (32-47). These brilliant pages need to be required reading for numerous courses at theological colleges and the basis for discussion of leadership teams of all churches and mission agencies. 'Culture is as much an infrastructure as it is ideas ... It is better to think of culture as a thing manufactured not by lone individuals but rather by institutions and the elites who lead them.' (34) And so it is more 'top down', than 'bottom up':
The work of world-making and world-changing are, by and large, the work of elites: gatekeepers who provide creative direction and management within spheres of social life. Even where the impetus for change draws from popular agitation, it does not gain traction until it is embraced and propagated by elites. (41)
and later
Cultural change at its most profound level occurs through dense networks of elites operating in common purpose within institutions at the high-prestige centers of cultural production [... and because this is the case] the Christian community is not remotely close to a position where it could actually change the world in any significant way. (274)
Then Hunter takes the reader on a quick trip through history (48-78), demonstrating that where there is cultural change, there is an 'alternative elite' (70, 71) created, embedded in networks and technologies and institutions. Then he comes into land in the contemporary landscape of American Christianity. He is pretty critical. Donors and foundations are generous, but short-sighted, as statistics show that 'very few resources ... go to supporting leadership in developing cultural capital in the centers of cultural production' (84). 'Christians in America today have institutional strength and vitality exactly in the lower and peripheral areas of cultural production' (89, as he notes, rather ironically, that their centers are in Wheaton and Colorado Springs, rather than New York City and San Francisco).
For all the deep belief, the genuine piety, the heroic faith, and the good intention one finds all across American Christianity today, large swaths have been captured by the spirit of the age ... Christianity in America is not only marginalized as a culture but it is is also a very weak culture (92) - even though it is very numerous.
2. Our pursuit of politics and power is so misguided
The thing that is wrong with this view of culture is that it ignores the institutional aspect to culture and disregards 'the way culture is embedded in structures of power' (27). Then, in seeking change, Christians have pursued the wrong kind of power (political) with the wrong kind of motivation, what Hunter calls ressentiment (from Nietzsche) where a mix of anger, envy, hate, rage and revenge becomes the motive for political action. [NB: on the Left we see this in the Occupy movement, and on the Right we see this in Fox TV]. Hunter's view is that 'contemporary Christian understandings of power and politics are a very large part of what has made contemporary Christianity in America appalling, irrelevant and ineffective' (95).

He takes his time in building this conclusion. A brilliant section on 'the Constantinian Error' at the core of this (152-156) is followed by a discussion, as dispassionately as he can, on the Christian Right (conservative, 112-131), the Christian Left (progressive, 132-149), and the neo-Anapbaptist (150-166) positions. He demonstrates how each has succumbed to 'the turn to politics' in their understanding of power - even the neo-Anabaptist, rather surprisingly for me. This is because their language and framework is still political. 'Even though the nature of politics and political action in the church is an inversion of the prevailing powers of the present age, the language of politics still provides the meaning for the public witness of the church' (163).
Where the identity of the Christian Right is forged largely through their opposition to secularism and secularists, where the identity of the Christian Left derives from their opposition to the Right, the collective identity of the neo-Anabaptists comes through their dissent from the State and the larger political economy and culture of late modernity. (164)   
So for all three, 'politics is always and everywhere the framework' (168), but the point that impacted me is how Hunter shows all three to be so 'relentlessly negative' (164). It is this ressentiment idea, creating 'a narrative of injury ... a discourse of negation towards all those they perceive to be to blame' (168).

Hunter then proceeds to speak of the illusion, the irony, and the tragedy of all this. The illusion? That mechanism of political power, the state, 'is not nearly as influential as the expectations most people have of it' (171). The irony? There is not a group in all of America that has done more to politicize values then Christians ... even when their own tradition contains so much that can be elevated above politics. The tragedy? 'Rather than being defined by its cultural achievements, its intellectual and artistic vitality, its service to the needs of others, Christianity is defined to the outside world by the rhetoric of resentment and the ambitions of a will in opposition to others' (174).Where are the 'expressions in their public discourse of delight, joy, or pleasure with anything in creation'? (174). All this creates
a dense fog through which it is difficult to recognize each other as fellow human beings and impossible to recognize the good that still is in the world. The tragedy is that in the name of resisting the internal deterioration and the corruption of the world around them, many Christians - and Christian conservatives, most significantly - unwittingly embrace some of the most corrosive aspects of the cultural disintegration they decry. By nurturing its resentments, sustaining them through a discourse of negation toward outsiders, pursuing their will to power, they become functional Nietzscheans, participating in the very cultural breakdown they so ardently strive to resist. (175)
A chapter on 'Rethinking Power: Theological Reflections' (176-193) follows - on his way to building an alternative view of power. Again he is tough on the neo-Anabaptist desire to 'accept powerlessness' - because it assumes a political view of power only, rather than thinking more positively about power - as expressed, for example, in the creation mandate. Hunter is in search of 'a postpolitical witness in the world' identified by (1) the life and identity of the church being 'disentangled' from the life and identity of American society; and (2) Christian believers 'decoupling' the public from the political (185). Maybe even keep politics at 'arm's length' for a season, he suggests, so that 'new ways of thinking and speaking and acting in the public that are not merely political' (186) can emerge.

3. The way forward is so refreshingly familiar, but difficult.
[This is my blog so I guess I can express this. In all my preaching in the NZ context over the past 30 years, no part of the Gospels has received as much attention as Salt and Light (people still talk to me about the little graph I devised on this) and no Epistle has been revisited more often than 1 Peter. I rejoiced as I reached his conclusions as these same notes were struck with such strength, both directly and indirectly. No wonder I like the book so much :)].

Hunter describes the three prevailing approaches to cultural engagement. (1) 'defensive against' (the response of conservatives, often the Right), causing the construction of 'a complex empire of institutions that function as a parallel universe to the secular world' (214). I would argue that it is too much light, at the expense of salt; (2) 'relevance to' (the response of progressives, often the Left), and expressed in seeker-sensitive, mega-church, and emerging church approaches. Hunter's response? 'This is cause for great alarm ... in the end, these initiatives, while well-intended and rooted in a deep longing, take their cue from the culture around them, and offer little clarity for the confusion of the times' (217). I would argue that it is too much salt, at the expense of light. (3) 'purity from' (I think he places the neo-Anabaptist here, but not fully convinced myself) - and again, too much light at the expense of salt.  Actually I am not always convinced that (3) is different enough from (1) to warrant its own mention.

For Hunter there is a fourth way, a 'quietly radical' (272) alternative: a 'faithful presence within' (salt and light in balance and in tension!). Here it is incarnation that is the crucial strategy. But it also gains its direction from God's faithful presence among his people as he pursues us, identifies with us, and offers life to us through sacrificial love. In return we must be 'faithfully present to him in return' (243) - in similar ways. Our faithful presence is played out in three directions: (1) '...to each other' within the community and to the stranger, 'attending to the people and places that we experience directly, (giving priority) to what is in front of us' (253); (2) '...to our tasks' marked by a 'fidelity to the highest practices of vocation before God (which) is consecrated and itself transformational in its effects' (254); (3) '...within our spheres of influence', as we are 'obligated to do what we are able to shape the patterns of life and work and relationship ... toward a shalom that seeks the welfare not only of those in the household of God but of all' (254).

This all gets back to the 'burden of leadership' from which the 'brush and debris' (255) needs to be cleared away. All Christians bear this burden to some degree. It must be carried without the arrogance of superiority or the emptiness of celebrity, for such leadership is 'artificial, unbiblical, organizationally unhealthy, inherently corrupting, and all too common in the Christian world' (261).
The practice of faithful presence generates relationships and institutions that are fundamentally covenantal in character, the ends of which are the fostering of meaning, purpose, truth, beauty, belonging, and fairness - not just for Christians but for everyone. (263)
A few specific stories, or 'vignettes', follow on (266-269), movingly expressed... It is about 'Christians using the space they live in toward the flourishing of others. They are less a blueprint to be applied than a catalyst for thinking about other imaginative possibilities for the transformation of culture in business, the arts, medicine, housing etc ... (it is about) living and working toward the well-being of others' (269). A final flourish comes with a discussion of Jeremiah 29 and how in exile, God neither asked for 'defensive against', 'relevance to', nor 'purity from' - but 'faithful presence within' (so impacted am I that I plan to preach on the passage for the first time next Sunday!).

Two concluding comments. (1) One of the careful areas of conversation will be about discerning where the argument is specific to the American context and where it has a more generic relevance. While there may be less for the rest of us to 'disentangle' and 'decouple' in our own lands, there is still much of it to be done because so much flows to our lands from the US. Quite apart from that issue of context, there is so much here (on power, leadership, culture, salt/light etc) that is of universal significance. (2) Hunter decries the way so few Christian leaders understand these dynamics. I concur. Here in NZ 'relevance to' has pretty much won the hearts and minds of Christian leaders. And yet it is deeply flawed. And so a book like this must infiltrate the places where leaders are shaped, particularly theological colleges, in order to thicken and deepen the discussion about 'changing the world'. If it were up to me, I can see curriculum, learning outcomes, and assessment all changing to some degree in light of the thesis which Hunter advances here.

nice chatting - and congrats indeed for getting to the end :)

Paul

Monday, January 23, 2012

words working well

Don't ever tell me that the power of words has diminished.

Don't ever tell me that the age in which monologue is effective has ceased.

Don't ever tell me that words which sound nice together cannot be compelling.

Don't ever tell me that phrase-crafting and word-smithing and picture-painting is not worth the effort.


Have a look and listen to this (16 million views in one week):



And maybe even more compelling is this one on 'sexual healing':




And if you want to create an assignment on pluralism, or have a great inter-faith conversation, how about the response to the first clip from a Muslim?



nice chatting (thanks, Martin)


Paul

Saturday, January 21, 2012

fear and fear

I am a timid chap. Always have been. Always will be.

If I was to look at the sum of all my fears, dogs and flying figure regularly in the top ten. Not without good reason, I might add. As a little newspaper-delivery boy I had an awful experience of being bitten - and I've had more than my share of bumpy flights (closing my eyes and imagining that I am in a bus on a pot-holed road in India seems to help - although most argue that the bus is more dangerous than the plane).

Last week I was in India, confronting my fears yet again, with flights and that array of rabid and rabied dogs. It seems that my fears are getting better. And I know why.

It has to do with theology.
Some years ago I stumbled across Exodus 20.20.
"Moses said to the people, 'Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning."
This verse suggests there to be two types of fear. Having watched for it as I've read, I am now convinced that the rest of the Bible agrees. We grew up on George Beverley Shea singing hymns. One LP (the great, great grandparent of iTunes) in the house was titled Sacred Songs, although I was convinced that it said Scared Songs. My Dad had me on about this for years. Those words work well here in Exodus 20.20. There is a scared fear and there is a sacred fear.

But more than naming two types of fear, this verse suggest that one fear (sacred) helps banish the other fear (scared). We could rework that supreme quote of Thomas Chalmers - 'the expulsive power of a new affection' - to read 'the expulsive power of a new fear'.

This is exactly what I do. When a fear rises up within me, I meditate on the fear of God. I practice fearing God consciously and deliberately. What do I mean? Well, I am still content with Charles Swindoll's definition of fearing God: 'taking God seriously'. So... I take God more seriously than my fear, allowing the former to expel the latter. His promises. His sovereignty. His care. His love. His justice. His mercy. His purposes. His call. I let my mind fill with all that I know about these realities. I ask God to have them take control of my life in those moments of my fear.

So when the bumps on a flight make me feel I am in a washing machine, I fear God. When I walk the plank of dogs in India, I fear God. When I drive my car to the dentist, I fear God. When I stand up to speak in an unfamiliar setting, I fear God. When I say goodbye to my son (last night!) intent as he is on being there for the people of eastern Congo, one of the toughest places on God's earth, I fear God.

It is about letting my fears get lost in the fear of God. Sadly, the converse is true. The Bible teaches that if you do not fear (sacred), there is plenty to fear (scared). That truth cannot be avoided or side-stepped.

All of this helps me with far more than my fears. It has a way of keeping God at the core of my life - and keeping my spirituality far more accurate. Afterall a fear-less spirituality, so popular today, is simply sub-biblical and therefore unChristian. As for all those fearless people out there, they miss out on some great learning opportunities, don't they?

nice chatting

Paul

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

crisis in the congo

Last night was a night to remember.

Our son Stephen organised a knowledge-acquiring, fund-raising event focused on the DR of Congo. He has been in and out of the homes of about seven Congolese families in Auckland over recent months and they were well-represented at the event. Then there were church friends, members of the extended family etc. About 130 people in total. We ate Congolese food. Six different stations with displays were set up and different Congolese people shared first-hand accounts of aspects of the 'crisis' in their homeland ...

Twenty-six minutes were given to this remarkable video, 'Crisis in the Congo'. Please take the time to watch it. It is disturbing. It records a holocaust that the global community continues to ignore. The people who speak on it are so articulate. [NB: it is on youtube and can be shared on facebook etc].



Stephen spent 16 months in Kampala working with 'unaccompanied minors', or orphaned refugee children, from eastern DRC. As a volunteer Child Protection Officer, he befriended them, lived with them - and recorded their stories as part of advocating for their welfare.

On Friday Stephen returns to Kampala to learn Swahili on the way to exploring ways to express this commitment to the peoples of eastern DRC. If you are a praying person, please do pray for him .. and nurture a commitment to this troubled country and its precious people.

nice chatting

Paul

PS: One response to make is to find ways for the global community (and the global church, in particular) to express itself more effectively as a single community, as this little video expresses so beautifully.

Monday, January 02, 2012

generous justice

Of all the Timothy Keller books which I have read, Generous Justice may well be his finest and most important.

Keller's very last sentence captures his purpose with the book: 'A life poured out in doing justice for the poor is the inevitable sign of any real, true gospel faith.' (189). There is something ever so significant here. Over the past 10-15 years I have watched, with admiration, a generation arise which 'pours out in doing justice' far better than my generation ever seemed to do. And yet mingled with the admiration has lingered a tiny little reservation. It can appear that embracing justice is about being edgy - edgy in theology, edgy in style, edgy in communication. An iconoclasm can take hold of people. They can become known for being 'agin' things. The people travelling in their wake can become burdened with guilt because they cannot maintain the same pace or priority. Now while some of this is necessary, at times I have wondered what has happened to 'real, true gospel faith'. Keller's approach is different. Embracing justice is not about drifting to the edge as much as it is about deepening at the core.


If a person has grasped the meaning of God's grace in his heart, he will do justice. If he doesn't live justly, then he may say with his lips that he is grateful for God's grace, but in his heart he is far from him (93-94) ... Grace should make you just. If you are not just, you've not truly been justified by faith (99) ... My experience as a pastor has been that those who are middle-class in spirit tend to be indifferent to the poor, but people who come to grasp the gospel of grace and become spiritually poor find their hearts gravitate toward the materially poor (102) ... the gospel changes the identity of the well-off, so that they have a new respect and love for the poor (104) ... I would like to to believe that a heart for the poor 'sleeps' down in a Christian's soul until it is awakened (107) ... (and it isn't awakened because) we tend to try to develop a social conscience in Christians the same way the world does - through guilt (107).


I think the argument he makes is a profound one. A number of specific features impact me...

1. Lovers of Isaiah 58 will be arrested by the way Keller highlights the less familiar, but equally powerful, passages from Job: Job 29.12-17 and Job 31.13-28.

2. The 'quartet of the vulnerable': the widow, the orphan, the immigrant/refugee, and the poor (4). It is inconceivable that we can bring pleasure to God's heart and glory to his name, if we overlook this quartet in our midst.

3. Keller's case for Jonathan Edwards (in 1733, 'The Duty of Charity to the Poor' sermon) providing his favourite exposition of the Good Samaritan makes for compelling reading (see pages 68-75).

4. I loved the way he described the Creator God as an artist, involved in the 'weaving of a garment' (172) which inherently conveys the importance of relationship: 'God created all things to be in a beautiful, harmonious, interdependent, knitted, webbed relationship to one another' (173), creating shalom. But then sin and evil destroys the fabric. 'The only way to re-weave and strengthen the fabric is by weaving yourself into it ... re-weaving shalom means to sacrifically thread, lace, and press your time, goods, power, and resources into the lives and needs of others' (177). Brilliant image! Then Keller illustrates this with the story of the disproportionately large deaf community on Martha's Vineyard and how people 'changed their culture in order to include an otherwise disadvantaged minority, but in the process made themselves and their society richer' (180). Great story! Have they made the movie yet?!

5. In virtually every chapter Keller makes a comment, almost in passing, about the difference in the way the Left and the Right - 'conservatism' and 'liberalism' - approach matters of justice. I recently posted something on how hard I find voting in national elections (and how bemused I am by Christians who find it so easy!) because I like bits of both. Keller reassured me. He comments how the various perspectives are each 'partly right' (158), but not fully right. His conclusion is that 'no current political framework can fully convey the comprehensive Biblical vision of justice, and Christians should never identify too closely with a particular political party or philosophy' (163). I concur!

6. Chapter Five ('Why Should We Do Justice?') and Chapter Six ('How Should We Do Justice?) were highlights for me. In answering the 'why?' question, Keller reaches for two basic motivations: (a) cultivating 'a joyful awe before the goodness of God's creation' (82), punctuated by 'honoring the image' (82-88, via Aristotle, ML King, and CS Lewis) and 'recognizing God's ownership' (88-92); and (b) responding to 'God's grace in redemption' (92-100). It is creation and redemption, yet again, that does it. It is core stuff, not edgy stuff. In answering the 'how?' question, Keller reminded me of someone I had forgotten (and who had a huge impact on New Zealand back in the 1980s), John Perkins. 'When Perkins tied social reform, economic development, and vigorous evangelism all together into a seamless whole, he confounded both the secularized liberal civil rights establishment and the conservative churches.' (116, emphasis mine).

7. Chapter Seven is about 'Doing Justice in the Public Square': 'I propose that Christians' work for justice should be characterized by both humble cooperation and respectful provocation.' (158).

When all is said and done, this book will be valued by the edgy justice-doer who is open to further instruction on the way to 'real true gospel faith'. The big worry lies with those who claim to be Christ's, but who are not authentic justice-doers. What Bible are they reading? What gospel are they engaging? What grace are they embracing? What Jesus are they following?

nice chatting


Paul