Newsletter 30 (Spring '01)
Celebrating Harry Potter
Craig G. Bartholomew
My qualification for writing about the Harry Potter novels is that I am - as I recently discovered - a KIDULT! According to a snippet on a TV programme, toys appeal not only to children, but also to men, and there is a range of toys designed with these kid-ults in mind. Not for me the metallic scooter and other toys exhibited on the programme; but I am certainly among that group of adults who have fallen for the Harry Potter novels and contributed to the phenomenal world-wide sales of Rowling's four books. There is even a special Bloomsbury adult edition of the Potter novels with its own adult cover, lest fellow travellers on the bus or train should note that one is reading a children’s book! For my own part, I can’t quite remember what made me try Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, but once I got a taste I was hooked. I have since read all four of the books, and more than once. And I can’t wait for the next one!
The Harry Potter novels have not been without their detractors in Christian circles - I hear of families that will not let their children have exposure to stories like this of witches and wizards. Canterbury Cathedral preferred not to have the film made there. Now some serious discussions of the Potter novels are starting to appear. Let me try, within the limits of present space, to give some reasons why I think we should celebrate these captivating stories.
Imagination is part of what makes humans human. And literature is imaginative writing. Central to literature is ‘world-making’: it invites us to suspend disbelief and enter imaginatively into alternative worlds. Umberto Eco puts it this way: ‘In reality, fictional worlds are parasites of the actual one, but they are in effect "small worlds" which bracket most of our competence of the actual world and allow us to concentrate on a finite, enclosed world, very similar to ours but ontologically poorer. Since we cannot wander outside its boundaries, we are led to explore it in depth.’ (Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, Harvard University Press, 1994, p.85) God has made us imaginative creatures who need regular walks in the ‘fictional woods’ of story and literature - not to give meaning to what is meaningless, as Eco says (p.139), but in order to open up the meaningfulness and possibilities of life in new, and different and fresh ways.
And Rowling is a superb world-maker. The world of Harry Potter and his wizard school Hogwarts is utterly captivating, hilarious, playful - and life-and-death serious! Although personally I think that Tolkien is in a league of his own, in terms of world-making the Potter novels are comparable. Rowling - like Tolkien - creates for us a self-contained, separate world in relation to which we are called to suspend our disbelief and to indwell it. And what fun that is! The charm and detail is exquisite. There is no impersonal e-mail in this world: oh no, each family or person has an owl who delivers their mail, and a favourite phrase is ‘Send me an owl!’ Harry has a handsome owl called Hedwig, while the family of his friend Ron, who are not very wealthy, have an owl called Errol who invariably comes close to collapse on his flights with mail. The post office has an entire range of owls: large strong owls for airmail, small fluffy owls for local mail. And how well Rowling did to think up Quidditch, the sport at Hogwarts, with its world cup narrated in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire!
The Potter novels are superb imaginative literature, and firstly, we ought to celebrate them for this. They have got children (and adults) reading in an age of TV and the internet: for this alone we should be grateful. George Steiner, in his superb Real Presences (Faber and Faber, 1989, pp.190-191), rightly says that ‘To starve a child of the spell of the story, of the canter of the poem, oral or written, is a kind of living burial.’ In the place of such burial Rowling has helped to revive imagination.
Secondly, many of the values in the world that Rowling creates are congruent with a Christian perspective. There is a clear distinction between good and evil in the world of Harry Potter. In it, evil is evil - no small literary achievement in today’s postmodern world in which values are so relativised! In Voldemort evil even has a personal face, as in the Bible. There is no fatalism about the dangerous battle against evil - there is a clear understanding of human responsibility. Amidst the very real threat of evil there is wonderful sense of the goodness of life. Friendship is celebrated. Indeed the Potter novels are charged with a sense of the personal, which we in our technological world of antiseptic e-mail and internet communications should welcome. It creates space for us to reflect critically on our world.
This is not, thirdly, to suggest that Rowling’s novels are overtly Christian. And although her imaginary world gives evil a face in Voldemort, there is no comparative figure from which good emanates such as Aslan in the Narnia series. If one is to be critical of these great stories, I would focus more on this than on the wizards and witches. Literature is world-making, and it must be free to tell of wizards, witches and the like without being taken to assert their real existence or to encourage demonic activity. And we should note that if Rowling has created a world in which magic works, it is one in which how one uses magic is a very real moral issue. (See Alan Jacobs, ‘Harry Potter’s Magic,’ First Things 99, Jan 2000: 35-38 for an excellent discussion of this.) I do not think this type of literature needs to be seen as an obstacle by Christians.
For all these reasons I think we should read and enjoy the Harry Potter novels and be thankful for Rowling’s God-given gift of world-making. We should not do this uncritically, and it is good that serious discussion of the Potter phenomenon should continue. I hope that it may renew interest in comparable literature like the Narnia chronicles, and Lord of the Rings, and George Macdonald's fantasies, and provoke a revival of writing among Christians. As Seerveld prophetically writes, ‘how can you live openly in this world, God’s cosmonomic theatre of wonder, while the (common) graciously preserved unbelievers revel in music and drama, painting, poetry and dance, with a riot of colour, a deafening sound raised in praise to themselves and their false gods ... where is our concert of freshly composed, holy stringed music? Our jubilant dance of praise to the Lord? What penetrating drama have our hands made? Why do we not break into a new song, not only ones from our slender archives?’ (A Christian Critique of Art and Literature, Toronto Tuppence Press, 1995, pp.21,22)
Note: On C. S. Lewis, see ACCESS U.K. no.190; on Tolkien and Lewis, no.155
Another series of fantasy books for children has attracted attention recently apart from the Harry Potter series. The publication of The Amber Spyglass completes Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. These have been acclaimed as ' an exhilarating and poetic mixture of adventure, philosophy, myth and religion'; a 'wonderful tale' with a 'moral base'; 'well-written, bold and gripping', 'sure to become a classic'; even as 'a great work wholly reconceptualising the nature and purpose of fantasy'. They are already on the reading lists of schools and are also being read with enthusiasm by adults (perhaps even, more by adults?).
In future many young people, when they hear Christian references to Almighty God, to the Church and the Kingdom of Heaven, will now find these terms very familiar from His Dark Materials. Here talk of the 'Kingdom of Heaven' is a bait used by a malign Church (complete with paedophile priest) which has its very origins in cosmic evil and which represents the One Great Enemy of truth and freedom. The Church is 'The Authority', the agent of an angel who long ago raised himself above his colleagues naming himself 'Almighty God'. In the background is the senile figure of the Ancient of Days who in The Amber Spyglass dies 'with a sigh of the most profound and exhausted relief'.
So in his world-making, Philip Pullman has chosen to give to his great mythical, cosmic system of oppression, Christian names. Can one avoid saying that he quite knowingly poisons these in the imagination of his young readers? No doubt he knows this will attract attention, as did Salman Rushdie; and that it must stimulate prejudice against Christian faith with all that follows from this. But then in his opinion, the God whom C. S. Lewis would have us worship is a fascist and a bully.
When a response is required from Christian people to His Dark Materials, it would seem that beyond appreciation for this as a literary achievement, two opportunities arise for discussion. Firstly, precisely by its stark parody of God, this trilogy sets in high profile the kind of God which Christians actually, historically, worship. It reminds us that the God and Father of Jesus Christ is distinctive among the gods of whom human beings have conceived. Some authors have recently stressed the contrast between the Lord of the Bible and the Babylonian figure of Marduk. Can Christians now seize the moment to remind people how different from Pullman's 'Almighty God' is the God whom they worship? In what terms might this best be done?
The second opportunity arises from the basic plot of His Dark Materials. The central figures are Lyra and Will, two young people on the threshold of growing up. Joining battle against 'Almighty God' and his Church, they save the world by embracing trustworthy knowledge ('The Truth Will Set You Free' is one chapter heading) and set about building the republic of heaven in the place of the illusory 'Kingdom'. As Julia Eccleshaw sums it up (Guardian Weekly, Nov. 9), Pullman's world is one in which 'the temptation and the fall are not the source of all human misery but the end of repression by what Pullman calls "The Authority" and the beginning of liberation and freedom of thought'.
Does this have a familiar ring? Indeed it does, and when Pullman writes of a magical, invisible dust which gathers around young people as they come of age I for one am reminded of words quoted by Jaroslav Pelikan in his Jesus Through the Ages: 'Reason is the real mighty wind (Acts 2.2) that so quickly wafted all the people together. This is the true original language that performs the miracles' (p.186). Those words were written in the eighteenth century. Yet today, in an age supposedly incredulous towards metanarratives, this story of liberation from authority still carries religious force for many, a story of the (surely miraculous?) salvation of humankind by reason: which is exactly how Pullman tells it.
Of course we shall all agree that oppressive authority is bad, and that the vision of liberation from oppression remains vital. But one must say more. For a start, authority does not disappear when the appeal to authority is no longer used. Our lives are controlled today by powers of which we are little aware, and by powers we accept as legitimate, although the exercise of authority is largely concealed behind the rhetoric of choice. Only when we acknowledge this can we see oppressive authority at work, whether it is imposed by 'the market', or by the media conglomerate, or by legislation which 'goes too far' - or by 'the republic' in some pc form. Inveighing against explicit 'authority' achieves little here.
One must also add, the vision of liberation from authority is not enough to prevent 'liberated' human beings slipping towards aimless, compulsive self-gratification; or towards the 'other-directed' life in which one is led by concern for one's image among peers, as described by David Riesman in The Lonely Crowd; or towards self-construction as a 'timeless, consuming self', as described by Rowan Williams in Lost Icons. We need more than liberation from repressive authority; we need liberation from an existence turned in upon itself. And shall we find such liberation, while we are unwilling freely to grant authority to anyone or anything at all?
Here, I suggest, is another opportunity: when asked about His Dark Materials, we might well respond by pointing out the distortions which arise when, as here, the story of liberation from authority is exalted as the story of human salvation.
But of course he is only telling a story, Pullman says, not proposing a metaphysic. For this reason, he says, he refuses to discuss theology. However, as Eccleshare writes, 'this is a touch disingenuous and Pullman knows it'. After all, he also claims that his fantasy is 'stark realism'. Which has always been the claim of his eighteenth-century metanarrative on its own behalf.…
There remain the children who will read Pullman, and one cannot but grieve that an exciting story should leave its young readers with such dark materials with which to imagine the meaning of Christian language. Perhaps we should find in this a stirring challenge to 'get there first'? How much could we achieve, for example, by promoting imaginative use in schools of Murray Watt's animated video about Jesus of Nazareth, 'The Miracle Maker'?
Back in the Garden…
'You know I remember a time when things were a lot more fun around here, when good was good and evil was evil. Before things got so fuzzy'. So sings Satan in a song written by Don Henley of The Eagles fame.
But now, says Satan, he can find around him 'no shame, no solution, no remorse, no retribution'. All he finds are people selling T-shirts, and platitudes, and the market, and 'a whole new breed of men without souls'. Satan is depressed. It seems to him that there is nothing left to do - no harm to cause, no destruction to accomplish. ''I guess my work round here has all been done, and the fruit is rotten', he says. 'The serpent's eyes shine as it wraps around the vine...'
God had forbidden Adam and Eve to eat fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The serpent, however - Satan, in Christian tradition - poisoned their trust in God. God was not truly concerned for the good of Adam and Eve. By contrast, Satan himself was on their side; his invitation could trusted; let them step out and eat the fruit of the tree.
But now, in Don Henley's development of this foundational story, Satan's invitation - to know good and evil 'like God' - has proved a deception. The knowledge which came from eating the fruit has corrupted: the fruit lies rotten on the ground. Now has the work of the Great Deceiver has been accomplished.
('The Garden of Allah', Don Henley)
'Elementary wonder... is not a mere fancy derived from the fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy tales is derives from this. (…) This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. (…) A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. (…) tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.'
G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p.94
In October and November last year I spent six weeks in Africa. I was on Sabbatical leave from my Diocese, and was able to travel widely in both Kenya and South Africa. I had a great time. I saw over 300 species of birds and animals. I visited the Diocese of Kitale in Kenya which is only three years old, and is strong in faith but poor in financial resources. I was able to reflect on the different priorities of both the church and the nation, in Britain and in Kenya and South Africa.
AIDS is an immense calamity for sub-Saharan Africa. Do we in Britain have any idea how serious the AIDS pandemic is? I know that some in Britain are deeply concerned, and are trying to channel resources to those on the front line. But it seems to me that globalisation doesn’t count for very much when we are talking about human need rather than opportunities for trade and investment.
Did you know that in November a United Nation’s Children Fund study reported that 50% of South Africans under the age of 15 today could die of AIDS related causes in the next five to ten years? In Kenya 600 people a day were dying of AIDS in 1999. Just stop and think about those figures for a moment. Those statistics, drawn from just two nations, are horrendous. Yet in Britain the news day by day is preoccupied with the petrol price, hospital waiting lists and football. The sheer parochialism of British culture, perpetuated by much of the popular media, is something that I find deeply troubling.
As Christians, we believe that we are all one in Christ Jesus. What on earth does this mean? Are we willing to challenge the limited vision of our popular culture? There is a widespread assumption that we in Britain are somehow entitled to put ourselves first and protect our affluence and our standard of living, regardless of what is happening in the rest of the world. What does Jesus say about this?
In the 21st century the church in Britain needs to be a voice for the poor and the afflicted, for the AIDS orphans of Africa, and for those dying in their thousands every day because of this terrible disease. We need to challenge our self-centred, self-indulgent culture. There is so much more that we could be doing to bring help and relief. This is not somebody else’s responsibility. It is ours.
God and Stephen Hawking:
The drama and its straw God
Starring Robert Hardy (as God) and Stephen Boxer (as Hawking), this play is at one level a tour de force, an acclaimed production. It was in the process of moving from the Derby Playhouse to the West End when I saw it at the former location at the end of September. Written by Robin Hawdon, this is a production that encompasses the Big-Bang, motor neurone disease, sexual infidelity, the modern acceptance of morals (or otherwise), 'Biblical fairytales' and the ideas of science, Einstein, relativity, Schödinger's rabbit (I always thought it was a cat, but there you are), etc, etc. The acting is flawless, Hardy impresses as God (and sundry other roles including Einstein and the Queen), Boxer is uncannily physically like Hawking, and the stage production – the backdrops of stars etc - is imaginative. Should not plays like this, that take on ideas about the cosmos and God, be applauded? If we have certain reservations, should we not repress them lest this small bud of hope retract back into its shell (to mix metaphors!)?
If only one could do this with integrity.
I heard of this play from friends, and with some difficulty made last minute arrangements to see it. I have always liked Robert Hardy. Whether as bossy vet Siegfried Farnon in All Creatures, Great and Small or as Pontius Pilate in Dennis Potter's 60's BBC 'Play for the Day' Son of Man, he has always conveyed authority in that British character actor kind of way – so why quibble over theology? Should we not surely be grateful 'we' are being noticed at all – as Christians clamoured in celebration of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar a few decades ago?
No. Because the Christianity here described – even as opponent to science's pretensions – is a travesty of orthodoxy, a straw man.
It is deism through and through, deeply affected by an eighteenth-century scepticism about superstition, miracles, Biblical inconsistencies, contradictions and 'fairy tales'. 2000 years of thinking about the Trinity and Christ are just brushed aside. We are left with a bloodless deism struggling with Enlightened humanism (does this really represent Hawking's position?) – and one that has airily conceded much of what orthodox Christianity might consider central right from the beginning. The theodicy discussions, predictable in view of Hawking's well known physical illness, completely fail to mention sin as a possible factor – a startling, if perhaps not very surprising, position.
In the play, Hawking is depicted as being unrelentingly hostile to God. Whether, like many things depicted in this drama, this is actually the case is unclear. The careful disclaimer inserted on the flyer and prominently displayed on the theatre doors is suggestive: ‘This play is a fictional account and does not necessarily represent the views, opinions or actions of any person depicted in it’! Whatever the truth about these matters, however, for my purpose what is more significant is the hopelessly inadequate way in which the theology is presented. This is surely critical for it affects the whole theology and science debate.
Robert Hardy's portrayal, in effect, depicts a 'schoolmasterly' model of God, someone who plays a whole series of authority figures, starting with tutors whose brilliance is being exceeded by their rebellious, uppity student (the young Hawking). In other words, we are given the traditional Enlightenment picture of heroic humanity defying its creator and calling it to account as it comes of age. Hawking's motor neurone disease simply provides another plank for the indictment. (Of course, if there is no God because there is 'nothing for him to do', how can you then rail against him? But never mind about that for the moment.) For all his geniality, Hardy's God is authoritarian and decidedly male, the standard deistic picture.
But what if God were otherwise: a figure hanging on a Cross, maybe?
This deistic God is (by and large) bested in argument by Hawking, however much Hawdon tries to bring the play to some sort of reconciling conclusion. And he deserves to be bested.
However, the question arises: is this the true God? (a recurrent question for the theology and science debate). Or are those Biblical 'fairy tales' which Hawking (in the play) dismisses with easy superiority – a move unchallenged by 'God' – of more significance than they both allow? What if they told of us about a true God, deeply involved with his creation and suffering in and for it? What if the 'fairy tales' of walking on water revealed the concrete attributes of a God who wills to be for and with us, a God of involvement and community, not of masculine isolation?
In terms of awareness of modern theology (if not the theology of the 'theology and science' debate) the picture of God painted in this play is hopelessly banal.
So, I am not saying this is a bad play. As a theatrical experience, it is deeply enjoyable – so long as you can resist the irritation that arises in your mind every time anything to do with God is mentioned (which is most of the time). So, go and be irritated – and work out exactly why you disagree.
If you do, of course.
On cultural formation
'Far more than any other influence, more than school, more even than home, my attitudes, dreams, preconceptions and pre-conditions for life had been irreversibly shaped five and a half thousand miles away in a place called Hollywood.'
- David Puttman
Streams of reflection
The Church of the Centre
A series of essays in the April 1997 issue of the journal Interpretation was devoted to "The Church at the Centre," a new phenomenon in North American mainline denominations. One of the articles cited the Gospel and Culture movement as a kindred spirit. Was it right? You be the judge.
In his influential work Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr distinguished a "church of the centre" from a culture-conforming camp on the right and a culture-rejecting camp on the left. He characterised this ecclesial centre as a cluster of traditions defined by the distinctive norms of their theology rather than by the pull or push of contemporary culture (pp.117-119).
Like Niebuhr’s centre, today’s movements resist culture-war captivity, striving instead to orient to "Christ the Centre" (Bonhoeffer). They hold prescient the 1934 call of the Barmen Declaration to reject obeisance to the ideologies of the hour:
'Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.'
As such, this kind of "centre" is anything but a "mushy middle" or "golden mean."
Three variations on the metaphor in question characterise the developments in the United States: a commitment to Jesus Christ as the sole Centre, an affirmation and exploration of the theological centralities of the church ecumenical, and an effort to serve as a centre bridge for dialogue across the divide of current left-right partisanships.
To illustrate, here is a glimpse of the "Confessing Christ" movement in the United Church of Christ (a denomination of 1.4 million that brings together Congregational, Christian, Evangelical and Reformed streams). In 1993 at a grassroots colloquy on theological standards for ministry in the UCC, a question was raised: how widespread is the actual adherence to the stated norms of the UCC ordination service? In it a candidate professes loyalty to "Christ as the sole head of the church," to Scripture as the standard of preaching and teaching, the ancient creeds and Reformation convictions as resources for interpreting the biblical source of authority, and to making "this faith our own" in terms of the issues and idiom of the day. In spite of these standards, a study of the UCC had just reported little interest by its congregations in a pastor’s theology or biblical commitments, priority being given to clerical affability and administrative expertise. And at the national level the UCC was known for its social justice stands but considered by many as theologically indifferent or incoherent. Looming as well were potential schisms in mainline Churches giving pride of place to culture-war issues rather than theological substance.
Four hundred UCC clergy responded to a call that went out from the colloquy, gathering in three meetings around the country to reassert the Church’s christological charters and to urge the re-grounding of its preaching, teaching and social witness in biblical and confessional basics. Today there are 1500 pastors that have taken part in the activities of its 8 regional centres. Grassroots consultations have been held on such subjects as preaching the church year, hymnody, the trinitarian formula, Christian basics, the atonement, tradition vs. traditionalism, the Barmen declaration today, revelation and imagination, the making of a catechism, ecumenical advances, Christian faith and genetic engineering, violence, the working poor, inclusivity, and modern media. A national steering committee co-ordinates the activities of the regions, provides a seasonal prayer and lectionary discipline, has published 4 volumes and an assortment of occasional papers written by its participants, sends out a periodic newsletter, Joy in the Word!, has established an Internet website with its lections, mission statement and running concerns, and hosts two vigorous Internet meetings on theological and ethical issues. All the work is done by volunteers.
The attempt of a church of the centre both to assert boldly Christian distinctives and to bridge chasms in the church is reflected in Confessing Christ’s publications and consultations. For example, its recent book, How Shall We Sing the Lord’s Song? entered the heated controversy about inclusive language for God by evaluating a new hymnal produced by a UCC agency, critiquing it theologically for removing from received hymns the universal trinitarian formula, references to Christ as "Lord" and similar revisions. But included as well in the book were essays by the proponents of the hymnal. On another controverted question, Confessing Christ hosted a dialogue on same-sex unions with opposing papers read and discussed, the only ground rules being that of making one’s case doctrinally rather than parroting cultural commentary pro and con. The one hundred pastors of varying points of view attending cited the occasion as a rare example of the kind of "civil conversation" needed in both church and society on this disputed question. Again, after the historic signing by the Vatican and the World Lutheran Federation of "The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification," Confessing Christ invited Episcopal and Reformed leaders in New England to respond to the document as well as representatives of the signatories, and urged the seventy pastors and priests on hand to replicate the four-way conversation in their communities.
The centre movements are allies of all those in the church seeking engagement with the culture grounded in the integrity of the gospel. "May their tribe increase."
Note: for a more detailed article on this by Gabriel Fackre, see ACCESS U.K. No.180
The Gospel and Our Culture network is now a registered Charitable Trust - Charity no.1084309. This will assist the Management Council (chaired now by Matthew Baynham) in the task of fundraising towards a long-term future: more news soon on this front. On the networking front, David Kettle has recently met with Gordon Preece from Australia. Dr Preece is Principal of the Centre for Applied Ethics at Ridley College, Melbourne, and also chairs the editorial board of Zadok Perspectives - a popular publication not dissimilar to our British Third Way magazine. A hyperlink has now been provided from the network web-site - www.gospel-culture.org.uk - to the Zadok site at www.zadok.org.au. Gordon is penning a piece for a future newsletter.
Plans are already under way for a network conference in 2002 exploring Christian perspectives on Human Rights. Meanwhile over 50 people have already registered for our approaching conference on March 3rd. If you plan to come please make sure you register in advance:
Faith Odyssey: A Journey through Lent, Richard Burridge, Oxford: Bible Reading Fellowship, 2000, 244pp. £6.99 pbk.
This is a fun book, an entertaining journey through Lent as the title says, employing a multitude of illustrations from science fiction and fantasy as a way into its subject. It does not analyse these genres; it just uses them. The title is a reference to the classic 1968 Stanley Kubrick film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The approach, like the title, is both apt and witty. Why not utilise our contemporary media context, the ideas we are soaked in day in and day out, as a way of approaching Scripture?
To those who might wonder how many people are as familiar with this material as is the author, I would suggest more than are often assumed! The use of science fiction as a didactic tool is overdue, and it speaks to our youth culture. This is so even if, particularly at the beginning of this book, one wonders which is the central focus - scripture or science fiction. One danger is that parallels become strained (some parallels are inherent, like Luke Skywalker’s temptation by Darth Vader, or the use of metaphors of sustenance in C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien); another is that the original context becomes violated.
As the book continues there are more convincing examples, but this is mostly because more Christian authors such as are being increasingly quoted. This reminds us that literature is not all of a piece. And it raises sharply the question of how easily science fiction and fantasy themes can be synchronised with theological ones. Burridge shows some awareness of conflict, as when he notes that the Christian story is not one of ascent into space but rather of ‘splashdown’, God’s coming to us in the opposite direction! Yet the belief in parables in literature and on screen is strong. Burridge argues in his introduction that ‘those who are fans of this kind of literature may be amazed to discover that the Bible has been telling them a similar story all these years, one which all our deepest human longings have pointed towards and which is actually the true story’ (p.10).] This is fine - with an ontology that echoes Augustine’s ‘Our hearts are restless till they rest in you’ – just so long as it does not imply that all stories are hints of the same True Story, or that there is an automatic equivalence between the dreams and nightmares of certain science fiction and fantasy authors and film makers on the one hand, and Christianity’s tale of the crucified God on the other. This would echo Joseph Campbell’s generic notion of myth, the idea that the Christ story is just one example of a universal tale, ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ - a concept supposedly influential on Star Wars’ creator George Lucas. Modern echoes of salvation (whether it be in E.T. or The Matrix) could merely betoken fading echoes of 2000 years of Christian culture.
There are a few queries that one might make, but they are all minor. The intent to communicate to our media savvy world by using its own language is wholly to be commended. But remember: not all stories are divine ones.
The Post Christian Mind – Exposing Its Destructive Agenda, Harry Blamires, Servant, 1999, 209 pp., £8.99 pbk
Almost 40 years after writing his classic, "The Christian Mind", Harry Blamires is still in the business of ‘correcting slovenly thinking’. This time it is not the inadequacies in the Christian intellect he is addressing, but what he discerns as "a determined campaign to undermine the Christian core of Western culture and replace it with liberal relativism".
Like the American writer Charles Colson, Blamires identifies as the source of this destructive campaign evil forces (Colson’s modern barbarians) who use the channel of the secular media. Their method is to re-map the topography of the human mind so that meaning, value and legitimacy is relocated in the experiencing self. The goal of the agenda is "the cultivation of the comfortable self as the unifying ideal". But this runs directly counter to the Christian mind that until recently had largely shaped and directed Western societies.
One of the tactics of this campaign is to convert what had been social norms under the canopy of a Christian ethic into variants alongside other equally valid and socially approved alternatives. As examples, Blamires looks at the gradual deconstruction of concepts such as ‘family’ and ‘marriage fidelity’. Another tactic is to reallocate judgmental attitudes so that "disapproval is now directed against any who dare demur at the new moral freedoms and their acceptance".
Where his earlier book had chastised Christians for succumbing too meekly to the pressures and assumptions of the Age of Rationality, this later work is equally critical of Christian submission to the persuasions of the Age of Aquarius where the heart (speaking to us through the stars and the invisible forces of nature) is listened to more than the head. Neither Age, in his estimation, takes sufficient account of the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
While at times Blamires lapses into an indiscriminate nostalgia for things ancient and times past, and an undiscerning abhorrence of all that is new, his analysis of the contemporary secular mind and its grip on modern culture cannot be ignored. He is powerful, fearless and straight in what he writes. Contrary to those who espouse Matthew Arnold’s view that ‘the sea of faith’ is now fast receding in a natural ebb-tide flow, Harry Blamires sees the sea of faith as "contaminated by a great oil slick of media innuendo, insult and misrepresentation. A vast campaign is needed to clean up the mess" he concludes.Brian Carrell
This issue's contributors
Craig Bartholomew is Senior Research Fellow, School of Theology and Religious Studies, Cheltenham & Gloucester College of Higher Education
David Kettle is co-ordinator of the Gospel and Our Culture network
Ian Cowley is Rector of All Saints, Milton, and author of Going Empty-handed
Stephen May is shortly returning to Britain having lectured for 12 years in Systematic Theology at St John's College, Auckland, New Zealand. He is author of Stardust and Ashes: Science Fiction in Christian Perspective
Gabriel Fackre is Emeritus Professor of Christian Theology at Andover Newton Theological School, Massachusetts, U.S., and author of numerous books on theology and ethics
Brian Carrell is retired Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Wellington, New Zealand, and author of Moving Between Times: Modernity and Postmodernity - a Christian Viewback to newsletter index
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Newsletter 31 (Summer '01)
Consumers and legislators
between nihilism and totalitarianism
'British society is thus at once polarised and homogenised. The great institutions that gave it depth and complexity fade away. Instead we have on the one hand the undifferentiated mass of individual "consumers", and on the other hand the legislative and executive power of central government'...1
In his writings, Nicholas Boyle brings into focus cultural changes which press upon us today in Britain and helps us to think about them intelligently. On the one hand are 'consumers', and a vision of society as a space in which individuals move as customers with money to spend, finding products to buy and the freedom to choose them. The range of products on offer today extends from electronic journals to crystal healing to intellectual property rights including - if Celera had its way - information about the human genome. On the other hand there is central government, and a modernising vision for shaping society by restructuring institutions, setting targets, establishing assessment procedures, promulgating directives, and legislating for health & safety, human rights, privacy, etc. Meanwhile the police force has acquired greatly extended powers.
The question presses today, whether these two visions can accommodate a Christian view of human beings as bound in an essential relation of love to God and to each other. By 'accommodate' I mean, of course, 'defer to'. The key question is whether the 'authority' of individual choice and consumption (on the one hand) and of central, legislating directives (on the other) can be held, in our culture, in the context of God and of our relation to him and to each other, or whether they are set to be exalted as idols, usurping the place of God.
Insofar as the 'authority' of consumer choice on the one hand is exalted in our lives, then we tend to assume for ourselves every possible freedom of arbitrary choice within the public limits imposed by legislation. We do not regard the determination of these limits as our responsibility; if for example the law grants us the right to sue for compensation on a particular occasion, or to farm in an intensive, industrial way, or to sell arms to a particular country, then we see nothing wrong with doing so. Such an outlook contrasts with the Christian one. Regarding individual choice, by faith we know ourselves called by God to make good moral choices, and more than this, freely to take initiatives for the good in celebration of God's own faithfulness to us and in the light of God's good purposes for humankind. Regarding the public domain, we know ourselves called to share responsibly with others in maintaining this; public life is fundamentally a shared endeavour maintained by public spirit and public service and the payment of public taxes. The legal limits within which we together constrain our public life derive from pursuit of the good, which always remains primary.
On the other hand, insofar as the 'authority' of central legislation is exalted, then those with legislative power regard themselves as free to manage and shape society according to whatever ends they determine and which are practical and will be tolerated. The scope of what is practical here has of course greatly extended in recent decades through advances in information technology. And we have seen burgeoning legislation from the introduction of the national curriculum in schools to EU directives on what may legally be sold as a jam doughnut. When however we understand central regulation as a task and responsibility before God, then we accept that this task, its limits and its ends are to be discerned in the light of God's purposes; while regarding the freedom of individuals we understand that legislation should seek to support and not displace free personal discernment of and commitment to God's good purposes.
Deference to God checks the tendency of exalting either the 'authority' of individual consumer choice on the one hand or of central legislation on the other. Without such deference, Lesslie Newbigin claimed, society lacks adequate protection against sliding into relativism and nihilism on the one hand and into totalitarianism on the other.2
The fabric of society
But Christian resistance to exalting the sovereign 'authority' either of individual arbitrary choice on the one hand or of central legislation on the other involves more than seeing these two, as twin poles of life, within the context of God and his purposes. It involves addressing the form of society which is shaped by these together and which functions as their plausibility structure. In particular it involves addressing the effect which these together have, of eroding the intermediate or mediating structures of society: the family, community, small local businesses and voluntary associations, and professional groups and networks in which are embodied mutual relationships of trust and trustworthiness and much practical and personal moral wisdom. Nicholas Boyle has noted a 'sustained assault' on such structures in Britain in recent decades.
The erosion of social structures intermediate between the individual and the state has been a tendency throughout modernity, as many scholars have noted. They have eroded before the shaping activities of the state on the one hand and the pursuit of individual autonomy on the other. Ernst Gellner's image of the 'garden' culture speaks well of the Enlightenment: the latter has a vision for systematically cultivating society and its citizens as one plans a garden 'from scratch', in contrast to an older vision - that of the 'gamekeeper' - of managing and enhancing a habitat by strategic interventions.3 'Intermediate' social structures had a self-validating place in the latter which is lost in the vision of systematic cultivation.
Boyle writes that this polarising tendency between individual and state has long been at work in continental Europe, but that in Britain it has until recently been kept largely at bay by the country's preoccupation with running an empire. As a result archaisms from medieval Christendom have persisted in Britain. Positively I suggest, we might add Michael Polanyi's observation that social progress itself in Britain has been influenced by Christian faith in a distinctive way. Whereas in continental Europe social progress has been associated with anti-clericalism and Enlightenment, in Britain it has been prompted on the whole more by religious sentiment and the influence of Puritanism.4 In the light of this perhaps Christian engagement with current changes in British society acquires a special significance?
Undoubtedly people increasingly feel the 'sustained assault' on things British of which Boyle writes. However Christian witness may hardly be identified with cultural conservatism whether with or without its romantic rationalisation. As John Webster emphasised at our recent network conference, Christian witness is never properly an addendum to any 'wordly' concern; it is and must be inspired and shaped fundamentally by Christ himself.
Thus Christian witness hardly commits us to indiscriminate conservatism regarding intermediate social structures. Such structures can represent vested interests which are oppressive towards individuals on the one hand and/or hinder pursuit of the common good on the other. What is vital to Christian witness, however, is resistance to the indiscriminate attack upon intermediate social structures which has marked the modern period in general.
Pressing for witness
So what presses here for Christian witness today? This will be concerned in the first instance not with that which mediates between the individual and the state, but with that which mediates God. The Church has its unique calling in this regard; and its freedom to pursue this calling must be guarded with vigilance, especially in an age of partnerships. But then there are other vital intermediate social structures which have roots historically in faith and which may tacitly mediate richly God's purposes. Among them are professions which constitute a community of exploration, knowledge and practice involving costly tacit personal, moral wisdom. There are treasures here which are not casually accessible to either the approaching consumer or legislator, who must therefore listen carefully and learn. There is a certain 'primacy of the practitioner' to be taken seriously here. Michael Polanyi's defence of 'the republic of science' in the face of central planning is a fine example of such testimony.
The issue presses especially today in our education and health services. We should protest at any implication that whenever teachers or doctors resist the inroads of consumers or legislators they are merely being conservative or protecting their own interests. We should care deeply about good teachers and doctors who are demoralised by such disparagement and the coercion which it facilitates. Every good teacher, doctor lost to their profession is a tragedy. It is a matter of Christian witness to affirm practical wisdom, persevering commitment and discernment, and the communities in which these are embedded, where these are being overridden by ideological fashion. If we are silent when these are scorned, our society may become bleak indeed in its ignorance of the ways of God and of God's wisdom.
1 Nicholas Boyle, 'Understanding Thatcherism', in Boyle, Who Are We Now?, T&T Clark, 1998, p 21. This quotation served as a subtext for the recent network conference in Cambridge; in the present article I offer some reflections based on the background reading offered for, but not significantly pursued in, the conference.
2. Lesslie Newbigin, Honest religion for Secular Man, SCM Press, 1966, pp.22-30.
3. The image is so applied by Zygmunt Bauman, Legislators and Interpreters, Polity Press, 1987, p51.
4. Michael Polanyi, 'The English and the Continent', in The Political Quarterly, Oct-Dec 1943. This was the paper that prompted J. H. Oldham to invite Polanyi to attend the Moot.
Do elections matter?
It’s election time again. Boring. Weeks of manifestos and speeches, of hype and spin and promises that won’t be kept. Is this what our democracy has come to?
It is very important to grasp what a privilege it is to live in a democracy. Democracy gives the people of a nation very considerable security in exercising many fundamental God given human rights. If there was a military coup in Britain, and our democratic rights were taken away, how would that affect us? Life in Britain would be utterly changed. It is hard to think of Britain as a totalitarian state. But the history of the twentieth century starkly reminds us that we should not be complacent about what any European nation is capable of.
I am a South African. I stood in the queues waiting to vote in South Africa’s first ever democratic election in April 1994. I cast my vote. No vote is ever likely to mean as much to me as the vote that I cast that day. It was not so much a matter of who I voted for. It was the fact that I was able to do something that I had for many years thought would not happen in my lifetime. I participated as a South African voter in a peaceful non racial fully democratic election in my own beloved country. After that experience I cannot believe that I will ever become cynical about democracy.
So democracy does matter. As Christians we have a responsibility to work and to pray that our democratic system will be maintained and strengthened, and that it will be seen to function with transparent integrity. The fiasco of the Florida count and the American Presidential election of November 2000 should both sadden and challenge all those who love democracy. In America, of all nations, in the "home of the free", such things should not have happened.
In Britain democracy does not appear to be under serious threat. Yet we should not be complacent. Every candidates’ meeting that takes place in a church hall, every prayer offered for our political leaders, every Christian working in community organisations or in one of the political parties is doing something very important. Everyone is playing their part. Democracy is at its heart about the importance of each citizen helping to determine what kind of society we live in.
Jesus said "You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world." We are each one called by God to make a difference. We are to work and to pray for the values of the Kingdom of God to come on earth as in heaven. Upholding and strengthening democracy is a very important part of our Christian responsibility for the world which God loves so much.
Save the children?
Two pieces serve as a dramatic foil to each other in the latest issue of New Slant, the newsletter of New Zealand's DeepSight Trust. They are sketched here.
The Happy Prince, by Oscar Wild, was to be performed at the Children's Hospital in Auckland, New Zealand by a visiting drama group. However, hospital administrative staff were concerned about the religious content. They proposed to the drama group that God be replaced by a king, and the angel by a fairy. According to a spokesman the hospital needed to ensure that performances were 'accessible to all patients', and children in the hospital came from different religious and ethnic backgrounds. This did not amount to a ban of God, he explained; God could have featured 'so long as posters advertising the performance warned patience of the religious content', as did the publicity for nativity plays as Christmas.
This tale offers more than simple humour or horror. It offers a glimpse of one possible future for a society which views religion merely as a private choice. And in so doing it prompts Christians to ask themselves what grounds they might have for resisting such a future. The author of the piece, editor John Flett, notes with interest the condemnation of the hospital's action by the secular media in that 'most secular' of countries - a condemnation which he suggests lacks coherent grounds. Can the Church offer such grounds persuasively to society?
So much, then, for keeping children safe from religious predators. But perhaps other predators demand public attention? In a piece titled Corporate Paedophiles: the West's Exploitation of Children, Steve Biddulph of Young Media Australia points to 'multinationals and advertisers who manipulate children into buying junk products, and perhaps worse still, junk values. Marketers who, like paedophiles, prefer a soft and vulnerable mark - exploiting children's trustingness and their desperate need to be liked'. He points to the brochures from the Kidpower Conference and the promise of the marketing director of Hasbro: 'creating an emotional relationship with your under-twelve consumers'. He claims that we have become slowly conditioned to accepting advertising aimed at children which sells worthless plastic figures, unhealthy food and drink, and an ongoing anxiety about being cool.
Sweden, and parts of Canada, apparently banned such advertising years ago as unfair practice. Britain, he says, is considering similar moves. Is this an issue you might write to you M.P. about?
We honour the memory of Christians and churches for opposing practices which we now consider abhorrent. Will future generations honour the memory of Christians and churches today for opposing the predation of children today by advertisers and other perhaps more subtle predators?
The BBC, the Son of God and the Kingdom
Tom Wright helped BBC television prepare their recent three-part series The Son of God which set out to explore the historical Jesus. Writing in The Tablet (14 April) he commends the project and its achievements. But he says it fell short of its potential, notably by its refusal to grant central place, in Jesus self-understanding, to the kingdom of God. Jesus' announcement of the kingdom, and his redefinition of it in the face of prevailing expectations, make sense of everything else Jesus did and said - and of what happened to him.
This, Tom Wright says, 'is easy to grasp; Ruth Pitt, the executive producer of BBC Religion documentaries, said that it would take a ten-part series to explain something that complicated, but in fact they explain more complicated things in Blue Peter, let alone Tomorrow's World…. But they didn't want to'. Apparently the main producers would have been game for it; 'but somewhere a line was drawn in the sand. And the central feature of Jesus' life and work was shunted into a sidetrack and forgotten'.
This raises important questions. Why should something easy to grasp seem so complicated here? Because it doesn't fit into 'media' worldview assumptions? Because it breaks out of the category it has been placed in? Because it doesn't match the supposed habits of thought of viewers? Arguably this points to a certain dogmatic conservatism in the mass media, rooted in Western cultural assumptions, which subverts the effort of presenting faithfully something different.
'The New Labour brand has been badly contaminated' (Philip Gould's leaked memo to the party hierarchy a year ago).
'Gould's proposed solution is not to reinvigorate public policy but "to reinvent the New Labour brand". We no longer just buy or wear brands, it seems. We elect them, too.'
(Nick Spencer, 'The Power of Logos' in Third Way, Sept. 2000)
Streams of reflection
Gospel and Cultures: a WCC study process
In the 1990's, under the leadership of Christopher Duraisingh, the World Council of Churches pursued a study process on the relation between the Gospel and the cultures of the world. The decision to focus on Gospel and cultures had been taken following the 1991 Canberra assembly. This theme had not been treated in depth in the WCC since the Bangkok world mission conference in 1972, which had affirmed cultural identity as fundamental to any Christian theology and spirituality: "culture shapes the human voice that answers the voice of Christ". Many groups worked at local and regional levels during the years between Canberra and the world mission conference in Salvador de Bahía, 1996. Their findings appeared in a series of 18 pamphlets published by the WCC between 1994 and 1997 and in many other documents and/or review articles. I want here to consider some results of the Salvador conference which shaped the formulation of the recent study document Mission and Evangelism in Unity Today. This document was adopted by the new Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) of the WCC in April 20001.
The move beyond 'certain inculturation theologies'
Firstly, a clear affirmation of the principal equality of all cultures in relation to God and the Gospel can be seen as a new emphasis, at least for the ecumenical movement. Since the end of the colonial era there had been a tendency within WCC circles to view cultures from the South positively, while Western or Northern cultures were criticized. This was a healthy and understandable reaction against the reverse tendency which existed earlier (and unfortunately still exists) in some mission circles. If this new emphasis finds practical expression, it could have important consequences for partnership relations in mission.
Another significant step follows the request to move 'beyond certain inculturation theologies' made at Salvador by Dr. Musimbi Kanyoro on behalf of many African women. Arising from experience during the Ecumenical Decade - Churches in Solidarity with Women, this request parallels similar attempts by African theologians of the younger generation to challenge cultural justifications of oppression. The new mission documents of the WCC recognize the fundamental ambiguity of cultures: every culture bears traditions, world views and practices which may oppose authentic Christian witness, as well as elements which may illuminate the Gospel and enrich the church.
Also new, by comparison with Bangkok 1972, is the central affirmation that for human beings "primary and ultimate identity is identity in Jesus Christ". This may be seen to reflect in part the devastating consequences of ethnocentrist and racist violence in many parts of the world, including Europe.
Culture and Religion
In Western thinking on inculturation, there has traditionally been a sharp distinction drawn between 'culture' and 'religion'. Recent mission documents of the WCC, however, understand religion as an integral part of culture. It is argued that real inculturation of the Gospel in individual and community life, in language and worship, and in ethics and organization inevitably uses terminology, symbols, rites and institutional forms which have not only a cultural but also a religious background. From such a perspective, to judge instances of inculturation is not to ask whether they are "syncretistic" or not, but whether they allow for an authentic and dynamic witness to Christ or not. One can even envisage - as in the recent WCC Mission Statement or at Salvador - using the term "syncretism" without negative connotation, because this no longer connotes a pluralistic approach to religious questions, nor a relativistic position, but takes seriously a broad definition of culture which includes religion. Dialogue on this matter must continue.
This new approach had been prepared by the work of section IV of the San Antonio World Mission Conference (1989), which recognized positive values in popular religiosity linked with community, joy, bodily life situation (health, fertility, sexuality, work), use of symbols and symbolic language, oral culture, etc. The Gospel and cultures study process confirmed such an approach by arguing that (for example) Pentecostal and African Instituted churches are often much better inculturated than the traditional mission churches which are too influenced by an over-intellectual and dualistic Western theology.
This leads to the question of intercultural hermeneutics. The WCC understands itself as a "fellowship of churches on the way towards full koinonia". The WCC will now have to address the question of criteria for authentic inculturation if it wants to progress towards real mutual recognition by member churches.
The Gospel and 'Western' cultures
Westerncultures have so far received no special attention, although it should be noted that at least five of the Gospel and Cultures pamphlets were written in such cultures and two of these directly addressed the question of witness in secular contexts2. At the WCC Harare assembly in 1998 there was a clear request for the new Mission and Evangelism team of the WCC to resume work on the question of mission in secularized and "Western" contexts. A first consultation on this took place in Germany last year. It was co-organised by the Faith and Order and Mission and Evangelism teams of the WCC and dealt with "Ecclesiology and mission"3. The next step is planned for June 2002 in Northern Germany, when it is hoped to foster a dialogue between representatives of Gospel and cultures networks and people struggling with postmodern contexts both in Northern and Southern countries. Postmodern cultural influences are rapidly spreading around the world and the time has come to enable Christians in various cultural settings to talk together about these and about the new challenges and opportunities they bring for the witness of the churches.
1. The Salvador materials have been published. Cf. Duraisingh, Christopher (ed): Called to One Hope. The Gospel in Diverse Cultures. Geneva, WCC, 1998, 234 pp. The mission statement has appeared in a provisional form in: International Review of Mission, Vol. LXXXVIII Nos. 348/9, January/April 1999, pp. 109-27. The WCC intends to publish it soon as a booklet, together with the 1982 Ecumenical Affirmation on Mission and Evangelism, still the official text of the WCC on mission.
2. Anton Wessels: Secularized Europe: who will carry off its souls? Geneva, WCC, 1996, G&C pamphlet No 6, 48 pp.; Collective (ecumenical study group of the "Evangelisches Missionswerk"): Germany: Seeking a relevant witness beyond contrast and assimilation. Geneva, WCC, 1996, G&C pamphlet No 13, 53 pp.
3. The documents of the ecclesiology and mission consultation will be published in the International Review of Mission, July 2001.
Welcome to our Patrons
We are delighted that the following have agreed to be patrons of the Gospel and Our Culture network: Archbishop George Carey; Professor David Ford; Professor Colin Gunton; Mr James MacMillan; Archbishop Vincent Nichols; Professor Geoffrey Wainwright; Archbishop Rowan Williams; Canon Dr Tom Wright.
To Stake a Claim: Mission and the Western Crisis of Knowledge
J Andrew Kirk and Kevin J Vanhoozer, editors
New York: Orbis, 1999. 254 pp. (£19.99 pbk)
This book is the product of an international study project: ‘Towards a Missiology of Western Culture,’ in the context of which its authors met over five years. Its premise is that the difficulties encountered in attempting to do the church’s work of mission in a pluralistic multicultural world can be helped, at least in part, by missiological reflection which is responsive to what is termed the ‘crisis of knowledge’ in the West.
The first section is a helpful and generally lucid analysis of the current status of epistemology, although it assumes the reader is familiar with philosophical terms and concepts. The shift from modern to postmodern epistemology has brought insights regarding the language-riddenness and socially constructed, pragmatic aspects of knowledge as well as the priority of ethics that these engender. Such a shift has also been iconoclastic, toppling false certainties, challenging the foundations of knowledge, and exposing the corruption of knowledge by power. Yet for all its deconstructing and reconstructing of self and disparagement of rationality, it was found to be retentive of a non-relational modern individualism.
The integration of the epistemological insights within the framework of mission and missiology occurs in the second part of the book, in the form of a series of essays sole-authored by the contributors, which explore various aspects of this interaction. Vanhoozer’s ‘Epistemology of the Cross,’ reverses the interpretive direction in beginning with the person of Christ and arguing that it is wisdom and virtue, rather than knowledge in the narrow sense, that are fundamental both to epistemology and to mission. As christologically defined, mission is a matter of sharing a personal testimony of moral action and costly witness, a point made also by other contributors.
With several authors writing on the same theme, there is inevitably some redundancy which occurs particularly in the area of analysing modern and postmodern epistemologies. Also, starting with such a thorough exposition of epistemology has the effect of weighting the content more heavily in this direction than in the direction of its primary subjects, mission and missiology. Sometimes it seems that epistemology is seen as prior to mission, which has the effect here and there of reducing mission to apologetics. To have worked chiastically from mission to epistemology to mission would have made this a more balanced book . Yet the emphasis on the epistemological issues pertinent to missological reflection brings the benefit of new focus and fuller explication. The missiological paradigm needs to extended and shifted because the old categories are no longer adequate. This book underlines yet again the vital importance of interdisciplinary work in refreshing and extending theological thinking. It represents an important undertaking, for which its authors are to be congratulated.
Public Theology for Changing Times, John Atherton, SPCK 2001, 156pp., £14.99
John Atherton has set himself a big task in this short but wordy book: to elucidate the ‘theological dimension’ of contemporary global politics and economics. In the words of Nicholas Boyle whom he quotes, he seeks to link ‘the subject matter that is the secularity of its own time’ to ‘the characteristically Christian understanding of meaningful history’ as ‘the secular age of partnership and the theological age of reconciliation.’ He aims to show up the ‘fragments’ of Christian insights that exist in secular arguments – to remind himself and us that all is not lost.
But such an aim already sounds like sad old Christianity attempting to find a place for itself. Though the preface reminds us that ‘we should no longer be writing essentially secular commentaries with theology tacked on as an afterthought’ (p. viii), methinks the theologian doth protest too much: Atherton was a consultant to Faith in the City - an arch exemplar of tacked-on theology - and from this book one cannot help feeling the lesson has not been learned.
For Atherton, the New Labour gurus, Anthony Giddens of the London School of Economics, and Eric Hobsbawm, the somewhat passé Marxist economist, offer the book’s orientation, rather than Newbigin, O’Donovan or even the Bible. Certainly, one must engage with the influential thinkers of the day – but not merely to represent them as ‘implicit’ Christians. Indeed, Giddens has no use for religion at all, let alone Christianity. This is a curious reminder of how embarrassed some in the Established church are about mission. And indeed Atherton somewhat lamely justifies mission merely as ‘necessary in the West if the Church is not to dwindle into insignificance’ (p. 15).
Atherton offers a brief and useful sketch of the Christian socialist movement, and the welfare causes that were dear to its heart, but in regretting the failure of the revolution, (p. 142) he gives away his die-hard class loyalty that ill-fits the ‘ecumenical’ pretensions of the book. The rationalism that gave it birth is everywhere evident in this book.
I regret to say I had the greatest difficulty understanding much of the writing here, and I tried hard as public theology is precisely what Newbigin strove to do, and to which the Gospel and Our Culture is devoted. But am I alone is finding the following simply mystifying? On globalization: ‘Changing theology and society therefore reflects these realities but seeks to move through and consequently beyond them. It becomes a challenge to the global to realize its true potential, to become what it is, truly ecumenical, truly economic, true to the whole inhabited political and environmental economy’ (and so on.) Here is a muscularity of expression masking a poverty of critique wholly in keeping with the New Labour project.
There are moments of clarity and even passion. Atherton’s grasp of the local and its importance is encouraging, as is his analysis of the dangers in plural societies: ‘ . . . their very localness and intimacy frequently imbues them with a pitiless ferocity which plumbs the depths of inhumanity and wickedness.’ But his solutions are strangely totemic. There are few biblical signposts to a future he convinces us is both complex and alarming.
Crying in the Wilderness: Evangelism and Mission in Today’s Culture, David Smith,Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2000, pp. 89, £7.99
The wilderness is contemporary society in the West, described as ‘a vast cultural swamp which threatens those who wander into it without regard to its dangers with suffocation and death.’ The act of crying has two biblical warrants: the prophetic voice of Isaiah proclaiming the salvation of the mighty God to a nation that has been chastised for its waywardness; and the tears of Jesus, shed over the same nation about to be punished for failing to see the true source of its redemption.
The author of this book seeks to show how both forms of crying for our nation are integral aspects of the mission of God’s people. There is still a word from the Lord when the flower of a significant culture is badly faded and its former glory withered and nearly dead. This word is one of compassion and mercy, in spite of the arrogant self-exalting of its achievements made independently of God.
The book consists of six chapters, all of them beginning life as independent presentations and lectures. They are linked together by the common themes of a culture which is in crisis but does not know how serious the crisis is, and the responsibility of God’s people to proclaim ‘behold your God!’ and live as if God really did matter. The book begins with an historical review of the times of William Carey (1791) and Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1891), contrasting them with the state of society and the church in 1991. It ends with a review of the state of evangelical Christianity at the close of the millenium and its prospects for the future. In between there are chapters on doing theology, analysing its context (Scotland is offered as a case study), preaching, and listening to humanists interpreting themselves.
The author conveys compassion for a lost world and passion to see a church truly come to terms with the enormity and yet privilege of its calling. The book is too short to uncover many of the nuances of Western secular culture, yet it gives some good insights. The chapters are too disparate to afford a sustained argument, though each one has some good material. It is easy to read and reflects much reading, thought and prayer. It will provide an inspiration for those advised not to wander into the cultural swamp unprepared, yet who know that this is the only place where they can follow Jesus truly.
J. Andrew Kirk
Losing Faith in the BBC, Nigel Holmes, Paternoster, 2000, 96pp, £5.99
Nigel Holmes has worked in broadcasting and has been a member of the General Synod. In the latter role he introduced a private member’s bill that won the distinction of having unanimous endorsement when it came to the vote. His resolution called on the BBC to increase the quality and output of religious programmes and regretted the reduction and rescheduling of programmes that had taken place since 1990.
This book documents the decline of religious broadcasting at the BBC: output overall has increased by 50% over ten years while religious broadcasting declined by a third during the same period; religious broadcasting has been given less coverage in annual reports, the religious broadcasting team was removed to Manchester and posts cut, religion was not mentioned at all in a report detailing future strategy, there was a threat to end broadcast worship altogether in Wales, programmes are increasingly scheduled outside peak time and at later and later times, programmes treating religious issues seriously have given way to trivial treatment of religious issues.
The book is largely factual but does raise interesting points for reflection. Has the BBC at the centre fallen victim to political correctness in a way that has not happened in local radio and in Scotland for example? A strategy document produced in London could omit all reference to religious matters but one produced for local stations warmed to the theme, devoting four and a half pages to religious broadcasting under the heading ‘Religious Output…an Obligation and an Audience Winner’. Songs of Praise claims 69% of audience viewing for religious programmes yet it has been taken from peak time and the Head of Broadcasting wants to move away from what he calls ‘quasi-worship Christian output’. Much is now made of the need for multi-faith programming at the centre despite the popularity in terms of audience figures for Christian programmes.
Despite evidence of cultural shift away from Christianity since the early days of the BBC the demand for religious broadcasting is still there and the type of programmes (worship, debates, news reporting of major events of a religious nature) are not markedly different. It seems that people are still interested in Christianity and religion and respond to good programmes. One concerned person has been able to rouse the Synod to action and the BBC to bring in change. This might cause one to ask why the rest of us have been so quiescent. Are we silenced too easily by the argument that we must not inflict our views on others? Have we given in too readily to the argument that we are now a secular society and cannot expect a public institution to listen to or reflect our views? The plaque containing the dedication to Almighty God (although in Latin) still addresses the visitor to Broadcasting House. The same plaque paraphrases the passage in Philippians ‘whatsoever things are lovely and of good report’ and pledges itself to commend such virtues to its viewers and listeners. Perhaps it might even be our duty to encourage the BBC to press on in the ways laid down by its founder.
Time for Truth; living in a world of Lies, Hype and Spin,Os Guinness, IVP, 2000, 139pp., £5.99
‘Truth is dead’ is the thesis of this popular paperback. Os Guinness reflects on the power of truth as evidenced by his heroes, Vaclav Havel and Alexander Solzhenitsyn - and its destruction by such worthies as President Clinton. For him the Clinton approach is more typical of a post-modern generation which has been poisoned especially by Nietzsche whose impact has been to make people doubt any sense they may have of ‘objective’ truth. Truth has become subjective and sometimes a matter, almost, of what I can get away with. He offers interesting examples of how truth can virtually become a commodity sold on the open market.
The West, he proclaims, is dead. And he goes on to decry the fact that some American intellectuals no longer believe in America’s role of defending the West. However, statements like this cause me concern. The author seems to hold a naïve assumption in favour of America’s past moral leadership. But need all questioning of received ways be bad? At the same time, postmodernism is like the Trojan horse: one is not quite clear what else - the weird and the wonderful - has been brought in with it.
The author does not like Darwin, amongst other people. And I do find the choice of Paul Johnson as a witness for his argument unfortunate. Nevertheless, he is laudably in pursuit of ‘full blooded' Christian truth. Helpfully, he suggests that we need to undermine postmodernism’s posturing at its most vulnerable by asking: how can folk live on relative truth? Do they in fact do so? His account of the seven steps by which the loss of truth affects us is most helpful. And he reminds us that we are to live truthful lives, without claiming to have everything right.
This book is a good and racy read. It offers some sobering analysis, and some food for thought. Os is passionate in his concern for our perilous situation, as he perceives it, in the West. Personally I did not find all his arguments and illustrations totally convincing. However, anyone who reads this book will be made to think - which cannot be bad!
This issue's contributors
David Kettle is co-ordinator of the Gospel and Our Culture network
Ian Cowley is Rector of All Saints, Milton, and author of Going Empty-handed
Jacques Matthey is Secretary for Ecumenical Mission Study at the World Council of Churches and Editor of the International Review of Mission
Sue Patterson was recently Lecturer in Ethics and Applied Theology at Trinity College Bristol and is now Rector of Kildallan in the Diocese of Kilmore, Republic of Ireland
Jenny Taylor is a freelance editor and past journalist now completing her PhD studies
J. Andrew Kirk is Director of the Centre for Missiology and World Christianity, University of Birmingham
Peter Ballantine works for the Oxford Diocese Training Coordination Team. He
was treasurer of Gospel and Culture for a couple of years
Penny Thompson is a researcher and writer in the field of religious education who teaches RE part-time
Newsletter 32 (Autumn '01)
Being a ‘good enough’ Generalist in an age of Specialists
Rev’d Dr Gordon Preece
In our time, it is said, knowledge has exploded - and wisdom imploded. Expanding knowledge has become more specialised, and more scattered among specialists; while wisdom, requiring attention to the whole, has become subverted. In this situation we need competent Christian 'generalists': people who are neither expert nor uninformed, but are 'good enough' generalists: reasonably well-rounded, well-read, public Christian intellectuals and professionals.
There is nothing wrong with specialisation as such. It reflects our creaturely finitude of time, energy, health, ability, interest and calling. But there is an over-specialisation which, coupled with secular academic and professional perfectionism, leads to idolatry (in which the part is elevated to the whole) and to reductionism (in which the whole is reduced to its parts). Examples of these are 'the market' as master narrative, modernist scientism, and the postmodern reduction of life to language.
In Western society, the integration of life has become harder to achieve down the centuries. Ever since the rise of universities in the 12th century, academic disciplines have grown more specialised until today we have post-modern poly-versities. Industrialisation has brought the separation of life-spheres into work, home, church, and so on. And from advancing secular specialists Christians have fled - with the ‘God of the gaps’ - into the arms of clerical religious specialists: specialists who in turn have received a theological training increasingly splintered into sub-specialties.
The resulting 'layman's predicament'1 is that we all face what George Bernard Shaw called the ‘conspiracy’ of the specialised professionals. We feel intimidated by those who are expert on issues outside our special competence, and confused when these experts contradict each other. In such circumstances many Christians remain silent, and place their reliance on secular expertise.
Those who are specialists, for their part, are faced with harsh demands to stay abreast with the latest knowledge. As knowledge expands, what they know becomes a smaller and smaller part of the whole. But the pressure to ‘publish or perish’ is felt so strongly that it is rare for specialists to make time for general reading, thinking and writing. ‘Is it refereed?’ is the first question some Christian writers ask of journals which I edit. Perhaps I should show them a cartoon of a tombstone inscribed ‘here lies John Smith, published but perished anyway’!
The ‘good enough’ generalist
A Christian response to this situation is to posit the grace-filled concept of the ‘good enough’ generalist. A competent 'good enough' generalist stands half-way between ignorance and infallibility. Such a person humbly recognises the limits of their own knowledge, but believes that the risks are worth bearing of engaging beyond their speciality in order to take seriously the personal, moral and theological dimensions of all allegedly secular knowledge. In so doing they become a more rounded human being and disciple of Christ, ready to claim for Him all of life including the ethics of boardroom, bedroom and ballot-box.
Learning to speak each other’s languages
A basic communication problem is posed by the increasingly specialised language used within disciplines and sub-disciplines. Paula Brownless writes that on most campuses there is more silence and separation than dispute between the "warring parties"’.2 She describes the ‘incomprehension of other’s intellectual fields’ experienced at a conference on faith and intellectual life.
Perhaps what we need to invoke here is the biblical vision of hospitality, of welcoming the stranger who is alien to our own speciality, the boundaries of which can often be 'guarded like national boundaries' (James Lovelock). Or again perhaps we need to take the principle of ‘common prayer’ - of translating sacred text into the vernacular so its plain sense is understood by the priesthood of all believers - and apply it to the 'sacred' text of specialised knowledge.
We all inhabit specialised speech communities where the talk is ‘thick’ due to shared linguistic assumptions. But like immigrants we need to learn other languages, without losing our native language, and to translate our own into thinner languages (M. Walzer3) - not the thin gruel of a secular Esperanto or utilitarian language of public life, but nevertheless a language generally accessible and appetising enough to make others want to taste more of its unique particularity. I find Stanley Hauerwas commendable in his willingness to do this, as were Jacques Ellul, C.S. Lewis, Lesslie Newbigin and Dorothy Sayers among others.
We must show the same commitment to common or plain speech, to being public intellectuals or professionals, if we would break out of our intellectual and occupational ghettos within our contemporary tower of Babel. A commitment to a 'Pentecost-al' practice of openness to mutual understanding is essential if we are to be the gathered people of God and a scattered bunch of specialists.
Models of the generalist vocation
Three resources might usefully inform our thinking about the generalist vocation as such:
Strategies and resources for the generalist
One way to work at becoming a ‘good enough’ generalist in the midst of the information revolution is to practice regular sabbaths (daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, seven yearly) from specialised, work-oriented reading, and to immerse oneself in meditative literature, novels, and non-fiction.
For students, a gap year provides a useful opportunity for intensive theological study in an integrated way before tackling university. At a later stage, a Graduate Diploma offers a one year full-time or part-time ways of integrating one’s own field with theological perspectives. And there are centres such as the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity which offer courses for busy Christians.
A discipline for the more intellectual is to write accessible popular books and articles as well as specialised academic tones. Another is to dialogue and work wherever possible in cross-disciplinary teams - a privilege I have at Ridley College, Melbourn, where we deliberately employ and cultivate generalists who can speak with each other across specialities.
Besides the Gospel and Our Culture, good journals include First Things (U.S.) - a fine journal of conservative public theology. Third Way, Sojourners and Zadok Perspectives are useful journals of respectively UK, US and Australian moderately left-wing (for want of a better term) public theology. A helpful cross disciplinary journal of mainly North American compass is The Christian Scholars Review. Many of these have websites. Sightings is a useful weekly email of one page public Theology. Antithesis is another useful site in Schaefferian style. For a range of secular material, The Guardian Weekly (which includes material from Le Monde and the Washington Post) gives a helpful global overview of liberal comment.
As for books, compendia or readers provide helpful access to important contemporary debates or thinkers. And it is worth remembering C. S. Lewis’ rule always to read two ancient or classical books for each contemporary one; to go even part way towards this is a helpful antidote to the ‘cult of the contemporary’.
The sociologist Christena Nippert-Eng7 has used the image of dimmer lights for those who seek integration in their lives, moving gently and almost imperceptibly from one room in their lives to another rather than abruptly changing from light to darkness. The image is equally applicable to the movement to and from different specialties. The good enough generalist will seek to exemplify that gentleness of transition that echoes God’s gentle transformation of the totality of our lives - God who is one, and gathers all creation into one in Jesus Christ.
1. See Basil Mitchell, How the Play Theological Ping-Pong, Hodder & Stoughton, 1990.
2. ‘Í was a Stranger and you Welcomed Me: Bridging Between Languages’, in Christianity and Cultures in the Crossfire, ed. D.A. Hoekema and B. Fong, Eerdmans, 1997.
3. M. Walzer, Thick and Thin, Notre Dame, 1994.
4. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Duckworth, 1981.
5. William Temple, Christianity and the Social Order, Penguin, 1942.
6. Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger, 'The MasterKey: Unlocking the Relationship of Theology and Psychology’ inSpire, Winter 2001 and Theology and Pastoral Counselling, Eerdmans, 1995.
7. Christena Nippert-Eng, Home and Work, University of Chicago Press, 1996 .
Lesslie Newbigin: A Theological Life
Geoffrey Wainwright, Oxford University Press, 2000, 45pp, £48 hb.
Reviewed by N. T. Wright
Thousands have memories of Lesslie Newbigin. Two of mine, from a single evening, stand out as relevant to this review of a masterly book.
At the age of 78, Lesslie came to preach for me in Oxford. During dinner on High Table, a message came to the Provost requesting permission to ‘sconce’ a colleague (inflicting a ‘punishment’ of having to drink a huge beaker of beer). Such requests had to be submitted in a learned language, and the students thought they had scored a hit; they wrote in Sanskrit. The Provost passed the message to Lesslie, who took his pen and replied in Tamil.
It was the beginning of term. For various reasons I was exhausted, and not looking forward to the pressures I would face. But as soon as Lesslie arrived I began to feel better. It wasn’t anything particular he said, though his sermon was memorable. He just communicated, through being himself, that Jesus Christ was sovereign and that all things were possible. By the end of the evening my head was up and I was ready for work.
Lesslie the scholar, at ease with multiple and complex languages; Lesslie the pastor, bringing encouragement and opening new possibilities. In between, Lesslie the theologian, grappling with the major issues of his time and of all times, offering fresh wisdom and insight, discovering things new and old in the scriptures, within the context of a daunting worldwide ministry as missionary, bishop, writer, ecumenist, pastor and teacher. Geoffrey Wainwright begins with a brief biographical sketch, but it is Lesslie the theologian, the scholar-bishop, who is the subject of this book.
Successive chapters treat the key topics around which Newbigin’s thinking circled: basic Christian belief; the gospel to be proclaimed; ecumenism; the work of a bishop; missionary strategy; inter-faith dialogue; the gospel and society; liturgy and sacraments; biblical authority; and apologetics. The impression throughout is that Newbigin was a twentieth-century theologian of the first rank, and that he should be studied in his own right as (as some have already said) a modern Church Father. I congratulate any seminary or degree course that offers a special subject in his thought. One may disagree with him, but one can scarcely ignore him.
Wainwright, himself a distinguished ecumenist and theologian, has opened up new vistas not only on Lesslie but on all the areas of theological discourse he treats. (A bibliography of Lesslie’s works would have been useful; this is promised in a further book on Lesslie edited by T. F. Foust, G. R. Hunsberger, J. A. Kirk and W. Ustorf, entitled A Scandalous Prophet, to be published by Eerdmans in late 2001.) Chapter after chapter made me wish that I had known of some of these books when I had been teaching theology; they would have been a help both to me and to my students, and that remains the case. Nor had I known that Lesslie had given major series of named lectures at such prestigious places as Chicago and Harvard, Yale, Cambridge, Princeton and elsewhere – though Lesslie himself would have been the first to say that his countless sermons and addresses in the villages of India and the back streets of Birmingham (where he worked in ‘retirement’) were equally important.
Wainwright not only summarises and discusses all Newbigin’s published work – a huge task in itself, involving not only major books and articles but also pieces in unlikely places such as The Spectator. He has also worked through Lesslie’s unpublished papers, including student essays, now located in the Selly Oak (Orchard House) library in Birmingham. These frequently shed further light from various angles on the topics Lesslie was concerned with, and he is to be congratulated on the remarkable work of synthesis and exposition he has accomplished so soon after Lesslie’s death (January 30 1998). We could be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of things Newbigin thought and wrote about, and we should be grateful for the order and clarity which Wainwright has achieved.
This is not a work of hagiography (Wainwright does not hide his occasional disagreements), but of sober, though highly appreciative, analysis and comment. Nor does the author shirk pointing out places where Lesslie went down one road only to come back and declare it a cul-de-sac – notably in what Wainwright calls ‘the secular flirtation’, when Lesslie embraced the ‘secular interpretation of the gospels’ that was popular in the 1960s, before seeing through and beyond it into a fuller statement of the gospel, taking seriously the new emphases of the time but setting them within the larger, more biblical picture he spent his life developing. At a time when many would urge us to abandon clear-cut biblical thinking in order to engage with other religions, with postmodernity, and with our varied cultures, Newbigin stands as an inspiration for an alternative view: that the biblical worldview itself, always requiring fuller and more thorough historical understanding and explication, is well capable of generating and sustaining a rich and rewarding dialogue with those of all faiths and none, and with every facet of our contemporary world.
It is Newbigin the missionary-theologian, then, who shines through these pages, making me wonder what effect the absence of missiology from so many academic curricula has had on the study of everything else. He grappled sixty years ago with many of the questions that still beset us. His insights have not been disproved, only ignored. If this book helps a new generation of students – and perhaps the old generation of their teachers – to be refreshed and encouraged by Lesslie as I was on that evening thirteen years ago, we shall all be in Wainwright’s debt.
The terrible day
The attacks on Washington and the World Trade Centre were acts of evil and hatred, on a massive scale. Every now and then in history the evil one shows his true face. He did it in Cambodia, in Bosnia and in Rwanda. Jesus said that the devil was a murderer from the beginning; he is a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44). I do not for a moment want to minimise the human responsibility of those who committed these acts. But we need to face the reality of evil. The powers of darkness are no less real and active now, in the 21st Century, than they were in Hitler and Stalin. Perhaps in much of the Western world we had become complacent. We are less likely to be so now.
On the afternoon of the September 11th my car was at the garage having its M.O.T. done. When I went to fetch the car one of the mechanics was listening to events unfolding on the radio. I said to him, "This is horrendous. I can’t believe what is happening." He said to me, "This is what religion does." I made no response.
These acts were acts of hatred not of love. Our God is the God of love, the God who Himself is love. We need to choose whom we will serve. If we serve the God of love, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, then we will sow kindness and mercy, and justice and truth. The evil one is a liar and a murderer. There is a battle going on, and each of us can make a difference in that battle. We can stand firm for love and forgiveness and justice, in the face of even the greatest evil. We can stand firm and not back down, but keep on working and praying for love and for reconciliation and for a more just world. And if we do this, the amazing thing is that the world that has changed may actually be changed in many ways for the better. There has been much death and destruction; but even out of this our God can bring new life, new hope and a better future for humankind. This depends on us, on you and me, and each one who is willing to serve the true God, the Lord of life and love, in these times of trial.
Radical Islam and Western Culture
Brian Keenan, taken hostage in Beirut, wrote afterwards of those who held him captive. They obsessively watched American films of war and violence. He described the many young men who roamed the streets of Beirut, Kalashnikov on arm: 'these men were dressed as caricatures of Rambo. Many of them wore a headband tied and knotted above the ear, just as the character in the movie had done. It is a curious paradox that this Rambo figure, this all-American hero, was the stereotype which these young revolutionaries had adopted. They had taken on the cult figure of the Great Satan they so despised and who they claimed was responsible for all the evil in the world'.
Daniel Pipes, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, has described a wider paradox. In 'The Western Mind of Radical Islam' (First Things, December 1995) he quotes Hamid Dabashi's account of the process many Muslim students go through: 'Beginning with the conscious or unconscious, articulated or mute, premise that they ought to remain firmly attached to their Islamic consciousness, they begin to admire "Western" achievements....… they recognise a heightened state of ideological self-awareness on the part of 'The West' that they identify as the source and cause of its achievements.' Seeing ideologies as the key to the West's technological development they are led 'to develop a modern political ideology based on Islam, which they see as the only way to come to terms with the modern world and the best means of confronting foreign imperialism' (Olivier Roy). Pipes concludes that the goal of fundamentalist Muslims is 'not a genuinely Islamic order but an Islamic-flavoured version of Western reality'. He goes on to trace this through the areas of religion, daily life, politics and the law.
If Pipe's analysis stands, perhaps we see in fundamentalist muslims and their efforts to establish Islamic States governed by Shar'ia law not so much an expression of traditional Islamic concerns as a reflection of the European Enlightenment's invention of the absolute state and its cultivating activities. And in the deep moral sensibilities of educated fundamentalist Muslims we arguably see reflected the heightened moral passions, sense of victimhood and hatred of oppression which are such a feature of our own Western culture today.
For Daniel Pipes' full article see ACCESS No.243; among relevant books, see Lesslie Newbigin, Lamin Sanneh and Jenny Taylor, Faith and Power, SPCK, 1998.
Our 20th Century predecessors
The early decades of the twentieth century provided disasters of unprecedented proportions: two World Wars, the 1918 ‘influenza epidemic’, the rise of the three totalitarian dictators, the 1930s world economic depression, and the Holocaust. Amid these cataclysms and partly because of them, there was a remarkable re-discovery of the doctrine of the Trinity, which had long ceased to be a central theological concern, but had been preserved in the tradition of hymns and the content of the eucharistic liturgy. It was seen first in Karl Barth and has accelerated through the century.
Associated with this theological revival there were two remarkable practical developments– one in Britain from 1938 led by Joseph Oldham, and the other closely allied in New Zealand from 1941.
Oldham had immediately seen what the first world war meant for Western Christendom. The missionary movement that climaxed in Edinburgh 1910 must now begin mission at home in Western society – exactly what Newbigin and the Gospel and Our Culture movement were to say again seventy years later.
At the great Oxford 1937 world conference on Church, Community and State the best thinkers in Christendom faced what was happening all around them. But Oldham felt that something ongoing and deeper was required. In early 1938 he called together the remarkable think-tank, ‘The Moot’ – mainly lay people in some of the top, most responsible positions in Britain. There were T.S. Eliot, John Middleton Murry, Christopher Dawson, H.A. Hodges, Sir Walter Moberly, Sir Fred Clarke, Eleonora Iredale, Karl Mannheim, Adolf Löwe; and later Michael Polanyi, along with only three clergy – John Baillie, Alec Vidler, and Eric Fenn.
Thrice a year for ten years, this group met over a long weekend to debate the fundamental issues of the crisis situation in the West – crisis was the adjective of the era. There had never been anything like this group before or since. It did not publish in its own name but depended on its members carrying its insights into their ordinary occupations.
The Christian News-Letter and Frontier Council
The journal that came out of it, The Christian News-Letter, quickly reached a circulation of some 11,000, and prompted C. N.-L. study groups all over the country, and then small C. N.-L. books. ‘Through the News-Letter Christian debate entered the public forum, and at a popular but serious level, to a degree perhaps never before or since reached in Britain.’1
Alongside all this, in 1942 there emerged The Christian Frontier Council. This was to ‘build bridges between those in the churches and outside who were concerned for a Christian ordering of society’. It took over the Christian News-Letter, added its own monthly journal, Frontier, and was later sponsored by the new British Council of Churches
All this was the deepest response of the churches, largely through its laity, to the social and cultural crisis of the first half of last century. It petered out in the 1960s but it left behind a remarkable story from which we have much to learn in the continuing and still deeper crisis of our day.
Parallel developments in New Zealand
New Zealand had been one of the first countries outside the Continent to make a wide response to the neo-orthodox theology associated with Barth, Brunner, and others. A young Presbyterian minister had gone for doctoral study under Brunner, another Presbyterian had been assistant to John Baillie, and I had studied under the latter in Edinburgh. Then, as chaplain to students in Dunedin, I was an early subscriber to The Christian News-Letter, which provided my chief intellectual stimulus. So much so that I started a weekly for students under the name Interpreter, and used one of the C.N.-L. books in an SCM study group.
It is therefore not surprising that this was the only country in the world that responded specifically to these British attempts to deal with the social crisis; the National Council of Churches in New Zealand was formed in 1941, a year before the British one.
The Campaign for Christian Order
The new Council thought it should do something in relation to World War II, and to the issues the two wars had raised. It decided upon a public campaign by the churches over the next few years, to raise the question of applying a Christian order to our life as a nation. This was no ‘back-to-God’ or ‘come to church’ evangelistic programme but something wider and deeper, in line with the post-war social reconstruction that was then occupying the best minds in Britain. It was the same concern as that of Oldham and his associates, but expressed in a particular public programme.
British Influence and the Campaign
As convenor of the literature committee for the Campaign for Christian Order we reprinted Oldham’s 1941 Christian News-Letter supplement, ‘The Predicament of Society and the Way Out’. Some of our ablest laity produced a series of Christian Order booklets.on Sex, Love and Marriage, on Land and People, on Work and Wealth, on Christian Education, on Christian Order itself, together with a collection of major Church statements, called The Churches Speak.
We gave complimentary subscriptions to the British Christian News-Letter for a year to the editors of some sixteen major newspapers. The major libraries responded to a Bibliography of Current Literature on Christian Order by securing copies and setting up special displays, and wrote the campaign up in the libraries’ journal. The broadcast media presented special programmes. The Campaign remains the biggest thing the churches have ever done together and Clements’ comment above might well be applied here – ‘Through the Campaign for Christian Order Christian debate entered the public forum, and at a popular but serious level, to a degree perhaps never before or since reached in New Zealand.’
All this concluded with a major conference on Christian Order in Aug.-Sept. 1945. Some fine reports on our national life were presented and a continuation committee was set up. But we hear very little more of it. Even earlier than the movement in Britain it disappeared. The question for both is ‘Why?’
The Ending of Christendom
The answer lies in one of Oldham’s small Christian News-Letter books The Resurrection of Christendom. ‘Reconstruction’, a more Christian nation than in the past, a new Christendom – that was the fundamental assumption, both in Britain and in New Zealand.. None of us, not even Oldham, realised that Christendom was not only shattered but was wrong in principle, and not to be taken as model or repeated. Much less did we suspect that the great ecumenical movement, as the historian David Thompson has suggested, might be the last gasp of Christendom.
And no one was ready for changes that were still more radical than those wrought by the two world wars –post-modernism with its rejection of the very idea of truth, the attendant relativism and subjectivism, the sexual revolution, the religious pluralism invading all Western countries, with the great movements of other faiths into the countries that had been called Christian, the sixties culture – we were unprepared for it all.
But there is still a great deal to be learned from those two remarkable and simultaneous movements in Britain and New Zealand from the nineteen thirties to the fifties, that sought a Christian answer, even if somewhat mistakenly, to a radically changing social and cultural scene.
Now the pattern is being repeated with the advent of the Gospel and Our Culture movements in Britain and in New Zealand, where the name DeepSight Trust has been adopted. The relationship begun between Lesslie Newbigin and myself in Birmingham is developed further by the return to Britain of the Rev. David Kettle after some six years in New Zealand, associated with the DeepSight developments, and through the Rev. Dr. Murray Rae, a New Zealander from the DeepSight group, as secretary of G. & C. in Britain. Resources, newsletters and book publications are being shared and John Flett, the DeepSight secretary, is engaged in study of the Oldham movement within a doctoral framework. Now the former one-way influence has been replaced by genuine interaction between the northern and the southern hemispheres. And that is a sign of the new times.
1. Keith Clements, Faith on the Frontier: A Life of J.H. Oldham, Edinburgh: T&T Clark; Geneva: WCC Publications, 1999, p. 395. In this splendid biography, chs.17-19 are focused on The Moot and Frontier period.
This article is much abbreviated from a lecture to a clergy seminar in the Anglican Diocese of Auckland, New Zealand, 29th February 2000.
Last year Rev'd Dr Dan Beeby returned to Taiwan for a very special occasion. As he prepared to celebrate his fourscore years, he was invited by Mr Lin Gi Hiong, chairman of the newly elected Democratic Progressive Party, to attend celebrations at the installation of the new president. In years past, during which the party formed in opposition, the Presbyterian Church had been prominent in its resistance to oppression by the Nationalist government. Dan writes that 'after nearly thirty years of "exile" imposed by the Nationalist government and a place high on the list of "black" names it was a pleasant change to be invited to return by the new regime, all expenses paid and a reception through the airport VIP lounge. Fifty years of hoping, praying and waiting had been rewarded'. Taiwan's recent history has been, he says, 'a carbon copy of South Africa's - prisons and persecution have prepared men and women for a new government.' At the Church's General Assembly its General Secretary greeted the new president with the words 'May God's Wisdom be with you', to which President Chen replied 'All of you are my wisdom, and your help is God's help'.
Dan Beeby continues active in the Gospel and Our Culture network, serving as a Trustee and member of Management Council.
In New Zealand Rev'd Dr Harold Turner, celebrating his 90th birthday, has recently been honoured (together with another New Zealand scholar, Dr John Morton) by a symposium on Science and Christianity. Dr Turner was lecturing in Birmingham when Lesslie Newbigin and Dan Beeby were working together on the Gospel and Our Culture programme; at Lesslie's invitation he read through the draft of The Gospel in a Pluralist Society; and on his return to New Zealand established the Gospel and Cultures Trust (now DeepSight Trust). In recent years he has written three books, all published by DeepSight: The Roots of Science: An Investigative Journey Through the World's Religions (1998) and now Frames of Mind: For a Public Philosophy of Religion and Cultures, and The Laughter of Providence: Stories from a Life on the Margins'. For details visit www.deepsight.org/deepsight/publications.htm.
On a very different note: with grief we report the tragic death of Rev'd Dr Michael Crowley who had just this year joined the Management Council of the network. Michael was a missionary in Peru for many years; a year ago he began work at Selly Oak as Development Officer at the Centre for Anglican Communion Studies. He was a devout, caring Christian loved by his students and his death is a great loss to the Church.
Society is now really ruled by its own logos; say rather by a whole pantheon of its own hypostases and powers… we are beginning to suspect that the idols are vain, but their demonic influence upon our lives is not thereby allayed. For it is one thing to entertain critical doubts regarding the god of this world, and another thing to perceive the dunamis, the meaning and might of the living God who is building a new world.'
Karl Barth, The Christian's Place in Society, 1919
The McDonaldization of the Church, John Drane, Darton Longman & Todd, 2000, 216pp, £9.95pb
John and Olive Drane stand a bit like theological gurus for those trying to imagine what the church needs to be like if it is to be more missiologically effective at the start of the 21st Century.
The author's use of the term McDonaldization is an eye-catching way of referring to a church enmeshed in modernism and its exaltation of rationalism, efficiency and control. It is a term borrowed from sociologist George Ritzer, who used it for a 90’s analysis of American society in thrall to forces of global commercialism. Drane states the problem succinctly: "we have ended up with a secular church in a spiritual society" - a society in ideological chaos often represented by term post-modernity. The Church’s ineffectiveness is the result of "the stultifying effects of theological and ecclesiastical McDonaldization," and its inability to reach out to the "Spiritual Searchers" of society.
His categories of societal types outside the church’s reach go beyond A–B-C1 sociology and are helpful intuitively, but need to be checked out more rigorously before planning too many expensive strategies. The language is more iconic, dealing in archetypes that may or may not resonate with you depending on your experience and your powers of imagination, but may nevertheless be extremely helpful in thinking creatively about reaching different groups.
The alarum calls will not be new to those familiar with the decline in church attendance and Robin Gill’s studies of British Social Attitudes. But this book is no wailing Cassandra, nor does it stand on the sidelines, wringing helpless hands.
One clear call is for "Creative Spirituality." As a former mime artist, I should probably declare an interest here, but I loved his chapter on Prophetic Gifts since it provides strong theology and a provocative call for a much more whole-hearted and committed involvement of the arts in worship and mission. He focuses specifically on mime, dance and clowning, providing biblical justification, historical survey and practical example in ways that will encourage even long-standing proponents of these art forms. The next chapter usefully rehearses the important work that has been done on the place of story in community search for meaning, values and self-identity.
In the words of Professor David Ford, "Today’s task is to improvise in ways that surprise and delight and yet ring true with the past," and I would warmly recommend this book as a way of helping us all to think and move more freely. The alternative is of the order of deer-caught-in–the-glare-of-oncoming- headlights, and we know how that story ends.
Ian Cowley is Rector of All Saints, Milton, and an author
David Kettle is co-ordinator of the Gospel and Our Culture network in Britain
Gordon Preece is Director of the Ridley College Centre of Applied Christian Ethics in Melbourne, Australia, and Commissioning Editor of Zadok Perspectives
Geoffrey Stevenson is Director of the Centre for Christian Communication, Durham
Harold Turner is a scholar in Religious Studies, and founder of the DeepSight Trust in New Zealand.
Tom Wright is Canon of Westminster and an international New Testament scholar
And some closing words from Paul Rowntree Clifford (in correspondence which arrived before the events of 11th September): 'Nothing good will ultimately be lost; only the evil and trivial are destined to perish. Above all the development of constructive human relationships will outlast their apparent dissolution even by death to grow and be consummated in the world to come'. back to newsletter index
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