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What Next? To the Barricades or the Gated Community? (Part 1)

Monday, 7 September 2015  | Stephen McAlpine


The current cultural squeeze that Christianity is facing in the West risks sending God's people one of two extremes; to the barricades as culture warriors, or to the gated community as culture haters/avoiders. The former are determined to take the culture back, while the former are happy to give the culture back. Metaphorically speaking, the former are stocking up on poster paints, placards and how-to-lobby-your-MP flyers. The latter are stocking up on beans, spam, shotguns and rural real-estate.

They have this in common: both are misguided, wrong even, in their approach to the complex beast that is late modernity. While on the surface they appear miles apart, they are both wings on the same wounded bird, flapping around using a lot of energy, but destined to come crashing to the ground sooner or later.

Here are some of their problems.

 

Barricades Christians

1. Hope Triumphs Over Experience

Remember the knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who has his legs and arms chopped off, but at every turn keeps fighting? ”T'is only a flesh wound!” he announces stoically, cheerfully even, as the blood spurts. “Come back here and I'll bite you!” It's a classic case of hope triumphing over experience.

Forty years of culture wars has left the traditional Christian cultural warrior legless and armless, but still cheerfully fighting. There was a while there in the US in the eighties where the Religious Right looked like it might win a round before it shot itself in its remaining gangrenous foot through scandal and hubris, hopping around just long enough for the cultural progressives to line it up and lop it off at the hip.

Yet the hot blood of the SSM debate currently coursing through the culture's veins is approached not with the caution of those who have been chastised over the past forty years by their failures, but rather a “This time we could do it!” optimism. Really? Monica's boyfriend in Friends despite his scrawny non-fighting ability and mild disposition, fancied himself as a bit of a cage fighter even when experience clearly demonstrated otherwise. (It being family TV and all, we only ever saw the yet-once-more bandaged, bloodied results, not the actual mauling itself.)

It's a zero-sum game from our opponents, so let's play by those rules, never mind that we have never won a single game using this approach.

 

2. This Is Not Poland

Well, it might be. If you are reading this in Poland then czesc to you and thanks for dropping by. But if you're in the West and you want to fight a culture battle, please don't take the recent vote on SSM or the shift towards a conservative position on abortion in Poland as your guide for how these cultural battles could play out if we get it right. Why? Because this is not Poland! Yet that is what I have heard over recent months. Poland is, apparently, an example of what we can hope for. 

It isn't, and here's why: forty years of Communism in Poland was swept away with nary a glance, through the intestinal fortitude of a common Catholic shipyard worker, Lech Walesa, and the moral fortitude of a privileged Pope, John Paul II. Well maybe that is gilding the lily somewhat, but the forces of Polish Catholicism were only ever papered over by Communism.

When Communism fell, it fell quickly because the deep subterranean current of Polish culture is Catholic. Sure, Poland flirted with Western ideologies in the heady days after the fall of the Iron Curtain, but the last twenty years has proven to be business as usual. There is a huge weight of Catholic thought, tradition and downright doughtiness in the Poles that is, to a different extent, also being exhibited by the Russians and their Orthodox history. This is likely not Russia either, but privyet if it is!

Here's the rub: deep, long-term, cultural currents determine how these way matters play out, not surface skirmishes, intoxicating though they may be for cultural warriors. James Davison Hunter's To Change the World exposes the naivety of those who think that Christians changing culture for the good is as simple as getting themselves into influential political positions. It's far more complex than that.

So it's worth noting how much the traditional Christian framework has fallen away so quickly across the West. This is being particularly hard felt in the US and in part it reveals the true cultural undercurrents of a country lining up with their stated declarations of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Miroslav Volf's assertion of the idea of human flourishing being reduced to the “satisfied self” in the Western context, simply reveals our true undercurrents.

Even here in Australia, the dangerously thin layer of topsoil on an old, dry continent is simply a paradigm for the tenuous grip that the Christian framework has had on the culture. The wind upped a gear, and the topsoil was blown away, revealing the late-Enlightenment secular bedrock we were founded upon.

 

3. History Isn't Linear Progression

Cultural warriors fall into the trap, extrapolated well by Charles Taylor, that history is a linear progression. To take that approach simply plays into the hands of Enlightenment thinking and its understanding of progress. That is neither biblical, nor, ironically as it turns out, historically accurate. First, the Bible states that history is neither our judge, nor ours to determine. History has been determined already by the crucified, risen, ascended and returning Christ. History will not judge us, because one day God will.

But secondly, the progressive program assumes that cultural matters can be ticked off like lists. The recent forty years are a case in point. Roe v Wade on abortion—tick! That's been sorted. The case is closed and those who say otherwise are destined to be judged by history. Yet I wonder if most people back in 1973—winners or losers—could have predicted that since 2010, abortions would be on the decrease across all US states. Culture warriors on the right proclaim that's because of restrictive laws, culture warriors on the left proclaim that's because of better education and birth control.

But the third factor: that people actually make major decisions emotionally is, at the very least, a contributing factor. A recent The Gospel Coalition post cites the prevalence of young babies on social media such as Facebook as literally putting babies in our faces. And technological advances in MRI scans have been credited with a rising ambivalence among millennials towards abortion. After all, an unseen enemy is easy to dismiss; not so one into whose very eyes you can look. 

This isn't about abortion per se, but simply to point out that forces are at work in our culture that we can neither predict nor determine. And for what it is worth, I have focused on culture warriors on the right of the spectrum because I think that the shift towards “progressive politics” on ethical matters raises a different set of questions for the Christian culture warrior on the left. In short, having a seat at the cultural table is intoxicating, but there's no such thing as a free lunch, hence silence is being bought. I am interested to see at what point, if any, those on the cultural left in the church will raise their voices of concern on the sexual ethics debate.

Either way, I believe we give ourselves way too much credit in assuming who will be on which side of history on any one issue.

And so to the second wing of the bird…

 

Gated Community

1. Guards Replacing Gates

I love the series The Walking Dead. There is an inexorableness about the zombies; they’re coming after you no matter what you do. I especially love Seasons Three and Four with their menacing setting of Woodbury, a town that has managed to fortify itself against the dreaded dead. Woodbury must have been a pretty place to live before everything changed. Lovely streets, lovely people, lovely setting. But now, it’s guarded by huge steel defences and plenty of ‘good ole boy’ weaponry. Oh, and a self-appointed leader called The Governor—Churchill, Hitler and Napoleon all rolled in to one. There is nothing but trouble out there, so trust me, and stay inside. Sound familiar?

The gated community is the prized pearl of the middle class western world. A place that sets one apart, keeps one—and one’s stuff and one’s family—safe, and keeps undesirables out. Christian subculture has been happy to ape this—how can I put it?—religiously. Some can go from cradle to grave rarely having to step outside the influence of the gated Christian community. It was, and continues to be, a sub-culture that offers all sorts of ‘Christianised’ versions of what the broader culture offers.

In some senses, while this has had unfortunate consequences for cultural engagement by the conservative side of the faith, it was built upon an assumption that we can all be left to our devices and figure out a narrative of our own that broadly assimilates with Western culture.

But that was before the inexorable zombies. The problem in the past was that people were inclined to go outside the community into the world every now and then to forage. Oh for that problem again! Now the problem is that whatever is out there wants to get in here and shut it down. At least that is how the thinking goes.

The gated community of the past is in danger of becoming the guarded community of the future. Simply put, the perceived level of threat has increased. Many within the gated community are feeling the squeeze of a culture that no longer is happy to ‘let bygones be bygones’, but is coming after any dissent. This has especially surfaced in the areas of sexual ethics, but it sweeps up other things with it, matters that affect litigation and school education for starters.

Will the zombies overrun the guarded community? It’s hard to say. The narrative is not yet settled. Can the secular culture co-exist with ethical communities that hold to alternative frameworks to the predominant paradigm? Only time will tell. I believe that there will be more pressure on the church to conform to the new morality than many believe.

 

2. The Problems Within

The town of Woodbury is the equivalent of the village in the aptly titled movie The Village. There, in order for the town’s leaders to keep the people inside, they had to invent monsters, or at least talk up any monsters there might be. Best to stay inside and pretend it’s the 1880s even in the 1990s.

And therein lies the primary problem with the guarded community. It atrophies. There is no sense of engaging and grappling with the culture, finding ways to be exiles within it, as texts such as 1 Peter call for. And with all that time on your hands not engaging with the culture, what better thing to do than turn on ourselves!

I know of a church planted by the first round of migrants from an Eastern Bloc nation in the 1960s. It’s fair to say serge suits and somber faces were the order of the day. The problem was the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and someone forgot to tell them. Consequently, when new migrants from that country arrived and turned up at the church, they discovered their forbears grappling with problems that no longer existed. The old congregation was inward-looking and suspicious, unable to engage with the new paradigm. The new crowd had been coming to terms with seismic cultural change and were better informed as to how to life in light of it. What thrives in the first generation, barely survives in the second, and generally unravels in the third.

A secondary problem is that the guarded community’s need for a villain often finds it looking within to create one. The level of infighting increases, and ‘Governors’ rise up to control the situation. Such groups under-estimate the permeating effects of sin from within. Ironically, when it does surface, they are unable to name sin for what it is. There is a telling history among too-tight Christian communities that end up riven by factions, with underlying sins and tensions going unspoken.

The gospel does not, ultimately, call us to either barricades or gates. Rather it calls us to go outside the camp grounds, outside the city walls, just as Jesus did in his suffering, bearing the shame of the cross (Hebrews 13:11-13). The writer invites his readers to “bear [Jesus’] reproach”. And I think that sums up the problem we have in our modern world. We would rather be hated than scorned. We would rather die on a hill, rather than submit ourselves to the humility/humiliation of the one who died on the hill for us. The greatest fear in our modern culture is to be considered worthless, useless, a waste of time. Peter puts it like this: “the stone that the builders rejected” (1Peter2:7), before calling us, as the writer to the Hebrews did, to come to Jesus and bear that shame, not because it’s easy, but because, eschatologically, it’s worth it. It means we will be a community built up in a vindicated King, whose own vindication will be found in the resurrection, not a change of President, or a favourable plebiscite.

If we could just keep that front and centre, we might save ourselves a lot of angry ink, poster paint, and Facebook rants.

 


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