There’s a funny, sobering scene in the final Rowan Atkinson Blackadder series, Blackadder goes Forth, set during World War One. Stephen Fry’s General Melchett is discussing with resident nincompoop Lieutenant George (a fresh faced Hugh Laurie) the advances made by the British troops in the mud of France. The sacrifices have been huge, with many lives lost.
Sitting on a table in the General’s officer is a scale model of a battle field, the turf recaptured so far in the battle against the Huns.
Melchett asks Captain Darling (the wonderfully simpering Tim McInnerny) what the actual scale is of the model sitting before them.
“One to one sir.”
“The map is actually life-sized sir. It’s in perfect detail sir. Look there’s a little worm.”
“So the actual amount of land retaken is?…”
“17 square feet sir.”
“Ah, so young Blackadder didn’t die horribly in vain after all.”
Christian exiles, it’s time to leave the turf wars behind and stop the senseless dying in vain. If, when the smoke and noise and screams of outrage have cleared in the current same sex marriage debate, all that traditional Christians have to show for it is 17 square feet of turf, then that’s one mother of a Pyrrhic victory.
And that’s even if we “win”, whatever that word means! The former Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson, a gay man who supports SSM and religious liberty in the public square for those who dissent, told me personally that many Christian groups are playing it all wrong.
He explained that his struggle has been to convince Christian groups to stop fighting so hard against what is inevitable (and he and I agree that SSM in Australia is inevitable), and instead concentrate on working hard to showcase the need for religious liberty. He believes that many are so intent on winning the first fight, that they’ll actually lose both. I think he’s right.
Now don’t misunderstand me. I am as committed to the biblical vision of sexuality, marriage and gender as I have ever been, but it’s getting to the stage where the accusations that we are simply retreating to “quietism” if we leave this one alone, just don’t cut it any longer. There’s a growing sense in some Christian quarters that “we” can match the sound and fury of the Hun, so to speak. And I just don’t buy that.
In the quietism accusation the fear is that we will become detached from the world to the detriment of doing good to the culture. But if the solution to quietism becomes, as it appears to be, “noisy-ism”, then we’ve got a problem. If the answer is an ever louder and more convoluted series of campaigns demonstrating how the sky will fall in it this things gets up, we’ve lost gospel focus.
To be honest, leave the shouty scenario to our protagonists. A firm and singular sotto voce “no“ may be the way to play it, because at the moment this battle is a headlong rush towards bigger and bolder headlines.
I believe it’s time for exiles to stop playing by those rules, if it were ever the time to play by them in the first place. The incessant lobbying, the plants in audiences on ABC’s QandA, the sense of entitlement that leaches through the comments in newspapers and blog posts.
Let’s be honest, if our hope is to gain 17 square feet of turf, then we need to go at it hammer and tongs. But our hope is a “re-turfed” new creation, one in which bomb holes, bullet holes and fox holes are a distant memory. For a secular age in which this is all there is, then it’s not only worth putting everything on the line for, it’s absolutely necessary. That’s why all sorts of dirty tricks are being pulled, that’s why the language has become so brutal.
But we know that it’s not all that there is. We know that there’s an age to come where righteousness will be at home. Dirty tricks and brutality should never be our game because we’re just not that desperate.
I have been challenged on this by Mark Sayer’s excellent new book, Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience, a complete must read. It echoes much of my thinking over the past year in relation to the so-called Benedict Option, the call for the church to focus its energies on creating a strong centre again; refusing to fight the culture wars the culture’s way.
In the 5th century St Benedict created a series of robust monastic communities that withdrew from the surrounding culture, but not simply to hide away and await the, er, Rapture. Their goal was return. Once refocussed, re-charged, and re-energised through the process of withdrawal, they returned to provide safe havens of godly community and love in the midst of a chaotic post-Roman Empire Europe.
Benedict’s communities were like beautiful bomb shelters. They were not dark tunnels in which people cowered in fear, but solid, unbreakable communities that modelled the resilience and creative beauty that the scorched culture would require once hostilities ceased and the shelling stopped.
As Sayers points out, the Benedict Option is not about building a compound to hide away. Withdrawal is designed to create “creative minority” communities that will provide robust examples of what God wants not just for 17 square feet of turf, but for the whole creation.
Such communities are to be, in a sense, repellently attractive. Communities that people both long to join, but are, at the same time, reluctant to join. No one is to be cajoled by promises of their best life now. They need to see the great cost, but also the great reward at the end of it.
The Benedict Options means that the bar is high for Christians. And for good reason. It means love and loveliness, godliness and goodliness, holiness and wholeness. In a muscular sense it means deciding to forgo the bracket creep of theological heresy (we value orthodoxy). It means forsaking the slavish desire for the kudos of a culture that is in decline (we value orthopraxy). But it means valuing those in ourselves, not expecting them from a lost world that is seeking satisfaction and ultimate identity anywhere but Jesus.
But above all it means valuing those things in ourselves for the sake of the world. And that’s ultimately what banishes any notion of quietism. God’s plan for creation was won at the ultimate Ground Zero, the cross. The cross is the place where the banshee wail of the godless culture reached its crescendo, and where the barrage raining down on the head of Jesus went nuclear. We too are people of the cross. Should we expect anything less than he received?
When the darkness and the poison and the smoke cleared, when the sun rose on that third day, God’s resurrected man demonstrated that he hadn’t died horribly in vain after all. The turf war was fought and won decisively at the cross. From that day to this there is no square foot of turf on the whole planet over which he does not pronounce “Mine!”, and he has the battle scars to prove it.