Part II – The Bible for Losers

Having a fine time reading Francis Spufford’s book on why he, despite everything is a Christian.  It’s called “Unapologetic” or “UnApologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity can still make Surprising Emotional Sense”. (Let’s just call it “Unapologetic” – unapologetic Ed).

I know I’m not gonna agree with this guy on everything, even surprise, surprise on SSM, but the first few pages are brilliant and hilarious.  Christians are to blame for everything.  Everything. They’re to be praised for nothing. That’s right. Nothing.  But that doesn’t make them dangerous.  They’re nothing of the sort.  What they are is embarrassing.  Leaving aside the 1 per cent of Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ teeth-gnashers, the general populace just can’t see why it’s necessary anymore. There’s no reason for Christianity, unless it’s simply to provide bait to the baying crowd on ABC’s Q and A.  Take this pearler for instance:

Believers are the people touting a solution without a problem, and an embarrassing solution too, a really damp-palmed, wide-smiling, can’t dance solution. In an anorak.

Oh that last painful sentence. Three stinging words that take the wind out of the sails, that sum it all up so well (for English cold-weather anorak wearers anyway). Nick Hornby labelled Spufford “one of the most original minds in contemporary literature.”, while The Guardian said “the man writes like a dream.”

So, all you “man the barricades” types, ready to defend Christianity to the death, you might find that no one is actually on the other side of the barricades because…, well because they’re all off at the David Jones end-of-financial-year sale, where that brilliant red Russell Hobbs cake mixer is half price.  Yes that’s right, HALF PRICE!

Which segues us nicely to the topic of the day; namely the two second points made in the Australian Christian Lobby’s statement concerning Same Sex Marriage and former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s change of mind. The ACL expressed concern that:

1. The discussion of homosexual sex acts will be part of the curriculum in sex ed classes in schools.

2. Christians will be pursued through the courts by gay activists in the areas of discrimination, hate speech etc.

Will these two things happen?  Undoubtedly.  The trajectory seems to be leading us in that direction.  Does that mean that Christians should roll over and play dead on these issues?  No, it does not mean that. I think that there is a long road ahead in discussion within Christianity, discussion with authorities, and clarifying statements concerning the separation of church and state (originally designed to protect the church from state interference, remember).

So what does it mean?  It means that over the course of the next few decades Christians in the West will likely find themselves on the “losing” side more often than the winning side.  When it comes to “soft” power – traction in the wider culture, Spufford pins the tail on the Christian donkey.  We are already losers in that “soft” sense.  But what is true of soft traction will, sooner or later, become true of the hard traction: the influence in the halls of power. It will mean the education departments will include homosexual sex in its sex ed classes,  and gay activists will be seen outside courthouses across Australia declaring “this is a victory for justice and love.” And that will be the end of the world as we know it, right?

Wrong.  Of course.  Wrong for a number of reasons.  Christians in the West will simply start to experience what Christians in the “Rest” have experienced for many years – hostility from the predominant worldview and a political system that bends away from it rather that towards it.  But, and most importantly, Christians in the West will start to see, with fresh eyes, that the Bible is an astonishingly hopeful and helpful book for those who are on “the losing side of history”.

Let me explain.  One of the reasons I have found the works of Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost so helpful is that they are perfectly comfortable, indeed joyous, in describing a church not on “the other side”, but on “the under side” of culture.  I will never forget the first time I heard Hirschy speaking in a room with about ten of us, here in little old Perth. Sitting before us was no whiney teenager going on about how funky church was going to solve our problems; no chip-on-his-shoulder angry man saying we have to reclaim what is rightfully ours, no austere academic disinterestedly mapping out church history; but, rather, a humble bloke who was ahead of the wave in his thinking.  The two Epistles of St Peter, John’s “Revelation” Apocalypse, the exilic texts of Daniel (especially it’s apocalyptic second half), Ezra, Nehemiah.  These were the texts that gave him confidence that whatever way the culture went, God’s people and God’s purposes would come through. The church could prepare itself for its shift to “the under side” of culture, by rightly understanding these texts. Hirsch was perfectly happy with “The Bible for Losers” because in so many instances throughout their history, God’s people have been in the weak position.  By seeing that, for example, whatever beasts the churning sea of history throws up (Daniel 7), the Son of Man sits on the throne, Christians can be released from the presumption that unless they get it all their way, God is somehow being thwarted.  The winner has been decided, it’s just the details that are up for grabs.

Hold on, you might say, didn’t Daniel stand his ground politically when in the dangerous court of Babylon – and then Persia?  Yes.  So did his friends.  And when Nebuchadnezzar built a golden image of himself for all to worship, didn’t Daniel’s friends all placard for a change in the law and lobbied the government to ensure that nobody should bow down to it?  NO!  They told the king that they would not bow down to it. They would not worship it whatever judgement he handed out.  Listen to Daniel 3:

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. 17 If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

No need to answer you?  Wow! What about a media release?  What about a protest website? Their need not to answer did not betray a fear of the king, but a confidence in the true king.  They were convinced of one important thing: King Nebuchadnezzar, despite all appearances, despite the plausibility structures in place to ensure it, despite the golden image, despite the thousands prostrating themselves before it (and him), was not king! As Daniel puts it, the God of heaven is king.  And whether they lived – or died – they were going to maintain their distinction as the people of the one true king, albeit living in a foreign place under a usurper to God’s authority.  If the fire had burnt them to a crisp, history would have judged them losers.  But that would not have been true.  It would not have changed the fact that God was king – their king.

And so I close.  But not before pointing out the end of Daniel 3.  Listen to the words of Nebuchadnezzar when the three friends are rescued from the flames:

28 Nebuchadnezzar answered and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. 29 Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that speaks anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins, for there is no other god who is able to rescue in this way.”

Just to head off the arguments at the pass, there is a place for persuasion in the public square.  Christians have a place at the table – for the moment.  Whether or not media releases are the way in which to do it is another matter.  But here is what is most clear: We may “win the day”, we may get burned in the fire, but God is still king.  He may call some of us to be more vocal. He may call some of us to be quieter and more subversive.  Regardless of what he calls us to do there is nothing to fear about being on “the under side” of the culture.  It may actually  leaves room for God to be more glorified and honoured among his people and, indeed, among the kings of the world.

18 Comments

  1. An interesting take Stephen,

    I’m not sure that I am ready to give up on the desire for a `Christian Nation’ in the sense that the Christian worldview is seen as something that is obviously not worth considering.

    This would feel like capitulation to the growing darkness of secularism. I’m not ready to give up and take too much comfort in the defensive position as I see described here.

    To the barricades !

    Well to the small groups where you talk about how great it is on this side 🙂

    1. that’s a good point Dave. I don’t want to sound too defeatist, probably more a case of seeing the church as the place where the kingdom is demonstrated in a most focused way – but even then, even then! The difference between wanting it and expecting it (expecting it, that is, outside the fulfilment when Let Your will be done on earth AS IT IS in heaven becomes reality). The best barricade ever built prior to the Second World War was the Maginot Line – the only problem being the Germans advanced at right angles to where the French placed the guns. but let’s keep the convo going – I need to be pushed on this stuff.

  2. Hey steve, I would say that your main point, in this post is that Christians need not fear a shift in Western culture to one which is less Christian in it’s values and practice. Which I agree with – no matter what happens, we know Christ reigns and he will bring all things under his feet. So no need to fret.

    However, the main vibe/tone I got from this and the last post was one of, acquiescence or resignation, to an inevitable slide of our culture towards … where ever it wants to go. But I would say that if Christians care in any way about social justice, and health of society – they must be active participants in the political sphere. In history we’ve seen the failure of the Church to be active participants- lead up to world war 2 Germany. But also successes, – reformation of political England – such as the much referenced Wilberforce and others. Not all Christians will choose the political sphere to focus their energies – but I applaud those that do – and I even fancy their chances of success, and hope for a better and healthier society in both the west and the rest of the world. I think tone matters, sometimes more than the main point.

    1. Interesting thoughts Warick, and yes, perhaps that tone could be coming through. I am actually trying to pick my way through that minefield.Perhaps occasionally I stand on a mine! I guess what I want to come through, like you, is that tone matters too! My primary concern is that Christians in the West are slow to grasp that they do not have a position of privilege at the table any longer. Hence they are often affronted that their position is not given as much credence as it once was. How they respond to that will be telling. Christians are to be active participants, but as Tim Keller has said, (in relation to evangelism), the call in the old style of evangelism was to call people to do what they knew they should do – they know they are sinners who need to turn back to God, what they need to do is admit it and repent. They could say “no” and remain unrepentant, but they knew that was what they were doing. But Keller goes on to say, in quoting Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones the demon is in too deep, the culture no longer “knows”what we are appealing to. It’s been lost. Christians are going to have to start from a much humbler position, and one in which they are not holding the levers of control.
      So, for example, if a Christian agency that used to receive govt funding to undertake some social service, now has to sign off on all sorts of anti-discrimination laws in order to continue to receive that funding, what is their next step? Do they push hard to get exemptions – spending time and money in the process – or do they pitch their expertise in with a group that is not Christian, but has similar aims on the surface; running an employment program in a certain area, helping asylum seekers etc? These issues are going to come to the surface more and more.
      The aim of this post was to “flush out” that sense of privilege, not to be defeatist, but to help Christians be more realistic in how things may be as the culture shifts from its cultural roots. There is much more for me to think about obviously!

  3. speaking of tone, i think mine might sound a bit belligerent. apologies for that. i think it’s more my mood than your posts coming causing it. i need to eat some food.

    1. Don’t apologize for saying it how it is.. that’s how they get you – by making you feel shame for having a spine.

  4. Hi Steve, good post above. I think you are spot on. It seems to me that because christians worship a crucified Messiah then being on “the underside of culture”, being “losers” or “weak”, is simply following in the footsteps of Jesus and in doing so we are in fact “working with the grain of the universe”(John Howard Yoder)

  5. Hi Steve

    Been dropping in silently for a while and continue to appreciate your mind and perspective – as i always have. The thing that concerns me perhaps the most about some of the rhetoric is the lack off grace that is exhibited by the christian voice. We do not battle against flesh and blood and more than anything else God calls us to love our neighbour, love our enemies… Surely this force (love) is infinitley more powerful than our rhetoric. I think there are times when making a strong stand is important and standing against injustice on the ground of morality has made a powerful difference for humantiy – think Wilberfoce. However if our language, often directed to people who are outside the Church loses its grace and fails to reflect the character of the one on whose behalf we purport to speak then perhaps we would be better to remain silent. if we only ever spoke boldly with love and grace perhaps our voice at the table would not be as unwelcome and if still unwelcome then more convincing and convicting. Further if we only conversed with our borthers and sisters in a way which reflected God’s character and how He feels to them then where would the media story be – it might just be about the Church feeding the hungry. supporting the marginalised and housing the homeless. I wonder what in the end is worse and more damaging to the Church and to the world which our Father loves:. The endorsing of SSM in legislation or the media’s delight at the internal conflict bickering and name calling that can be found in the ‘Christian’ conversation.

  6. P.S. By the above Steve I was not suggesting that your ‘tone’ was one I was disappointed with. i find that you do a remarkably good job of deftly picking your way through the mindfield that I would prefer to leave alone – and you do so without doing damage. I appreciate your willingness to enter the fray with reasoned and often refreshing observations. I am however a big believer in the principle that how we say what we say says as much about us as what we say.

    1. Hey Dave

      Thanks for your wisdom on such matters. I know your sharp mind can take in a lot more nuance, as well as argument slip-ups than mine! Yeah, I do want to enter the fray, and need the godliness to do so with humility and gentleness, so prayer appreciated. “refuting opponents with gentleness (2 Timothy) is such a delicious paradox, don’t you think?

      Steve

      1. I may be adept at picking up the slip ( assuming I know what I am talking about which is a doubtful assumption) but I will leave nuance to you. My prayers are yours. Appreciate your perspective and will continue to do so.

  7. Hey Stephen,

    Been sucked into your blog lately. I find I agree with it very often. And this two-parter I specifically agree with too. Sadly it feels very few people are willing to discuss the possibility of loosing these debates in the public square and how God will still be ultimately glorified anyway.

    Do you have any tips on how not to give up on “persuasion in the public square” while we still have a place at the table?
    I often sense the strong tide against us on SSM and rather start planning for the WCS then engage with the current state of things.
    Also any tips on how to communicate not wanting SSM but not necessarily wanting to force anti-SSM legislation?

    Sam

    1. Hi Sam

      Thanks for the encouragement. I think I will write something about our response and how to move forward with it. I think the tide is against us, and the difficulty is that the extremes of the debate will not allow you to allow what your last question suggests, which will be, I believe, the way forward. So watch this space. In the next few days I will have a crack at it and I’d appreciate any wisdom too!

      Steve

  8. Well I guess we Christians in the western world had better get ready to be like Paul and Silas (and many Christians in parts of the world now where Christianity is heavily persecuted) then if we are doomed to lose. http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts+16:25&version=NIV

    However in many countries the death penalty or long prison terms for homosexual choices still stands. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_rights_by_country_or_territory

    What seems sinister to me is that something that only directly effects a very small minority (is it 1%) of the country at the moment is occupying a large amount of media time… Land rights for gay whales isn’t that important for the majority of the populace no matter how many times the media tries to brainwash us into thinking it is. I’m not sure Gods people are supposed to be timid doormats all the time on any issue, although I agree its easy to get caught up in the emotion of it too much and too often.

    There is a real conflict going on here though, and its one that was predicted by creationist Christians about 20 years ago… Thankfully God IS still in control no matter what happens and the story of Shadrach and co is a good example of trusting God no matter how bad things seem, but even then they were not afraid to stand their ground and neither should we be. The Christ showed his emotion and hate for wrong in the temple, so shouldn’t we NOT be temperate sometimes also. However he did allow himself to be crucified, is that because he knew that was God the Fathers will?

    Didn’t Daniel lobby/negotiate with the King to allow him and his mates to be vegetarian water drinkers, and see if they did ok without meat and wine? Thinking on good things is important, and no need to fight conflicts/battles not helpful to the cause of the Kingdom, so http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Phillippians%204:8&version=NIV might be telling us to ignore this issue sometimes.

    But if Christian schools are required by law to teach my kids “how to practise homosexual intercourse” how is this in accord with Phillipians 4:8??? Will this undoubtedly happen, no it will not if we stand up and fight against it, and God is with us in the fight. But then again maybe God doesn’t want us to fight that battle which seems to be the tone coming through in your post. If that’s the case we would be wasting our time fighting the battle, and better off homeschooling our kids or just accepting that they are going to learn about it whether we like it or not? Could be some rocky roads ahead but if we go the way NC went last year, maybe we will be on the winning side not just because God is with us, but so we can take the lead again amongst Christians and the whole of society? Could it be that God is seeing who will be a leader and who will be a doormat amongst Christians? Or maybe as you seem to be suggesting its a battle He doesn’t want us to fight?

    Some interesting links;
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_rights_by_country_or_territory
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/10067062/Gay-marriage-could-stop-Christians-becoming-teachers-or-doctors-church-leaders.html
    http://edition.cnn.com/2012/05/09/politics/north-carolina-marriage/
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Same-sex_marriage_in_North_Carolina
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Same-sex_marriage_law_in_the_United_States_by_state

    1. Some interesting perspectives here and one or two I plan to write about fairly soon. Firstly, thanks for your reflections on all of this. I do appreciate feedback and pushback!
      I guess I am saying that the tone of my post is not so much defeatist – as you and a number of others seem to suggest – but more about the state of the church. Jesus cleared the temple, but not the Colosseum. By that I mean that the place that God expected righteousness and the place he expected a reflection of his nature was among his people and in his temple (read “the church” for NT believers). But he did not find it. I agree that Daniel did lobby the king, but not for everybody, only for the Jewish young men who he wanted to maintain their distinctive nature as the people of God even in the midst of the pagan nation. Incidentally, you mention home schooling. Perhaps Daniel picked the wrong target! If it were 21st century evangelicals we would have no problem with eating the king’s food, and plenty of problems with doing what Daniel and his friends actually did; study the magic arts, star charts and mythologies of ancient Babylon – Babylon Studies 101. Why the food, but not the schooling? That’s an important distinction, made all the more important by the fact that the Jews found themselves in Babylon in the first place for, among other things, getting involved in pagan religious practices.

      One thing is clear: The battle belongs to the Lord. The only question is, which battle? the interesting thing in Revelation is the picture of God’s people surrounded by their enemies, ready for battle, only for them to have the battle taken away from them by the appearance of Jesus. This is a clear reference to that fact that Jesus will be the ultimate victor.

      But keep thinking and keep responding!

      Cheers

      Steve

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