The Black Knight from Monty Python’s The Holy Grail could have learned a few lessons from Scott McKnight in his excellent Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church – a book which I am just devouring. It’s destined to be a game changer.
Remember the Black Knight? He is ever so optimistic about his chances of defeating King Arthur, and even more so as he gets cut to ribbons.
‘Tis only a scratch!”
“It’s only a flesh wound!”
“I’ve had worse!”
When he’s left limbless and bleeding he’s still at it:
“Come back here and take what’s coming to ya! I’ll bite your legs off!”
I’m planning on an extensive review of McKnight’s book in the future, but here’s a cracking quote from him that the Black Knight could have taken heed of:
The culture war story is not the kingdom story, and it is idolatrous when Christians equate the two.
McKnight’s quote does two things:
1. It Highlights the Futility of the Culture War
After four decades of losing every round of the so called culture war in the West, Christians who hitch their wagon to the conservative side of the culture war are looking pretty much like the Black Knight – limbless. Haven’t won a round so far. Taken a beating every time. Limbless and thrashing around.
But so, so optimistic about the next round! Everything so far has simply been a flesh wound. and now, with SSM barrelling down the highway in the popular culture, and about to be established in the political, and soon to be enforced in the legal culture, the cry is still “Is that all you’ve got?” Someone recently used the word “battle” to describe how he is going in to this fray, and I well believe him, except it’s just another chance to have a limb (Are there any left? – Long-suffering Ed) lopped off.
An excellent article in the UK’s The Spectator by Damian Thompson entitled 2067: the end of British Christianity highlights this breezy, queasy optimism that many culture warriors who identify as Christian hold to:
The failure of American Christians to secure the repeal of Roe v. Wade is mirrored by British Catholics’ fruitless campaign against the 1967 Abortion Act. These failures can’t simply be ascribed to popular support for abortion. They are signs of the waning of religion in Britain and the United States, where Christianity is being attacked by, and accommodating to, European-style secularisation.
Now Thompson is speaking as a Catholic, but the conservative splinter groups of cultural warriors that sweep up all sorts of Christians have experienced the same thing. The whole article is worth reading as it unpacks what this looks like, but Thompson’s primary point is that the problem is not how secularism has changed the face of the culture, but how secularisation has changed the face of the church. And how about this for an excellent observation:
“Let’s not get sidetracked into another argument about Islam. Although it will probably become Britain’s largest religion some time this century, it isn’t emptying our village churches. The deadliest enemy of western Christianity is not Islam or atheism but the infinitely complex process of secularisation.
Or, to put it another way, choice. Long before digital technology, social mobility was undermining what the American scholar of religion Peter Berger calls ‘plausibility structures’ — the networks of people, traditionally your family, friends and neighbours, who believe the same thing as you do.
I’m not saying that my Catholic grandparents accepted the doctrine of transubstantiation only because the people closest to them shared that conviction: faith can’t be reduced to social processes. But supernatural belief is hard to sustain once plausibility structures collapse.
You go away to university and suddenly almost nobody believes what you do, or did. Your siblings move to different towns, so you won’t see them in church any more. Your laptop plugs you into any social network that takes your fancy. Even if you’re born again as an evangelical Christian, life pushes you from one congregation to another. Many Evangelicals get bored and turn into nones.”
It’s a bit hard to bang on about the poisonous effects of “choice” in the culture, when that same choice culture has been silently, and not so silently, shaping the church for decades. Choice is not simply confined to where we attend, but to which bits of the gospel we choose to adhere to, which bits we wish to jettison, which bits we will highlight over other bits (yes Left and Right I am looking at you!) and all with the safety valve of knowing if it doesn’t work out here I can go elsewhere. That’s the deep sub-structure of our thinking in the West, and it’s infected us all.
Now I am not going to go into McKnight’s primary brief here, in which he pulls the rug out from under the feet of the “kingdom being anything that we do that is good in the wider society”, but his warning is clear:
“We don’t need the state, we don’t need the majority, and we must refrain from equating victory in the world with kingdom mission.”
To which I would add, if you do that in the current iteration then you are either going to be very depressed and angry (conservative Christian), or very arrogant and complacent (liberal Christian). Ironically the very “choice” that the liberal champions as the emancipator of all sorts of non-traditional sexual ethics, is the very choice the liberal laments when people consume products voraciously with little thought of the environmental consequences. You can’t be all “individual” when it comes to sexual ethics, and all “community” when it comes to environmental. One informs the other.
2. It Highlights the Idolatry of the Cultural War
Well it doesn’t so much highlight it as actually declare it in black and white print. Sandwiched between the two McKnight quotes above is one other, important, line:
We have a story to live and to tell, and that story is the kingdom story.
Now you will need to read the book to see how well, and how devastatingly, McKnight unpacks that word “kingdom”, but it is a sharp reminder to Christian cultural warriors that idolatry is at the heart of the culture war, because it takes a good thing and makes it a god thing. Quoting James Davison Hunter approvingly, McKnight observes that most Christian groups today are “too politically activist in grasping for power”.
Now that may be a particularly USA thing, but it’s present in the UK and rising in Australia, particularly with the decided shift against the Christian framework.
And it’s not simply that idols are so bad that they are to be avoided, but that they have a historical tendency, and an annoying habit, of letting down their worshippers. And the worst form of idolatry is when the temple is filled with images. Don’t worry about those crazy pagans down the road, it’s what we are erecting in our building that is the problem! The kingdom story gets hijacked when it is used to further an agenda other than God’s announced agenda in King Jesus among his kingdom people in the church and which is highlighted in 1Corinthians 15:1-8 as a received, and handed on verbally, tradition (hey I’m only quoting McKnight here – go chop his limbs off!).
And that’s not just a problem with the conservative cultural warrior. McKnight has in his sights those within the liberal church community who, with the shift towards a far more progressive ethic, see their time coming, that history is on their side, on all sorts of social matters. For those who see the processes currently at work on sexual ethics as an example of the church getting it right, finally, I would ask one question: is this because the church is bravely striding forward having dangerous conversations no one else is having or had even thought of, or is it because the church is simply repeating what the secular framework is saying, but only about five minutes later? Just who is the ventriloquist and who is the dummy here (not meant pejoratively – non-ad-hominem Ed)?
That the liberal arm of the church is emptying out quicker than the conservative arm seems to be of little or no consequence to cultural warriors of the Christian left. Whether your limbs are chopped off with a broadsword, or surgically and painlessly removed under anaesthetic under private health care, the result is the same: thrashing around on the forest floor with nowhere to go, and looking for all the world like the loser in the battle.
Except of course we have a true King – a true Warrior who took the blows for us on the cross. A King who calls us to a cruciform kingdom that rejects power, sees the serious nature of sin and its vertical and horizontal consequences, and offers a counter-culture in the fearful face of a declining culture, or the botoxed face of a beckoning culture.