Okay folks, the party’s over. Unlace those self-lacing boots, put down that hoverboard and take off those outrageous clothes, cos it’s Forward to The Past day from tomorrow. We had heaps of lead up time to the Back to the Future day, the commemoration of Marty McFly and Doc Brown arriving in the future from 1985. That’s so yesterday. Now like Christmas that day is almost done and dusted. From tomorrow the equivalent of the Boxing Day blues kick in as we head down the other side of the hill towards Forward to the Past.
But gosh, hasn’t it been fun reading all of the articles and blogs about the way Back To The Future II (made in 1989 actually) predicted how the future today would actually be? Some things were hits. Some things were misses. Check what has come to pass and what has not here. They never predicted five-blade shavers by the way. I mean, why would they need to? It’s just so ludicrous. Why needs five blades unless they are Sasquatch?
I can tell you at least one other miss that I remember back in 1981 even before the movie came out. I lived in Northern Ireland and each week on the drive down to Belfast to see Grandma, we would past the moribund DeLorean car manufacturers. Mr DeLorean thought he was going to rub some of his silver fox charm onto a rather cursed Northern Ireland in the 1980s, never figuring that it might end up working in the other direction. Which it did. The plant closed. The workforce became an out-of-workforce like much of Northern Ireland at the time. Mr DeLorean scarpered, leaving Northern Irish to a few more heady years of hunger strikes, bombings and plant closures, and that was the end of that. Now THAT’S a future I never want to go back to.
Well, not quite the end of that. Luckily for Mr DeLorean, one of the most successful movie franchises ever took up his car, and the rest is 88 mph history.
Anyway, from tomorrow, after the tinsel’s taken down, and the last airborne car has crashed into a lamp post, let’s concentrate on moving Forward To the Past. And let’s look at that specifically in light of the church. You see the deliciousness of Back To the Future II today is seeing what people thought the future might look like without ever really being certain, butk by projecting what they knew in a certain trajectory. The future being like the present, only more so, if I can put it like that.
The thing about the future is, however, that it’s probably less like a cable car ride, all upwards and onwards to a destination, and more like a roller coaster; rapid discontinuous change, and with a certain sense of queasiness as we go along for the ride. The myth of progress has proved exactly that – a myth. If we are a cable car, one steel cable has snapped and we’re perched precariously over a ravine in a gathering snow storm.
This constant and disconcerting change has serious ramifications for church. And the church’s problem is that it has often thought it could see where the future was headed just a little too nicely. Just thirty years ago in the United States it seemed all upwards and onwards. the Religious Right seemed to be sweeping all before it. However that was a chimera. Could those involved have possibly imagined a White House in rainbow colours just this year? I think not.
For Christians and the church, there’s more store in looking Forward to the Past, than there is Back to the Future. By that I simply mean that as we look to Scripture, and see what did happen in the church in the early years, we are going to better understand where we might end up, without having to be totally prescriptive about it. We’re going to move forward to a situation more like what God’s people experience in the past.
Why not totally prescriptive? Because, as with Back To the Future II, some things we’re gonna hit, and some things we’re gonna miss.
It’s been said that the state of the church in this century in the Western world is closest to the 1st century than at any time for many a century. Now that does not mean we are supposed to examine the text of Scriptures such as Acts and say “Let’s do church exactly that way.” That would be misjudging the intent of the text. Indeed I can point you to many shipwrecked church planters who have hoist themselves on their own petard after reading one too many books about what we are supposed to get back to.
You know the books. The ones that prescribe how church ought to be if it is going to reflect Acts, without ever admitting that we just don’t live in the 1st century Roman Empire. Such books theologise their own radical interpretations, then universalise them into every setting across time and space. Which simply proves they know even less about the present than they do about the past.
So in what ways can the church learn as we move Forward To The Past?
A Missionary Movement: Yes it’s been said ad nauseam, but the Western church is now, once again, in almost totally missionary territory, just as it was in Acts. The level of understanding about who Jesus is, what God is doing in the world, and the role of church among our western nations has shrunk, and continues to shrink, rapidly. Old Europe is one generation away from being completely new ground for the gospel. There are vanguards and pockets of Bible Belts, but they’re being pulled in notch by inexorable notch. Even in Australia I have met many people who have never darkened the door of a church, and now no longer need to, what with weddings and funerals becoming completely secular, and I mean completely.
An Unpopular Movement: It’s interesting reading Acts just how often the church is viewed as a threat to the established order, both the Jewish religious order, and the Roman pagan order. And how often the Apostle Paul and his friends had to convince people that this was not indeed the case. Reading 1Peter is enlightening isn’t it, as we see Jesus communities dealing with outbreaks of hostility and misunderstanding. Yet they are called to respond with gentleness and reverence, and with joy!
Witness if you will the animosity towards Christian ethics that is gathering pace among cultural elites, to the point where sexual ethics such as abstinence before marriage is not simply viewed as weird (as it was back in the day when Back To The Future was pulling in the crowds), to downright unhealthy and dangerous. Unhealthy and dangerous to the point of needing to be expunged from the public square. Hey, maybe they will have to edit the movie for a new audience to ensure that we aren’t under the impression that having the hots for your mum is NOT actually sexually healthy (let the viewer understand).
An Eschatological Movement: I am more and more intrigued by how many conservative Christians seem, if not to make the same mistake as liberals in downplaying eschatology and parousia, in at least not putting as much of their hopes in it as they should, given their theology. By that I mean there is a rise in the number of movements that are seeking to “take back” the culture. Now I am all for the Christian community being a leavening agent in the culture, but much time and energy is spent on projects that desire a kingdom on earth, or at least a comfier place in the culture. The New Testament documents are infused with hope NOT in this age, but firmly in the age to come. The fact that too few Christians seem drawn to and desirous of Jesus’ return in splendour, rule and justice indicates that their hopes down here are doing quite nicely thank you. Or they don’t live in Syria.
If we take Scripture seriously then we need to recover a robust eschatology. And not one that is flimsy and “you’ll go to heaven when you die”, but one that says our hope is a resurrected King coming to renew a sick and dying planet and raising his people to eternal and corporeal spiritual life. The Bible never says we are building a kingdom, but Hebrews 12:28 does say we are receiving one.
A Distinct Movement: Whilst I think there is still some pruning to go, I would say, advisedly that the evangelical church is going to become more distinct in the West. Simply put if you like to run with the hounds and the hares when it comes to ethical matters, maintaining acceptability by both church and culture, you will be unable to. The culture just won’t allow it. And may I add, neither should the church. As I said, this thing hasn’t bottomed out. The sexual revolution of the 60s cut a swathe across the church, but that wasn’t the end of the matter. Another wave is coming.
The Christian church is well past the point of being an credible place to join if you want cultural traction. And I fear there are too many still in the church that will sell their distinctive counter-cultural souls for a bowl of culturally acceptable pottage. To dare to join the church of the future in the West you are going to have to encounter that one negative reaction that cossetted Westerners cannot cope with: Scorn. That’s exactly what the early church encountered. Check out 1Peter 3:13-17.
Scorn for being so stupid as to believe that stuff. Scorn to be so uptight and bigoted about so many issues. Scorn for belonging to a group that has obviously been outed and discredited on so many levels. Perhaps you recall the famous graffito of a donkey’s head on a human body on a cross. It was found in a Roman garrison and obviously was scrawled up there on a wall by a couple of Biffs poking fun a fellow solider who is a Jesus follower. What does the graffito say? Alexamenos worships his god. As Nelson would say, “Ha, ha!”
Now this scorn may or may not shift into actual persecution (who’s to tell on a roller-coaster which way it will turn next), but rest assured scorn is a-comin’, and God’s people will need a robust, plausible, counter-narrative that expresses itself in love, joy, integrity, intellectual rigour and costly service, if it is to counter the tsunami of scorn coming its way over the next thirty years. I think I can just about put up with scorn, but the generation coming after me? My daughter’s cohort? Steeped as they will be in a hostile narrative that brooks no rival at a popular, political and legal sphere? All I can say is, pray for a bravery among our younger generations that we have never had to drum up.
Anyway, those are my few short, feeble observations about how the church is going forward to the past. Enough from me, and back to that hover board I bought at Target today.