Don’t Let Your Church be a Hanoi Jane

Once again The Australian newspaper’s Foreign Editor, Greg Sheridan has hit the nail on the head, in an insightful article today, entitled Christian churches drifting too far from the marketplace of ideas.

His opening lines are a cracker:

Australia’s Christian churches are in crisis, on the brink of complete strategic irrelevance. It’s not clear they recognise the mortal depth of their problems.

The churches need a new approach to their interaction with politics and the public debate, and to keeping themselves relevant in a post-Christian Australian society.

I wish I’d said as much myself.  Hey, I did say as much myself.  It’s a year ago this week since I wrote my most read post ever, with dealt with this question exactly. And that post has raised a lot of good conservations in the past twelve months, taking it to a level of debate and push back that I had not envisaged.

Now, as an aside, there was a distinct possibility raised earlier this week that Greg Sheridan was going to ask my opinion on these issues, as he has been reading my articles recently, but I guess he had enough to go on.  But if he had, I guess I would have a) succumbed to hubris and, b) told him what I am about to say now.

And it’s this:

Just as there has been a two-speed-economy here in my home city of Perth during the now, sadly, historical commodities boom, there has been a two-speed-religious-economy in Western Christianity, and only one speed will survive.

To put it bluntly, (and in line with Greg Sheridan), the slow-speed-religious-economy is headed for disaster.  And this slow speed is made up of two groups; traditionalists and progressives.

The traditionalists have pretty much aligned with the state down the years, and include such behemoths as the Catholic Church. It is this group that Sheridan has in his sights when he memorably states:

The churches cannot recognise and come to grips with their strategic circumstances. They behave as though they still represent a living social consensus.

They remind me of South Vietnam’s government in 1974. It over-estimated its strength and tried to hang on to all of its territory, including the long narrow neck of its north. It did not retreat to its formidable heartland in the south, which would have been vastly more defensible. Had it done so, it might have survived. Instead, the next year, the armoured divisions of North Vietnam invaded and Saigon lost everything.

These lumbering giants are dying the death of a thousand cuts as they fail to realise how much the culture has shifted against them.  As Sheridan points out, less than 10 per cent of Australian Catholics attend Mass on a given week, down from 74 % in 1954.

But for every foolish South Vietnamese general who fails to see the writing on the wall, there is always a treacherous Hanoi Jane on your own side who will dig the knife in a little further, right?

Hollywood pin-up girl Jane Fonda earned the nomenclature “Hanoi Jane” for her support for the communist North Vietnamese as they steamrollered all in their path on the way to victory.

And so the slow-speed-economy church today has the Hanoi Jane of the progressive, post-evangelical churches, along with the pretty-much-moribund Uniting Church and Anglican Church (save for some noble exceptions).

These Hanoi Jane churches are unlike the “vegetable love” of the traditionalists, in that they are only minutely slower than the culture.

How much slower? About two seconds slower.  The culture jumps in one direction, be that ethical or whatever, and these Hanoi Janes’ suddenly find voice, scampering around and shouting “Me too! Me too!” to whoever is bored enough to be listening to them.

And all this despite clear evidence that this reactive approach to the cultural zeitgeist has been an abject failure for almost a century!  Hanoi Jane churches would rather die than stand for any gospel convictions. And die they will. History has borne that out.

Why do they do this? Simple: to worship at the chimeric ideal/idol of relevance.  You can almost hear the nervy twinge: We can have a seat at the table when the secular framework wins.  We can still have a voice.  It won’t sound that different to the world’s voice, but at least we will still be able to parade around in increasingly formal ecclesiastical structures, with increasingly shallow theology, and increasingly empty buildings.

Such Christian groups call themselves “progressives”, never fully grasping, from what I can see, the obvious fact that they are getting progressively smaller, progressively older, and progressively ignored.  Like the domesticated moggy sitting on the lap of the culture, all that is left to them is a scratching post, the occasional purr and a bowl of milk if they’re good little kitties.

They sound innocuous, right?  Actually they are just as treacherous and dangerous as Hanoi Jane. *

So too, the progressives are keen to point out the sins of those churches who have failed to shift with the ethical times: failed to keep “relevant”.  The progressives are shrill to point out the perceived flaws of their more conservative brothers and sisters, and slow to defend them in the face of increasing secular pressure.

So they do a lot of shouty stuff that shows themselves in a good light to the culture.  Stuff like “Ooh-er Look over here! Look what these guys (replace “guys” with non-gender specific term of affection here) are up to! And Look how good we are compared to them!”

Yes lots of that, and very little of  “Hey, we don’t agree on many things, but how about we support supposed brothers and sisters in Christ who are facing shut-downs or sordid Facebook memes.”

So that’s the slow speed  part of the economy.  No prizes for guessing that I am with Greg Sheridan on this one.  But that’s not the only story, and this is the part he could do well to contemplate. For there is a second speed to the economy.  One that I believe will not only cope, but thrive in the ensuing invasion.

Many of you reading this already recognise yourselves as being part of this second speed. You are the arm of the church that has decided that come hell or high water, you are not for turning.  Even if you lose your tax exemptions.  Even if the culture scorns you.  Even if anti-discrimination legislation hits you hard in the hip pocket and forces your schools to shut. Even if the culture sneers that you are on the wrong side of history.

You are not, as many detractors refer to you, the “conservatives”.  That word has lost its traction in our world and means something altogether different to what I am talking of.

No. You are not, at heart, conservative. You are eschatological. Eschatological Christians have a confidence not tied to a seat at the cultural table.  Eschatological Christians don’t value the baubles and trinkets of social approval.

Eschatological Christians don’t fear being seen as losers as much as they rejoice at being crowned victors on the last day. Eschatological Christians value above all else the approval of the rejected Messiah, who though crucified on the wrong side of political and theological history, was raised in triumph as Lord of history.

The progressives are so-called because above all else they have fallen for the modern myth of cultural progression; the materialist perspective that historical progress is a case of tweaking the dials over time in order to improve our lives in this age.  And that’s the problem. They are rooted in this age.  They are focussed on this age.

Yet, ironically they will end up having no distinct voice in this age. Why? Because they end up just sounding like everyone else in this age. And who  in this age would bother to get out of bed on a Sunday morning (or skip a beer on a Saturday night) to visit a poorly attended, poorly operated version of what you already have?

Progressives are trying to build a kingdom that will ultimately be the kingdom of Mammon. Eschatologicals will receive a kingdom (Hebrews 12:28) to be ruled by the Son of Man.

In short eschatological Christians are those who will be able to do what Sheridan suggests in the face of decline:

The churches are in crisis now on all fronts, with poor situational awareness. Genteel decline and increased legislative circumscription await them unless they reconfigure themselves as a bold, vigorous, self-confident minority, determined to secure their minority rights and to have their say on life and its purpose, come hell or high water.

The fact is the church was a bold, vigorous self-confident minority at its nascence, precisely because it realised it was eschatological.  The early church was confident that a kingdom was coming that would sweep away all other kingdoms and pretenders to the throne.

That’s our calling.  That’s our hope.  That’s our future. We are not waiting for hell and high water.  We are waiting for hell and heaven. Judgement and vindication.  Punishment for faithlessness: Reward for faithfulness.  Eternal relevance, when the cultural Caesars of this age finally bow the knee, and through gritted teeth, declare that Jesus is Lord.

*I removed the reference to Jane Fonda giving up the secret letters of US troops to the VC.  This is incorrect, and as someone rightly pointed out my error would be used to discredit the whole article by those who disagreed with me, which it was.  With it removed I assume that those who disagree with it will offer reasons why, rather than simply dismiss it because of my error.

23 Comments

  1. Great article as always. There are many things we all take for granted but can’t anymore. Things like the general public recognising a biblical analogy or assuming that truth and love are common goals, or that all Christians are on the same side. That last one might change when only a remnant remain.
    (As an aside, Hanoi Jane didn’t ring true and Snopes suggests it isn’t: http://www.snopes.com/military/fonda.asp)

  2. I find your assessment of culture narrow. In many ways the secular culture of today is much preferable to the culture of yesteryear. Where church attendance had little to do with real spiritually and more to do with being culturally acceptable. Perhaps less so in Australia than other western nations. Todays culture is not our enemy. Although the gospel does and has always confronted culture at points of difference. But todays culture has redeemable features which culture of years gone by did not have. Are you really advocating, as you seem to be suggesting, that our only hope for today is tomorrow, when Jesus returns? No. My hope is for today. That My God is present, at work, and working in the most challenging places. But perhaps I have misunderstood.

    1. I think I would have biblical grounds to say that we are waiting for a kingdom – Heb12, 2Peter3. That in no way means we are to be isolationists in this culture, but if u could show me from Scripture anywhere that says our hope should be grounded here, that would help. I actually think we will live vitally and differently and successfully in our culture WHEN we don’t place our hopes here. Eschatology will shape us – just as a lack of it will.

    2. You’re not really serious are you Bro? I concede each to his own opinion, but I strongly disagree with most of your conclusions.

  3. No question our ultimate hope is eschatological. But I am convinced that God has more for us today and tomorrow than we could ever hope or dream of. I feel the sense of your post is exactly pointing us to be isolationist in our culture. Something Paul’s model would never push us to. Acts 17. But I suspect our basic theology is coming at this from far different places….and that is okay.

  4. I get that the “progressives” are slow speed in your analogy. But what speed does that make the “conservative” group. You hold out hope that they will speed up I guess.
    But right now, in Australia at least, it might be more accurate to say the “progressive” churches are in reverse gear and the “conservatives” (but not all of them) are moving forward – and if the Geneva Push research is anything to go by – slowly.

  5. Hi Rob. Happy to hear why you strongly disagree. I don’t want you to think that I am talking about cultural withdrawal. Often people assume that, but I am talking about us being a group of people who are not swayed by the culture, without having to be isolated from it. It’s worth a discussion methinks. What would you suggest yourself?

  6. Stephen, you need to remove the section of your article that refers to Jane Fonda passing up notes to the Vietnamese captors of POWs during that terrible war. This slanderous claim (which I am sure you are only repeating out of ignorance) has been shown as demonstrably false and has been categorically denied by all those who could possibly have been involved (including those who were anti-Fonda at the time). Using an untruth to illustrate a key point in your article only detracts from your overall message and leaves you open to accusations of carelessness.

  7. The issue is less whether we are ‘eschatological Christians’ and more the defined eschatology of many churches & Christians. Eschatology tends to translates as – ‘hang in there, stick to your guns, because Jesus is coming back and everyone else will get what’s coming to them.’ If that’s the case, then the result is a traditionalist approach, just with less people.

    The kingdom of God is both now, and not yet. Sitting around waiting for the kingdom of God has never helped anyone and has significantly contributed to church decline. Sitting around waiting for the kingdom of God justifies inhumane border protection policies for political point-scoring. Sitting around waiting for the kingdom of God justifies ignorance of climate change science for the sake of profit.

    Jeremiah 29:7 – “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

    A well- developed eschatology includes a theology of the common good. Neither ‘left’ nor ‘right’ but centre. It’s a difficult path to walk, it’s not so black & white, it’s more nuanced, and it’s a course that many churches & Christians struggle, or are unwilling, to navigate.

  8. Totally Rod.
    Steve. I do absolutely believe that Jesus is returning and life will be paradise when He does
    But for now
    I believe He wants to see His Kingdom
    Come and His will be done.
    I could do a blog post on why today’s culture is better. And worse. Than yesteryear. God is at work today. In incredible ways. Heard Bono have a conversation with Petterson the other day. Incredible. Lead singer of the greatest band in the world. Openly discussing his faith.
    I suppose to be frank. I’m over this fatalistic negative view of our faith. Jesus won. Let’s celebrate that. Today.

  9. There is a mistaken idea about that to maintain an eschatological hope is to withdraw from vigorous engagement with a (declining) culture. But the exhortation of Peter to ‘elect exiles’ (in 1 Peter) is ‘live such good lives among the pagans’ not at all because (a la Jer 29) ‘in their prosperity is your prosperity’ but rather precisely because as ‘aliens and strangers’ in this world, they have ‘an imperishable and undefiled inheritance kept safe in heaven’ (1 Pet 1:4). Hence, CS Lewis’ observation that it was just those Christians who were most heavenly minded who have proved to be of most earthly use. Jeremiah’s instructions to the Babylonian exiles to prosper in a foreign culture are quite different than Peter’s instructions (for very specific reasons), though both anticipate that God’s people will bless their neighbours.

    1. Kanishka, I agree with your comments entirely as I feel sure Stephen would also.
      It does seem that some have read into Stephen’s comments a suggestion that we, as as keeper’s of the faith, disengage with the heathen, but I did not at all.

      It is spiritual warfare, and we are commanded to fight the good fight. I strongly feel that all connected Christians should feel aliens here, I certainly do, as all about me I see endeavours and conduct in my society that are alien to mine, and for this reason my carnal nature is ask for the world to stop whilst I step off :).

      So, whilst I am always forward looking to the hope eternal, realising of course that I am here for a purpose, engaging, as Paul did, with the heathen, and sharing pearls with those I consider are not swine. That is our obligation and purpose.

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