Christianity In the Public Square: BC and PC

For too long now Christian apologetics and public Christianity has been living in a BC word – Before Coopers.   From henceforth Australian Christianity has to come to terms with the fact it is a PC world – a  Post Coopers one.

And the overriding lesson to learn from the debacle of the last week is that it’s over baby – give it up.  The cultural narrative no longer includes us in its story except as the villain in the piece.  And we’d better get used to it.

The proof of that was as pathetic as it was predictable.  In fact I did predict it.  There yesterday with sad puppy dog eyes, Coopers beer owners recanted and confessed their sins (not of commission, but of omission).  They pleaded forgiveness and as their penance not only cut all ties with The Bible Society, but made up for it by signing up with marriage equality.  Wins all round.

This schmozzle signals that the turning point for meaningful engagement by the Christian faith in the public square has been reached.  Not that this was the turning point, but it surely signalled its arrival. And  not “no engagement” in the public square, but no “meaningful engagement”.   Christianity no longer has the clout, or the goodwill of those who control the narrative to decide which topics can be discussed and which cannot.  We need to come to terms with that or we are destined to be very frustrated.

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As a church planting acquaintance in Sydney told me yesterday, his non-Christian friend who he is trying to reach with the gospel says that the mistake Coopers made (although Coopers is innocent in this one) was to assume there was a debate to be had.  There isn’t.  The debate days are over.  My friend is caught between a rock and a hard place.  Any “Yes, but” response as he scrambles around in his head for the right apologetic nuance to give simply makes him look like a jerk. His word, not mine.

And he’s in an uber cool setting doing household church with a high level of community engagement.  Jerkery is the last thing on his mind – and the last thing the uber cool church planting movement thinks it is displaying.  Jerkery was a feature of all those crusty traditionalists who can’t get radical with the gospel.  It’s not me, surely.  Yes, my friend, it’s you.  Get used to it.

Remember all those church planting conferences that rejected the idea that “If you build it they will come” and replaced it with “If you live and work and breath among them they will come to accept you as one of theirs and give you a hearing”?  Psssst! guess what? The culture sees through it!

There’s a difference of course between looking like a jerk and actually being one.  And the perception among many in the gay community, along with the wider progressive set, is that Christians and Christianity have been jerks.

Just today a man called Tom wrote a heart-wrenching comment on my blog. Here’s part of what he said:

I remember all the nasty things spoken by Christians over the decades to me (some very harsh) and when I read a post like yours, I can’t help but think that people like you are participating in weak whining. What’s the equivalent of being a called a faggot in the Christian sense? After so many years, the memory still hurts. Have you ever been bullied in school because you were Christian? I was for being gay. Have you ever got taunted walking down the street holding hands with your partner for being Christian? Well, I have.

Now at this point you, like the apologetically well trained Pavlovian Christian dog you undoubtedly are, are about to say “Yes, but”.  Don’t. That would be to exhibit the jerkery people are speaking of. Besides I do know a little of that.  I was taunted for being gay at school, and as a young Gothic dressing man in conservative Perth in the 1980s nearly had my head kicked in several times, and was frequently called a faggot as I walked down the street.  But this bloke Tom has something important to say and his response is far more irenic and insightful than many responses I get.  He goes on:

I agree with you that the outrage is sometimes a little loud and perhaps unnecessary, but nothing that you have described so far amounts even to a fraction of the pain, suffering and persecution that I and other gay friends have experienced over the decades. So if this is all that you mean by persecution, I would have liked for you to live my life for a day.

I 100 percent believe that any sexual relationship outside of heterosexual marriage is sexually immoral, but Tom’s words cut me to the core with grief. So no “Yes buts”.  We have been painted into a corner and if we down look at our hands we may just notice a paint can and paint brush.  Is everything our fault? No.  Are Christians the worst homophobes in the world? The court reports of gay bashing (the ones that ever made it to the courts that is, or weren’t carried out by the cops in dark parks), suggest otherwise.  But remember, no “Yes buts”, that’s the path to jerkery right there.

Two years ago I wrote these off-the-cuff words in a blog post that went viral:

If the last five or six years are any indication, the culture (read: elite framework that drives the culture) is increasingly interested in bringing the church back into the public square. Yes, you heard that right. But not in order to hear it, but rather in order to flay it, expose its real and alleged abuses and to render it naked and shivering before a jeering crowd. 

The only difference to what happened this past week is that we were not brought into the public square, kicking and screaming. No. We sauntered in unsuspectingly, jauntily, cockily and expecting a hearing at least.  And boy did we get our noses rubbed in it.

The flaying, exposing and jeering occurred all right, but somehow that shocked a lot of Christians who assumed a level playing field.  Witness the outrage.  Witness the refusal to admit the Bible Society was naive to pull this stunt.  As Tom rightly points out, the playing field was not level for him when we were in charge of the rules, (his assumption is that we were in charge of them, which I would dispute, but that would make me look like a jerk), so why start whining when it’s no longer level for us and the rule book has been snatched from us?  In other words you’re getting what you deserved and it’s only going to get worse.  (I can hear the “Yes buts” lining up already).

Yet we don’t get it.  Theological colleges continue to send out eager young Christians into the fray armed with apologetic weapons and arguments that presuppose debates about issues that the secular culture has already determined are not open to debate.  Conference after conference on “how to engage the world” springs up with the same old arguments that convince Christians and nobody else.

It’s like World War One trench warfare. Wave after wave of soldiers is sent into the teeth of an enemy Gatling gun, and all for no ground gained.  We need Generals with the insight and bravery to go “Enough is enough! Stop the slaughter, this isn’t working. We need to regroup and think this one through.” (Benedict Option anyone?)

Once again I am not telling you what should be.  I am telling you what is.  Don’t come back to me with fine sounding arguments or natural law explanations about marriage or whatever.  The culture is no longer grounded in the theistic world view, and sees no reason to be so.  Our withering evangelism successes prove it.  80 percent of people simply don’t care what we believe and wish to be left alone; 10 per cent of people do care what we believe and hate it enough to boycott and raise hell.  And the other 10 per cent?  That’s us – the Christians.  And we haven’t even bottomed out yet insofar as the slide from orthodoxy is concerned.  When we’re being told by bloggers that churches should stop preaching about same sex marriage in church because of the way it is upsetting to many same sex attracted Christians, then you know there is a ways to go before we see whose left standing at all in this decaying culture.

And it is a decaying culture.  Just like Greece and Rome before us, we exhibit all of the economic  injustices and moral decadence of those cultures in their decline. In its prime the Roman Empire scorned the Greeks for the sexual decadence that brought them low, then promptly fell over at the same hurdle.  That’s the way this culture thing rolled, that’s the way this culture thing will continue to roll. Naysayers who accuse me of cultural pessimism or tapping hyperbolically into the narrative of cultural decline are flying in the face of historical patterns.

I always seem to end these types of blog posts with an upbeat look at how the church is secure in Christ and we don’t need to worry too much about it as our God is sovereign. Take that as read.  I end this one by saying that I assume it will get a lot darker before it gets light again.  The time for our community to be given a hearing is over, the time for Tom’s community to be given a hearing has come.  The BC world has been blown away.

So Tom, and others of you treated as shamefully as you were, enjoy this time in the sun. Goodness knows after all the crap you have been through you have earned it.  Goodness knows you have put up with a lot that we either tacitly approved of, or turned our backs from and pretended wasn’t happening.  It was in our interests not to know too much and for whatever we did know to be explained away with a few “Yes buts”.

However learn the lesson from other fallen empires.  The rules of engagement didn’t change – they just got tossed out.  The revolution never sleeps.  The revolution eats its young.  The refusal of a culture to listen to one or any particular grouping within it seems like bliss when you’re on the inside track.  But that won’t last.  Just as Allison Stanger  the liberal arts professor at Middlebury College was set upon by the cultural children whom she had spawned so too one day you will perhaps push back against something in the decaying culture and be met with vehement hostility once again.

Stanger espoused every value her students held. Every value plus one more: the requirement to listen and engage with an enemy in peace and respect.  And that extra value cost her a week in a darkened room with concussion in a neck brace, beaten by the very people she was teaching. That’s not a “Yes but”, simply a piece of advice for the dark future that, in the current glow of being accepted into the centre, you can’t see now. But it is coming, it is definitely coming. And when it does come in all its sound and fury it will make the Bible Society/Coopers stoush seem like small beer, very small beer indeed.

14 Comments

  1. I’ve read each of your Coopers-related posts carefully and tried as best as I can to put myself in your shoes, but I still cannot understand all the alarmist rhetoric that gets pegged to this episode. The boycott was against Coopers, not against the Bible Society. People are choosing not to do business with a company based on its corporate values, as is their right. Christians themselves have done that for a long time, by pulling their dollars from companies that have donated to abortion services or deliberately patronizing companies with a Christian outlook. No one’s saying Coopers cannot sponsor the Bible Society video. No one’s saying Coopers whether as a company or as a private citizen cannot agitate for their views about marriage. All people are saying is: “Well, sure, but I won’t drink your beer then.” I understand that most posts of this nature are really a broad-based jeremiad about the decline of Christianity in public life rather than an objective take on individual episodes like this Coopers one, but I still think the point bears repeating that Christians choose not to support businesses with their patronage for moral reasons all the time, so I don’t understand why boycotting Coopers is so evocative for you.

    Are you against corporate boycotts more generally? Is there anything fundamentally illberal in withdrawing one’s support for a business and going elsewhere? I genuinely don’t mean this in a sarcastic manner, but can you explain concretely to me (without the rhetoric) what exactly about the Coopers episode was so problematic so that I can understand better? Is your definition of a free society (or at least an optimal one) a society in which Christian positions do not receive vigorous pushback or when Christian positions are accorded the automatic respect they’ve enjoyed for centuries? How can it be true that the Christian position about traditional marriage isn’t understood by (as you seem to claim) most non-Christians if you guys have had the megaphone for centuries with absolutely no competition in the marketplace of ideas?

    1. Time for some push back now Tom. I appreciate your measured responses to be honest, but that’s not what happened here. The SSM lobby has consistently said that there cannot be a plebiscite because there is no way that a civil debate can occur on this issue. Well guess what? One did! And guess what? That was not acceptable. It was completely off the richter scale the response. All I can say is that the Coopers video by the two members of the family had all of the hallmarks of hostages reading prepared statements. I predicted it. It happened. Why? Because the SSM lobby takes no prisoners – ever. Maybe you align yourself to that or maybe you don’t (I suspect you have a more nuanced perspective on a lot of things if your comments are any indication), but please have a read of the New York Times article I posted on the Middlebury College debacle. If liberal progressive professors are speaking in worrying tones of where this refusal to do anything but reactionary shouting down of an opponent – and this by those who profess to be liberal and progressive themselves – then surely a conservative such as I can be worried. Read the articles popping up all over the liberal media by professors and journos going “I am a progressive but…”Having said all of that, perhaps you and I should shoot a video cos I reckon it would be a spirited but honourable conversation. Though I guess you don’t live in Perth!

  2. A Christian denominational leader said recently that he would probably die in his sleep, his successor will probably die in jail and his successor will probably die in the public square. Too harsh or not harsh enough!?

  3. Not a big thing, but just noticed the article you mention at the end is by Allison Stanger, not Angela.
    Thanks for your perceptive and timely blog. As to the ‘if you live and work among them they will give you a hearing’ – I think there is still a validity to this approach. They may see through it if it is disingenuous. But done out of love and compassion, perhaps there is still a genuine hearing that follows.

  4. As an American, I had to google Coopers and Bible society to understand the issue. Then I re-read your post. I agree that we are SO naive as church. I’ve heard an interview by Al Mohler with Rod Dreher and will be buying the book for our sons. Not having read it yet, but just from the interview Rod’s recommended actions seemed to be to live close enough to church to be very involved in the life of the community AND to educate our kids in Christian schools. And I would imagine, to stay connected to unbelievers and be available to them when their worlds crash. I teach in a liberal private school in Asheville, NC. A hard place to be because of the world view and I feel like the strangers Peter writes in his letters. But I sense that God has placed me there. Thanks for your posts. They make me think.

  5. We already have a benedict option it’s called church. “We need to be different from the world, but engaged with the world. That’s not comfortable, but it seems to be essentially Christian. It’s what Christians had to do in the first century, the second century, the third century. It’s what Christians have done whenever the world has stood over against it. But the church has maintained a commitment to the gospel and to evangelism.” http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/don-carson-on-american-politics-and-the-benedict-option?#_=_

    1. Yep we do have a benedict option called church, but the B/O is calling for that to look a little thicker than it currently does. I question whether the church has made that much of a commitment to evangelism other than within the walls of the church, so I guess I want to challenge the conservative evangelical narrative on that one and call it out as not being what it claims to be. I think the B/O gives us the opportunity to assess whether we are strong and outward focussed or weak and inward focussed.

  6. When see the word apologetics it always raises a smile because it always begs the question which brand, which one? My own experience is that there’s a complex range of issues around congregations and motives, disposition, values, theology and most importantly – context.

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