June 1, 2015

Athens is Fencing: Babylon is a Cage Fight

So why Babylon and not Athens?

That was a question raised by my last post. In other words, what is it about the present Christian experience (Apart from the biblical material?-Obvious Ed) that suggests Bully-boy Babylon rather than Agreeable Athens?

For those who like pictures:

Athens assumes public discourse looks like this:

It actually looks more like this:

That’s right folks, the current level of public discourse in the Western context is becoming so toxic, so polarised and polarising, that it feels more like the emotional biff and bang of being pressed hard against cyclone fencing than it does the incisive cut and thrust of an epee duel, with all of its “Don’t mind me’s” and “Take guard sir’s”.

Never mind the fencing foil, the gloves are off and it’s knuckle dusters at five paces. The zero-sum game toxins of modern politics and the media has poisoned the well.  Athenian fencing presupposes we can win an argument with a three point thesis: Babylonian cage fighting trumps us with a savvy, shallow viral Facebook meme that knocks the wind out of our intellectual sails.

Let’s be clear: If someone said to you that in six months time you will be contesting a duel, the first thing to ask should be, “Will the sign I am losing that duel be the frequent zapping of my fencing buzz box, or the sound of my ankle snapping as some oiled behemoth lands on it?”

For twenty years we have been yoga-stretching for what I call an Athenian fencing duel, an assumption ably assisted by our theological and other training centres. How do I know? Because if there has been one Bible passage preached and podcast as the apologetic fulcrum it is the Athens described in Acts 17:21.

Remember Acts17:21? There is Paul in the centre of Greek culture and learning with a gospel opportunity to proclaim the risen Jesus.  And why does he get his chance? Because…

All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas. (Acts 17:21).

Apologetics training has assumed a sympathetic hearing in the public square, and maybe, like Paul, the chance to be heard another time on this matter.  So we prepped as if this would be the case.  I have no problem per se with apologetic talks entitled “Did Jesus Rise From the Dead?” but today’s audiences are primarily Christians, who go home encouraged in their faith by the intellectual arguments presented by well-versed protagonists on both sides.  Maybe that’s the level of conversation being held in secularism’s rare air, I don’t know, but it’s certainly not in the lower reaches of the atmosphere. Down here, people are unfriending each other in virtual, and in real, life at a rate of knots over far more earthy matters.

Hence a friend of mine who is a chaplain at a respectable, private religious school here in Perth said that the most asked question by far, and the one with most vociferous push-back during open question time from students at school chapel is the Christian view of homosexuality. Did Jesus rise from the dead? Meh, who’s to say?  But what did he think of gay people?  Give an uncertain or unsatisfactory answer to that and it’s game over and game on. Now both of those questions are vitally important to answer, but the former  is firmly in the fencing duel category of public discourse, whilst the latter sets Christians up, if they are not careful, for a cage fight.

See what I did there? And I am going to write this following piece in red, just so no one can miss what I am saying here: I said “…IF THEY ARE NOT CAREFUL..”  While the cultural discourse requires us, if we are to “win”, to train for a cage fight, I believe that we as Christians MUST NOT respond in like manner simply because I don’t believe in the zero-sum game’s agenda. So if you are reading this, flexing your Facebook biceps, pulling on your sermon lycra, and knocking back the  culture war’s protein powders, ready to hand out a bruising, YOU ARE COMPLETELY MISUNDERSTANDING MY INTENT.

Many christians are feeling bruised by the cultural slap-down they are receiving over the public “conversations” (if they can be called that), regarding sexual, reproductive, and end-of-life ethics. Of course there are other ethical matters that Christians grapple with, and I will deal in a later post with what I consider to be a spurious accusation from many liberals, that evangelicals care less about the ethical use of money than they do the ethical use of sex. The generosity of Christians in terms of giving to both Christian and secular organisations far outstrips the average secular Australian (willing to tease this one out at a later date- Ed).

The constant refrain from the world, and from some within the Christian camp, is that it is poor form for Christians to portray themselves as the victims now. With progressive policies sweeping all in their path, aided and abetted by full page ads in our national newspapers and legal precedents, the strong sense is “Now it’s our turn.”.

I get that.  We’re being told, on the basis of holding cultural hegemony for so long, to take our medicine and fight the cage fight with one hand tied behind our backs.  Besides why should we ever play the modern cultural narrative of victimhood anyway?  Why appropriate secularism’s weapons of war? We’ve spent years – decades -convincing people that they are not primarily victims in God’s eyes, so why drape ourselves in that smallpox ridden blanket?  While many people, sadly, are indeed rendered victims due to the evil and sin of others, the Bible is clear: it was while were were still sinners/perpetrators that Christ died for us, not while  we were victims/calling out for mercy. So evangelicals need to heed that and not whine when we don’t get a “fair” hearing.

But there’s another reason behind this for me.  You see, Acts 17:21 is not the fundamental, underlying framework of the Athenians. Never was, if you read the text properly.  Read v17 alone and you read an open-minded reasoning into the Athenians – and by applicatry extension into our Western context – that is simply not there.  In order to understand Athens true nature, we must wind back from verse 21 to the start of Paul’s Athenian adventure, Acts 17:16.  Read that, and we start to get a very different picture of the cultural milieu of Athens:

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. (Acts 17:16)

See that? Paul’s initial response in Athens was sorrow at their false worship, which he did indeed try to correct. A false worship that, for all Athens’ cultural sophistication, was merely a souped up version of old-fashioned, uncouth Babylon with new tyres and a paint job. That Athenians thought it cute to hold slightly disinterested, playful intellectual discourses, was simply something Paul used to his advantage while he could.

The Western discourse is far different today. The manner of public discourse in our modern context is not fundamentally fuelled by playful intellectual arguments, but by reductionist polemic.  Paul got a hall pass in his day to address Athenian idolatry because the accepted discourse permitted it.  But Babylonian idolatry does not play the game according to those rules.  The idolatry of the individual self whose primary goal in life is to self-actualise is off-limits. Believe and say what you like in private, but when the Oompah band strikes up, you’d better prostrate yourself before the gold statue in the public square.

Most of our culture’s taboos have been broken (sigh- Game of Thrones AGAIN anyone? – Ed) but new taboos, forged and fashioned in the furnaces of our idolatry, have filled their place. These taboos include a new, formidable trio that Dale Kuhne highlights in his book Sex and the iWorld: Rethinking Relationship beyond an Age of Individualism:

1. One may not criticise someone else’s life choices and behaviour

2. One may not behave in a manner that coerces or causes harm to others

3. One may not engage in a sexual relationship with someone  without his or her consent.

That’s the western world today for good and for ill (and not all of it is ill if we are to value human freedom beyond our own belief frameworks in a pluralistic society). But that aside, these are not intellectually driven matters, they are more deep seated than that. And they are not even about sex at all, if truth be told.  They are about the foundational commitment to the individual as autonomous self.  Challenge someone at an intellectual level and, if the matter is indeed intellectually driven, they will parry and thrust intellectually with you with all of the enthusiasm of a fencing master. But challenge someone at the level of these foundational, and idolatrous, assumptions and you may well be body-slammed.

Babylonian idolatry devoid of  an Athenian rule-book means simply that there are no rules apart from the rule of power. Christians are often coming out of bruising encounters with their non-Christian friends confused and dazed about what just happened.  This new-found hostility they experience from people whom they simply assumed would “agree to disagree” with them is a shock to those brought up in the gentle art of fencing.   It’s happened to me. It’s happened to friends of mine.  We went in to parry and thrust with an intellectual opponent and got beaten up by an idol in tight shorts, full sleeve tattoos, a war cry and a six pack.

Now don’t make me write it in red again, but a sanctified (aka “righteous” anger) version of the body slam is neither sanctified, nor, indeed, sanctifying. The fruit of the Spirit in the life of the Christian community simply leaves no room for cage fighting:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Gal 5:22-23).

How would that work itself out in a cage-fighting culture?:

Hey Bruiser, how come you never made it to the final of the World UFC Championships?

Well, glad you asked. When my opponent crushed my leg, I exhibited plenty of forbearance.  Then when I had the opportunity to slam his nose into a metal door bracket I was gentle with him and just gave it a good rub on the mat, and finally when he kicked me in the groin I exercised self-control and didn’t swear.

Not exactly a winning strategy given cage fighting’s rules of engagement is it? And what that tells us is that Christians need to emotionally prepare themselves to be the losers for a while, simply because they will refuse to play by cage fighting rules.

Let’s remember that Paul did not finish his days with tenure at the Athenian Aeropagus lecturing in ethics and the philosophy of religion.  He ended it on the chopping block in Rome, suffering for the sake of the gospel. He challenged the assumptions of progressive, intellectual Athens, brutally civic Rome, and moral Jerusalem with a gospel message that cut progressive intellectualism, civic brutality and self-righteous moralism to the ground with one devastating flourish of the Sword of the Spirit.  Their  collective response?  To drag him into the wire cage and tag team him to death.

To conclude, a good friend of mine has pointed out that the text that could govern us in these Second Stage Exile days in Babylon is the letter of Paul to the Philippians.  Why?  Because it is full of joy! Full of love, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. It is full of what I believe is the antidote to the toxic poison of the zero-sum game Babylon culture that we are steeped in, and which is, if the trajectory continues, more than happy to silence dissent as it rolls along.

You see, our culture has a burr in the saddle.  A lack of true joy. I well remember Boris Becker saying that at the age of 17, having won Wimbledon for the first time, he stood on his hotel balcony contemplating jumping to his death. I caught it!  I realised my dream! But is this it?  What now?  Those were his questions.  It’s fair to say the rest of his chequered life, especially after tennis, has never recaptured that fleeting joy, and has indeed held its fair share of sorrows due to his human frailty.

As exiles, we must with confidence and sorrow, assume that the culture will keep grasping at what it thinks will satisfy, whilst never attaining it, always finding true joy out of reach, whether it recognises this or not. By contrast, the joy at having found a pearl of great price, and selling all to acquire it, simply doesn’t dim, even in the face of a turning culture! As a wise colleague reminds me in ministry, for Christians joy is the canary in the cage at the bottom of the mine shaft. Its death is a warning sign to the Christian that something toxic is nearby. We need to recover our joy in the Lord.

I feel at the end of these sobering posts that I have nothing to offer us but God’s Words, hence here we go again.  What was Paul’s response to a Philippians church under duress from the culture whilst he mouldered away under arrest? Pure joy:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  (Phil 4:4-7).

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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