Christian in the public square need to be more repellently attractive.
Why do I say that?
I’ve had some pushback on my last blog post concerning the Age of Apologetics or Persuasion being over. I stated that we have entered the Age of Proclamation. Cue pushback from public theologians.
Here’s what I don’t mean by the Age of Proclamation. I don’t mean that the only task left is preaching. I don’t mean that at all.
Here’s what I do mean by the Age of Proclamation. I mean that our persuasiveness has to take on a stronger dissonance than it has in the past. Our persuasiveness can afford to be more angular, more crunchy, more weird. We can afford to present ourselves as “repellently attractive”.
None of this is to say that we should be rude, crass, ungenerous in our language. Nothing like that at all, though that seems to be the jump-to-conclusion that some have reached.
But let’s not assume that our primary task in the public square is to show that we are on board the human flourishing train headed for central station.
That train derailed some time ago. Our version of human flourishing is not simply a “more than” version, as if somehow we are all in this together. We’re not here to provide the icing on the cake, the sweetener the culture somehow missed out on.
No, our idea of human flourishing is a “rather than” version which is increasingly opposed to the cultural narrative of the West.
At this point many will trot out the tried and true “seek the welfare of the city” passage from Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon. But often without reference to the second half of that verse, a crucial second half: “for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
Imagine making that point on Sunrise TV or The Today Show, or QandA on the ABC.
Imagine saying to your host that the goal of God’s people in the modern West is not seeking the good of the state.
Imagine saying instead that was a secondary goal to ensure that the state offered safe haven for religious communities to ensure their primary goal – the glory of God.
Can you imagine it? Probably not for no one does it.
We’re sitting in the middle of a Religious Freedom Inquiry precisely because there are players within the state and the wider culture who are opposed to our primary goal and are calling us out on it.
And what are we doing? Ducking and weaving.
The Jeremiah text is a bold statement. When crunch time came, the exiles such as Daniel did make that distinction between primary and secondary goals when they were faced with a hostile state.
Daniel and his friends told the state that their primary goal was the glory of God, and that Babylon’s self-focussed welfare was an idolatrous and short-term project.
And it cost them. It cost them a lot more than a spot on a TV program or an article in a publication.
Now this is not to say that we foam and rant on TV or online in a nasty manner. It’s simply to say that at some stage our public apologetic needs to present Christians as even more weird than people first presumed. Even more crunchy. Even more repellent. Unless of course it’s true, and then it becomes repellently attractive.
We’ve been so careful to present a sensible approach that we may have given the impression that the Christian framework, indeed the Christian goal, is actually sensible when placed against the template of societal aims.
This simply shows that we are a long way from understanding how that term ” the city” should be understood.
The modern meaning of “the city” has no bearing with what ancients meant by it.
When Aristotle claimed that “outside the city”, humanity is either “beast” or “god” he didn’t simply mean going outside the city walls would degrade you or elevate you.
He meant that outside the collective imagination that the city formed, there was only an isolated self, in which one formed one’s own idea of the primary or highest good.
Which is were we are at. Which is what “Project Me” is about. Everyone within “the city” lives outside the city as “beast” or “god”, determining for themselves what degrades and elevates. And often getting that horribly wrong. Watch the movie “Her”, starring Joachim Phoenix. There’s an honesty to that that goes beyond what much of our public theology manages.
The modern city or state has become an uneasy alliance of competing interests and rights, interests and rights increasingly out of kilter with each other, which ramps up the competition, which in turn increases the uneasiness.
We are reduced to increasingly abstract and dehumanising collective priorities, often enforced through legislation that pits one group against another. And something will have to give at some stage.
The result? Apologetics often self-censor in order to maintain a public voice. They risk say less and less that garners any real interest or pushback. They risk their voice becoming vanilla.
They risk saying nothing particularly repellent. Which seems like a win. But they risk saying nothing particularly attractive either. Nothing distinctly weird enough that may be viewed as threat or promise. And that’s a big loss.
Being repellently attractive leans into conflict a little more, yet does it with a smile. Think Jordan Peterson if you like. Because he’s hoovering up a hearing with people that we’ve been trying to reach for years, and the really annoying thing is that he’s using so many of our biblical categories to do so (even while he misses the goal).
He does not invite a tick of approval, He invites a sense of shock, dissonance, discombobulation. And he’s not nasty about it. He’s just confronting because he refuses to be cowed, and he refuses to play by rules set for him by his opponents. Peterson has become the slightly guilty intellectual bromance of many Christian leaders I’ve spoken to (and not just male Christian leaders), because they wish they’d been trained to have his spine.
And it’s not just Peterson. The Australian newspaper’s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, told me not to get too riled by conflict, and that evangelicals could afford to lean into it a little more than they generally do.
Conflict isn’t the problem, it’s how you behave within the conflict that matters. And for a bloke without the Holy Spirit, Peterson could sure teach us a thing or two about being repellently attractive in the heat of an intellectual stoush.
What might it look like to be repellently attractive? Well for a start it might look like getting on QandA and explaining clearly that human flourishing, while it sounds good, is a poor goal to aim for, and indeed becomes a toxic aim because it cannot be achieved when our stories are diametrically opposed. Something- someone – will have to give.
Sure we want common ground. Sure we want a hearing. But increasingly that common ground looks like this:
Maybe at the moment the ice is still thick enough for us to walk on, and large enough for us to share without too much argy bargy. Maybe The Age of Persuasion has a safe haven to scramble aboard yet. Maybe our societal goals have enough commonalities to them still.
But the ice is melting and it’s melting fast. And all I am saying is that it’s probably time to name that, and be prepared for the day when it melts altogether.