November 18, 2017

Evangelicals, Plankton And Bikini Bottom

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There’s a great opening scene in a Spongebob Squarepants episode in which a roaring monster is creating havoc on the the seabed of Bikini Bottom.  Various aquatic life is screaming, scuttling or swimming away in terror, as this huge, one-eyed villain stalks their land.

He laughs his evil laugh.  He beats his evil chest.  He throws his evil head back and guffaws (evilly) as another of his giant footsteps crushes innocent civilians. He casts his evil eye (he only has the one) across the seabed for more cowering victims. He roars his threats and announces his intentions to the world.  His voice booms across the landscape

And it all looks dreadful and the apocalypse looks imminent, until the camera pans back, and we see Spongebob and Patrick looking down, squinting almost, at a tiny bug at their feet, which is squeaking at them in a barely audible voice.  It is Plankton, the villain of the show.

“What’s it saying?” asks Spongebob almost disinterestedly, before the episode moves on to other, more important, things.

Perspective is everything.

In Plankton’s eye he is large and influential, imposing even.  He has clout.  He is taken notice of. But, as one might say after a long winter of carbs and chocolate and next to no exercise, Bikini Bottom is much larger than initially thought.

This struck me afresh in this week of our same sex marriage postal vote, not simply in light of its outcome, but in light of a conversation I had the day before the result was announced.

I was having coffee with a nationally recognised journalist who was interviewing me about the shape of the church as we head into a harder secular future. He is well seasoned, well travelled, well thought out and a Catholic of conservative persuasion with an education steeped in the classics.

But he still said “Who’s Bill Hybels?”  when I mentioned that giant of the modern seeker sensitive church movement, and his huge church Willowcreek. I assumed he would not know of him, but mentioned him anyway.

And he still was surprised – and impressed after attending an evangelical church for the first time that weekend, to hear the creed recited, to hear long readings from Scripture and carefully crafted prayers.

And all this from a man who writes incisively about the state of the Christian faith in the Western world in our national broadsheet newspaper and has more reads of his work in a day than I get from mine in a year.

It’s a good reminder that, for all of our evangelical celebrity pastors, all of our publications, all of our bookshops, all of our conferences, all of our – gulp – blogs, evangelicalism is the Plankton in the Bikini Bottom we call our Western world, and especially outside of the USA.

This is not about evangelicalism being evil like Plankton, though goodness knows there are enough naysayers spouting that we’re the source of all bad, but it’s an admission that’s we’re insignificant on the big stage, except perhaps in our own eyes.

And that is not to say that much of the good that our culture has does not spring from the work of paleo-evangelicals onwards (think Wilberforce), just that we’re viewed with much the same level of disinterest by the general public as Plankton is by Spongebob.  True, we’ve punched way above our weight, but let’s put our weight into perspective.

My journalistic interlocutor sees a time coming when even he, from the Catholic tradition with its long line of admirable public life and policy, will be on the margins.  What he and I did have in common – and it’s something I have written about for a while now – is that being a creative minority is the Christian future in the West, so we’d better prepare ourselves for it emotionally as much as strategically.

Rusty Reno writes about the strength of such a position in his book Resurrecting The Idea of a Christian World. And it’s a view that, belatedly, but thankfully, some of those involved in the No campaign are coming to realise.

I did read a tweet last night in light of the postal vote said Christians need to look for other allies.  That’s at least admission that our traditional alliances are over. But it also sounds like a call to arms in which, having failed at one frontal attack, another can be launched at a later date with fresh partners.

I am not sure this is the way forward.  In fact I’m convinced of it. Even reading on Facebook before the vote that it could be close, or even swing to No in the light of Trump and Brexit, shows a naivety about our position.

And I am not sure what was meant by “other allies”.  I’m pretty sure there’s something in the prophets about not looking back towards Egypt to stave off Assyria and Babylon.  It’s true that creative minorities have clout beyond their size when they make friends in the centre of the culture, but the day after the vote is not the time to determine who those friends are.  Egypt, we are reminded in Scripture, would prove to be a staff that would break went lent upon by a desperate Israel in search of allies.

The truth is, when it comes to life forms, evangelicals in Australia and beyond are plankton.  We’re far further down the food chain that many among us wish we were.  But it’s a fact. Let’s own it.  And let’s remember that our Saviour took on the very life form of a slave, a bottom feeder if ever there were one, in his culture.  There’s always the possibility that if we humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord that He will lift us up – in His way not ours, in His time, not ours, and for His purposes not ours.  He’s the true ally we need.





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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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