The best TV show ever (no correspondence will be entered into), was The Wire, a five series multi-faceted diamond first uncovered in 2004. It began the era of the golden age of television, and indeed it set the standard for what was to follow (The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, etc, etc).
The Wire is set in Baltimore and focusses on the drug scene in the mean streets of that US city and its projects. But those streets are not the only streets in Baltimore and the focus of each series is on another cog that keeps the city moving. These include city hall; the nefarious dockyard unions in the city’s port; and the media, in this case a fictionalised version of The Baltimore Sun newspaper. Each series shows the various arms of culture, law and government as they intersect with the drug dealers and drug trade in the city.
When one of the central characters of the series, the drug dealer Proposition Joe, is shot dead, it’s huge news. Joe was savvy, generous (in a drug-dealer way of course), articulate, and larger than life physically and psychologically. In the deadly world of the drug trade in Baltimore, Prop Joe commanded respect from everyone. He got his name, incidentally, from his often stated opener to a dealer: “I’ve got a proposition for you.”
Everyone respects Joe. Everyone that is, except Marlo Stanfield, who wanted everything and respected no one. The shock waves reverberate around the streets and projects when Prop Joe is killed my Marlo. What made it sting all the more is that Joe spent considerable time helping Marlo get on his drug trade feet. Everyone is talking about it. Everyone is wondering what it will mean going forward.
Well, not everyone. Just the dealers. Who are big in their own eyes, and indeed on their own streets and blocks, but nowhere else. The rest of Baltimore; politicians, journos, even the “po-lees” care only about the dealers if and when they intersect with their own lives, which apart from the police, is not all that often.
So how is Proposition Joe’s death announced in The Baltimore Sun? With banner headlines? Of course not. With a one line descriptor of the event at the bottom of an inside page, that merely states a drug dealer had been found shot dead overnight. The actor who played “Prop”, Robert Chew, died back in 2013 of heart failure, and of course received far more news attention in doing so than his fictional character ever found in a fictional newspaper.
Huge news on the streets and projects. A single line in the city paper.
Folks, that’s how Christianity generally works in Australia. We are Proposition Joe. We’re big on our own street, and the events that happen within our settings have huge ramifications. For us.
But unless we do something spectacularly bad (which sadly has happened), or unless our Christian lever is something that others can pull in order to forward their own agenda, we don’t make a splash. We like to think we do, but we don’t. We like to think that the general population (“gen pop” in The Wire?) will vote in the upcoming federal election with issues such as the Religious Discrimination Act uppermost in their minds. They won’t. We are Prop Joe.
And my recent experience proves that. After writing a terse letter to the Australian Financial Review‘s journalist, Aaron Patrick, for misquoting/mishearing me and insinuating I made racist remarks at a conference, he has written back to inform me that after speaking with his editors he will be issuing a one line correction.
Here is what he said:
Thank you for your email correspondence.
I have discussed this matter with my editors and propose to publish the following statement:
An article in The Australian Financial Review quoted Steve McAlpine at the Freedom for Faith Conference referring to Negro Spiritualists. This was incorrect. He was referring to the music genre Negro Spirituals.
All well and good. I had, among other things, pointed the following out to him in my email:
I would have assumed you would at least have knowledge of such a justly famous genre. So it’s either that you misheard me, or you were unaware of its existence.
At least I hope it’s either of those. Otherwise the only conclusion is that you deliberately maligned me, insinuating in a public domain that I was racist.
I said some other stuff too about how such a bad faith response does not aid the public discourse, but diminishes it. Which he probably read as “Blah, blah, blah.”
The problem of course is that the correction implies the need for a complete reframing of the article’s tone and tenor towards minor parties and fringe groups. Which will never happen. The initial comment was the “gotcha” moment in Aaron Patrick’s piece, demonstrating why no one pays attention to the religious issues in the current election campaign. He’s sticking to that, and his misappropriation of my presentation was the icing on his cake. The logic of his article is summed up by racist ole me.
However, let’s not be churlish, a correction is good for what it is, albeit one that will be tucked away somewhere unsighted and unsightable. That’s how corrections in newspapers work. No one will read it. It’s not important.
Yet it’s important to us. We talk about these things. Blog about them (my post on this issue was widely read in our circles yesterday). We write about these things. Get best sellers published about these things.
But don’t kid yourselves folks, when it comes to the impact any of this is having in the public square, it’s Proposition Joe all the way down.
Sure we may think we are the headline act (Religious Discrimination bill anyone?), but we’re merely big in our own lunch time. If we’re useful to serve someone else’s purpose, that’s when we get trundled out. So we get “Hey look everyone, that big bad ScoMo goes to that even bigger badder Hillsong!” (he doesn’t, but as long as people feel he might then the job is done). But apart from that, we’re almost absent.
You might wish to counter that by noting how the newspapers all reported how the Bishops at the General Synod of the Anglican Church knocked back a proposal to enshrine the belief that marriage was between a man and a woman. But they only reported it because same sex marriage is news. The same Synod, if it were to lose a vote on the resurrection of Jesus, would perhaps rate a single paragraph. If that.
In some sense we’re running a parallel culture in which our blogs and books and conferences and sermons make a huge splash. To us. And to no one else. We’re not the USA. We’re not a major cultural voting bloc. It’s why Aaron Patrick can write an article lumping all of the “also rans” of the political framework into one half-basket of deplorables.
So what if he compares my attitudes to those of One Nation? From his distance and at our size and influence, we’re pretty much the same thing anyway. He thinks that is the case, More importantly, he thinks that most people who read the Australian Financial Review think that is the case too. It’s a social imaginary thing, you wouldn’t get it.
He – along with his ilk – has forgotten that the late modern culture in the West is, as Tom Holland states so memorably in his book Dominion, “firmly tied to its Christian moorings”.
One of the highlights of the Freedom For Faith conference last week was the presentation of Dr Sarah Irving-Stonebraker, a historian at Western Sydney University. She observed the lack of desire among many students to fully understand history, because it seems to have nothing useful to say to the question of how they arrive at meaning for their own lives.
But that makes sense. If we find true meaning by looking within ourselves, then history is, as Henry Ford dismissively grunted, “bunk”! So despite Holland’s assertions – and perhaps his misplaced confidence-, the ropes holding our culture to that historical Christian anchor point are fraying to the point of breaking.
Even the rejection of Christianity by the cultural framework is done in a very Christian way. It’s all about rights and humility and the need to focus on perceived or real victims. And I’m pretty sure that those lofty ideals did not foment among the brutality that was 1st century pagan Rome, or even among the elite Greek philosophers in the centuries BC. As Holland also notes, universal human rights are not all that universal actually, they come from Christianity.
But a time is coming when the cultural engine runs out of Christian fuel. And that’s okay at some level. I think there’s traction to be had as a creative minority on the edge of the culture. Indeed creative minorities have a verve and vision to them that is lost the closer to the centre they get.
As we move to the cultural margins, we should increasingly expect our vices to be writ large when it so suits the culture, and our virtues to be spoken of sotto voce, or denied as being sourced from within our theological convictions. Our gift to the world will be redefined as a gift from the world, with nary a blush. We will be invited onboard if we like, but strictly on the world’s terms.
The probability is that the culture will be able to coast on fumes for a bit, but eventually it will grind to a halt, and when it does we will see the full flowering of a post-Christian Left and a post-Christian Right, and how the will to power is all that remains to us. And that won’t be pretty. It isn’t pretty already. The Western ship is being drawn by hard secular currents towards a cultural waterfall, and it will eventually go over the edge, before being held down and crushed to pieces by the incessant post-Christian torrent.
And it’s in those moments that the church might regain a voice, ever so slightly at first, but growing, to speak back into the culture and call to memory those things that have been lost. The church might just be able to look over from the margins and say to those being pounded from above:
“Psst, hey, I’ve got a proposition for you.”