March 20, 2021

Nonna and Poppa Christians for an Immigrant Age

I am attending a 21st birthday party tonight. I don’t get to so many of those these days. Usually fiftieths, funerals, and weddings of those younger than me who know me through church.

It’s the 21st birthday of my god-daughter’s younger brother. The third child of four in an Italian family. The whole extended family will be there. Will be there and be there loudly.

This young man steps into adulthood as the third generation of a migrant family living in this country.

Three generations. The now hip younger things are all at university or running start up businesses. The intermingle in the culture, marrying Aussies because they are Aussies themselves! They’ve never thought otherwise.

Then there’s my own generation, the parents who grew up in the little Italys of Fremantle and the market gardens of neighbouring Spearwood. The generation who took cutlet paninis for lunch at primary school, gazing in wonder at if the peanut butter sandwich and choc milks of their peers. The generation that interpreted the lazy ‘strine accent of the shop assistant for their mothers, who grew up, went to university and became doctors and psychologists. The generation who married those of their own, those whose experiences growing up matched theirs.

And then there will be the generations of the nonnas – the little old ladies in black. The grandparents, aunties and uncles who came from the old country, Sicily, all those years ago after the war. They arrived in Australia with hopes and dreams for a better life. There they will sit, wizened like old apples, hard graft etched in their faces. Yet they will sit with a sense of satisfaction. It worked!

This generation fascinates me. That risk they took some sixty years ago to defer their own comfort and ease has finally paid off. But what a risk it was! They were under no illusions as they sailed south to a Mediterranean climate that mimicked theirs, but which was grounded in stolid British values of meat and three veg. They sacrificed their own better life for the better life of their children and grandchildren. They never did it for themselves. They gave up that immediate dream for the sake of a future one, their participation in which would be as a result of legacy. They planted the olives and the zucchinis. They poured the concrete for their own multi-generational homes. They worked the vineyards of the clay-rich south-west.

The had decided at the outset that the purpose of their lives would be to sacrifice ease and comfort for the sake of the future generations. They determined to delay personal gratification, even dismiss it, for the sake of a future flourishing that they would perhaps glimpse among their progeny even while their light flickered and died.

As I survey the cultural confusion, the rage, the sexular age eating its young, the cultural suicide that is hollowing out any sense of meaning and purpose beyond individualistic satisfaction it has become clear that the task for orthodox, biblical Christianity today is not to seek the welfare of the city by being coopted to its agenda.

No. The task of my generation in the church is to take on the immigrant mentality that dismisses personal gratification, spiritual comfort and ease, for the sake of the generations to come. Our task is to be the nonnas and poppas who will sacrifice themselves to create the foundational conditions upon which the next generations can build something meaningful, good, true and beautiful in the midst of this increasingly ugly culture.

We are to be the immigrant generation that puts aside the notion of ease and comfort for the sake of the spiritual and moral health of our children and their children. Or more to the point, our spiritual children and grandchildren

For it is becoming clear that touching points for commonality between the Christian framework and the world are shrinking.The shibboleths of the sexular age have seen to that. And it is grinding us down. For every celebrity James KA Smith who reorders what disordered love actually means, there are a hundred young people in church enamoured with – and in bondage to – what calls itself freedom but is not. Many of us are tempted to just keep our heads down and hope that the borders open up soon so that we can take that overseas trip once again that inures us agains the spiritual, emotional and physical leaching we are undergoing.

It is becoming clear to the thoughtful Christian that this city cannot be wooed. We will never be winsome enough to win it over. Our gospel is being challenged by another gospel. And we are being called to repent. The city has implacably decided that our welfare is detrimental to its welfare. We are not those Jews. God forbid that I say it, this is not that Babylon. We have pushed and tried and nudged, but it is becoming clearer and clearer that the long defeat is set to be our next experience. It is supremely evident that coexistence with the culture’s idea of flourishing, and the philosophical underpinnings of that, are vacuous, hollow and poison to the church’s collective soul.

And this generation of adults, those who have seen the destruction, heard the rage, and who have hesitated to say “I told you so” to those scorched by the sexual revolution, have a decision to make. And the decision is this:

Will we decide like an immigrant generation to forego a life of comfort and ease for the sake of the truly human, truly gospel flourishing, of the coming generations? Will we dare to become the weathered and gnarled nonnas and poppas who go to the cultural and theological frontlines for the sake of those we may not live to see?

This cultural crisis is not something that we are going to resolve in the current Christian generation. We must get that idea of our heads. There will be no political, cultural, legal killer App to resolve the tensions we are facing, or the political pressures we will bear, or the cultural hegemony we will face. To think otherwise is a triumph of hope over experience.

We are going to have to, as Conor Sweeney’s excellent book on the topic indicates, abide the long defeat. It is going to take an immigrant mindset that commits to the toil of the spiritual market garden plots on the outskirts of the city; tending the young green shoots, protecting the crop from the harsh sun, endlessly watering and nurturing the produce, if we are ever going to create the necessary conditions for the younger generations to stand against the heat of the sexular age. The old country is not coming back, but even still its memory can be implanted into foreign soils, its fruits can spring up again in immigrant lands.

But there will be a cost. It will mean that we – this generation of forty and fifty year olds – will have to stand up to an ever increasing falling away among once seemingly orthodox Christians. The signs are already there that a land slippage is about to occur; that many a denomination, church, and spiritual leader will refuse that tension, and will align themselves with the allure of acceptance that the sexular age brings. It’s beguiling and beautiful, but beastly, as all apocalypses are. Perhaps a time is coming – and soon – as a friend recently observed in light of James Smith’s affirmation tweet, in which:

… whether in 50 years time, sexual morality becomes an area of Christian thinking that the majority of Christians ignore. You know, sort of like head coverings today. There was a time when every woman at church wore a head covering. (And all the blokes wore a suit.) Then somewhere along the line women stopped wearing the hats. It wasn’t really because anybody wrote a theological treatise about it. We just stopped doing it. Or Sabbath keeping. I’m not saying that sexual morality is on the level of those things – it’s not – but sometimes the church changes its practises for theological reasons. Other times it just seems to drop things and no one is sure why. I’m wondering whether a traditional view of sex will be one of those things. And the only churches that hold out will seem as antiquated as conservative Brethren churches where the ladies still wear hats.

Or as I might put it, the nonnas and poppas from the old country who still hold out a better hope than the reframed concept of disordered love in which good is called evil and evil is called good, and our children are stared down for saying otherwise. If in fifty years we don’t want that integral understanding of what it means to be humans made in the image of God to be a mere, and passing, time reference to a historical curiosity, then the immigrant work must start now. And start with ourselves. Start by us putting away our own pre-commitment to ease and comfort. Start with us reordering our loves, even while those around us fall away. Goodness knows we’ve bought that disordered narrative long enough. Goodness knows we let our bookshops and conferences and memes coddle and protect it. Yet how can we take fire into our bosom and not get burned?

Plumped, preened and praised. Or wizened, weathered and worn. It doesn’t seem much of an option. But as I gaze around at that party tonight and see a picture of generational flourishing in which, despite the variables of experience, time and location, a DNA thread winds its way through the revellers, I will recommit my heart to taking up the mantle of the immigrant generation, determined to weather and wear myself out for the sake of the flourishing that is truly flourishing, rather than the faux and fatal alternative on offer to us now.

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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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