May 24, 2013

Part II – The Bible for Losers

Having a fine time reading Francis Spufford’s book on why he, despite everything is a Christian.  It’s called “Unapologetic” or “UnApologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity can still make Surprising Emotional Sense”. (Let’s just call it “Unapologetic” – unapologetic Ed).

I know I’m not gonna agree with this guy on everything, even surprise, surprise on SSM, but the first few pages are brilliant and hilarious.  Christians are to blame for everything.  Everything. They’re to be praised for nothing. That’s right. Nothing.  But that doesn’t make them dangerous.  They’re nothing of the sort.  What they are is embarrassing.  Leaving aside the 1 per cent of Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ teeth-gnashers, the general populace just can’t see why it’s necessary anymore. There’s no reason for Christianity, unless it’s simply to provide bait to the baying crowd on ABC’s Q and A.  Take this pearler for instance:

Believers are the people touting a solution without a problem, and an embarrassing solution too, a really damp-palmed, wide-smiling, can’t dance solution. In an anorak.

Oh that last painful sentence. Three stinging words that take the wind out of the sails, that sum it all up so well (for English cold-weather anorak wearers anyway). Nick Hornby labelled Spufford “one of the most original minds in contemporary literature.”, while The Guardian said “the man writes like a dream.”

So, all you “man the barricades” types, ready to defend Christianity to the death, you might find that no one is actually on the other side of the barricades because…, well because they’re all off at the David Jones end-of-financial-year sale, where that brilliant red Russell Hobbs cake mixer is half price.  Yes that’s right, HALF PRICE!

Which segues us nicely to the topic of the day; namely the two second points made in the Australian Christian Lobby’s statement concerning Same Sex Marriage and former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s change of mind. The ACL expressed concern that:

1. The discussion of homosexual sex acts will be part of the curriculum in sex ed classes in schools.

2. Christians will be pursued through the courts by gay activists in the areas of discrimination, hate speech etc.

Will these two things happen?  Undoubtedly.  The trajectory seems to be leading us in that direction.  Does that mean that Christians should roll over and play dead on these issues?  No, it does not mean that. I think that there is a long road ahead in discussion within Christianity, discussion with authorities, and clarifying statements concerning the separation of church and state (originally designed to protect the church from state interference, remember).

So what does it mean?  It means that over the course of the next few decades Christians in the West will likely find themselves on the “losing” side more often than the winning side.  When it comes to “soft” power – traction in the wider culture, Spufford pins the tail on the Christian donkey.  We are already losers in that “soft” sense.  But what is true of soft traction will, sooner or later, become true of the hard traction: the influence in the halls of power. It will mean the education departments will include homosexual sex in its sex ed classes,  and gay activists will be seen outside courthouses across Australia declaring “this is a victory for justice and love.” And that will be the end of the world as we know it, right?

Wrong.  Of course.  Wrong for a number of reasons.  Christians in the West will simply start to experience what Christians in the “Rest” have experienced for many years – hostility from the predominant worldview and a political system that bends away from it rather that towards it.  But, and most importantly, Christians in the West will start to see, with fresh eyes, that the Bible is an astonishingly hopeful and helpful book for those who are on “the losing side of history”.

Let me explain.  One of the reasons I have found the works of Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost so helpful is that they are perfectly comfortable, indeed joyous, in describing a church not on “the other side”, but on “the under side” of culture.  I will never forget the first time I heard Hirschy speaking in a room with about ten of us, here in little old Perth. Sitting before us was no whiney teenager going on about how funky church was going to solve our problems; no chip-on-his-shoulder angry man saying we have to reclaim what is rightfully ours, no austere academic disinterestedly mapping out church history; but, rather, a humble bloke who was ahead of the wave in his thinking.  The two Epistles of St Peter, John’s “Revelation” Apocalypse, the exilic texts of Daniel (especially it’s apocalyptic second half), Ezra, Nehemiah.  These were the texts that gave him confidence that whatever way the culture went, God’s people and God’s purposes would come through. The church could prepare itself for its shift to “the under side” of culture, by rightly understanding these texts. Hirsch was perfectly happy with “The Bible for Losers” because in so many instances throughout their history, God’s people have been in the weak position.  By seeing that, for example, whatever beasts the churning sea of history throws up (Daniel 7), the Son of Man sits on the throne, Christians can be released from the presumption that unless they get it all their way, God is somehow being thwarted.  The winner has been decided, it’s just the details that are up for grabs.

Hold on, you might say, didn’t Daniel stand his ground politically when in the dangerous court of Babylon – and then Persia?  Yes.  So did his friends.  And when Nebuchadnezzar built a golden image of himself for all to worship, didn’t Daniel’s friends all placard for a change in the law and lobbied the government to ensure that nobody should bow down to it?  NO!  They told the king that they would not bow down to it. They would not worship it whatever judgement he handed out.  Listen to Daniel 3:

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. 17 If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

No need to answer you?  Wow! What about a media release?  What about a protest website? Their need not to answer did not betray a fear of the king, but a confidence in the true king.  They were convinced of one important thing: King Nebuchadnezzar, despite all appearances, despite the plausibility structures in place to ensure it, despite the golden image, despite the thousands prostrating themselves before it (and him), was not king! As Daniel puts it, the God of heaven is king.  And whether they lived – or died – they were going to maintain their distinction as the people of the one true king, albeit living in a foreign place under a usurper to God’s authority.  If the fire had burnt them to a crisp, history would have judged them losers.  But that would not have been true.  It would not have changed the fact that God was king – their king.

And so I close.  But not before pointing out the end of Daniel 3.  Listen to the words of Nebuchadnezzar when the three friends are rescued from the flames:

28 Nebuchadnezzar answered and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. 29 Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that speaks anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins, for there is no other god who is able to rescue in this way.”

Just to head off the arguments at the pass, there is a place for persuasion in the public square.  Christians have a place at the table – for the moment.  Whether or not media releases are the way in which to do it is another matter.  But here is what is most clear: We may “win the day”, we may get burned in the fire, but God is still king.  He may call some of us to be more vocal. He may call some of us to be quieter and more subversive.  Regardless of what he calls us to do there is nothing to fear about being on “the under side” of the culture.  It may actually  leaves room for God to be more glorified and honoured among his people and, indeed, among the kings of the world.

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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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