August 20, 2016

Soft Distance In A Hardening World

Back in the day – 1977 to be exact – Star Wars was a cultural phenomenon.  Right there at the cusp of global marketing, several of its foresighted stars waived their pay packet for a percentage of any  film merchandise and spin-offs. Good move I reckon.

Perhaps Miroslav Volf should have signed up for some of that when he wrote his celebrated “Soft Difference: Theological Reflections On The Relation Between Church and Culture in 1Peter”. That essay has certainly gained traction in the 21 years since, spawning, if not a global phenomenon, then a veritable Christian cottage industry. He could be sitting pretty.

Indeed this week I am attending one of those missed royalties opportunities: a breakfast by John Dickson entitled “Soft Difference: Engaging 21st Century Australian Culture with Christianity”.  Should be good.

The general tenor of most engagement with Volf’s text assumes the worth of “soft difference”.  Though don’t let even that fool you.  What “soft” means is not so assumed; often swinging between mush and  granite, between cultural capitulation and cultural retreat. And of that much ink has been spilt also, not least of all by yours truly.

The bigger conundrum, however, is which version of the culture to engage with. Volf’s title at least, assumes a monolithic western context. But in case you had not noticed, a solid definition of culture circa 1995 seems a lot further away from a 2016 definition.

Star Wars is again helpful here. For while the visual components of the Star Wars world are still vaguely recognisable 39 years on (even my eight year old son gasped in astonished joy seeing the agreeably aged Han Solo in the latest instalment), the two Hans occupy two vastly different cultural galaxies.

Sure there is still a Millennium Falcon, but it’s a very different Han at the controls, more prone to second guesses; more turmoil with his inner self;  given to self-doubt, epistemologically and relationally humble. More, shall we say, self-consciously “modern” than the 1977 Hans.

And that goes with all of the newly introduced characters, several of whom seem to shoot and fly their way through the galaxy with more droll one liners than Drolly McDrollface on a particular droll day.

Yet, and this is the irony, the pinnacle of Western popular culture that produces such self-effacement is anything but self-effacing or self-doubting.  While keen to present, indeed help produce, a humbler and gentler future (love is love after all), there is a steely resolve among cultural elites that has hardened against any difference – soft or otherwise – in order to attain such a future.  Blood will have to be spilled if there is to be peace.

Meanwhile, in the cultural valleys below, simmering resentments between Left and Right flare up, leaving little room or desire for a public discourse, or at least one that is not filled with rage.  As RR Reno from First Things observes about the doomed and doom-laden Trump phenomenon: people are angry enough to trash the room.

The cultural monolith has not simply fractured, it has become fractious – dangerously so. The result is not a happy shiny picture; a post-foundational Mosaic generation, or a post-foundational Mosaic church movement for that matter.  What we have, quite simply, is a tangled, broken mess. How do we engage with it without being torn apart?

Even Volf, himself, has been caught napping. Witness his twisting and turning to avoid colliding with the harsh new world of secular education’s zealotry after Wheaton College’s suspension of an associate professor for claiming Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

Volf’s response to that affair smacked of a surrender to the academy’s post-Christian cultural hegemony that brooks no rivals and admits no true differences, soft or otherwise.

Hence this thoughtful and timely piece by Jake Meador over at, which argues among other things, that any quest for the return of the Christian public intellectual is in vain. Not because Christian intellectuals no longer exist, but because the “public”, as once construed, no longer exists.

Into which public might the Christian intellectual speak?   You’ve got your soft difference primed; your Church (or “Christianity” in Dickson’s terminology) all switched on, but where do you point and shoot? More chance of hitting the cultural centre than a StormTrooper has of hitting Han Solo doing 15 minute miles.

The culture hasn’t just marched forward since Volf’s original piece – it’s splintered and scattered everywhere.  May as well herd cats as try to bring the strands of culture together to deliver a coherent message to it. And if you do, don’t expect to be thanked for it.

Much like music.  Once there was Jazz, Rock, Folk, Pop. Simple really. Now there is such a bewildering array of splinterings that to overlook one is to risk the wrath of a neo-deathmetal/flouro-Goth uprising, assuming all fifteen of them are up early enough in the morning to organise it.

Speaking from his US context, Meador contends that the only spiritual, vaguely Christianised public voices left that have wide cultural traction have capitulated to civil religion; self-help and expressive individualism.  Think Osteen here.  Think Donald Miller. Think various iterations of Oprah’s TV network.  If you want to bring everyone together – and spawn a lucrative cottage industry in the process – it’s still possible, but it’s no longer Christian, not in any orthodox or creedal sense.

Meador’s conclusions resonate with me, especially as he posits a return to the margins of the culture, in order to speak back into it from the clear air of exile.  And he offers Francis Schaeffer’s approach as the way forward:

What we need is a different kind of interpreter, less Reinhold Niebuhr, that establishment figure who lived and taught in New York City, and more Francis Schaeffer, the missionary-in-exile, far removed from the hubs of power and influence and better equipped to speak to them in distinctly Christian ways precisely because of his distance from them. We need to recognize that the modern western social project (if it even rises to the level of “social project,”) is not something which can be reconciled with the faith by simply making some basic alterations to the machine. Market-backed, government-subsidized expressive individualism is the founding principle of today’s western world. And there can be no salvaging such a project. 

I think Meador is right.  I think he is another one of the growing number of tributaries adding its strength to a larger, stronger diluvial movement that, although it engages with the late modern culture, operates outside its boundaries. A movement less tied to the culture’s purse or apron strings, thereby freeing itself to create over time a soft difference that doesn’t turn to mush in the face of hostility, or turn to hostility itself in the face of active and vocal cultural scorn and rejection.  A soft difference expressed from a distance, still interested and engaged, but not entangled and enticed by the lure of acceptance.

Meador picks the eyes out of Schaeffer’s increasingly prescient move:

Schaeffer recognized long before the rest of evangelicalism that the defining values of post-Christian America would be thoroughly materialistic and center around personal peace and affluence. His and Edith’s ministry at L’Abri recognized this splintering and refuted it, not by explaining Christianity to a social order that can be reconciled with the faith if we finesse it enough, but by modeling a radically different way of life to a society at odds with the faith on the most fundamental, basic levelsThe hospitality of L’Abri, Francis’s way of talking about Christianity as comprehensive “True Truth,” the hidden art embodied by Edith’s tireless work… all these things contributed to making L’Abri a shelter of coherence in a fractured and declining world.

If we can’t salvage this fractured and declining world, then what can we do? Meador finishes with this thought:

It is, rather, something which must be critiqued far more radically and much more in keeping with the critique made by Schaeffer. Our model, if Schaeffer was right, ought to be Jeremiah, the weeping prophet who announced that there was death in the city.

Jeremiah. Or Benedict for that matter. And perhaps even one day Volf, if even the soft difference he espouses proves just too hard for this hardening culture.

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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.

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