June 18, 2021

When the gospel rainfall stops the cultural dam dries up

My home town of Perth, Western Australia is a dry place. A very dry place, and it’s gotten drier.

When my family first moved to sunny Perth in the 1970s, the long term rainfall average for our city was approximately 850mm per year. Now that sounds okay, and indeed it is more rainfall than London receives each year, and people don’t generally move to London to get more sunshine (unless it’s from Glasgow).

But Perth is hotter – much hotter than London – and that rainfall occurs in a few select months in winter and spring. Some years we’re lucky to get any rain at all from mid-November to May. It’s just blue sky day after blue sky day. For months.

And if you do happen to live in London you may wonder what’s wrong with that. Well, remember those hosepipe bans you have from time to time? Well double that and then times it by ten. That’s the caution somewhere like Perth has to have towards water use.

When rain finally does come in Perth after a long, hot summer it’s a relief. Indeed the fresh smell of rain washing the dust from the peppermint trees lining the streets of my old suburb, was a sign of life and cleansing. It’s a smell locked into my olfactory memory, and it’s a gentle endorphin kick.

But Perth has less rain now than the 1970s. The long-term average has dropped 100mm in the last three decades. Occasionally we get a very wet winter and a few summer downpours that buck the trend, but the long-term average doesn’t appear to be heading north any time soon.

But here’s the double-blow. Once the long-term average drops, the odd trend-bucking rainy winter won’t undo the damage. We often rejoice when there’s been a wet month, but the good folks at the Bureau of Meteorology simply shrug their shoulders and say something like this:

The rain has been good, but we’ve haven’t reached the run-off stage yet.”

What they mean is this: What we see as life-giving, ground-soaking rain hasn’t done anything but wet the topsoil. The local dams around our city stay stubbornly low even after a good month of rain.

That is, until the ground is so soaked by constant and heavy rain that it saturates and finally run-off occurs. Water starts to fill the dams. But that takes a lot longer than you think. The deep underground water level in Perth has dropped dramatically as the descending rainfall average waves up at the the ascending population growth which is busy sucking up water with bores. Until the rain starts to run-off, and then fill the dams, the situation will not change much, even after a wet winter.

It’s the same with gospel rain.

The long term average Gospel rainfall in the West has been dropping over the past three or four secular decades. And we can get by with that for a while. So soaked has the ground of the Western culture been by the gospel rain for centuries, that the run-off into the cultural dams has been something we have taken for granted. The groundwater level was high, and gospel rain replenished the dams.

Here’s how that worked. We assumed that the cultural dams were full of gospel run-off such as a common view of right and wrong. A common view of humanity. The necessity of forgiveness. The reality of evil, what it might look like, and what might be the solution. The binary nature of male and female in accordance with, if not full blown creation creation, then a settled science which was birthed from a biblical understanding of how the natural order worked.

Ideas such as God being the one who metes out vengeance and not us; the inherent dignity and value of the unborn and the sick and ageing. All of these, and more, were gospel run-off issues. They were the truths that filled the cultural dams and flowed out to the pipelines and irrigation systems of the society as almost an afterthought.

And then somewhere in the past thirty to fifty years the rainfall level went down. Imperceptibly at first. A few millimetres every year, as Christianity’s influence on the culture was first realised, then questioned, then loosened. Church attendance, at least for Sunday School to get mum and dad a quiet morning at home with the paper, started to fall away. The church, for so long the chaplain to the state and which appeared like magic at every ceremony, whether religious or not, soon started to be noted for its absence. And then not noted at all.

But the rainfall kept falling. Year by year, season by season. And soon that was affecting those closer to the centre of the gospel.

Those who did attend church every week, starting going once a fortnight or every third week. Other things crept in as equally important. Theological distinctions, once the bane of everyone’s existence, soon mattered less and less, and then mattered not at all so that the primary decision making process for people joining a church today is “What do you have for kids?” as if their own discipleship is a fait accompli. The rain stopped falling.

And so the process continued. The ground got harder, the gospel climate more arid, the groundwater level dropped lower, and eventually the run-off stopped running, no matter the odd surge of gospel rainfall, such as a localised revival and the dams got lower.

This had a deeper, more subterranean and longer term parching effect. The gospel run-off which assumed that mercy would accompany justice; that forgiveness would balance vengeance, that holiness would accompany zealotry, that humility would temper personality, all of that is no longer in the dams. And the increasingly scarce rainfall means it may not be returning any time soon.

What we are left with is the acid rain of a post-Christian culture in which justice, vengeance, zealotry and the cult of personality. Even the secular media is wondering how far back we can go in the social media age to destroy someone on the basis of a historical mistake. A lot further back than we might hope, if this headline around the historical Twitter sins of Chrissy Teigen (Google her, I had to) is any indication:

The article by Samantha Selinger-Morris reveals that there is little to determine the rightness or wrongness of forgiveness or rehabilitation, other than power and popularity.

The big faux pas of the culture is revealed by the observation made in the article by Australian National University philosopher, Ben Bramble:

It’s also important to note, Bramble adds, that because society tends to “morally improve over time” – he mentions Martin Luther King Jr’s famous quote that, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but bends towards justice” – it is a complicated affair when we judge someone based on something they said a long time ago.

Cough, cough!! Does anyone get the irony of that? The huge assumption lying at the centre of that?

MLK Jr made that claim about the arc of justice off the back of a heavy gospel rainfall season. He said it off the back of a speech steeped in the gospel rivers of justice that flow down from a climate that had every philosophical reason to indeed bend towards justice, but had turned away to a broken cistern called racism.

MLK Jr was shaming a Christianised culture to repent and start slaking its thirst once again from the full gospel dam! There was no sure arc of justice without a lodestar of gospel mercy in his speech.

What we are being reduced to now is vengeance, in a culture in which secularism assumes such vengeance has been outsourced from a God who no longer occupies the public square.

.Tom Holland, who wrote that great book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, has observed that the Christian gospel did too good a job in the Western culture. It filled the societal dams so full and so freshly, that the assumption was that such conditions occurred naturally.

But then the water started drying up. Now we turn on the cultural tap of mercy and it’s a puff of dust that comes out.

Douglas Murray, an atheist writer, puts it well, and soberly, in his book The Madness of Crowds:

We live in a world where actions can have consequences we could never have imagined, where guilt and shame are more at hand than ever, and where we have no means whatsoever of redemption.  We do not know who could offer it, who could accept it, and whether it is a desirable quality compared to an endless cycle of fiery certainty and denunciation.

Murray nails it. That’s exactly what Ben Bramble does not get.

Hence while I do admire some of the justice movements of the day, I have zero confidence that they will do anything other than what every other revolutionary response has ended up doing when it refuses the water of life found in the gospel. The end result will be power being placed in the hands of the newly minted powerful, and a cycle of vengeance without mercy beginning.

My prayer in the midst of all of this is for the rain to start falling again. Not the cultural rain, but the gospel rain. It needs to rain and rain and rain. Our churches are going to have to become places of grace and mercy, and yes justice, but all off the back of unseasonally heavy downpours of gospel rainfall, that over the coming decades refill the cultural dams.

And I do mean decades. For just as Perth needs many years of rainfall to undo the parching lack in the past thirty years, so too the gospel rainfall will take a while to replenish the cultural dams, if indeed it is ever to do so. We are facing a harder, less merciful, and increasingly more zealous culture for the foreseeable future.

It’s time to start praying for gospel rain. But it’s still going to take some time for it to saturate the ground, begin to run off, and fill the cultural dams.

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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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