We went to see Surviving Progress last night at the Dubai International Film Festival. Based on Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress, this powerful Canadian documentary argues that humanity has got itself stuck in a global “progress trap”. The fundamental problem is that we are running modern software on mental hardware that has not been upgraded in 50,000 years, so technology is exploited to satisfy immediate needs but the invisible or remote costs are not factored in. As a result we are consuming ourselves to death. Global debt is the massive suction force that ensures that the world’s natural resources are continually over-exploited to feed the insatiable appetite of the various unaccountable oligarchies that control the system.
What makes the outlook especially grim is that the whole world has fallen into this trap—there are no counter cultures, no alternative civilizations. Some solutions are tentatively put forward: the colonization of other planets, the development of synthetic organisms that will produce food and fuel, the reduction of the world’s population to a third of current levels. But in the end the audience is told that humanity faces a simple challenge: to “prove that making apes smarter was not an evolutionary dead-end”.
I sat through the film thinking, “How is the church to engage with this metanarrative of human destiny?” It happens that I’m reading Joerg Rieger’s book Christ & Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times at the moment. Like much of the empire-critical work that is currently being done on Paul I think it overstates the case for reading him as a self-consciously anti-imperial figure—Paul is much more pro-Christ than anti-Caesar. But unquestionably the early Jesus movement has to be understood as a radical and hazardous repudiation of an over-bearing and idolatrous imperial culture, and perhaps this suggests one way of approaching this really quite challenging question of narrative engagement.
We cannot read 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 as a report of merely personal faith. By abandoning the worship of idols the Thessalonian believers had knowingly rejected the belief system that sustained the empire and the culture of empire. They did so because they had been persuaded by Paul that the wrath of God was coming on the ancient world, that the God who had made all things was no longer willing to overlook the age-long defiance of pagan Europe, that he had determined a moment in history when this corrupt and corrupting culture would be overthrown, judged “in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed” (Acts 17:29-31).
They understood, moreover, that they had taken a dangerous step. They would be violently opposed by the Greeks for their repudiation of the gods and by the Jews for their belief that Jesus was the Christ (cf. Acts 17:1-9). But they were confident that Jesus would save them from the crisis to come, that they would be vindicated for their radical counter-cultural stance both before the throne of God and in the court of public opinion.
The churches in Thessalonica had opted out of the dominant culture. They had been set free from the powers—the gods, the rulers, the customs, the oligarchies, the blind assumptions—that controlled the ancient world (cf. Col. 2:15). They had been set free internally from a sinful nature that was all to willing to conform (cf. Rom. 12:2). They therefore behaved differently.
What they then became was not merely congregations of the saved but prophetic communities of eschatological transformation. By their bold defiance—in the name of Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit—of an ineffective Judaism, on the one hand, and a moribund pagan culture, on the other, they constituted a communal sign that the one true creator God was not ineffectual, was not powerless, could not be sidelined, but would act in the foreseeable future to justify himself in the eyes of the nations.
It was by no means a cheap and easy option. It meant surrendering their bodies—their material selves, not merely their souls—as a “living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1). This was simply the beginning of the long story of self-denial, suffering and martyrdom that was so central to the experience of the early church.
We have moved beyond this eschatological event. It is not now the crisis of the death of pagan imperialism with which we are confronted. It is a crisis of the future of humanity. But we are implicated nevertheless. We are not bystanders. And there is much that we can learn by transposing the New Testament story into a creational key.
For example, we may suppose that the same creator God is calling people today to opt out of the dominant system, visibly and concretely, in order to form contextually appropriate prophetic communities of eschatological transformation, trusting that Jesus will save us from the “wrath” to come.
If that is the case, then the first task is to hear what the creator God, who raised Jesus from the dead as a guarantee of a new creation, is saying to his world. Paul understood very clearly that if Jesus had been appointed Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead, Caesar’s days were numbered. The church at the moment lacks a coherent and relevant voice, so it is hardly surprising that no one is listening. We long ago ceded the prophetic high ground to secular protest movements.
Secondly, if the church is to have any integrity and credibility as a prophetic community in the midst of a crisis of human identity and survival, it will need the courage and faith to repent of its complicity in the idolatry of runaway materialism, to repudiate the powers that enslave and destroy in the name of progress. I’m not at all sure that we can do that, and judgment may well have to begin with the household of God.
Thirdly, assuming that we get beyond the second step, the church needs to work out how to articulate and practice alternative ways of being human. Paul speaks of putting off an old way of being human and putting on a new way of being human (cf. Eph. 4:22-24; Col. 3:9-10). What is in view here is not merely the isolated sinful individual. We are human in context; our humanity is a product of our context. We are inescapably social and political. Conversion cannot, therefore, be merely an inward change: it is a transplantation, from corrupt community to renewed community, from an environment of decay to an environment of regeneration.
I am not terribly optimistic. I suspect that the church today resembles less the faithful Thessalonians than the Jews of the Mediterranean world, whom Paul castigates for their hypocrisy, who claimed to have the truth but who were no more righteous in practice than their pagan neighbours (Rom. 2:12-29). We are as much in denial as everyone else. So perhaps we should expect the creator God to act again to vindicate himself before the nations in a way that first holds the church accountable for its failure to provide a benchmark of authentic righteousness in the modern secular world.