What must the church become? Narrative and praxis

An opinion piece in the Guardian last week asked, “Is the end of western Christianity in sight?” On the strength of the most recent British Social Attitudes data the article asserted that “No religion” is now by far the largest self-identification in England and Wales, that the mainstream churches are failing to make converts, that religion has come to stand for the opposite of freedom, especially sexual freedom, that it is “hard to see a route back for normative Christianity”, and perhaps surprisingly that human rights “could become vulnerable in an entirely post-Christian environment where the collective memory slips from the old moorings inherited from Christian ethics”. 

The world is changing. The Archbishop of Canterbury may be right in thinking that the tide is turning in this country, that the church is entering a new spring at last. He may not be right. Either way, it’s unlikely that the future will be business as usual. New wine always needs new wineskins. Here are some thoughts on narrative and praxis as we walk nervously into the unknown.

The end of the age

I think we may have just crossed a watershed, an indistinct boundary on the foggy, muddy, uneven upland fells between two quite different, massive cultural drainage systems.

Perhaps that fence marked “gay marriage” that we’ve just clambered over was the boundary. Rod Dreher says that the rise of gay rights has awakened the orthodox church to the fact that “the West is truly a post-Christian civilization, and we had better come up with new ways of living if we are going to hold on to the faith in this new dark age”.

In any case, the future is being furiously planned with reference to a now well-established, if loosely defined and evolving, package of humanist-scientific values. [pullquote]Christianity is not being consulted. It is a thing of the past. It has become, in a quite fundamental and perhaps irrevocable sense, unbelievable.[/pullquote]

The future is history not theology

Traditional theological or dogmatic constructions of Christian identity and purpose will be of limited value in the age to come and may even prove a hindrance.

The alternative has been with us for a while now. It is the narrative-historical construction of Christian identity and purpose, whose value is two-fold: i) it gives us a much more robust and coherent understanding of scripture and of Christian origins; and ii) it provides a hermeneutical model for explaining and responding to our own historical circumstances. Without the ability to tell our own story as the people of God, we struggle to shape a prophetic vision for the place of the church in an extremely difficult future.

The essential vehicle of Christian self-understanding, start to finish, is a story about the historical existence of a witnessing community. The narrative-historical model compels us to connect the biblical narrative to the Christendom narrative and the Christendom narrative to the post-Christendom narrative.

The post-Christendom narrative is not the same as the pre-Christendom narrative, whatever incidental comparisons may be drawn. History keeps going forwards. It doesn’t go back and repeat itself.

New creation, vocation, and kingdom

As I see it, the basic biblical pattern for the identity and purpose of the church is narratively constructed in three stages:

1. From its inception in Abraham the people of God is called apart from the world, in the shadow of empire, to be a new creation in microcosm, a righteous and just sub-section of humanity, characterised by trust and obedience, faithfully demonstrating how God intended his world to be.

2. This new creation people is called apart not for its own benefit but in order to serve the interests of God in the world, which is our vocation or mission. Separation but not isolation.

This is already present in the idea that Abraham’s family would mediate the original blessing of creation to other peoples. But it can also be expressed as a priestly-prophetic-pedagogic function. The church mediates as a priestly community between God and the world. The church speaks to the world as a prophetic community on behalf of God. The church teaches the ways of the Lord to the world.

3. It is when this arrangement breaks down, typically because of sin, that the kingdom narrative comes into play. Put simply, YHWH uses a foreign nation to judge his people. He then forgives and restores his people; he makes them new creation again, he renews their priestly-prophetic role, he makes them a light to the nations. But now the pagan nations have been dragged into the process, so finally the expectation arises that YHWH will also judge and rule over the nations.

Kingdom now

We need “kingdom” now because we are in a mess, but as a matter of historical circumstance, not in absolute or final terms. There is no point sitting around piously waiting for an idealised kingdom to come when all along it was simply YHWH managing the troubled historical existence of his people from one self-inflicted crisis to the next. There is no final kingdom to come, I argue, only a new heaven and a new earth.

We still confess that Jesus is Lord, that he has been seated at the right hand of God, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named” (Eph. 1:21), but we are no longer looking for the concrete political embodiment of that rule as the fulfilment of Jewish-apocalyptic expectation.

What it means for us after Christendom is that the future of the church in the western secular context is in the hands of the one who was faithful, who died, and who was vindicated. It says something about how we face the current existential crisis.

Settled and unsettled

The kingdom narrative in scripture, which has to do with the problematic existence of God’s people in the midst of the nations, has given us two contrasting modes of existence: a settled mode and an unsettled mode, a secure mode and an insecure mode.

From Saul to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Romans, Israel existed in principle as a nation with a land, a capital city, a legal system, and a king or the ideal of a king. This is how the people of God was determined and preserved vis-à-vis the surrounding nations.

Failure and defeat resulted in the corruption or loss of kingdom: exile, dispersion, repression by the Greeks, occupation by the Romans, and the final disaster of AD 70.

But from the ruins of Israel’s national existence the early churches set out on a new exodus towards a new promised land, a new inheritance—a slow and painful journey across Asia Minor and Europe that would culminate in a stunning conquest, not of Canaan this time but of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē, not by the sword but by the Word of God.

Christendom was not an aberration

I disagree with Carl Trueman that Christendom was “theologically exceptional” and that ‘what we are witnessing is not the overthrowing or the jeopardizing of the church but rather a return to “business as usual” as the Bible and the nature of the gospel and of the church would lead us to expect’.

I think that a theocratic régime such as western Christendom was precisely what scripture had in view—a state of affairs under which the nations of the formerly pagan oikoumenē would confess that Jesus Christ, and not Caesar, was Lord, to the glory of God the Father. It is theologically normal that the God of Israel should judge and rule over the nations: “Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!” (Ps. 82:8).

The problem is not that Christendom was an aberration but that it was—inevitably—a flawed and ephemeral historical phenomenon. The cosmocrator has since been dethroned by Reason, whose own hold on power has proved shaky, with the forces of Unreason fighting to take control.

But none of this was foreseen by the New Testament. It’s too far over the prophetic horizon. So we have to tell this part of the story ourselves as a credible continuation of the biblical-apocalyptic narrative.

Biblical metaphors of alienation 

So the management of the political existence of the people of God in relation to the nations goes from settled kingdom, represented ideally by David, to pagan domination in one form or another, to settled empire, ruled over by a new Davidic king, to a new unsettled, post-Christendom existence subject to a secular régime.

I see no reason to think that the current journey through the wilderness will lead to a new Christendom or global domination—a new settlement. But clearly we could make use of the metaphors of exodus, exile, diaspora and perhaps even subjugation in order to understand and define the marginalised, alienated, liminal existence of the western church.

But these metaphors have their limitations. “Exodus” requires a much clearer vision of a new future—a promised land—than we have at the moment. “Exile” carries the idea of cultural alienation but also entails the expectation of return to a previous mode of existence, a second exodus. And as it turned out, the original return from exile was not an unqualified success.

The network of diaspora synagogues as schools of Torah in the pagan world (cf. Rom. 2:17-24) furnished a model for a network of churches which would function as outposts, colonies, of the coming empire of YHWH, governed from a heavenly Jerusalem. There is some mileage in the model for us, but again the eschatology is out of sync.

I have suggested before that the best biblical metaphor—or best inversion of a biblical metaphor—for the condition of the western church might be “disinheritance”. The diaspora churches of the Greek-Roman world inherited the empire, but over the last two hundred years our inheritance has been taken away from us—though we get to keep the cathedrals and churches and a few other perks for now. “Disinheritance” is a good way of exposing historical hubris and complacency, but it’s not a banner under which to march into a hopeful future.

The Benedict Option

Another place to look for forms and patterns of Christian existence that might teach us how to live in the secular world would be the dissenting margins of Christendom—the monastic movement, for example.

The so-called “Benedict Option” is new to me but it seems to be getting a lot of publicity in the US. This is how its chief proponent Rod Dreher describes it:

The “Benedict Option” refers to Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents. Put less grandly, the Benedict Option—or “Ben Op”—is an umbrella term for Christians who accept MacIntyre’s critique of modernity, and who also recognize that forming Christians who live out Christianity according to Great Tradition requires embedding within communities and institutions dedicated to that formation.

The church has lost the culture wars. In fact, much of the church has fallen captive to the culture: “modern forms of Christianity,” Dreher writes, “do not challenge modernity’s assumptions, and are therefore highly susceptible to being colonized by it”. So the solution must be to withdraw far enough from the dominant culture, not necessarily in geographical terms, to re-establish a distinctive and disciplined Christian identity.

Arguably, the “Benedict” label is gratuitous branding, given that the option is hardly going to be workable on a broad basis in anything approaching a literal sense. But gratuitous branding can sometimes be very useful. In any case, the analysis, in my view, is spot on.

Dedicated communities

Perhaps a generic notion of dedicated communities provides a more plausible terminology with less confusing historical baggage. It still opposes the core malaise of church as mass consumerist individualism, but is flexible enough to embrace a spectrum of real world instances.

Our small community in Westbourne Grove, for example, is dedicated to the relational space offered by the brilliantly renovated old Baptist church in which we meet. Discipleship means learning how to do that well; it is shared and it is vocational. Our (relatively) young friends in Community Church Harlesden are working out, more or less from first principles, bottom up, DIY, how to weave their complex, busy lives into a dedicated, informally disciplined, localised, counter-cultural community. My friend Klaus from Hamburg, who paid a brief visit yesterday, is part of a dedicated community living in the same apartment block with its own successful coffee shop on the ground floor.

New models for old

It seems to me that a great deal of missional discourse now operates with a model of Christian communities, in various forms, as agents of social transformation. To be honest, this seems to be more a despairing search for moral legitimacy and social relevance than an attempt to restate an authentically biblical existence.

But I can believe that there are ways of integrating motifs, models, and metaphors drawn from developments in the arts, sciences, social-sciences, social media, and grassroots politics into the narrative in order to subvert some of the tired conventions of Christian thought and praxis and broach new possibilities. The idea of “Christ collectives”, modeled on art collectives, rather appealed to me a few years back. I often think that the church should see itself primarily as a story-telling community. And so on…

The possibilities are endless as long as we don’t lose sight of the narrative-historical connection with the original intention—that we should be an obedient and faithful new creation people called to serve the interests of the one true living God in the world, under the lordship of Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Church Signs You’ll Never See:

Country Park Baptist — “Disinherited, but Hopeful”

Eastside Presbyterian — “A credible continuation of the biblical-apocalyptic narrative”

The issue with the Benedict Option, at least as we experience it in America, is that (despite what the FAQ claims), its popularity is pretty much due to fundamentalist Christian rejection of gay marriage. It’s what Dreher is well-known for these days.

It’s not because of the recognition that American culture and American Christianity are too tightly coupled; it’s the disappointment that American Christianity is no longer running America. Evangelicalism lost the culture wars, so we should now retreat into communities where we can still keep gays from getting married and forbid people from getting abortions. If you go nosing around for “Ben Op” folks in America, the overwhelming majority exist because of this. It’s not because it’s dawned on them that American Christianity was never very Christian to begin with.

You might find Fred Clark’s comments on the subject of interest:

Thanks, Phil. As I said, the particular conversation is new to me. But there are other ways in which the gay marriage issue may be signalling a tipping point. Dreher seems anxious not to be seen to be advocating culture isolationism. And neo-monastic practices are attracting people for other reasons than shared opposition to gay marriage and abortion. In my experience the driving force is a much broader desire to resist and find an alternative to the pervasive individualism, self-centredness, and fragmentation of modern urban life. So not having the immediate context, Dreher’s argument didn’t come across that negative to me.

I’m not sure I see what Fred Clark’s comments add to the discussion. Is there anything in the FAQ, regardless of what goes on behind the scenes, that is actually objectionable?

No, not at all.

The reason I made my comments and linked to Fred’s piece was just to illustrate how this phenomenon is largely taking shape in America, not as a critique to the idea itself.

Taken in isolation from its actual incarnation in America, the FAQ is quite good and I agree with virtually all of it. The communities he links to as examples are also generally pretty good.

But generally speaking, if you find an American Christian voice talking about contemplating “the Benedict Option,” it’s because they’re upset about gay marriage or transgenders using particular bathrooms. I have a feeling that we may be staring down the barrels of a “Benedict Option” movement in America that basically provides outlets for fundamentalists who feel American culture doesn’t want them anymore, and vice-versa.

But if you take just the core idea, the reasoning, and the vision, and you separate it from the actual issues and people that are propelling it over here, it could be something really useful. If we have more people self-consciously forming these communities around the sorts of things you described, that would be great, as an experiment if nothing else.

That vision of Christianity is just not that popular over here, unfortunately, and I have a feeling that, at least in the near future, most of our communities that self-consciously are taking up the Benedict Option are mostly fundamentalists who didn’t get their way politically. Ironically, the FAQ denounces this, but Christian evangelicalism is not well-known for careful reading.

I would have thought that they are basically the same idea. The Benedict Option appears to have surfaced in the context of a feverish debate in the US about church, ethics and society, whereas New Monasticism would seem to be a more general term. Here’s how Dreher answers the question “Are you saying that contemporary Christians ought to be monks? How would that work?”

Well, the world would be a lot better off if more men and women today became monastics, but that’s not really what I’m talking about. Remember, MacIntyre says that we await a “new and very different St. Benedict” — meaning a charismatic religious figure, or figures, who can help us form these new communities. The Baptist theologian Jonathan Wilson, in his book on what MacIntyre has to say to the churches, says the question contemporary Christians should ask ourselves is this: “What must the church do in order to live and witness faithfully as a minority in a culture in which we were once the majority?”

As we try to determine which forms of community, which institutions, and which ways of life, can answer that question, we should draw on the wisdom of St. Benedict and his Rule. We should innovate ways to adapt it to forms of non-monastic living in the world.

Here’s a piece talking about New Monasticism as part of the Fresh Expressions movement in the Anglican Church in the UK.

A couple questions came to mind as I read this:

1. You seem to be saying that the story of Israel was to bless the surrounding nations by modeling righteousness. And this should be our story. But when I read the OT, I see a nation with laws commanding them to have little interaction with neighbors, unless you are slaughtering them or forcing them into slavery. I’m not sure Israel’s neighbors ever thought, “Israel’s law demonstrates Yahweh is love. Wouldn’t it be great to have a god like him so we could be more righteous (like the Israelites)?”

2. You seem to see the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD as the end of an age. And of course we know from NT writings that first-century Jews like Jesus and Paul saw it this way as well. But couldn’t that have just been another bump in their rocky history—Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans? Maybe Iran or Russia will conquer them in the future and maybe they will at some point after that get their land back again, like in 1948.

Nice questions. Thank you.

1. That may be because in the Old Testament the kingdom narrative actually gets in the way of the original creational ideal. Because Israel is disobedient, it comes into long term conflict with its neighbours, including neighbouring empires, right up to and including occupation by Rome, so it becomes necessary for YHWH to step in, transform his new creation by giving them the Spirit, and as part of the process establish his own rule over the nations that for so long had threatened his people.

Arguably, then, it is only now that we have moved beyond the concrete expression of God’ sovereignty over the nations—that is, beyond Christendom—that we can begin properly to frame our mission inner creational / Abrahamic terms. The kingdom narrative, so associated with the political failure of Israel and the reputation of YHWH amongst the nation of the ancient world, has played itself out, and the church has become not an imperial-political but a global-cultural embodiment of creational values and the original blessing.

2. I see the combined destruction of Jerusalem + conversion of the nations as the end of the age. I take your point, but I think there is enough in the New Testament to suggest that this was seen as a final outworking of the old covenant to maintain that the victory of Christ over idolatrous Rome brought the whole biblical narrative to an end. One small example: following the fall of Babylon the ancient serpent, Satan, is imprisoned in the abyss for the thousand year period that would intervene before the final resurrection and judgment. The thousand years is an undeveloped storyline, a blank sheet of paper that we are writing as we go along.

I’m struggling with your answer to my first question. If God is omniscient, he knew his plan to bless the world and make himself known through the people of Israel would be a disaster. After their deliverance from Egypt up until the time of Jesus, it’s hard to see Israel actually living out it’s purpose. Why would God ordain a plan and allow it to go on for so long without any real success? Unless making himself known as a fierce warrior God was God’s plan, in which case there was a fair amount of success…

That’s a very different type of question—a theoretical, theological question—and I’m not sure scripture comes close to asking it, let alone answering it.

But the problem is there, however we tell the story. So Paul has to allow for the temporary, provisional function of the Law until the offspring should come regarding whom the promise to Abraham had been made (Gal. 3:19). In other words, he has to account for the hiatus between Abraham and Christ.

You also have characteristically apocalyptic statements to the effect that a certain “fulness” of sin needs to be attained, either by Israel or by the Gentiles, before we reach an eschatological tipping point.

It’s possible, of course, that the record is simply incomplete. Perhaps there were a lot more Queen of Sheba stories and Jonah stories than we know about. Perhaps the nations did have a high regard for Jewish Law. The New Testament bears witness to the God-fearers who were attracted to Judaism’s religious and moral values.

But I prefer to think of it as just a matter of historical fact. It’s how God’s people existed. Perhaps the point is that even the paradoxes have to be experienced by a historical people over a long period of time rather than resolved in a theological text book. That’s simply the nature of human existence.

Violence, however, was an unavoidable part of the covenant narrative. So either we dismiss the Old Testament altogether as a substandard religious option, which would also mean radically dehistoricising the New Testament, or we find historically meaningful ways of telling the whole story. But I agree, it’s a challenge.

Thanks for your thoughtful answers!

Systematic theology left me with more questions than answers so I found myself reading Thom Stark, Peter Enns, and Derek Flood, and wondering if the attempt to salvage truth in any of it was a fool’s errand.

I’m glad I found your website. I think the hermeneutic you use deals with the narrative better than any other I’ve come across, but I still catch myself wondering at times if the narrative deserves to be taken so seriously.

You and Hurtado have kept me hanging on, so thank you.