The final chapter of Mark Clavier’s book is called ‘God’s Orators’.
In it he engages particularly with Augustine’s On Christian Teaching, written at the
turn of history as the Roman empire faded and the Dark Ages beckoned. It would,
centuries later Clavier, argues, as a work of rhetoric on Christian teaching
and preaching, have an enduring legacy in the rebuilding a Christian world.
Fast forward to the early 21st century and Clavier sees us as facing another historical turning point. He references the pessimistic end of Alistair McIntyre’s After Virtue (1981) and his bleak prognosis for Western moral discourse (as with the fall of Rome, the barbarians are now in power; the resources for forming people of virtue have dissipated).
And so to Rod Dreher’s 2017 Benedict Option – in the face of culture wars that have been lost, churches should withdraw from those battles to form new communities where Christian virtues can be preserved. As with Benedict’s monasteries, Christians can best survive and flourish through strategic withdrawal to teach and propagate the faith within a hostile world.
Clavier (rightly) isn’t convinced by Dreher’s alarmism and
lack of confidence. He refers to Hauerwas’s criticism of Dreher, that his
withdrawal strategy is an illusion – there is no-where to withdraw to.
But Clavier does agree that we are at a significant juncture
in the history of the church (in the West at least).
Unless the church can reclaim its identity from consumerism, it will become little more than an organization for those who make Christianity a lifestyle choice … For the church to prosper again it shouldn’t engage in a ‘strategic withdrawal’ but rediscover how to proclaim the gospel in fast changing circumstances. In other words, rather than withdraw into monastic seclusion, expending their energies trying to become pure communities (when has that ever turned out well?), churches should seek to become rhetorical communities that can contest the destructive rhetoric of our world. (128)
A nice line – if I suspect a controversial one for many –
the church does not need another Benedict, ‘it needs another Augustine.’ (129)
So what does it look
like for churches to become these alternative rhetorical communities of
Clavier answers this question in dialogue with Augustine’s On Christian Teaching and The City of God.
In CT, Augustine unpacks the task and resources for
Christian orators. Christian teachers are not the source of eloquence and
wisdom – that belongs to God. Their vocation is to be formed into people
‘… God may teach, delight and persuade the faithful to love him and their neighbours. In that sense, they’re sacramental: they and their words are the outward, sensible signs of God’s inward, invisible truth and delight.’ (129)
This is where Augustine is powerfully relevant to the church
in any age. What is the overall goal of all Christian teaching and preaching?
Of study of the Scriptures? His answer is unequivocal – love.
Anyone who thinks he has understood the divine Scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up the double love of God and neighbour, has not yet succeeded in understanding them. (CT 1.36.40, quoted in Clavier 130).
Amen to that. This is true wisdom – building up the
community of the church in the love of God. Love, not theological or scriptural
knowledge is the goal.
But such teaching is to be done persuasively – drawing
listeners in to the delights of God’s wisdom. Teaching is not to be dull and
boring! Such speech makes Scripture inaccessible to all bar a (nerdish?)
minority interested in theology regardless of how heart-numbing the teaching
There are some wonderful (and challenging) principles of
communication here. Good Christian teaching and preaching will move and delight
the hearers. Such eloquence fosters understanding, it elicits a response of the
heart as well as the mind. Augustine again,
A hearer must be delighted so he can be gripped and made to listen, and moved so he can be impelled to action. (CT 4.12.27, Clavier, 133).
Persuade. These are the goals of Christian oratory.
But ‘behind’ this oratory lies the character and virtue (we
might say integrity) of the teacher. Augustine has searching words for any
preachers and teachers today in how before speech comes prayer:
He should be in no doubt that any ability he has, and however much he has, derives more from his devotion to prayer than his dedication to oratory; and so by praying for himself and for those he is about to address he must become a man of prayer before becoming a man of words. (134)
And so Augustine’s Christian orator must excel in three
- Study of the Scriptures ‘to discover the wisdom
to teach others how better to love God and neighbour.’ (135)
- Know how to communicate eloquently.
- Be a person of prayer – only in prayer will the
teacher be filled with God’s delight and the humility and love to build up
This is an exalted view of the ministry of Christian
teaching. (Clavier notes that nowhere does Augustine limit it to the vocation
of the priesthood).
So what does it look
like for 21st ministry today?
Clavier sets out some boundaries:
It is not just a matter of advanced biblical studies –
knowledge of the Bible, as if knowledge is enough. Rather
‘… it is primarily a matter of perceiving reality that’s rooted in Scripture and builds people up in the love of God and neighbour. (138)
Nor is it helpful to define Christian teaching too narrowly
and individualistically. Yes ‘full-time’ ministry roles are important, but all
believers are called to the task of teaching, delighting and persuading each
other to pursue the love of God and neighbour.
Yes, Clavier says, the ministry of teaching is crucial, but
‘Teaching, however, must be something that characterizes every aspect of a church’s life. Formation isn’t just (or even primarily) information but rather the rooting of hearts, minds, and bodies in the imaginary, habits, and practices of the church. When people worship they are learning; when they pray, they are learning; when they serve others, they are learning … these activities aren’t extraneous to their beliefs but are forming them to be the kind of people who can love God and neighbour in a world that seeks to persuade them to love themselves.’ (139)
Such a church is not to be sectarian (my word not Clavier’s)
– he calls for stewardship of creation and living for the benefit of others.
This is no Benedict Option, but a call to proclaim the gospel
and contest ‘the destructive rhetoric of this world’ (141) – the false and
unsustainable gospel of consumerism that is going one day to come crashing down.
The mission of the church is to demonstrate ‘to the world an alternative manner of living’ that people
‘experience in the very life of that church a wisdom and delight that’s unlike anything they’ve found elsewhere.’ (142).
Clavier acknowledges that some readers may be disappointed
that he is not offering a roadmap of how to delight in God rather than
destructive illusions of consumption, but to offer a ‘how to’ is to miss the
point that delight and love can’t be prescribed.
St Paul gets the final word – his words sum up the purpose
of mission and ministry
8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)
As I said in the first post, there are significant areas of overlap with what Clavier is arguing and themes that emerged in my The Message of Love. Some of these include:
- Love as the purpose of all ministry and mission
- Discipleship as much more than knowledge, but a formation of the whole person – head, heart and hands.
- The relevance of Augustine on love in dialogue with contemporary consumerism as that which seeks to capture our hearts (and this is not to say there are not serious issues with Augustine’s dualism when it comes to love, sex and the body in particular)
- The mission of the church to be the church – in other words its primary mission is to be an authentic community of worship and love.
- A strong theology of the world: the church’s mission not to be conformed to that world but to embody a different story to that of the world. Clavier sounds pretty Anabaptist for an Anglican.
- The need for humility if we are to love well.
- The Christian life as communal – lived in relationship with others.
- And the sheer good news of God – who is to be loved and delighted in
All this makes me like his book! It is also short and readable. Sure there are points you might want talked about more (particuarly the content of the gospel) but in a consumeristic, post-Christendom world he rightly is calling for the church not to be in negative, fearful, defence mode but rediscovering its calling to bear witness to the good news of God.