A Dialogue with Ben Witherington on The Message of Love (18)

This9781783595914 is a repost of a dialogue on Professor Ben Witherington’s blog about my book The Message of Love

336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK  or £9.99 ebook 

BEN: I completely agree with you that Jesus’ strong advocacy of being single for the sake of the kingdom is a new emphasis in Judaism. One of the side effects of it in that highly patriarchal world was that it allowed women like Mary Magdalene or Joanna to play roles other than that of wife or mother. In some ways it was more freeing for women than for men, which is perhaps why we hear about so many women involved in the early church, even to the point that Celsus was latter to carp and say ‘its a religion of women, children, and slaves’.

Honestly, I think the modern church by and large has done a horrible job of affirming singleness as a potential Christian calling. I was once in a church that had a Sunday School class called Pairs and Spares…. as if single persons were like spare tires. What a horrible theology that is. I also think that precisely because the church has not held out two options, fidelity in marriage as well as celibacy in singleness, and emphasized that both callings require a charisma as Paul puts it, a grace gift, to successfully pursue such a life, we have a lot of people feeling like they need to get married to be happy or to find community day by day…. which leads to all sorts of train wreck marriages and messy divorces. Some Christians just don’t have the gift of being married. When’s the last time you heard a sermon about that? How do we recover a healthy positive affirmation of singleness (like Jesus himself) for the church? How do we get the church to really be family to those single folks so they don’t feel so alone, and don’t run off and marry out of desperation?

PATRICK: I was speaking at a church retreat last weekend and this topic came up in one of the talks. We had a Q&A afterwards and I was asked something along the lines, ‘You are a married man with children teaching about the calling of singleness – it is a case of do as I say not as I do?’

That’s a fair question. There’s a lot of heartbreak among single believers who would like to be married (I don’t have research to hand but my impression is that there’s also a collapse of celibacy as a viable option among Christian young people). I think I replied that it’s a broader challenge of recovering theologies of marriage and singleness in the church and how they both confront Western cultural assumptions. I say ‘both’ because often it’s assumed marriage is the default goal and singleness becomes a ‘problem’ to be managed. Yet the irony is that this is a complete reversal with early Church history where celibacy was the higher calling. It just shows how deeply shaped we are by a culture which now sees any teaching advocating celibacy as bizarre and harmful. So it will take sustained and intentional action within a church community to open up these issues. Of hearing not just married men like me speak, but singles sharing their calling and experience. How often do we hear stories celebrating singleness and being freed to serve Jesus in ways a married person could not (1 Cor 7)?

Certainly I’ve been struck by how every time I speak about this issue people will come up to me afterwards to say thank you for talking about it. And, at a macro level, fostering a vision of the church as an eschatological community living in the ‘now and the not yet’ of the kingdom helps to put marriage and singleness in bigger perspective.

BEN: On p. 156 you stress how the church’s legitimizing of singleness symbolized the need for the church to grow by conversions. Rodney Stark makes the opposite sociological case. He says the church, because of his high life ethic and high valuation of children, basically grew by baby making and extended family growth, AND by avoiding abortions, and rescuing abandoned children , not to mention freeing slaves. None of this necessarily involved evangelism and conversions. So….. is there a balance between these two means of growth in the early church?

PATRICK: Fascinating. Stark’s case makes perfect sense. In a way this was not so much a ‘strategy’ as a by-product of Christian ethics that were revolutionary in the ancient world. So I’m sure it is a case of ‘both and’.

I quote Stanley Hauerwas here that the really radical edge of the church’s teaching about singleness was not the giving up of sex but the giving up of heirs. To make such a move is extraordinary. It speaks of a confidence that one’s identity and future do not rest on family and ‘this life’, but on eschatological life within the kingdom community of the church. That was profoundly counter-cultural then and still is today.

A mini-essay on why The Good Place didn’t end in a good place

SPOILERS AHEAD

This post will make sense only for viewers of Michael Schur’s The Good Place. If you haven’t seen it and may want to one day, then best to quit now because there are SPOILERS all over the place and I’m assuming a working knowledge of the show – which I’ve loved by the way.

The Good PlaceThe four unlikely friends, Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Tahini (Jameela Jamil), Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and Jason (Manny Jacinto), have spent 4 seasons of a comedy show navigating some very surprising twists and turns of the afterlife accompanied by their reformed demon friend Michael (Ted Danson) and all-knowing Janet (D’Arcy Carden).

Who knew that the route to heaven was a complicated points race for good behaviour on earth? Who knew that demons, getting bored of conventional torture in the ‘bad place’, had devised ways of making deliberately incompatible groups of humans drive each other mad in a cheery paradise-hell masquerading as the real Good Place? Who knew that the afterlife was ruled by an impatient judge with little empathy for humans who likes nothing more than binge-watching the Leftovers? Who knew that due to a fault in the system, no human has qualified for heaven in hundreds of years?

Many Christians might find such a premise trivial, not to say heretical. I can understand if it’s not your cup of tea. But underneath the colourful froth and humour, Schur cleverly explores some profound moral and philosophical questions. He combines wit, warmth, fun, and surreal silliness with real emotional and intellectual depth. It’s not often a hit comedy show, with episodes of 25 minutes, includes discussion of Aristotle, Kant and Schopenhauer et al. Can someone be redeemed by learning to be morally good? Where is meaning ultimately to be found? When is judgment merited? On what basis is anyone worthy of heaven?

Over the 4 seasons each of the characters are, in their own way, transformed for the better to live for the good of others: Eleanor the selfish bimbo, Chidi the insufferable ethicist, Tahini the superficial socialite, and Jason the amiable wastrel from the backend of Jacksonville. So much so that finally, and to their surprise, they earn their way to the real Good Place as a reward for fixing the system and giving all humans a fighting chance of getting there.

Good Place Season 4Maybe the show should have finished as they got in a balloon and ascended toward heaven. It would have been a fond farewell to deeply human and loveable characters. But the final double length episode goes a step further to ask ‘What might life in heaven be like?’ And the answers it came up with left me feeling rather depressed.

It turns out that the Good Place isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

After 50 episodes, our heroes’ arrival in the Good Place is an anti-climax. It felt, and looked, empty; reminiscent of the artificially manicured campus of an anonymous multinational. Very quickly we get a sense of imperfection. The hyper-nice managers of heaven pass the buck of running heaven on to Michael and clear off as quickly as they can. Why they do so soon becomes clear – perfection is boring. The Good Place, it turns out, is effectively life on earth with all obstacles to pleasure, happiness and fulfilment removed. However, endless satiation, we learn, dulls the mind. Phoebe from Friends is there as Hypatia, a Greek philosopher-mathematician who can hardly remember her name, let alone any algebra. Her mind is turning to mush. The citizens of heaven are a subdued lot – there is nothing to look forward to, nothing to challenge, nothing to fight for as they sleepwalk through eternity.

Faced with such an appalling future, our friends persuade Michael to give people in the Good Place an opt-out clause – non-existence. All they have to do is, when ready, to walk through a door and dissolve into a great nothingness. This introduction of finitude into heaven, paradoxically brings everyone alive again. Life is worth living once more – the party begins and the energy rises. Joy, it seems, can only exist in opposition to loss. Love only gains depth and poignancy in the face of impending separation. Real life only flourishes when it is temporary.

A Future Hope of Non-Being

And so, one by one, our friends make their own journeys towards that pretty door of woven branches in a forest glade. They are in no rush – there is infinite enjoyment in the Good Place after all. There is a sense of perfection or fulfilment to be reached, but once this transcendent moment arrives, it is time to die to the self – literally.

Good Place doorJason cannot ever top a flawless game of Madden with his father. Chidi reaches complete peace with himself, his family and Eleanor. Tahini perfects herself by acquiring endless new skills (I was reminded of Bill Murray in Groundhog day here) and by finding reconciliation with her sister and her parents. Eleanor, the real heroine of The Good Place, finds ultimate fulfilment in helping Michael realize his dream of becoming human and experiencing life (and eventually death) as a mortal.

The mood for each parting is a strange mix of muted grief and cheerful thankfulness for love and relationship that has now reached its end. Jason says goodbye to his beloved Janet. Tahini’s about to go but finds a reason to delay in a new career as an architect creating other worlds – but we can only assume this too will eventually pall and she will return one day, alone, to the door.

The centrepiece of the episode is Chidi regretfully leaving his soulmate Eleanor, despite her desperate attempts to inspire him to stay with her by revisiting together all the places he loves most on earth. But once she sees he has experienced ‘the’ moment of complete fulfilment and ‘has’ to walk through the door, she knows it would be ‘selfish’ to make him stay. It’s like both of them have no choice – they can only submit to the inevitable dissolving of their relationship – and literally of themselves.

Sugar Coated Suicide

Eschatologically speaking The Good Place presents future hope as non-being. Death, ultimately, is the goal. Jason, Chidi and Eleanor all voluntarily end their own lives, their selves fragmenting into the impersonal universe.

In other words, these were at once cheerful, sad, yet noble, suicides (‘an act of taking one’s own life intentionally and voluntarily’).  They may be a very long way from a brutal and upsetting suicide In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri that I wrote about some time ago, but they shared its portrayal of self-inflicted death as poignant and virtuous.

In the finale, in one of the only references to a specific religion in the show, Chidi explains Buddhist philosophy to Eleanor; life is like an ocean wave, it takes form for an instant, before dissolving on the beach and washing back into the ocean. The two lovers are comforted by that image as a prelude to Chidi’s dissolving. He will not be ‘gone’ altogether, his self will be absorbed into the great oneness of the universe.

Everyone I’ve talked to about the finale has shared a sense of unease, loss, ‘being cheated’ or feeling depressed. And for good reason. Let’s be blunt, the message is ‘death wins’. After all the laughs, fun, learning and growth in love among the main characters, all those relationships are eradicated. Why The Good Place was such a great show was the sheer likability of its characters. Each discovers that life at its best is self-giving love for others, but the finale celebrates the cessation of all relationship. The ‘second death’ of Jason, Chidi and Eleanor (to be followed by Tahini and Michael) not only ends the show, it negates what the show has been about.

Which eschatology?

All this made me think afresh about what Christians hope for. A number of contrasts with The Good Place come to mind.

The end of love or unending love?

First, The Good Place’s eschatology is one where individualism trumps love. Chidi has to follow his inner sense of completion all the way to the ‘death door’ in the forest. Obedience to the authentic self comes at the expense of his love with Eleanor.

In the Bible, the goal of God’s redemption is love. The message of 1 Corinthians 13 is that love in the present is just a foretaste of ‘love unleashed’ in the future. The Christian hope is of a ‘good place’ of creative, dynamic and joyful other-centered relationships, where love flourishes to an unimaginable extent as citizens of heaven are perfected to love as God loves. Love, not non-being, is the whole goal.

Impersonal universe or personal creator?

Second, I mentioned earlier the weird emptiness of The Good Place. It took me a while to pin this down and then I realised that it was because when the friends arrive there is no-one to meet them. A few moments later Michael finds himself in charge. The Good Place may be filled with people, but they remain on their own, each pursuing their own version of happiness. And when that pursuit palls, they can always dissolve themselves into an impersonal oneness.

In contrast, Christian eschatology is personal and relational through and through – God’s people together enjoying the presence of God because of his relentless commitment to restore and redeem his good creation.

Probably the most powerful image of this is in Revelation 21. The descent of the holy city, the new Jerusalem, marks the union of heaven and earth and of God and his people.

“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. (Rev 21:3)

Christian hope is not happiness, nor heaven, nor overcoming death, nor personal fulfilment: ultimately it is being in the presence of the triune God who is the source of all life and love. Believers look forward, not to an empty paradise, but a new creation in which God will be ‘all in all’ (1 Cor 15:28).

Relentless eternity or eternally creative life?

Third, using a literalist and individualist perspective The Good Place concluded that heaven will become boring, even oppressive, as the self comes to the ‘end of itself’.

This isn’t a new question; Christians have long speculated about what life in the new creation will be like. Rather than an endless praise service, biblical imagery suggests a dynamic, productive and creative existence full of joy and purpose. From a mortal point of view this is literally unimaginable. No human language can describe an unexperienced future. But the picture is of life in the Spirit lived outwardly to the praise of God and the good of others. It is in giving that we receive life and that is a source of inexhaustible fulfilment.

Death or Life?

The Good Place pictured death as a friend to be actively embraced, a form of release from the burden of even what the very best of life has to offer. Not without reason, there has been a lot of online comment about the finale being a trigger for those wrestling with suicidal thoughts.

In utter contrast, Christian theology sees death as an alien destructive power, an enemy to be overcome, a malign force that ruins God’s good creation and devastates relationships. It is such powerful an opponent that the climax of the whole Bible story revolves around the ‘death of death’ in the victory of God in Jesus Christ. It is the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, God’s Son, through which death has lost its power:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 15:54-56)

Christians affirm life, not a culture of death – however cheerfully and colourfully packaged.

Detoxing from the news this Brexit Day

On this ‘historic’ ‘B-Day’ – a post about the news.

I haven’t listened to RTE news (or any Irish news station) for a long time – I used to consume them voraciously. Neither do I watch RTE. Some years ago we got rid of the TV, so I don’t watch the news there or watch online (I confess that I’m rather delighted not to pay the licence fee. Long may it last before threatened action by the Govt to introduce a ‘household charge’ for RTE regardless of whether you ever watch it or not as an act of enforced patriotism to support ‘the national broadcaster’. There’s something Stalinesque about that argument Richard Bruton).

The first time I realised that an election had suddenly been called in Ireland (for 8 February rather than an expected date in May) was walking home one evening from work and seeing two guys up a ladder putting up election posters.

I joined Facebook for a day about 10 years ago, regretted it instantly and deleted my account (if such a thing is really possible).

I’ve looked at Twitter now and then. I can see the appeal; there are a lot of witty, smart people posting witty, smart things but it’s not for me. First of all, I’m not witty and smart. Second of all, is the relentless assault on the mind of information, ideas, campaigns, political opinions, controversies, trivia, moral outrage etc. It makes me feel like I do when I listen to or read a lot of news – which brings me to the main point of this post which is …

Consuming too much news* is toxic for the soul

(* I’m defining ‘news’ here broadly in terms of information about the world that we watch or listen to via TV or online. It includes social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram)

This is a personal opinion (and experience). I can’t say I have a high-minded and carefully researched philosophy to unpack for you. If you want to get theological, I accept that even the concept of the soul is debateable, but let’s leave that aside for another day.

Neither can I say I am consistent. I’m well aware of the irony of arguing this view by linking below to resources that are from newspapers and magazines. I’ve a particular morbid fascination for the unravelling of contemporary American politics that I have to resist getting lost in. I listen to radio news and read online newspapers, but I’m trying to wean myself off them bit by bit. I’m also aware that I am of a particular vintage which may colour my views of this new-fangled interweb thingy. But perhaps, just perhaps, experience counts for something.

Here are some voices I’ve come across that have resonated with my own experience in some way.

FIRST is the well-known research by Jean Twenge arguing that smartphones are causing a devastating mental health crisis. If you have not read this, you should. Related to this, today my Firefox browser tells me that adults spend about 4 hours on their smartphones per day and gives tips on how to cut down.p068myhz

SECOND is the witty and smart novelist and commentator Sarah Dunant talking about a growing explosive anger building within her for years from consuming news of one political disaster to another.If you have 10 minutes do listen, she is quite brilliant. Her response was to try a complete news detox. She went cold turkey,

“… turning your back on the whole seething noisy excruciating mess … cut the adrenaline feed .. I stopped listening to news bulletins, stopped accessing news websites, buying or reading any newspaper, participating in any social media. Nothing. How did it feel? Well some strange things happened. The passage of time, for instance, altered. It got slower. Or maybe that was just putting together all those little gaps where my fingers used to be on the keyboard or staring at the screen. In public, I noticed people more. I actually spent time looking at them. Almost willing them to look up from their phones, and if they did, I smiled … I am up to seventeen returned smiles. I have also taken to breathing, consciously that is …. To tone down the volume of thoughts, to try to be in the moment.”

She knows such a radical detox can’t last. But her experience of making human connection in is telling. We are embodied people. Love and relationship are innately physical, not virtual.

51n1jdr470l._sx314_bo1204203200_THIRD, is the Swiss writer Rolf Dobelli who has written Stop Reading the News: A Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer and Wiser Life.

He can find out the important stuff that is going on without daily consumption of news bombarding him from every angle. He gave an interview in the Irish Times (yes, I know) earlier this month.  Consuming news neither helps us to understand what is going on nor does it help us make better decisions in our personal lives or work.

News consumption, he argues, breeds superficiality and short attention spans. Online ‘noise’ militates against sustained engagement with ideas. It is also overwhelmingly negative and fosters chronic stress, anxiety and has physical effects of lowering a person’s immune system.

Online news and social media works on clickbait. We not only waste time but get sucked into an ephemeral world where nothing is solid. News has become little more than a form of entertainment, desperately trying to catch the consumer’s fleeting attention.

And so the noise, and extreme opinion, gets louder and louder.

News, the Body, the Mind and Eschatology

So in 2020 I’m trying to turn the volume down and perhaps you might give it a go as well.

Perhaps this upcoming Lent, what about trying a total detox from the news and social media and see what happens?

Since we are embodied pepple, what about getting up from your chair, or lifting your eyes from the screen, and getting outside for walks in places of beauty? Take up Park Running on a Saturday morning – its’ a great detoxifer. If possible, talk to people rather than emailing or texting them. Spend the ‘extra’ time away from the screen in connecting to people ‘in the flesh’. Cook food and invite friends around. (Feel welcome to add other suggestions for an ‘embodied life’ in the comments if you wish).

9781540961136Finally, since this is a theological blog, there is a question here related to the mind and what we put in it.

Recently, Craig Keener has written a major book on the neglected topic of the Christian Mind – The Mind of the Spirit: Paul’s Approach to Transformed Thinking (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016).

At the heart of the renewing of the mind (Romans 12:1-2) is an eschatological dynamic. It is from the perspective of God’s future that a renewed mind is enabled to discern right choices in the present

1 Corinthians 2:15-16 and the mind of Christ versus human judgments

15 The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, 16 for,

“Who has known the mind of the Lord
    so as to instruct him?”

But we have the mind of Christ.

Colossians 3:1-2 and minds set on things above rather than things on earth cf Phil 3:19-20).

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

Philippiaans 4:8 needs to be heard and acted upon in these days of information overload

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.

The ‘tryanny of the urgent’ within the never-ending cycle of news of human behaviour is relentlessly non-eschatological. It is also relentlessly anthropocentric. Both emphases are inimical to Christian faith in the triune God.

If Christians fill their minds with such content it is not hard to see what the results will be:

– a lack of prayer

– anxiety

– fear

– a loss of transcendence;

– obsession over human agency in the world

– a loss of hope

– anger (as with Sarah Dunant)

– an over-reliance on politics to fix the world

– a shrivelled sense of worship.

Perhaps it’s time to detox and use the body in better ways and fill the mind with better things.

Unbridled captialism and the erosion of civil society

From The Atlantic

An article analysing the destructive effects of long hours combined with unpredictable schedules now commonplace among corportations intent on maximising profit by utilising their workforce most efficiently.

“Why You Never See Your Friends Anymore: Our unpredictable and overburdened schedules are taking a dire toll on American society”

This concluding paragraph

It’s a cliché among political philosophers that if you want to create the conditions for tyranny, you sever the bonds of intimate relationships and local community. “Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals,” Hannah Arendt famously wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism. She focused on the role of terror in breaking down social and family ties in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin. But we don’t need a secret police to turn us into atomized, isolated souls. All it takes is for us to stand by while unbridled capitalism rips apart the temporal preserves that used to let us cultivate the seeds of civil society and nurture the sadly fragile shoots of affection, affinity, and solidarity.

How kick back against this on a societal scale for the common good?

And if community is crucial within Christian faith, how does that community flourish and be sustained if significant numbers of people are unable to participate on a weekly basis due to long hours and unpredictable work schedules?

The Message of Love (2)

This is the first of two posts about The Message of Love, which is published today

What is this book?

While many questions begin to emerge when the topic of God and love comes up, this book was not written as a theological textbook systematically addressing theological issues.

The genre of the BST Themes series is each book being a set of expositions of Bible texts relevant to the theme – in this case love. It is out of those expositions that a broader theology of love emerges, but this was not the primary goal.

I like this way of doing things because it is the way the Bible actually works. The challenge in writing was to let each text speak for itself and see where that led.

So each chapter is a stand-alone discussion, structured something like a sermon in that exegesis of the text leads on to contemporary application. I say ‘something like’ in that the BST series shows the academic ‘workings’ behind that process – something that should lie well in the background of a sermon if it isn’t to become indigestible!

So the book requires work from the reader. It will best be read with an open Bible alongside the relevant chapter.

The structure is a biblical theology of love via 17 chapters unpacking and applying key ‘love texts’ within the Bible. They are organised into 4 parts:

Introduction

PART 1: Love in the Old Testament (5 chapters)

PART 2: The Love of God Revealed in the Mission and Death of Jesus Christ (4 chapters)

PART 3: Love in the life and teaching of Jesus (4 chapters)

PART 4: The Church as a Community of Love (4 chapters)

Conclusion

Each chapter makes its own distinct contribution to The Message of Love and can be read in its own right.

Why this book?

It might sound over-spiritual to say but I think that God put this topic on my heart some years ago and it wouldn’t go away. In reading, teaching and preaching the Bible it became clearer and clearer to me that not only is love a core (or perhaps the core) theme of the Bible, but it gets to the great question of who God is and what biblical faith in God is ultimately all about.

These are big and important questions. I also remember being challenged by listening to theologian Miroslav Volf speak in Ireland some years ago and encouraging Christian authors to write about things that matter – big issues that connect to people’s lives and the heart of God.

Love fits that bill for sure. There are very few people not interested in love. Our culture is ‘in love’ with love – indeed one philosopher says that love has become the religion of the West, it is worshipped and idolised while faith in other belief systems has crumbled. ‘God is love’ has become ‘Love is God’.

This means at least three things.

One is that the church needs to be thinking clearly about love. What is Christian love? What does it look like and how and where does it differ from and conflict with contemporary Western individualised and romanticised notions of love? Where has the church conformed to the culture and needs reform and renewal? This is a particularly urgent question in a consumer society that relentlessly forms people towards self-love. Where does love call the church to confront evil and sin, especially on behalf of those who have no voice to defend themselves? What does it mean to love our enemies?

A second is that, fairly or not, in post-Christendom it is Christianity and the church which are seen by many as opposed to love. The church is exclusive and judgemental, the God Christians worship is malevolent and bullying. Much of this criticism is grossly unfair but sadly far from all of it. It has always been true that the church, if it is to be authentic, needs to live up to its calling to be a community of love, but today that calling has a sharper missional edge. There is no ‘Christendom cushion’ giving the church a free pass because of its privileged place in society.

Third, related to the last point, if God is love; if love is the goal of the law and the first fruit of the Spirit; if love is to define everything a Christian does (‘do everything in love’ 1 Cor 16:14); if faith working itself out in love is ‘the only thing that counts’ (Gal 5:6); if the heart of the Christian life is remaining in God’s love by loving one another (John); if a Christian marriage is to be characterised by counter-cultural love (Ephesians 5); if discipleship means above all loving Jesus wholeheartedly – then there is no more important challenge for mission and authenticity than putting love where it belongs at the centre of all Christian teaching, preaching and living.

Well that gives a sense of what and why. The next post will give a flavour of some of the chapters and talk about some of the theological, pastoral and missiological implications of The Message of Love.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Consumer culture, Identity, the Church and the Rhetoric of Delight (8)

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 delight?

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 through whom

‘… 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 may be!

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).

Instruct. Delight. 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 areas:

  1. Study of the Scriptures ‘to discover the wisdom to teach others how better to love God and neighbour.’ (135)
  2. Know how to communicate eloquently.
  3. 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 others.

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)

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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.

Consumer Culture, Identity, the Church and the Rhetorics of Delight (7)

Chapter 6 The Church as a Rhetorical Community

I am pretty sure that you haven’t heard of your local church being described as a Rhetorical Community. Neither have I. So what does Mark Clavier mean?

To get to that, first some context. He argues, that despite all sorts of efforts by churches to be more culturally relevant over the last generation or two, the demographics (he uses stats from the USA) continue to show alarming decline, with millennials opting out in large numbers.

Such churches, Clavier says, have adopted the strategy of the market. They have ‘retooled’ themselves to meet the spiritual needs of their customer base. How’s this for a criticism?

Some strands of Evangelicalism, for example, have tried to adopt and reorient the practices of consumerism towards the gospel – in effect, repackaging the substance of the faith in forms developed by consumer culture. They present worship in more entertaining formats, draw from popular tastes in music to compose praise songs, and use the resources of marketing to develop brand loyalty. In a sense, these churches have created an alternative consumer culture where the presence of Jesus is pervasive; indeed Jesus himself becomes a kind of logo that assures shoppers that their goods and services are wholesome and permissible: a brand Jesus. (105)

Ouch.

He makes a telling point that the impact of consumerism reaches deep down to what issues preoccupy the Church.

Questions about identity, personal freedom, psychological wholeness, and personal spirituality have tended to eclipse traditional concerns about doctrine and salvation. (106)

He’s right – we need only to look at how issues of sexual identity and personal authenticity are tearing churches apart for an example. Themes like sin, the cost of discipleship and judgement don’t tend to sell too well (and I’m not saying that is where the gospel begins, but without them the gospel is incomprehensible).

Clavier brings in Stanley Hauerwas’ call for the church to a colony of Resident Aliens who transform the world, not be conforming to it, but by being a faithful alternative to it –  a community formed by the story of Scripture issuing in radically distinct ethics and way of living.

Clavier agrees with Hauerwas call to be Resident Aliens and that this is not a sectarian withdrawal from the world since there is nowhere to withdraw to. But he thinks Hauerwas does not go far enough. It isn’t that the church can’t withdraw because it is already surrounded, it can’t withdraw because it is already overrun by the rhetoric of consumerism.

And this brings us to the church as a rhetorical community.

For the church to reclaim its mission, therefore, it must first strive to be an intentional community of rhetoric that eloquently calls people to participate in its story of redemptive reality be appealing to their imaginations and their hearts. (107)

After discussion of Augustine, Charles Taylor, Oliver O’Donovan and JKA Smith, this is where Clavier is headed in terms of the mission of the church in a consumer dominated culture.

The church is called to be a formative community, that embodies an alternative to the destructive delights offered by consumerism.

The mission of the church, therefore, is fundamentally a mission of delight: to strive to be a formative community of rhetoric that can persuade the dispose Christians to pursue the love of God.  …. Broadly speaking, this is accomplished by beginning to think about how to proclaim Scripture, worship God, and love one another in ways that either delight or challenge anything that seeks to mask God’s delight. (121)

The church does this through communicating eloquently its own story, practices, habits and symbols with imagination and creativity in a way that resonates with people’s hearts. So Clavier wants to find a central place for art, music, architecture, story-telling, forms of liturgical worship, ritual and the ceremonial as ways to help people experience delight.

The goal is to develop habits that root believers in God, bind them together in community and develop a love for beauty. Children are to be inducted into the stories and habits of the church, engaging them imaginatively with the Bible and worship of the church. When it comes to children’s and youth work

Churches should long ago have given up on trying to out-entertain consumerism. (122)

It is only from such delight in God that Christians will make virtuous, moral choices that reflect God’s love. This is true freedom.

I really liked his description of the ‘outcomes’ (my word) of Augustine’s ‘earthly city’ (consumerism) and the ‘heavenly city’ (the city of God):

The earthly city’s self-love produces a reality manifested by a desire for glory that ends in violence, war, empire and perpetual restlessness. On the other hand, the heavenly city’s love of God produces a reality characterized by a humility that engenders communion, justice, happiness and peace. (119)

Is this all rather idealistic? How can it be enacted in day to day practice? These are some of the questions addressed in the final chapter.