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.

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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.

Consumer Culture, Identity, the Church and the Rhetorics of Delight (6)

Chapter 5 The Divided wills of Christian consumers

Did you watch Game of Thrones? Should you have watched GoT? Clavier starts this chapter referring to this sort of Christian debate about how to stay pure in dark world. What constitutes being ‘in the world but not of it’?

Such debates are as old as Christianity itself. How should the Christians in Corinth be ‘in’ the city but not of ‘it’ when it came to eating meat sacrificed to idols or going to pagan temples (1 Cor 8)?

Clavier’s bigger point here is that the context of such debates has radically changed in an internet age of global marketing. Whatever we like to think, it is now virtually impossible to somehow ‘stand apart’ from the world.

Consumer culture has already stormed the ramparts, leaving even Christian sectarians nowhere to hide … in a broadband world old strategies for sustaining a Christian identity no longer work (if they ever did) … unless we decide to join a Christian community that is disconnected from both technology and society, our struggle to resist the allure of consumer culture is relentless and mostly private. (85-86)

This all means that churches are, in effect, ‘weak’ cultures that have long lost the ability to enforce the beliefs and behaviours of their members. They are largely powerless to shape an alternative identity in the face of an all-embracing consumer narrative that offers a life of freedom, delight and self-fulfilment.

The reason for this, argues Clavier is that churches typically target issues of right belief, whereas consumerism targets the heart – our desires and loves and delights. The result is that the church becomes just one more leisure activity for the few. Fewer people feel any desire or need to belong, after all

‘… church communities provide little that can’t be found elsewhere in consumer culture.’ (87)

Clavier has a useful discussion of Christian world views here, and particularly the Bible as story. Indeed, I have just come out of a first year theology class teaching on the Bible as a grand, dramatic narrative in which the story of our individual lives find their significance and meaning.

Clavier references Richard Middleton, Michael Goheen and others. The argument is that a key to resisting the world (and the pull of consumer culture) is to know our place in the story. Knowledge of this worldview and our place in it will enable us to live to a different story.

I have a lot of sympathy for this – and so does Clavier. But he adds that there are two fatal problems. One is that it oversimplifies how we see the world. But a second reason is that it fails to take account of how we make sense of ourselves and the world around us. Christianity is not a worldview we learn intellectually and then we live by that story. This reduces it down too much to ‘correct thinking’ and understanding of key concepts. Think of it this way – a world view can inform and educate; it helps us to see reality and how it works. But it does not have the power to transform thinking and behaviour because it leaves our desires and loves untouched.

Consumerism is much more like a deep allegiance that touches emotions and woos our hearts, turning us into willing consumers experiencing its joys and (temporary) fulfilments.

Augustine recognized that the Christian faith is confronted by persuasive appeals to the emotions more than intellectual appeals to the mind. To base the Christian response on choice is to show up too late to the battle. By then the market has already disposed people to make the choices it prefers and to pursue a vision of happiness that it has prepared them to desire (95).

Such is the power of consumer delight that few churches or Christians teach or reflect about consumerism – it is omnipresent and taken as a natural given of our way of life. Few consider that there is anything strange or troubling about the way we see ourselves in the world. And rare is serious reflection on radical changes in lifestyle needed in light of the present (not future) ecological catastrophe.

 ‘… few imagine that conversion to Christianity might involve a conversion away from anything other than a vague notion of non-belief (i.e. atheism, agnosticism, or another religion). (97)

And even if there were, argues Clavier, it is unlikely that study of Scripture, the Creeds and worldviews will challenge the powerful rhetoric we are formed by every day. It may make us aware that we are in bondage, we may have a sense that there is an alternative,

Yet, translating this knowledge into a manner of living is more difficult, not least because the obligations of being a Christian are less persuasive than the apparent freedom and fun offered by the market. Why would anyone embrace obligations if their notion of happiness is based on the total freedom to be whomever they want to be? (98)

So believers are caught between two rival rhetorics of delight.

If this all sounds too negative, Clavier concludes the chapter by setting up Part 3 of the book – ‘The Mission and Ministry of God’s Rhetoric’. Christians are not left on their own – they have the Holy Spirit.

The call for churches, he argues, is to be communities of delight: people who are transformed by the story of Scripture, whose identity and hearts are orientated towards God, whose joy is beyond the reach of the market

… love expressed through prayer can’t be monetized: the market has no means for making grace a commodity. This rhetorical context occurs within the theatre of the heart rather than the mind and the laurels of victory go to the rhetoric that lays greater claim on the affections. (100)

It will be interesting how Clavier unpacks this alternative rhetoric of delight that can subvert and challenge consumerism at its ‘own game’ of winning our hearts …

Consumer Culture, Identity, the Church and the Rhetorics of Delight (5)

Chapter 4 of Mark Clavier’s book is on Augustine’s Rhetoric of Delight

Clavier explores Augustine’s eloquent God – by that he means it is God’s power alone which has the power to transform and liberate. We need liberation because knowledge of the good is not enough – there is an (humanly) unbridgeable gap between what we know we should do and what we do.

That gap is caused by the fact that we are not merely rational beings – which is why, Clavier says, Paul in Romans 7 talks about failure to do the good in terms of desire.

Clavier takes Romans 7 to be autobiographical – Paul talking of his struggle with sin. This is debateable but the point is that Romans 7 spoke powerfully to Augustine. Not only did it describe his own inner moral conflict captured in the Confessions, it

… gave him a way of explaining theologically how sinners escape bondage to sin and achieve salvation. The answer is delight: the heart must delight in righteousness before it can choose it. However, this isn’t just any delight. It is a divine delight that originates in God, is woven into creation, and enters the human heart through the reception of the Holy Spirit … to be saved is to be drawn to God not by tyrannical force but by the persuasive force of God’s eloquence: the Holy Spirit. Augustine famously claimed “Love God and do as you want” (HEJ 7.8 ) For Augustine to be free we must be swept up into God’s love, experienced as a ‘victorious delight’ that frees our wills not only to know righteousness but to desire it as well. (64)

Again, Augustine’s own experience is significant here – he talked of his former life as a rhetician and master of logic as being ‘puffed up with knowledge.’ The trap – or irony – that Augustine came to see was how pursuing higher wisdom leads to pride.

The revolution in his thinking was to see that it is only God’s eloquence, God’s delight, God’s love that can set people free. Clavier puts it this way

God doesn’t require people to ascend to him because in his humble love he came down to them in order to raise them up. Human weakness is no longer the barrier to salvation, but the means for it. Christians gain wisdom through the humility of Christ – indeed Christ the Word is the wisdom of God. (66)

But how is this divine wisdom received? How do people have their hearts transformed so that they desire true delight – which is God himself?

The answer for Augustine is the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit through whom God’s love is poured into believers’ hearts (Rom. 5:5 – an important verse for Augustine, appearing over 200 times in his writings). Clavier quotes Augustine’s Morals of the Catholic Church (1.17.32),

Inspired by the Holy Spirit, this love leads us to the Son, that is, to the wisdom of God through him the Father himself is known. If wisdom or truth is not desired with all the powers of the soul, it shall not be found at all, but if it is sought after as it deserves to be, it cannot withhold itself nor hide from those who love it … It is love that asks, love that seeks, love that knocks, love that discloses, and love, too, which abides in that which has been disclosed (74)

So the Christian life is NOT a matter of choice – of the head – the arena of Christian discipleship, ethics and virtue is the heart – it is what we delight in, what we love, that will dictate how we live. Clavier summarises it this way

Augustine give experiential depth to the Pauline theology of bondage to sin and death. By locating the key moment with delight rather than choice, he shifted the emphasis from the mind to the heart, thereby explaining why embracing virtue and shunning sin is so hard. In order to be saved, people must be inflamed with a desire to love God, and that only happens if they are first overwhelmed with by the presence of God experienced as delight, which is none other than the Holy Spirit. (81)  

On Consumer Culture, Identity, the Church and the Rhetorics of Delight

As a teacher who also loves to write, now and then you come across a book that makes you wish you’d written it. It captures what you have been thinking and teaching about for a long time, only in a much better way than you could ever have hoped to articulate!

Mark Clavier’s On Consumer Culture, Identity, The Church and the Rhetorics of Delight is such a book. It’s a gem. He is Residentiary Dean of Brecon Cathedral.

I got a copy out of curiosity since the description overlapped so much with themes covered in a course I teach called ‘Faith and Contemporary Culture’.

In the course we spend most of the time exploring the story, appeal (‘Rhetoric’) and pervasive power of consumerism to shape our identities and capture our hearts.

We consider how consumerism shapes contemporary Christianity at an individual and corporate level, and how, despite its ubiquity, it is rarely preached and talked about – almost like an invisible force shaping every aspect of our lives that we remain blind to.

The core of the course is the idea that consumerism is an issue not of the ‘head’ but of the heart, and it is the heart that truly shapes our ‘loves’ and our choices – how we live our lives day by day.

We spend time particularly with Augustine, the great Christian theologian of the heart, who saw more clearly than most, how it is the heart that is the seat of our identity.

We look at the teaching of Jesus on money and how Augustine’s focus on the heart is faithful to Jesus’ radical challenge around discipleship.

We bring in J K A Smith and his modern re-appropriation of Augustine and his argument that so much Christianity is rationalistic. Human beings are not ‘brains on a stick’ but lovers – we ‘believe’ through passionate commitments to stories that capture our hearts and imaginations.

An aside: It is my conviction that Christian discipleship should ultimately be framed around love. The baseline issue in being a Christian is what or who we love the most. And so any discussion or ‘programme’ of discipleship that does not focus on the heart is missing the point …

So, it has been a joy to read Clavier: he captures the dynamics of modern consumerism; he engages in depth with Augustine (the book series he is writing for is ‘Reading Augustine’); he links to J K A Smith; he brings in Stanley Hauerwas and he resists any easy ‘step by step guide’ to ‘how to beat consumerism’…

Another aside: In The Message of Love, published next month, I have a chapter on ‘Love Gone Wrong: Money’ – in which all of the above themes appear so you can see why I have found this book both helpful and significant.

So, after a rather long break from blogging – due in part to some globe trotting over the summer – this post is the first of a series on Clavier’s excellent book. More to come.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (43) sub-Christian teaching on the Christian Life

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

We are in the final theme in the book – that of recapitulation.

In the last section of the chapter, Rutledge turns to the ethical implications of the motif of recapitulation.

She uses the idea of ‘takeover’ for recapitulation: believers are delivered from Sin, Death, the Law and have a truly new identity in Christ (incorporation).

There is power here too – not just a theology or an idea, power to live a new life. Rectification (her translation for justification) is powerful – a power to make right what was wrong, not only in believers but in the entire created order.

Being ‘incorporated’, means that believers die and are raised to new life. This is an objective reality, not a subjective feeling or experience.

Yet, she asks searching questions here.

If this is all true, what does such an ontological transformation look like? What does the powerful and victorious Christian life look like?

Her answer is, rightly, ‘cruciform’. This is the paradox of the cross and it is the paradox of the Christian life.

‘Power’ and ‘transformation’ are worked out in suffering,

“… not the ordinary suffering that comes to everyone, but the particular affliction that must come to those who bear witness to the Lord’s death … The suffering endured by Christian witnesses does not come from a place of weakness, but from a place of strength. That is the difference between Christian witness and masochism.” (566-67)

Christian suffering is radically reimagined in that Christ has already ‘paid the price’ and died our death in our place.

“He has lived out – recapitulated – the fate of condemned humanity to the last frontier of the demon-haunted kosmos, and in doing so has brought us over from eternal bondage and condemnation into the eternal realm of the righteousness of God.” (567)

The Gospel and the Christian Life – moving beyond moral exhortation

Linking back to the previous post here and my comments on ‘depressing androcentric preaching’ – Rutledge freely admits that in mainline US Churches there is no shortage of moral exhortation to ‘live a life worthy of the gospel’ – to be more loving, more inclusive, work for peace, be tolerant, care for the sick, provide for the poor … etc.

All these are good and important, however, she argues that,

“What is often missing from such exhortations is the powerful proclamation of the One who is doing the calling, who has ratified our calling in his own blood, who has entered upon the life of ‘Adam’ in order to defeat from inside human nature the work of the Enemy. This is the resounding, foundational gospel message on which the life of the church is built …” (568)

I love this …

“We do not hear enough of the working of God nowadays, though we hear a good deal about our own working – especially our religious working. The message of the gospel, however, is not that of building the kingdom as though we were subcontractors or even free agents …. It is not our spiritual journey that lies at the center of our faith … it is the journey of the incarnate One to us that enables our participation in the redemptive working of God.” (569)

That paragraph takes some chewing.

A personal comment

This is where care and theological attention is needed in preaching and teaching. It is easy to slip into Jesus as a moral example and we essentially now face the task and challenge of living Jesus-shaped lives today – in love, in service, in prayer, in self-giving and so on.

Again, this is not obviously wrong – indeed it is obviously right at one level. In Philippians 2:5-11, Paul encourages Christians to follow the self-giving example of Jesus the incarnate, crucified and resurrected Lord.

Rutledge gives the similar example of 1 John 4:17 “because as [Christ] is so are we in this world.”

But, and this is a big “but”, the Christian life is NOT a moralistic effort to be like Jesus.

Returning to the discussion on depressing preaching in the last post, such moralism ends ‘beating people up’ with the perfect example of Jesus without giving proper attention to these vital things:

  • Our absolute inability to live a righteous life. [Rutledge says ‘incapacity’]
  • The fact that we are not Jesus!
  • Little or no awareness of the ‘apocalyptic war’ – that Christians are in a battle with enemies. And that the Christian life is empowered by the Spirit of God.

Such teaching is therefore theologically naïve and pastorally unhelpful. It is sub-Christian in that it fails to speak of the depths of the human problem and the heights of Christ’s recapitulation of human nature as the second Adam.

The last word to Rutledge on this, as ever she is wonderfully articulate and passionate;

“The apostolic message speaks of our having “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16), being “like him” (1 John 3:2), and “being changed into his likeness” (II Cor. 3:18), but this is true only insofar as he has entered the life of his utterly, irredeemably, lost creation and rewritten its wretched story in his own flesh and blood. Never is it more necessary to say sola gratia (by grace alone) than here.” (570)

In the next post, we move into the Conclusion of Rutledge’s magnum opus.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (28) Therapeutic Christianity

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

This post zones in on one issue raised within Chapter 8 ‘The Great Assize’ – the relationship of the cross to the last judgement.

Rutledge addresses our propensity to want to downplay or get rid of judgement.

Is this your sense of things today? Is judgement rarely talked of? Is God’s love rejoiced in but rarely his righteousness (putting things right through the atonement)? Is God pictured more like a powerful friend than King and Lord of all? Is sin and atonement marginalised – and if so why?

In particular Rutledge explores modern discomfort with images of God as judge associated with the law court and forensic understandings of justice.

Why has there been so much resistance to the law-court motif in interpreting the atonement? … reaction against [judgemental preaching] coincided with the emerging sentimentality of popular late-nineteenth century American culture, with interesting theological results: God was no longer expressing judgement upon sin the sacrifice of his Son, but only love for sinners; no longer was God’s activity portrayed as onslaught, but rather as infiltration. Instead of an apocalyptic invasion, we got “gentle persuasion”. (317)

This is “therapeutic preaching” (317) that minimises God acting against Sin as well as for redemption.

The motive Rutledge identifies is that we don’t want to be judged by other people or by God, we want to be judged by ourselves. We want to be in charge of our own destinies, and, in line with various self-help philosophies, paper over the deep anxieties and conflicts that rage within us in the illusion that we can sort ourselves out.

Yet the good news is that we can’t! It is that God in Jesus Christ has ‘cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands … set [it] aside, nailing it to the cross.’ (318)

Other reactions against an over-emphasis on forensic imagery

Another related reason Rutledge explores is an over-emphasis on the atonement in forensic (legal) terms. This, she argues, sidelines the bigger picture of the cross as God’s apocalyptic ‘in-breaking’ of God into human history to effect a dramatic victory over Sin and Death and the Powers.

An overly legal / courtroom view of the cross tends to reduce its scope to that of judgement and often in individualistic terms. It will also, she argues, tend to focus on legal standing before God – of who is ‘in’ and ‘out’, of guilt and innocence, or moral standards. Yet those lines run through every person.

We need a bigger perspective that the cross is about

‘deliverance from hostile, enslaving powers that are waging war against God’s purposes.’ (320)

The apocalyptic way of seeing transcends an individualistic, pietistic, inward-looking ‘spirituality’ and opens up a horizon of political, social and cosmic implications that has everything to do with the state of our world today and our role as Christians in that world.

If we begin by talking about being acquitted in the courtroom, we are working from a diminished perspective. (319-20).

These are important and controversial proposals. If the gospel is only framed in legal terms there are unforeseen consequences.

If the preacher / pastor is stuck in the realm of the law court, the presentation of the gospel is likely to drift into a moralistic frame of reference. (320)

Forensic imagery if taken in isolation is inimical to the gospel – but not for the reasons that many critics think. The problem is not that we should get rid of the concept of judgment, which is a major theme of both Old and New Testaments. The problem is understanding judgement exclusively in terms of the metaphor of trial, verdict, and sentencing in a court of law. (320)

Rather, Rutledge concludes, the atonement as a courtroom verdict, must be located within the wider and broader apocalyptic framework of God’s deliverance.

My comments – within evangelical Protestantism it is the forensic image of the law court that has for centuries dominated thinking about the atonement. There are links here with what Rutledge is saying to criticisms of how justification by faith become virtually synonymous with ‘the gospel’, yet the two concepts are quite distinct, the former a consequence of the latter.

And how justification by faith, improperly understood, does result in a narrow, individualistic, ‘ledger balance’ understanding of Christ’s work on the cross. It can give the mistaken impression that the Christian faith is a ‘done deal’. ‘My sin problem’ is sorted out and so the Christian life and all that follows – a life in community, service, doing justice, prayer, and spiritual transformation is somewhat detached from ‘salvation’.

This misses the kingdom of God which is at the heart of the good news of Jesus Christ, and tends to marginalise the bigger purpose of God for his people to be a kingdom community in the world. It downplays the work of the Spirit and that a response to the gospel is only the beginning of a transformed life lived within the ‘now and the not yet’ of the kingdom come and yet to be fulfilled.

Comments on this welcome!