You might like to check it out.
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:
- 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 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)
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.
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)
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.
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 …