The Dirt of Deeper Change

I remember a time when Gill and I moved into a new home.  It had a backyard!  With my farmboy zeal I got stuck into turning the yard into a garden.  Some things were already in place – mature fruit trees, a tap for the hose.  Some things had to go – obvious things like weeds and rubbish and rusty forgotten tools, but also some healthy plants and shrubs that were simply in the wrong place; they had had their time and now their fruit was waning, their shade was blocking the sun, and their suckers were running amok.  After a hard days labour with all manner of tools and a lot of sweat, digging and hoeing and raking, I proudly revealed the outcome to my young wife.

She was not impressed.  “Well done,” she said with a subtle friendly hint of mockery, “you’ve made some… dirt!”

We had discussed the grand plan, of course – how we could have new fruit trees and a veggie patch.  But some of the in-between steps were unclear to her, and also to me.  I couldn’t have predicted that a pipe was in the way of where I had plans for a plum tree.  Some new beds needed borders, and we’d simply run out of money to line them with something nice; rough outlines from pruned branches would do for now.  And of course, I’d been delayed in starting; the season was getting on and some of what we hoped to plant would need to wait for next year.

The lush garden was going to happen!  It would grow in its own good time.  It would shift and develop as new ideas came along.  It would become something like what we had thought it would be, and a whole lot different as well.

But, for now, I had just made dirt.

The metaphor in all this, I hope, is obvious.  There are ways of leading organisations (and my experience is with churches) which are akin to maintaining a garden.  They are effective and necessary: rotating crops, mowing lawns, pruning in season, timing the harvest, and even making improvements and modifications.

But deeper changes are changes of identity; they shift things, they are akin to making a yard into a garden.

These changes tackle the deeper questions of who we actually are, and the essence and application of our mission and calling.  On the ground it often comes with a sense of stagnancy (“everything is always the same”) or of urgency (“we’re not doing what we need to be doing, we’re wasting ourselves”).  This leads us to re-examining the old, both embracing and letting go of the things we’ve inherited.  It leads us to dreaming some dreams about what might be, even as we realise that it might not turn out exactly as planned.  It allows significant change.

And early on in the process, it can often look like all we do is just make dirt.

Leadership at this point can seem fraught and complex.  It requires assertion because some things must be done away with. It requires courage, because some of the “systems” of the organisation will begin to fail or fall as they no longer have their normal referents.  It requires vision, because what is imagined must be first and foremost.  The temptation is to retreat from the plan: to patch things up by making adjustments to a rota, or tweaking a job description.  But this will not be enough, the leader must show the way to “go into the soil and die” in order to live again.

At this point, a leader may feel that everything is collapsing around them.  And they will need to grieve and mourn along with everyone else.  Because things are less predictable, they will often have to do a lot themselves, or with a close core team who can hold to the sense of identity and call that has motivated the change in the first place.  Others, who knew what to do the way things were, may feel idle or unwanted.  They will need to be encouraged to have a well-earned fallow season, and to then find the place where they flourish in the new.

Slowly, as green shoots appear – in God’s timing not ours – the time of dirt fades away.  Amorphous plans begin to take a shape in reality.  And the systems for maintaining and enjoying the new thing will come more easily.

But you can’t go directly there.

Sometimes, it looks like you’ve sweated hard, and worked yourself to the bone, just to make dirt.

Photo by Nigel Chadwick licensed under CC 2.0 SA

Posted in General

Holiness, Worship, Discipleship

Have you noticed our tendency to mechanise the human and Christian experience of life?

Back in our church planting days, we noticed that much of the relevant theory viewed a new church as a mechanism which could be adjusted by programs and processes, techniques and good management.  These things weren’t bad ideas but they were more suited to expanding the existing, effective at cloning the sending church and often doing little towards connecting with the disconnected.

It was more useful to think of the church truly as a plant.  Leadership would thus turn towards more organic things such as nurture and care, and a responsiveness that recognised that ultimately we were reliant on Someone Else to provide the growth.

One of the current buzzwords in church life at the moment is discipleship.  The tendency to mechanise has accompanied it: discipleship is conflated with programs and processes, techniques and good guidance.  Again, these things have value, but they primarily help individuals and churches expand and improve the current, existing rhythms of life.  They are less effective in fathoming new depths of ourselves and how we are called by God.  At the extreme of it, we equate “discipleship” with spiritualised self-help programs that actually hinder our call towards a richer faith, a deeper transformative trust in God.

The growing wisdom that counters this tendency places discipleship on the foundation of worship.  This is a thoroughly biblical idea.  Everything from the Ten Commandments to the Lord’s Prayer and the prevailing narratives in between acknowledges first and foremost God’s Sovereignty, Lordship, and the simple worthiness of his adoration.  It is the beginning of our response to him. Passages like Romans 12:1-2 demonstrate how the “living sacrifice” of discipleship adheres to worship.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Discipleship derives from worship.

But finding the foundation of worship doesn’t totally avoid our waywardness.  After all, forms of worship in every tradition can also be treated mechanically and become emptied and disconnected.  In the extreme, we are warned in these last days to be aware of actions that “having a form of godliness but denying its power.”  (It strikes me as less and less odd as I get older and more cynical that the list of blatant vices that precede this statement in 2 Timothy 3 could ever have been mistaken as a “form of godliness”).

What, then, does our worship draw upon?

To be sure, it is a grace of God, a manifestation of the Holy Spirit that causes us to groan and cry out Abba Father!.  Here, as Romans 8 shows us, is a point of connection, the “Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”  This is an organic, relational, responsiveness.  Our worship draws upon a childlike reaching out to God.  It is the same spirit as Psalm 42:

As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?

Such a thirst for God in worship is much more than a transcendant experience or a moment of inner awareness.  The framework of the Old Testament places this worship in the dust of every day, and a longing for a Torah-shaped shalom.  To thirst for God, is to thirst for his holiness, to have his righteousness written on our hearts.

Discipleship derives from worship which derives from a thirst for holiness.

The renewed pursuit of discipleship is a welcome development within the church.  There is a recognition that it isn’t the pursuit of programs, but of cultural change.  As we fathom the depths of what that means, we find the pure springs of God’s glory.  How do we bring discipleship to his church?  We need to thirst for him first, and hunger after his righteousness.

Photo by Mohammed Moussa licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Posted in General

Deep Joy

I’m currently reflecting on suffering as an essential, unavoidable part of what it means to live and follow Jesus.

This song by Page CXVI renders it one of the most profound ways that I’ve seen and heard.

Now, how to express it in dry, non-musical, words…

Posted in 2.0, Doxology, Music, Videos Tagged with: , , ,

Review: Setting God’s People Free – A Report from the Archbishops’ Council

“This report concludes that what needs to be addressed is not a particular theological or ecclesiastical issue but the Church’s overall culture.  This is a culture that over-emphasises the distinction between the sacred and the secular and therefore fails to communicate the all-encompassing scope of the whole-life good news and to pursue the core calling of every church community and every follower of Jesus – to make whole-life maturing disciples.  We will not raise up cadres of godly leaders unless we create communities of whole-life disciples.” (Page 2)

The Archbishops’ Council has released this report under the Renewal & Reform agenda. Hot off the presses (it is dated February 2017) it is refreshingly and provocatively titled “Setting God’s People Free” and is based primarily on the work of the Lay Leadership Task Group.  It is perceptive in outlook, insightful in analysis, but self-admittedly limited in application.  It provokes a degree of excitement with just a hint of cynicism.

From my “outsider” perspective, reports like these from the Church of England have stimulated and encouraged mission and discipleship in other contexts.  This was the case with significant works such as Mission-Shaped Church.  It is similar here; the leadership of the church is saying what needs to be said, giving a voice and lending language to those who desire a deeper Christian community that is more active and effective in doing the things that matter.  The simple encouragement that this gives to those on the edge cannot be underestimated.

With my slowly developing “inside” view, these documents now seem a little starker.  It is still immensely encouraging that these things are being said, but there is also an awareness of why they need to be said.  A report like this reveals behind (or in front of) it some sense of the inertial malaise that can be found in the Church of England.  It envelopes a justifiable sense of urgency.

So what does this report give us?  It’s not really anything revolutionary.  It’s a couple of things that make deep sense, and, if taken seriously, come attached with a whole bunch of difficult but positive implications:

This report identifies the need for two shifts in culture and practice that we see as critical to the flourishing of the Church and the evangelisation of the nation.

1. Until, together, ordained and lay, we form and equip lay people to follow Jesus confidently in every sphere of life in ways that demonstrate the Gospel we will never set God’s people free to evangelise the nation.

2. Until laity and clergy are convinced, based on their baptismal mutuality, that they are equal in worth and status, complementary in gifting and vocation, mutually accountable in discipleship, and equal partners in mission, we will never form Christian communities that can evangelise the nation.

We believe that these two shifts would represent a seismic revolution in the culture of the Church.  The first is about the focus of our activity and the scope of our mission, the second is about the nature of the relationship between clergy and lay.  They are both vital.  And they are both rare.
(Page 2, emphasis theirs)

This is an exemplary act of ecclesial self-reflection.  These assertions about church culture are based on some decent quantitative and qualitative analysis.  It is a conversation that is well and truly at the missional and cultural level.  Personally speaking, we have been bewildered in our observation and experience of how these issues are usually avoided or mishandled.  This includes misalignment over the meaning of crucial language such as “discipleship” and “mission.”   This report not only clarifies terms (“Discipleship is not a course of study but is determined by circumstances”, page 7) but unpacks what that clarity reveals:

Today… the Church of England finds itself in a situation where the significant majority of the 98% of people who are not in ordained ministry are neither adequately envisioned, nor appropriately trained, nor consistently prayed for, nor enthusiastically encouraged for mission nor ministry in the ~90% of their waking lives that they do not spend in church related actitivites. (Page 3)

Yes, huge numbers of lay people serve in positions of influence and leadership in the church, community, workplace and society.  However, few claim to have been given a theological framework or to have the confidence to express biblical wisdom, in both word and deed, in these contexts.  We will not raise up cadres of fruitful godly leaders in every sphere unless we create healthy communities of whole-life disciple-making disciples. (Page 4)

What is needed, first and foremost, is not a programme but a change in culture. A culture that communicates the all-encompassing scope of the good news for the whole of life, and pursues the core calling of every church community and every follower of Jesus – to form whole-life maturing disciples.  And a culture that embodies in every structure and way of working the mutuality of our baptismal calling and the fruitful complementarity of our roles and vocations. (Page 5)

Our contention is that the motivation for Christian leadership must arise not from a slightly greater willingness to ‘do jobs’ but from a compelling and positive vision of the redeeming work of Christ for all people.  It is when people become aware of the great things that Christ has done for them and wake up to the gifts that the Holy Spirit has bestowed on them that a joyful and willing leadership emerges, for it is out of communities of disciples that cadres of leaders will appear. (Page 8)

To all this I give an understated Anglican “Amen, brothers and sisters!”  Here is a vision for a missional church that resonates with our own hopes and passions.

It is not an unrealistic vision.  The report is aware of “constraining factors” and rightly names as primary a “theological deficit” (page 13) of “robust and incisive… thinking” (page 14).  The counter offer is a “theology of the laity as grounded in the centrality of mission and evangelism” (page 14) made with full awareness that parochialism and other factors work to prevent such vision from “achieving long-term currency, let alone significantly informing policy and practice across the Church of England” (page 14).

Mission is not about removing people from the world to seek refuge in the Church… but about releasing and empowering all God’s people to be the Church in the world in order that the whole of creation might be transformed and restored in Christ. (Page 14).

I am sympathetic to, but not entirely yet convinced by, the engagement with the clerical-lay divide as a primary problem.  The report portrays both sides of the frustration and that is useful: some congregations try to make their clergy into messiahs, some clergy already think they are!  Nevertheless, the engagement with the issue assumes and perhaps unhelpfully reinforces the division. After all, the clergy are subset of the laity, not a separate category.  And one of the problems in our formation of clergy is that we don’t also (and especially) disciple them as people.  A discipleship culture is rarely prevented by a lack of theological knowledge; it is resisted when leaders are unable to share of themselves because of insecurities, fears, emotional immaturity, inexperience with suffering, or simple lack of exposure to the deeper things of life with Jesus.

Few churches have developed the kind of learning culture that would illuminate the resource and support that is required to develop lay people.  Few churches are equipped with the kind of ‘action reflection’ approaches that we see in Jesus’ disciple-making and in best practice adult learning models in wider society. (Page 18)

Good reports make recommendations and here “eight levels of cultural change” are proposed (page 19).  They are only really applicable to “Dioceses and the National Church”, which is understandable as these are the atomic ecclesial components from the point of view of the Archbishops’ Council.  I am not particularly familiar with the sort of machinations that happen at that level, but the principles seem sound: theological vision, increased lay voice, episcopal priorities, centralised resourcing, liturgical development, structural reform and so on.  I’ll be watching the commentary on these things with some interest.

There are two recommendations for action in the short-term that attract me.  The selection of “pilot dioceses” (page 26) to model the culture has me hoping that my own Diocese of Oxford will be one!  And, the provision of resources through a “national portal” (page 26), particularly “the facility for people to join small affinity/learning groups for support, discussion, and accountability” recognises a crucial lack of communal learning that should be happening at Parish, Deanery and Diocesean level, but usually isn’t.

The emphasis remains however: cultural change is required.  And that is a fraught exercise.

I have sat on enough boards and committees in my time to understand that clarifying the situation and identifying the problem is one thing; putting forward achievable and appropriate proposals is another.  This is only amplified when the problem is a cultural one.  There is always an aspect of catch-22 and chicken-or-egg.  How do we use culture to change culture?  Are the available options – the levers that can be pulled – able to transcend the culture or are they products of it?

There are all manner of obstacles to cultural change.  It will take more than this report to overcome them.

For instance, cultural change is resisted by allowing symptoms to control the remedy.  Our natural tendency is to alleviate symptoms, and it is often not efficacious.  Consider how the report points out that there is “no sense of any centrally-coordinated strategy for the support and development of lay leaders across the Church” (Page 11).  This is clearly a symptom of something that’s wrong.  But it may not follow that the answer is to rely on a “centrally coordinated strategy.”  Rather, it is likely that cultural change is achieved by some other means, which then results in a centrally-coordinated strategy.  What comes first?  Here, while not wanting to “institute a top down approach” (page 1) we still have a “clear implementation plan” (page 9) from a high-level body!  Catch-22.

In general, there are other obstacles to cultural change.  There is the presumptive existent: “We exist, therefore we’re on the right course.”  There is semantic deflection: “Of course we’re doing X; when we do it it looks like…”  By embracing the buzzwords the real engagement is avoided.  We’ve seen this happen with words such as “discipleship”, “fresh expression”, “leadership”, “vision”, “mission”, and “emerging”.  Cynicism can easily abound.

I’m not sure the report totally avoids these obstacles.  For instance, in trying to articulate a picture of lay ministry in terms of the “sent church” there is an emphasis on volunteerism.  However, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, there is often a cultural disconnect between the social action of individual parishioners and the movement and mission of the church to which they belong.  The report mentions Street Pastors (page 10), but how much can we say that that ministry belongs to the institutional Church?  There is a danger of stealing the fruit of others in order to avoid our own barrenness.

Nevertheless, I was both encouraged and moved by this paper.  I am grateful to know that people are thinking these thoughts, and even dreaming these dreams.  It’s the right conversation in the right room, and it speaks a vision that needs to spread to every room in this House of God.

Posted in 2.0, Anglican Church, Book Reviews Tagged with: , , ,

Four Levels of Church Conversation

There’s something to observe when Christians get together and talk about themselves in meetings, in groups, or even over coffee.  It’s an observation that relates to the question of “what is this meeting for?” and “what are we not talking about?”

Here is how I’ve come to answer that question: by identifying four levels of conversation.  It’s an oversimplifying categorisation, for sure, but hopefully a useful way to discern what page a conversation is on.

The top level of conversation is mechanical and operational.  Like coats of paint, it’s this top layer that is on the surface and is often the easiest level to enter into.

It is at this level that we find ourselves talking about operations: planning services, organising rotas, remarking on how good the flowers look, the size of the congregation, the clarity of the sound, and the feel of the sermon.  These are all necessary things to discuss and it’s not for no reason that such topics dominate the agenda of many meetings, and make up the bulk of a minister’s emails and phone calls.  Things need to happen, programs need to run, and coordination and conversation is required to do that.

Conversations at this level, however, presume and rest upon an understanding about how the church operates.  That’s the topic of the next level of conversation:

The second level of conversation is managerial and organisational.  At this level, it’s not so much about keeping the church operational but improving those operations.

These are conversations that deal with priorities, financial allocations and budgets, improving efficiencies, and responding to hiccups and crises.  A good engagement at this level keeps things running smoothly.  Most complaints and criticism are also at this level because they usually relate to how things could supposedly be done better.  Boards and oversight committees often spend time talking at this level.

These sorts of conversations inform and found how we talk about the operations of the church (the previous level), and presumes the church’s mission and purpose:

The third level of conversation is missional and cultural.  

This is where questions of identity, purpose, and values are considered.  It’s a level of conversation that is both reflective and strategic.  

It is reflective, in that it involves questions about ourselves:  Who are we? Where are we going? What are we for? What’s really important? What are we struggling with? What is good about us that needs to be affirmed? What is wrong that needs to be addressed? Where are we clinging to idols that we should put away?  What gifts are we ignoring that we should cling to?  What is our culture? Where are our blind stops? What makes us tick?

It is strategic, in that it involves questions about mission and calling: What is God doing in with and around us?  Where is he leading us? What is his heart for the people and place in which we find ourselves?  What is the culture in which we find ourselves, and how do we bear witness to the gospel in the midst of it?  It is in this sort of conversation that vision and purpose are tussled through and articulated.

Conversations at this level can be quite rare.  Such engagements are usually motivated by passion or crisis, or both!  Where the context is marked by stability, or even stagnancy, these topics are rarely broached; the presumed answers suffice for the sake of management and operation.  This is understandable; for conversation at this level to happen well, there needs to be a willingness to embrace the challenge that these sorts of questions generate, and that often requires facing fears and insecurities and daring to dream and be imaginative.

Conversations at this level inform and shape how we talk about the management and organisation of the church (the previous level), and presumes a theological and doxological basis:

The base level of conversation is theological and doxological and deals with spiritual foundations.  

These conversations can sometimes feel a bit academic or esoteric.  This does not necessarily mean that they are not delightful, dynamic, and life-giving.  The main contributor to my own theological formation was coffee with fellow students!  I have wrestled with fellow colleagues about things like Neo-Calvinism (when it was a new thing) and New Perspectives (which still is).  There might be no clear application for such discussions, but they do shape the foundations upon which all other conversations rest.  What do we believe? And why?

Of course, “theological” doesn’t just mean cerebral things.  Theology cannot be divorced from doxology.  The conversations at this level are also intensely spiritual.  I have had delightful conversations with deeply contemplative folk who make use of art, symbolism, metaphor, and even silence.  Shared spiritual disciplines are located here.  It is at this level that our conversations come close to the heart of worship.

Again, these sorts of conversations can be few and far between, even in a church setting.  There is often an intense sense of privacy and vulnerability that prevents the dialogue.  We often tend to mitigate this by relegating these sorts of topics to a didactic sermon or by speaking in abstractions so that awkward conclusions can be avoided.  Yet this sort of engagement is the stuff of life, it is where we discover a common root for our passions, a base level unity that founds a true and open community, irrespective of disagreements at the other levels.

Diagrammatically, it looks like this: 

It is a simplification, but it does help as we ponder how we ourselves engage in dialogue about the church.

I suspect that every one of us is more comfortable engaging at one level more than another.  And sometimes we try and do things at the wrong place.  This is the situation where a conversation about hymn selection is not about the operation of the music ministry, but actually a commentary with regards to priorities, purpose, and base values;  the issue is rarely the issue!  This can help discern where the conversation needs to go.

But it also reminds us of the conversations that we need to have but sometimes never get around to.  The management meeting that spends all its time on minutiae and forgets the important things is a well-known experience.  The old analogy of the church that forgets that it is a lifeboat station is a failure to have the deeper conversations at the right time and in the right way.

The thoughts, and hopefully the conversations, continue.

Posted in General, Ministry Tagged with: , , , , ,

Review: A Tale of Three Kings – A Study in Brokenness

What is our posture and place before God?

Gill has often asked me, “How do you see God right now? Who is he to you?”  It’s not a doctrinal question, it’s a posture question.  Am I rejoicing before him, in freedom?  Am I figuratively curled up on his lap in weariness?  Am I ignoring him, hardened and rebellious, presuming and attempting to usurp, blocking my ears?  Am I being contrite, bringing my brokenness to him?  Do I see God as someone to be scared of, to avoid?  Or can I boldly approach the eternal throne, trusting in his mercy and grace?

It is often useful to ground such exploration in the pages of Scripture; to look to those who have gone before us and see how God reveals and deals with them.  What posture do they take?  What can we learn? Exegetical care is required, of course, but it is a blessing to observe the God who is the same yesterday, today and forever.  And dare to seek to his face.

In this fascinating book, A Tale of Three Kings, Gene Edwards takes us to the example of King David, to glean what we may.  David, of course, is one of the three kings.  The other two are Saul, who saw the young David as a rival and pursued him, and Absalom, David’s son, who sought to usurp the throne of his father.  Edwards finds in David’s response to both Saul and Absalom, an example of someone who is enrolled “not into the lineage of royalty but into the school of brokenness” (page 8).

If we were to be critical, we could say that Edwards overplays his hand.  His framework has David as a “broken vessel” who is able to pursue God through pain (page 12), and Saul is “the unbroken ruler (whom God sovereignly picks) who metes out the pain” (page 15).  Of course, in reality, David is not always the David that Edwards speaks of.  He is unbroken with regards to Uriah.  He is also a belligerent warrior, an inept father, and a wielder of authority who isn’t always humble. I’m sure that there were many in Israel for whom David was their Saul!

Nevertheless, this doesn’t diminish the force of Edwards’ exercise.  He takes us into David’s experience and unpacks what is virtuous in a way that matches the thrust of all levels of the biblical narrative.  As a type of messiah, David reveals Christ, and so Edwards is helping us to imitate him as he imitates Christ, so to speak.  Conversely, he wants us to be aware of the “King Saul in you” (page 23) and to be aware of where we may ally with Absalom (page 62).

The Sauls of this world can never see a David; they see only Absalom. The Absaloms of this world can never see a David; they see only Saul. (Page 80)

The result is an excellent tool for self-reflection, particularly for those in leadership.  We are taken, for instance, to places where people desire power, “ambition, a craving for fame, the desire to be considered a spiritual giant” (page 41).  We are caused to think of why sometimes the wrong people seem to have the power, and how we might respond to that. The example of David who would not bring down the Lord’s anointed in his own strength governs much of this reflection.

It takes us to David as a “study in brokenness”.  This is where we find Edwards’ overstatement: That David “forced no rebellion because he did not mind if he was dethroned” (page 47) is not entirely true, and surely it could not be said of Jesus that “he had authority… but that fact never occurred to him” (page 48); humility is not psychological obfuscation!  Nevertheless, the way of leadership as a deliberate path of trust through loneliness and suffering is well made.

Legalism is nothing but a leader’s way of avoiding suffering. (Page 47)

The most important lessons, however, are not just for the leaders, but for Christians in general, for churches and congregations.  For me, the biggest lesson Edwards expounds is to exercise faith such that we are willing to do… nothing.  He looks to David with both Saul and Absalom, and also to Moses with Korah, who didn’t meet rebellion with rebellion, but simply “fell on his face before God. That is all he did” (page 87).

Consider this posture: “I will leave the destiny of the kingdom in God’s hands alone. Perhaps he is finished with me.  Perhaps I have sinned too greatly and am no longer worthy to lead” (page 93).

My instant reaction was to write this off as unworthy passivism, a reneging of responsibility, a failure to embrace the favour we have in Christ.  Surely that is far from the pursuit of God’s mission and a faithful response to his call?  But Edwards’ observation is not invalid, and the reflection has merit.

We Christians, individually and as churches, are so very very quick to sacralise our drivenness and idolise our achievements.  We intone, “Unless the Lord builds the house…”, and then pick up our own hammer and nails and do whatever we want; any success, on our own terms, becomes proof of divine favour.  We pray “Lord, bless my church, and all that we do” and this looks like (and can often actually be) a humble petition, but it can also be the essence of self-reliance.  The fact is, it is actually the Lord’s church, and we might not be doing what he wants at all!

Rather, David receives the Kingdom just as Christ would later receive resurrection and “all authority in heaven and on earth”, not from themselves, but in the laying down of themselves.  The posture that Edwards finds for us in Scripture would have us seek to do the same.

My own reflection is this:  We are so often like self-centred children.  Our Lord offers us every spiritual blessing as a gift of grace.  Our response should be to receive this gift, and the calling and activism that goes with it.  Yet our attitude can subtly shift us away from this; rather than receive, we seize, we take, we almost demand.  We consider our inheritance and treat it like an entitlement.  And this is where Edwards’ reflection assists:  Because the difference between receiving and taking is in the attitude, the posture.  And that difference is that the receiver waits, and does not presume, doing nothing until the giver puts the gift in place.

It is God’s church. And he will build it. That honour belongs to no other.

Posted in 2.0, Book Reviews, Ministry Tagged with: , , , , , ,

Review: Spirituality Workbook – A Guide for Explorers, Pilgrims and Seekers

Some books are wide-ranging and broad.  Some books are deep and specific.  David Runcorn, in Spirituality Workbook, deals with some of the nitty gritty of everyday expressions of Christian spirituality, and manages to do both; it is both deep and wide.  I read the slightly older 2006 edition.

The breadth comes from the simple amount of material covered.  Runcorn has put together work from years of the rhythm of theological formation.  The chapters are short and independent from each other, but each is a gem of insight and reflection.  The content ranges from topical analyses, to reflections on historical persons and movements, to unpacking specific spiritual disciplines.

It is impossible, therefore, to condense the book down into a governing argument, or to give a fulsome summary.  For myself, I take from the book a number of insights that interact with, subvert, and even blatantly combat some of the ways in which Christians and churches have capitulated to the spirit of the age.

Consider his early chapter on the spirituality of the desert, which draws on the example of the early monastics.  He identifies the motivation of a “longing for God” that cannot be satisfied in an “increasingly worldly church” (page 10).  And his enumeration of the value of the wilderness experience includes concepts such as “judgment” and being “confronted with the sheer depth of our need of conversion” (page 11) that are anathema to the comfortable pews of the western world which idolise success and fanfare.

“In the desert you leave behind all your familiar securities.  You come to a place of confessing your absolute need and the emptiness of all you have been placing your trust in…  The desert is a place that weans us off addictions and false dependencies.  If your god is not the true God the desert will find you out.  Only the true God can sustain you in the wilderness.” (Page 11)

Consider the irony in his reflection on exile in a changing world, that the word from which we get “parish” and “parochial”, paroikia, originally meant “a place of refuge or exile” for Christians who experienced themselves as “resident aliens, non-citizens… sojourners in the world… shaped by the experience of enforced mobility, vulnerable exile and disorientating change” (page 23).

Consider the frustration that recognises that “finding and sustaining community in today’s society is a real struggle” even when “the Christian vision of community is central to spiritual formation, prayer and faithful discipleship” (page 51).  Hear the challenging wisdom, quoted from Bonhoeffer:

If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian community in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith and difficulty, if we only keep on complaining to God, we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.” (Page 55)

Ponder his counter to the addiction of churches to self-actualising mission management, as he values a rule of life that resists that greatest of all Christian predilections: the inability to say “no” to something that is good but wrong.

It is quite common for churches to have their own mission statement these days.  What is less common is to find churches that have gone on to think and pray through together a shared, sustainable shape of living that might make that vision realizable.  Without an agreed boundary to its life and mission, church life proceeds on the assumption that Christian time and energy can extend limitlessly into an ever-increasing range of worthy projects.  That this is all “for God” just makes the burden worse!  The result is corporate exhaustion, guilt and frustration.” (Page 65, emphasis mine)

He gives important correctives for our corporate life:  “Worship that is organized to impress outsiders is no longer true worship – which is offered to God alone” (page 70).  He gives insight into culture: “The defining identity on offer today is that of consumer” (page 89).  He plumbs the depths of spiritual practices that may have become staid: “Intercession involves seeking to be where Christ already is… [it] is a participation in Christ’s costly and life-giving presence in the world.” (page 122).

And whether it be in the presentation of the Jesus Prayer or a discourse on sexuality, Runcorn takes us deeper, uncomfortably deeper, blessedly uncomfortably deeper.  Here is the constructive challenge of an effective spiritual director.  Such challenge disabuses us of immature and insipid notions of Jesus and what it means to follow him.  It presses us beyond superficiality and the ubiquitous ecclesial shallows and provokes us.

Where we would settle for peace & tranquility, he would take us to the shalom of Christ, who also challenges, and provokes and questions our assumptions until we rely on him: the Christ who counters our agendas with “Unless you repent you will all perish” (page 177).  Where we would like to waft on clouds of easy ecstasy, he reminds us that “Christian prayer is more often marked by conflict than by feelings of peace” (page 179).  Where we would prefer the stagnancy of unrocked boats, we are reminded that true hospitality and receptivity “does not mean becoming neutral” (page 193).

It is neither polite nor respectful to just sit agreeing with everything your guest says.  We are to offer a real articulate presence, sharing our own beliefs, opinions and lifestyle clearly and distinctly. ‘An empty house is not a hospitable house,’ [Nouwen] says, ‘Real receptivity asks for confrontation.‘ (Page 193, emphasis mine)

We have challenge, confrontation, provocation, uneasiness.  This is the stuff of life. What we have then, is a book to return to, and a book to recommend.  It takes us to depths that are rare in the salt-pan of contemporary corporate Christianity.  It is both comfort and correction, broad and deep, and therefore utterly useful.

Posted in 2.0, Book Reviews, Ministry Tagged with: , , , , ,

Navigating Theological Dialects in a 3D Church

In the last little while I’ve had a couple of conversations with people who are trying to get their head around the amorphous complexity that is the Church of England.  This is partly administrative (“What on earth is a Deanery for?”) but mostly to do with what I call “theological languages” (or “dialects”) and what we might have once called differences in “churchmanship.”

It is not helpful to arbitrarily split people into factions and put them in boxes.  Underlying it all there are some unifying commonalities (in the name of the law, if nothing else).  But understanding the diversity is necessary for good relational reasons.  This is particularly so if you’re new to it all.  If you’re trying to understand, converse, or collaborate, you need to have some sense of the theological landmarks and boundaries, the buzzwords and shibboleths; you need to know how the same word might mean something slightly different depending on who is saying it.  You need to know something of the stories, the varying priorities and values and why they exist.  By this you can avoid needless scandal, and express “brotherly charity” (to quote the law again).

So none of this is by way of disparagement.  Nor is it naive oversimplification.  But just as maps simplify reality to that which helps with navigation, so it is sometimes helpful to try and locate oneself, and others, on a theological map that is described and shaped by some simple, relevant markers.

2dtheomapIt has been common to describe ecclesial markers using words such as “high and low” and “left and right”, forming something of a two-dimensional plane.  So-called “liberalism” is on the left, and “conservatism” is on the right.  Traditional formality is “high” and informal flexibility is “low.”

In reality, the church population is scattergraphed all over these spectra.  But we can identify some communities within the community, different camps or theological dialects.  And so, for instance, we can speak of “Anglo-Catholic” who are “high” and emphasise traditional forms of worship, symbolism, contemplation, mysticism, and organisational integrity.  Within this camp the “left” wing might emphasise the symbols-in-themselves, and make use of them as means for social action or radical inclusion; the “right” wing might emphasise the referent of the symbols, and so emphasise the connection with apostolic roots.

Similarly, the “Charismatic” groups emphasise the spontaneous experience of the Holy Spirit in the everyday.  They are therefore “low” in their formality and express “leftwards” tendencies as they desire freshness and renewal.  The “conservative evangelical” group is closely related, but values theological precision (placing them slightly higher in terms of formality) and adherence to the revelation of Scripture, which is a conservative, rightward, trait.  The “left” or “liberal” wing of the church is wide-ranging, but emphasises the general revelation of the social sciences, affirms the multiplicity of different journeys with God, and champions human capacity.

I’m sure that those who identify with any of these communities will find my precis unsatisfactory.  That’s OK.  My point is simply to recognise a simple way of summing up the variances that exist along the whole board of theological subdisciplines: espistemology, soteriology, eschatology, etc. etc.  For better or for worse, while not a complete picture, a map like this reflects at least something of reality, and might help people to navigate their way through this broadest of landscapes.

3dtheomapInterestingly, though, in recent weeks, I have found myself wanting to add a third axis.  We might call it an “inwards”/”attractional” and “outwards”/”missional” spectrum.

There are ecclesial movements such as “pioneering” or “fresh-expression” that emphasise getting out of the four walls of the church and focusing on “going” with the gospel into the world.  Similarly, you can find elements of the church that have an inward emphasis on the Sunday-to-Sunday rhythm, and bringing people into the building and the organisation.

My small realisation is that this inwards-outwards marker shouldn’t simply correlate to positions on the normal axes; that is you can’t say that Anglo-Catholics are more outwards focused, and charismatics are more inward focused.  Rather the inwards-outwards dynamic variance can be found across the board.

For instance, Anglo-Catholicism can be expressed inwardly, inviting people into a sacred space of holy service.  Conversely, Anglo-Catholicism can be expressed outwardly, taking service, symbols, and sacraments into the highways and byways, so to speak, and doing so by drawing upon monastic precedents.  Charismatics can be inward, drawing upon seeker-sensitive models, managing the church with homogenous units, and providing an appealing, attractive face.  They can also easily operate outwards, in modes such as that of the evangelistic street healer, or through models such as missional commmunities.  Liberalism can be expressed inwardly, shaped around intellectual treatise, or outwards in social action.  Conservative evangelicals emphasise their pulpit ministry inwardly, but can just as easily commission apologists and planters of new churches.

Having said that, however, I have one concern: a gap in the map perhaps.  Because there is a tendency to identify the provocative, edgy, and creative with those parts of the church that are low and left; the ones who are meant to be socially aware, and who give relatively less value to existing structures.  But I don’t think that’s a necessary consequence:  There’s room on the map for “high and right” pioneering.  There are many ways of taking that which is considered “ancient and true” outwards to the world – seeking the touchstones of the gospel in the local culture.  The missiological frameworks and traditions exist.  There is room for some more imagination on our theological map.

Posted in 2.0, Ecclesiology, General Tagged with: , , , ,

Eunuchs, Semantics, and the Theological Divide

philipeunuchOxford academic Emma Percy, writing in the most recent edition of Theology poses the question “Can a eunuch be baptized? and derives “insights for gender inclusion from Acts 8.”  It’s an interesting question to pose about an interesting text.  I came to the article at the suggestion of a colleague and as observation of how the thinking of the church engages (or fails to engage) with the prevailing issues of sex, gender and identity.

It’s a fraught topic.  We are talking about a fundamental sense of “self” here.  That’s a simple, hard, question: Who are you?  We can inform (and hear) the answer in terms of biology, psychology, sociology or a dozen other aspects.  But at the bottom of it all is one of those explorable-but-not-fathomable theological mysteries where we can get to the end of our language and risk talking at cross purposes.

Percy’s article enters into this space.  Her exegesis delivers some often overlooked aspects of Philip’s encounter on the road to Gaza and her argument extends to some good pastoral guidance.  In the end, however, this essay, in itself, reveals the semantic divide that besets these issues in particular, and theological discourse in general.

There is much to affirm. In the account in Act 8, of course, we have a eunuch.  Percy emphasises the physicality of this term: the word “eunuch” applies to a person who has been castrated and it was a real phenomenon in the culture of the time.  And, of course, the answer to the titular question is affirmative.  In the eunuch’s own words, “‘Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptised?’”

This inclusion is kerygmatic in a profound way and Percy does well to expound it.  She highlights the gospel in it: covenantal exclusion overcome, “dry branches” grafted in, those with no physical legacy drawn into the eternal family of God, etc.  She is rightly incredulous: “I cannot count the number of sermons I have heard about the Ethiopian eunuch which have made no reference to the significance of his being a eunuch!”

In applying the text to the contemporary debate Percy is firstly ready to admit that “it is not appropriate simply to map the term ‘eunuch’ on to those who are intersex or transgender.”  She is secondly ready to do exactly that, using the lens “of people who do not fit into neat binaries of male and female.”

And so she brings us to consider intersex persons.  The mapping is not direct: A eunuch is an emasculated male and so defined by the binary, and what has been lost; an intersex person has indeterminate sex, described by referencing variations of either end of the binary or neither. Nevertheless, for both the eunuch and the intersexed, their embodied selves don’t fit “neatly” into the sexed categories, and the gospel inclusion of the eunuch does inform our response.

Percy outlines the pastoral implications.  To give just a few of her words:

The Acts 8 story itself offers an important reminder to make inclusion a priority.  Baptism becomes for the Church the mark of a Christian and, unlike circumcision, it does not require a particularly gendered body.  Women can be baptized and so too can those whose bodies do not conform to gender norms…

Clergy need to be aware of the pastoral needs of families with intersex babies who may want baptism before they feel they can assign a gender to their child.  Registers ask for the child’s sex, but surely this is not a necessary requirement of baptism.  In a culture where children are often identified as male or female by scans, even before they are born, the families of those who cannot be so neatly categorized need compassionate pastoral support.

It is when she turns next to consider transgenderism that we begin to run into the semantic issues that complicate dialogue on these sorts of issues.  To explain what I mean, I need to give my take on how language works in our search for meaning:

All language is ultimately self-referential, but it begins with a simple referent.  An example helps: when communicating the physical reality of a tree we use a word, such as “wood.”  It’s a simple syllable that refers to the physical reality of what trees are made.  A simple word, a simple physical referent, a simple meaning.

In the joy that is human creativity, semantics get expanded.  The fact that wooden objects are hard and rigid extends the meaning of “wood” to include a sense of hardness or immovability.  By this I can describe someone’s facial expression as “wooden.”  The simple word now means something additional, that is more complex and abstract.

This expansion is not a logical necessity, the expanding meaning only partially derives from the characteristics of the physical tree.  In a large part, the meaning comes from convention, common usage, and social norms; the semantics of the word are at least partly socially constructed.  And that construction can shift and expand even more: I could also use “wooden” to mean “rustic” or “natural.”  And now a word that is objectively derived from the physical stuff of a tree can mean anything from “emotionally repressed” to “undisturbed by the advancement of modernity”!

woodsemantics2The linguistic complexity can come full circle.  The original word, applied back to the initial referent, brings its expanded meaning with it.  And this is what leads to contradictions, the limitations of language, and talking at cross purposes.

To finish with my example: I might have in my garden a beautiful tree, that is full of life and character; the way it sways in the wind and the flowers that form on it speak of joy and vitality.  In attempting to describe this I might reach for an antonym.  To communicate the verve and vitality of my tree, I could say “my tree is not wooden.”  Linguistically, it is a contradiction, effectively nonsense.  It only communicates meaning if there is a shared understanding of semantics, agreed upon social norms that construct the sense of what that means.  If two interlocutors did not share or agree on the semantic space they would be talking at cross-purposes.

It’s a simplistic illustration.  It is manifoldly more complicated when we engage not with trees but with the meaning of self, our sense of identity.

In Percy’s engagement with intersex the semantic ground is relatively safe.  She emphasises the physicality of the eunuch and intersex, using physical words, even anatomical ones such as “micro penis.”  These words are closely connected to the simple referents of physical bodies.  Her meaning, and therefore, her exhortation, is thoroughly graspable.  And it should be grasped even by the most conservative reader.  In the politics of it all, conservatives who throw the whole “LGBQTI” alphabet soup into the one anathematised pot, should get a bit more bothered about doing the hard yards of seeking to understand the meaning of those letters and, at the very least, take a lead from Percy’s wisdom on how to care for those who are intersex.

But as the consideration moves from intersex to transgender, the semantic complexity escalates; the mystery of self is manifest in the various constructions and reflections that come in the search for meaning.  It can never be fully mapped out, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.  To that end, I find an important linguistic distinction between sex (as in intersex) and gender (as in transgender):

The concept of sex has a clear referent.  We use words such as “man” and “woman”, “male” and “female” and they closely encapsulate physical characteristics.  It’s why we use “male” and “female” to describe plugs and sockets!

malesemanticsThe expansion of these words in a shared semantic space is an engagement with a sense of gender.  Gender is more socially or self-constructed, a sense or even a “feeling” of what it means to be be male or female.  We use words such as “masculine” or “feminine” to explore this meaning.

Part of this meaning derives from the physicality of the referent sex.  e.g. “masculine” might adhere to a sense of muscular dominance, or assertive impositional (some might even say “penetrative”) engagement; “feminine” might adhere to softer embrace, or fierce motherly protectiveness.  But in this semantic expansion, the meaning also derives significantly from social expectation, poetic legacy, various forms of prejudice, and all the other things that you find in the shared language of a human community.

And, of course, as the semantics come full circle, those constructed meanings are applied back to the physical referent.  Our language reaches its end point:  We end up talking about “manly men” or “boyish girls” – linguistic tautologies and contradictions that only make sense if the social inputs into the semantic process are shared and agreed upon.

This is not just some academic exercise.  The subject at hand here is a sense of self.  It is how how we conceive of and find meaning in our own bodies, and locate ourselves within the millieu of meaning.  Human history is full of people fighting over words (consider current controversies about the use of pronouns) and this is why:  the social constructions have semantic force and so influence, even impose, on our sense of self.  The cost and pain of these fights, particularly as they relate to gender, is something that I can really only observe and seek to understand:

Take for instance, the feminist movement.  A certain socially normative sense of “feminine” which encapsulated notions of weakness, passivity, or intellectual inferiority, was rightly rejected.  A strong contingent of unashamed women refused to agree that such semantics should inevitably, invariably, or ever at all refer to them.  Through various forms of persuasion and social action the social norms were shifted (and could still shift some more) and this in turn has shifted our understanding of femininity, demolishing gender distinctions where those distinctions were meaningless or unjust, and delivering a larger degree of freedom to those who are physically female.  In simplistic terms, in order to reflect a sense of self, the referent biological sex differences were strengthened (“I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman!”) and the semantic gender differences were redefined, minimised, even eliminated.

The complexity of transgenderism is that it approaches self-meaning from the other direction, beginning not with biological sex, but locating primary meaning in the sense of gender – as masculine or feminine or of neither or both senses.  Semantics that derive from the physical sex are de-constructed, leaving the self-and-socially-constructed semantics as the primary source of meaning.

As this meaning is applied back into the physical world, the meaning of gender collides with its physical referent, manifesting as a disconnect between meaning and reality, and reflected in our language. The linguistic progression is this: a reference to “a man who feels like a woman” (a description) becomes semantically equivalent to “a man who is a woman” (a contradiction) becomes semantically equivalent to simply “a woman” (as a disconnected label, an arbitrary nomenclature).  At this point it is entirely logical, albeit ethically perplexing, to make physicality conform to the semantic construct.  In simplistic terms, in order to reflect a sense of selfthe referent biological sex differences are redefined, minimised, even eliminated, and semantic gender differences are constructed and absolutised.

Much more could be said about the complexities, inconsistencies, and contradictions that this creates within a human community.  Suffice it to say that I find myself exhorting for the importance of physicality.  The irreversible modification of one’s body to conform with a self-and-socially-defined semantic of gender seems to me to be a fraught and ultimately unfruitful quest for meaning.  It would seem to me wiser and more compassionate to affirm the complexity of the sex-gender dynamic, and embrace and include whatever we might mean by the “feminine male” or the “masculine woman” or the interwoven complexity of gender expressed constructively and joyfully in male and female bodies.  I think the Scriptures have some beautiful light to shine on and guide such an exploration.

What has intrigued me, however, in engaging with Emma Percy’s article, is how the semantics of her discourse correlate closely with the semantic direction (and ultimate disconnect) of transgenderism itself.  As she broadens her application of Acts 8 from intersex to transgender she buys into the semantics.  Her rhetoric moves from her earlier, grounded, positive kerygma and becomes that of unanswered questions and provocative exhortations that are built upon her own theological constructs.

eunuchsemanticsEven the meaning of the eunuch shifts, from the historical physicality of the Acts narrative into her own semantics of gender.  The progression is clear: The eunuch’s physical referent is initially explored and carefully correlated to other physicalities, but then subsumed into a mere metaphor of “liminal gender.”   Once captured into Percy’s theological world, the historical figure is is not actually needed and could quite literally (and ironically) be “cut off” from the argument.

theologicalsemanticsThe correlation between positions taken in the gender identity debate and theological process shouldn’t surprise.  It’s not for no reason that such issues have become the touchstone of theological divides!

Like all quests for meaning, theological method will find itself engaging with the revealed world of Scripture and the general truths of science and common sense.  Semantics and interpretation will play their part as social assumptions and hermeneutical lenses are applied.  Some methods emphasise the biblical referent as the primary source of meaning.  And others will look to the socially-and-self-constructed semantics.  It seems to me that Percy’s framework is doing the latter, following the same semantic course as transgenderism: deconstructing the referent, and locating meaning in that which is socially-and-self-constructed.  She juxtaposes ecclesial norms (marriage, baptism, the gender of Jesus) with the semantic force of gender fluidity.  The hanging question and the wondering implication embraces the deconstruction.

That is not, in and of itself, a bad thing.  Genuine inquiry uses the semantic space to explore mystery.  There’s a lot to like in Percy’s essay and it has helped my own exploration.  But it does bring to bear the issues of theological language, and whether I am understanding what Percy is meaning.  Consider a word like “inclusion”, which is important enough to be in Percy’s sub-title, and which I affirm as a gospel imperative.  Does Percy mean it the way I mean it?  Or is it empty language which can only be inhabited with meaning if I share and agree with her constructed semantic?  Perhaps the answer is simply more dialogue, but the risk of cross-purposes remains significant. The fact that I need to ask these semantic questions reveals my fear: that we are more and more a church with a shared language, but a disparate sense of meaning, with separate methods of exploring the mysteries of this world that cannot easily be shared.

Posted in 2.0, General, Marriage & Sexuality Tagged with: , , , , , ,

Review: ‘I Find That Offensive’

ifocfHere’s an example of constructive polemic that goes where angels fear to tread. Left-wing libertarian, Claire Fox, critiques “Generation Snowflake” – the millenial generation, now in their young adulthood, who are readily caricatured by their insistence on things like safe-spaces and trigger-warnings, who have a propensity to take offence and call for silencing, de-platforming, and any number of other sanctions against those with whom they disagree.  Throughout this book, aptly named ‘I Find That Offensive’, Fox recounts various occurrences of such intolerance-in-the-name-of-tolerance that have embroiled and disparaged even champions of progressivism such as Germaine Greer.

Fox’s perilous journey through these issues walks a fine line.  Despite her leftward and presumably progressive leanings, she sometimes feels only half a step away from derisive Trumpism.  For the sake of fairness, then, it’s worth noting that she also has a message for the “anti-Snowflakes”, exhorting them to respond without just being “the un-PC rebel lashing out” or turning things into a “joking matter” (page 165).  And despite her pessimism, she does provide some thoughts on possible responses that are positive and at least somewhat remedial even if fundamentally lacking.

The value of Fox’s book is her main point of enquiry.  This comes after her first part where she describes the phenomenon at hand, recounting episode after episode in which free speech has been curtailed by official sanction, the fear of the politically correct landmine (page 9), the arrogant epistemology in which the offended person alone can “determine what your words really mean” (page 9), and the perplexing apparatus of “unconscious microaggressions” (page 20).  She then begins to examine generational psychology, particularly of victimhood as the currency of rhetorical authority (page 24), that can be appropriated by overzealous empathy (page 30) or claims of self-identity (page 37), and which frames mere disagreement as abusive violence.  It’s at this point she asks the key question: Why?

Why does this Generation exist like this?  What has brought about these symptoms?  From what root do these deeply-held assumptions about society, community, and humanity come from?  From my own perspective as a cultural observer, these are the gems to reveal.  And Fox is clear:

…why do the young – historically associated with risk-taking, experimentation, rule-breaking and pushing boundaries – now see safety as a trump-all virtue, so much so that concerns about safety are regularly deployed to censor, ban and retreat from argument?… why do so many teenagers and young adults , who as a generation have always been those who aspired to freedom from adult supervision and who regularly rebelled against authority diktat, now demand to live in a hermetically sealed, risk-free cocoon, protected from harm by authority figures who they complain do not police their ‘homes’ stringently enough?

The short answer is: we socialised them that way.  They have been reared on stories about how vulnerable and in need of protection they are.  Adult society has fed them a diet of anxieties and provided the language of safety and risk aversion that now threatens liberal values of tolerance and resilience.  We are reaping what we have sown – and the young Snowflake Generation, so quick to shout offence, are merely ventriloquising our own fears imposed on them as children. (Pages 66-67)

We are to blame!  That’s worth unpacking.

At this point Fox appears to step across the line into simplistic tirade.  She blames our focus on “health and safety madness” (page 67), public health scares (page 78), child protection systems (page 83), and the “anti-bullying bandwagon” (page 91).  Her points are mostly well-made – particularly with regard to helicopter parenting and the consequent diminishment of a generation’s resilience.  And her critiques of more sacred cows, such as anti-bullying and safeguarding are not without their validity.  Nevertheless, her analysis comes across as dismissal with only a cursory glance at the necessary place of some of these cultural developments.  Speaking from experience of necessary safeguarding in the church, there’s an obligation for commentators to be an apologist as well as a critic of measures that are proper defenses against the harming of children.

Her analysis retains its value though.  She begins with the symptoms, attempting to reveal the layers on which they rest.  She uncovers two hallmarks of Western Society that I have discovered in my own area of a Christian engagement with contemporary society.  These hallmarks are fear and consumerism.

For Fox the fear derives from parental anxiety and the “catastrophising of life’s challenges” (page 70).  A generation has interiorised an attitude in which “children are portrayed as vulnerable and helpless victims, rather than in any way resilient or competent – or indeed happy” (Page 74, quoting David Buckingham).  This is certainly apparent in church culture, in which parents’ fears about the world or their own perceived incompetence motivates both an outsourcing of their children’s spiritual care, and an infatuation with that which is passive and safe.  A very recent article in the Telegraph, “Parents fear that their religion will make their children outcasts” illustrates exactly this.

The consumerism factor leads to a sense of entitlement.  The culture of protectionism and super-vigilance by authority figures has led to a passivity.

However, a lack of awareness of this passivity can mean that young people themselves are flattered at such third-party interest.  They seem to enjoy being mollycoddled, gaining an artificial sense of empowerment from their various victim roles as well as feeling legitimised as objects of institutional concern and interventions. Hence we have two seemingly contradictory phenomena: generational fragility combined with narcissistic self-belief in one’s own importance.  (Page 116)

This also is prevalent in church culture, which has been forced like other institutions into a “service-consumer” dynamic (page 123).  Ministry is expected to merely entertain and stimulate, and key aspects of discipleship – self-examination, self-sacrifice, the cost of moral living, etc. – are anathema.

I end up sympathising, then, with Fox’s final exhortation to this current younger generation to not given into the “condescension” of mouthing “the identity-laden values that PC Baby Boomers and academic cultural relativists have been pushing at you for years” (page 150) and so “toughen up” (age 162) and grasp a more “vibrant sense of autonomy” (page 175) that can transcend the prevailing zeitgeist.  And her appeal to embrace a “new model of personhood, a new philosophy of freedom” (page 173) that seeks an “aspirational future” that “replaces safety as the end goal” (page 174) is almost on the money.

What I think is missing is something that can be encapsulated by the Christian sense of hope.  Such hope is realistic about the threats of the world, yet a source of great assurance.  It encapsulates an objective sense of value that places opposition outside of oneself (and therefore able to be not taken personally).  It also provides a sense of purpose that places other-centred doing of gospel good, rather than self-centred safety, as an aspiration and a goal.

Such hope is abstract, but relevant, applicable to all generations, and not least this current one that is rising up.

Posted in 2.0, Book Reviews, Progress and Pluralism Tagged with: , , , , , , ,