I am excited to be back again with Fulcrum – though I confess I felt like Samuel, asking Saul, ‘Why have you disturbed me in bringing me back?’ When I returned to the university world eight years ago I consciously detached myself from the rough-and-tumble of church organisation and politics to concentrate again on the New Testament. This has been refreshing and I hope fruitful; I have learned things I wish I’d known half a century ago. At the same time, of course, I haven’t ignored the wider world, not least the two recent referendums. And I have watched the world becoming a more dangerous and unsettling place, with violence and lies at all levels, with cyber crime and refugee crises, and the widening poverty gap between the West and the Rest and within the West itself. We all know all this . . . and we might wonder what Fulcrum might have to say to such things.
Fulcrum started life with the aim of renewing and refreshing the evangelical centre. This meant both the centre of British evangelicalism and the sense and hope that evangelicalism might stand for something central within British Christianity as a whole. The word ‘evangelical’ is too good and strong to let others snatch it from us or redefine it to various narrow agendas, just as I think ‘catholic’ is too good a word to let the Romans have it all to themselves, and ‘liberal’ is too important to let the relativists steal it. And so on. And to suppose that the word ‘charismatic’ means ‘opposed to set liturgies and clerical robes’ is simply to capitulate to one of the spirits of the age . . . but more of that anon.
So, having thus displayed my Fulcrumesque qualifications, let’s return to the question. What has renewing the evangelical centre got to do with our witness to the nation? Might it not look like fiddling with in-house self-definition, copying the world in worrying about our own identity while the world itself hurtles towards new types of hell? The gospel is never about defining a small group. Despite popular impressions, the evangelical centre ought to grasp what Lesslie Newbigin insisted on, the gospel as public truth.
Evangelicals haven’t always been good at this. A generation ago the two defining marks of evangelicals – ‘conservative’ evangelicals, no less – were the authority of scripture and the substitutionary death of Jesus. Those two have often been used within a turn away from the world, creating a private spirituality in the present and an escapist salvation in the future. But Scripture itself insists that the good news of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah and the world’s lord, is for all people, summoning the world to a new and transforming allegiance. Scripture itself insists, though this is more complex to explain, that the substitutionary saving death of Jesus serves, not a detached soteriology where saved souls fly away to heaven, but the kingdom-agenda of the gospels in which, precisely through substitution, Jesus wins the victory over all the dark forces that have enslaved people and nations and that still try to maintain that grip despite that victory.
Let me explain briefly. I have written about this elsewhere and can only summarize. First, the great story of scripture is about the creator and the cosmos, with humans called to be God’s image-bearers within it. God’s aim is to rescue, renew and unite heaven and earth: that’s what Jesus taught us to pray for, and what the New Testament insists has begun with his resurrection and ascension and the gift of the Spirit. If you say ‘authority of scripture’ but simply mean ‘as opposed to tradition or reason’, and merely regard scripture as the book in which you can look up the right answers to troubling questions such as the details of how to go to heaven, you are not allowing scripture itself to be itself. You are accusing God of giving us the wrong sort of book. No; if we invoke scripture, let us live by scripture. Scripture is the great drama in which we constantly re-learn ‘the story so far’, particularly where that story climaxed and where it’s supposed to land, so that we may act and speak wisely and truthfully in a world which lives by quite different stories. Like Micaiah ben Imlach in 1 Kings 22, we stand humbly in the council of God so that we may then stand boldly in the councils of the nations. To think of scriptural authority in terms simply of Christians looking up right answers to doctrinal or ethical questions would be like someone regarding a musical score as providing examples of harmonic theory. No: we want to play the music. The world needs to hear it.
Likewise, to regard penal substitution as the means by which our sinful souls can leave this world and go to heaven is to cage the tiger. In western thought ‘the kingdom of God’ and ‘the saving work of the cross’ have been split apart; the gospels appear to focus on the kingdom, so people assume they don’t say much about atonement. But they do – by telling the story of Jesus standing in as the representative substitute for individuals, for Israel as a whole, and so for the world as a whole, thereby breaking the sin-laden grip of the powers and inaugurating God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. Victory through substitution: a victory to be implemented not by souls going to a Platonic heaven but by the principalities and powers being called to account. A more fully biblical view both of biblical authority itself and of substitutionary atonement ought thus to project us into the questions and challenges of today’s and tomorrow’s world.
Here we meet the major challenge: retelling and reliving the biblical narrative in a world which has its own powerful narratives, all the more powerful in fact for being normally unnoticed. If we are going to address the big issues of our time, whether it’s Brexit or Syria or cyber warfare, we have to understand the tectonic plates of worldviews that have been grinding together and producing our socio-cultural and political earthquakes.
The Clash of Narratives
Modern Western Christians are used to thinking of their implicit clash with the surrounding culture in terms of ‘secularism’. The secular world has dismissed God; we want to reclaim him. It’s actually a bit more complex than that, and unless we see the larger picture we won’t understand where the real issues lie.
In scripture, world history is focused on Israel as God’s people, chosen for a purpose. The four gospels see that purpose focused onto Israel’s Messiah, Jesus, and his public career, climaxing in his death and resurrection. God had always promised to set up his rule on earth as in heaven; this, shockingly, is how it was done. The promises of this-worldly transformation in the Psalms and Isaiah are not allegories for a Platonic heaven. Jesus insisted that the meek would inherit the earth. New creation is then launched in the resurrection and the gift of the Spirit. Israel had always expected a transformed and transformative new world, but that new world arrived in a surprising form, stretching forwards to the rescue and renewal of the whole created order as in Romans, 1 Corinthians or Revelation. Western theology has often baulked at all this, but Jesus’ resurrection means no less. Among the other implications is the centring of the single great narrative on Jesus himself. World history reached its climax with him, generating a new world and summoning people to share in it.
Here is the first and most important clash with the modern western worldview, which frames our current social and political dialogues of the deaf. Since the eighteenth century, we have constantly been told that the Western Enlightenment was the climax of history, the moment when the human race threw off superstition and came of age. The American and French revolutions, the revisionist histories of Gibbon and Hume, the evolutionary science of Erasmus Darwin, the economic theories of Adam Smith, the start of the sceptical reconstructions of the historical Jesus – all these and more betokened a new mood, a power grab at the social and cultural level as well as the philosophical and theological. God is out of the picture; we have grown up and are taking control of our own lives, of our world. Wotan is on the way out; the future belongs to Siegfried and Brünnhilde. This is where history has been going.
But there cannot be two climaxes of history. For the enlightenment, Jesus is at best a precursor, a long-range prophet of the true freedom announced by John Locke, Immanuel Kant and Thomas Jefferson. This is the main reason why the Enlightenment rejected Jesus’ resurrection: if Jesus rose from the dead then he really was the fulcrum of history, and the Enlightenment, and with it the whole modernist project, is shown up as a parody. Alternatively, if history really has reached a new saeculum with the eighteenth century – as, interestingly, Bishop David Jenkins said explicitly in his autobiography – then the transformation of this present world is not to be effected by the Triune God and his gospel but by the reforming zeal of secular humanism. Thus the ecclesial triumphalism of the early eighteenth century morphed into the secular triumphalism of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth. The Western churches, not least some evangelicals, have often gone along for the ride, forswearing social and political agendas as ‘worldly’ distractions from our ‘spiritual’ priorities. Our modern democratic systems, with their own internal peculiarities and contradictions, are then what you get when you pretend that human affairs should work like Darwinian biology, with voting functioning like natural selection: what John Milbank calls ‘the biopolitical’. Such a view – such a faith! – might be touchingly naïve, were it not so dangerous.
The Christian task of witnessing to the gospel in today’s world then faces the primary clash of narratives. The Enlightenment claim meets us everywhere. Every time somebody says ‘now that we live in the modern world’, or ‘now that we live in the twenty-first century’, we are hearing the same claim. The supposed evidence for the claim is the undoubted and often hugely beneficial results of modern science and technology, especially in medicine. But, as many have pointed out though most continue to ignore it, you cannot assume that because we can cure so many diseases and put a man on the moon then all our other cultural and moral innovations must be similarly positive. Modernist ‘Progress’ has produced Hiroshima and Auschwitz as well as penicillin and space travel. But the modernist rhetoric is regularly used to launch an explicit attack on the church, from the French Revolution to contemporary thinkers like Stephen Pinker. Many today are taught as a dogma that religion was disproved, and shown up as dangerous, with the rise of modern science.
Anyway, Enlightenment modernism is not, despite its own rhetoric, a new view growing out of modern scientific discoveries. It is an ancient view, claiming some scientific back-up. The Enlightenment project was explicitly retrieving ancient Epicureanism. Unlike the Stoic pantheists, the Epicureans thought of the gods as detached, unconcerned, uninvolved in our world. There was no commerce between heaven and earth. Changes in the world were not due to interfering divinities, but to the swerve and clash of random atoms. Epicureanism permeates Enlightenment modernism, from Machiavelli to Marx, from the Darwin family to the godless empires of the twentieth century. God is out of the picture; we can and must organise the world how we want. This is not only why we face an uphill struggle in speaking of God in public. It is also why we find it hard to understand where we are and what to do in the complexities of political life. The split between heaven and earth is so engrained in Western culture that we forget how odd it is in terms of world history and indeed in terms of most of today’s human societies.
Here is the key point. Ancient Epicureans were a small elite minority. Contemporary Epicureanism is the underlying philosophy of a somewhat larger elite minority, loosely called ‘the Western world’. The Epicurean philosophers tried to emulate the gods, looking down from their comfortable villas on the poor wretches toiling in the city. The Western world instinctively thinks of itself as looking down from its ‘developed’ height on the underdeveloped and unenlightened rest of the world, from Somalia to Syria. We try to avoid sounding patronizing but it’s built in to the Enlightenment worldview. The modern European project at its best was a way of avoiding damaging squabbles among this elite. At its worst it is a rich man’s club, organised for the benefit of the elite, and of local elites within the system. Not surprisingly, some of those outside our elite club want to beat us, and others want to join us. Half our present problems start right there.
Put these two points together – the modern world as the climax of history and Epicureanism as the shape of the cosmos – and you have a genuinely new phenomenon: a whole philosophy of history without God. The two great interpretative schemes of the nineteenth and twentieth century, progress and revolution, are rooted here. Progress, from Hegel to Hitler, is basically Judaeo-Christian providence-theology without God: the world is automatically getting better and better. Liberal democracy still clings to this, speaking, as Hillary Clinton did of the disastrous ‘Arab Spring’, of the importance of being ‘on the right side of history’. Revolution, from Robespierre to Marx and beyond, is basically Judaeo-Christian apocalyptic theology without God: things will get worse, and then there will be a sudden transformative irruption. Neither progress nor revolution, of course, has gone according to plan; but there is no alternative narrative. Part of the underlying dynamic within the Brexit debate is between these two false alternatives.
The result, as Pope Benedict declared ten years ago, is that the Enlightenment’s ‘human rights’ project, originally rooted in Jewish and Christian sources, is itself vulnerable. If you cut off its roots, as Epicurean secularism does, the fruits will go sour – as the ‘rights’ agenda collapses into a thousand special-interest groups, each one claiming in shrill tones that it is the real ‘victim’, thus claiming the only apparent moral high ground in the bleak Epicurean landscape which collapses ethics into emotivism. This gives our current debates their bitter flavour. Modernist rationalists (like Max Hastings in the Times a week ago) deplore the collapse of civil discourse and rational debate, but they have colluded with the theology and philosophy that have produced the now ubiquitous appeal to ‘feelings’, which of course produces not debate but angry rhetoric.
Today’s Western culture, then, is founded on this great belief: that history has reached its liberating goal which now has to be implemented, that we have to do this implementation ourselves since the gods aren’t around to interfere, and that this work will automatically produce a desirable ‘progress’. These beliefs, however, are normally invisible, taken for granted, so people don’t realise that they are both dominant and incoherent, leaving deadly loose ends. That’s why, as a culture, we don’t know what to do about resurgent nationalism, about the refugee crisis, about extending Europe in the East or preventing it imploding in the West. The stories that got us here have run out of steam and we don’t know where to go now. Welcome to postmodernity.
We cannot understand our world, let alone address it with the gospel, unless we grasp the roots and dynamic of the postmodern turn. From Kierkegaard to Nietzsche, from Marx and Freud to Derrida and Lyotard, thinkers have declared that this modern posturing is all a sham, a Tower of Babel tottering and about to collapse. Wagner’s Ring cycle is all about this; so is Barth’s famous Romans commentary, and indeed his still more famous NEIN to Emil Brunner. When human arrogance reaches its height, someone has to declare that the emperor has no clothes.
That, of course, is what’s behind Brexit and much besides. If we think of the Leavers as simply little-Englanders, or for that matter if we think of the Scottish Nationalists as simply romantic Braveheart-fans, we miss the point. I know why Sunderland voted for Brexit and why Dundee voted for Scottish independence (though I didn’t myself vote for either). When the modernist project, from which God was carefully removed at the start, gets larger and more powerful, it becomes, as Europe is perceived to have become and as Westminster is perceived by some Scots to have become, careless about local effects, unaccountable economically, a self-serving and self-congratulatory elite. You then have the classic seedbed for postmodernity, for the reassertion of the smaller narratives, for ‘identity politics’. That is the inevitable backlash when people sense that an amorphous and alien ‘identity’ has been wished on them and is squashing them out of shape.
The great tensions of our time – modernity versus postmodernity, progress versus revolution, if you like – are thus instantiations of the tension between ‘solidarity’ and ‘difference’: the ‘solidarity’ that tries to put everything together under one roof to create a single organic unity, the ‘difference’ that insists on not being reshaped on someone else’s Procrustean bed. Our many confusions about multiculturalism fit right here. We do not have a wise and well-understood narrative with which to say at the same time that we want to live together and that we want to do so as different peoples with different integrities. We do not have a shared framework, a ‘social imaginary’ in Charles Taylor’s term, within which we can address the question of which local differences will make a difference in a larger shared project – one thinks of obvious examples like FGM – and which ones can be happily accommodated. And the combination of postmodernism and postcolonialism makes it harder and harder to talk about any larger shared project without people objecting that they are being treated patronizingly as ‘honorary’ members of some elite that is still holding on to socio-cultural and political power. I have lectured about Paul’s vision of a church in which there is ‘neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, no “male and female”’, and I have been confronted by African-American women warning me that it sounds to them as though all Christians are now simply allowed to be honorary white males.
Here there is another element in which we in Fulcrum might be specially interested. European institutions are often top-down, ideologically determined systems. That has never been how we do things in Britain. Last year at a conference in Strasbourg I listened in horrified amazement to a devout Catholic judge from Portugal, a senior figure in the European Court of Human Rights, explaining that they had now worked out more layers of what ‘human rights’ actually meant, and that it was their moral obligation to impose this new well-thought-out scheme on all participant countries. One of the best known examples was the principle that convicted criminals in jail had the right to vote – which Britain has always resisted. Whatever the merits of that case, the point is that the system was claiming the right to produce, and apply, a top-down detailed ideology, just as the architectural plans for a new Roman Catholic cathedral in Caracas or Kuala Lumpur will be sent out from an office in the Vatican.
Of course, in many European countries these centrally produced and ideologically driven codes will have no effect. That’s another part of the problem. We in Britain, with our common laws growing up from beneath, tend to think we ought to observe the law. But in many parts of Europe the laws are seen as generalised guidelines, idealistic but impractical and therefore in effect flexible and fluid. It was always going to be a problem, first making laws on the basis of ideology – if God is out of the picture, where else do they come from? – and then imposing them on cultures whose attitude to laws themselves differ wildly. The only surprise is that something like Brexit hasn’t happened long ago. There is a sense in which (though I know the point is strongly contested) the impulse towards Brexit goes back to Henry VIII.
Please note, I am saying nothing now about the merits or otherwise of Brexit. I am simply pointing out the underlying narratives of European Epicureanism and ‘progress’ and the ways they reflect the shifting of tectonic plates between modernity and postmodernity. If we treat the issue as being simply about xenophobia or a ‘little England’ mentality we won’t get to the depths of it – let alone be able to think through a Christian response.
The trouble is that both modernism and postmodernism are parodies of Christian principles. As such, they are parasitic: they gain their strength from the residue of the gospel within western culture, but as they expand they suck the life out of the host. Modernity tries to achieve, without God, without Jesus, something like what is actually promised in the gospel – a community of equals where all can flourish. Postmodernity tries to announce, again without God or Jesus, a judgment on human arrogance. Modernity wants the kingdom without the cross. Nihilistic Postmodernity wants the negation of the cross without the resultant kingdom. Modernity had a ‘gospel’ – the good news that humans came of age in the eighteenth century and all we had to do was to implement the resultant progressive liberalisation. Things haven’t worked out that way. Postmodernity quite rightly preaches the doctrine of the Fall to arrogant modernity; but when you preach the Fall you need a gospel of redemption to follow. Neither Nietzsche, Freud nor Derrida, nor even Richard Wagner, could offer that. Can we?
At this point many Christians, sadly including many evangelicals, will simply revert to type and say that since their task is to save souls from hell for heaven all this is simply irrelevant. That’s what many in our culture think Christians are about. If we step outside that, into public affairs, people shout at us to go back to our prayers. The secularising narrative is so deeply woven into popular consciousness, including popular Christian consciousness, that it’s hard to uproot. But we who believe in scriptural authority, and in the kingdom-bringing death and resurrection of Jesus, cannot rest content there. What has happened, I think, is that the Western churches in the nineteenth century, faced with the Epicurean split of heaven and earth, reached for Plato instead of the Bible. Your ‘soul’ has its true home in ‘heaven’, so the point is to find your way back there. That’s Plutarch, not Paul. The Bible teaches that Jesus of Nazareth launched the new creation on earth as in heaven and poured out his Spirit to continue that work and bring it into ever new dimensions of reality. The modernist, glimpsing the dream of new creation, tries to get the result without paying the price: hence the great godless Soviet Union, and its lesser imitator, the European Union. The postmodernist, seeing that arrogance and its results, sneers at it and undermines it. The EU is essentially modernist; Brexit is essentially postmodern. Brexit, with all its lies, xenophobia and sheer rabble-rousing nonsense, is at its heart trying to do to the EU what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did to the Soviet Union: telling the counter-narrative, exposing the ugly side of the shiny rhetoric. The Western ‘take’ on the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ was horribly, naively, modernist: we assumed that all you had to do was to topple dictators and western democracy would spring up automatically. The present state of Syria and Libya, to look no further, is the postmodern answer, symbolized by every overloaded boat full of anxious refugees.
So what is the Christian task? What might it look like to tell and live the scriptural narrative as opposed to the eighteenth-century one and its developing variations and counter-variations? As in other areas, the Christian task is not to produce a revived or chastened modernism; certainly not to rest content with the postmodern scepticism; but to name what is actually going on, and then to build towards a genuinely post-postmodern world, not running back to the security of Epicurean elitism but to look to the genuine worldwide community rooted in the gospel. Think of what Paul says in Ephesians 3: that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. Scripture points to a larger narrative which holds both the EU and Brexit to account: the danger with opposing xenophobic ‘little-England’ views is that we then settle for more subtly xenophobic ‘little-Europe’ views instead. The rest of the world knows only too well what that means. And with this I think we have arrived at a thoroughly Fulcrumesque point: the biblical vision of the church as the body which cheerfully confronts the powers of the world with the news that Jesus is Lord.
The Calling of the Church: Unity, Holiness, Worship, Suffering
The church may from time to time be able to speak actual words into our confused culture. But, as we all know, what counts far more is the life and work of God’s people. What we teach young clergy is true for the church as a whole: they won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Of course, the media, particularly in Britain, have long tried to pose as the guardians of public morality, so they love to pounce on the church when it misbehaves, or indeed when it pontificates without thinking things through. There are, thank God, a thousand things which the churches do, all the time, which actually send a positive message into the world even though, for the same reason, they never get reported. But God is not mocked. The life of the church continues to tell the more complex but life-giving true story of which the great secular narratives of our age are self-serving parodies.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians holds out not only the narrative I have been expounding but also the symbolic praxis of the church through which that narrative comes into public view. In order to get to 3.10 – the verse where Paul speaks of the church revealing God’s manifold wisdom to the powers – we work through chapters One and Two. They offer what neither the modernist artificial solidarity nor the postmodern fragmented difference can achieve: the layered, many-sided unity of a people redeemed and so transformed by the gospel. God’s plan, says Paul in chapter 1, is to sum up in the Messiah all things in heaven and on earth. If the church had taken that seriously, from the Middle Ages onwards, all kinds of folly, particularly Platonist folly, could have been avoided. For Israel, heaven and earth were joined in the wilderness Tabernacle and then the Jerusalem Temple, symbolizing the new creation in which the original vision of Genesis would at last be completed. Various Jewish renewal movements saw themselves in terms of temple-renewal. That’s where Jesus himself made his fateful mark, claiming to do and be what the temple was and did – the place where, and the means by which, the living God returned at last in power and redemptive glory.
For Paul, this at once generates the vision of the church as a single family, the new Temple in which the living God comes to dwell by the Spirit. Once we learn to read the Bible the right way up we find that its whole emphasis is not on us finding our way to God but on God’s desire to dwell in our midst. For that to happen, of course, the people must be rescued and cleansed, as in Ephesians 2.1–10. But with that cleansing there is no longer any barrier between Jew and Gentile, as in 2.11–22. The church exists in the world as the community that Caesar would love to have created if he could – that the Treaty of Rome would love to have created if it could: the genuinely multi-coloured and multi-faceted mutually enriching human community of the Messiah’s people.
Part of our problem is that, from the Reformation onwards, the Western churches, including then the Roman Catholics themselves, have forgotten this calling. The vital principle of having the Bible and public worship in one’s own language quickly became the de facto principle of ethnically based churches, each developing its own theology, usually forgetting that it is the transcultural unity of the Messiah’s people that reminds the principalities and powers that Jesus is Lord and has already won the victory. That, then, is why the second half of Ephesians is what it is: the appeal for unity through multiple ministries, the insistence on a radical holiness that unveils to the puzzled and hostile world the fact that there is a different way to be human, a way to be genuinely human, which makes strenuous demands that can only be met through cross, resurrection and spirit. The passage on marriage, in particular, reflects the unity of heaven and earth in chapter 1 and that of Jew and Gentile in chapter 2; but signs of creation’s renewal are demanding and costly. Thus, when the church even begins to live by Ephesians 1–5 it will find itself plunged into the spiritual warfare of Ephesians 6. The modernist world – including the post-war ideologies of left and right, of East and West – doesn’t want to be shown up by the genuine article of which it is the parody. The postmodern world, including the shrill ‘little stories’ of the various would-be victims – doesn’t want to be told that after the judgment of the cross comes the new creation of the resurrection, and certainly doesn’t want to be reminded of the real victims, the majority of the world who were always outside the Epicurean club. This is where the church will need to call on all its resources of prayer and patience. And we should be doing this together with our Christian family around the world, including around Europe but explicitly building bridges with those who, from within or without, see Europe as a threat or a self-serving elite. What the EU could not achieve, being weak through the arrogant flesh of various power-brokers, God can do, producing a human and Christian community that will enable new patterns of international community and cooperation to emerge.
The other obvious Pauline contribution to our question comes in Philippians. The church is summoned to let its public life be worthy of the gospel of the Messiah, and much of chapter 2 explains what that will look like. The messianic pattern of life will shine out like a light in a dark place. But in chapter 4 we find the delicate balance. Whatever is true, holy, upright, pure, attractive, of good reputation – anything virtuous, anything praiseworthy – these are the things you should think through. The world is full of signposts to the goodness and beauty of God; but our contemporary media constantly feed us with lies, unholiness, ugliness and shame. We need to find ways to celebrate all that is of God, wherever it’s found. But this doesn’t mean an easy-going ethic where the church learns its behaviour from the world around. The next verse gives the balance. Paul says, ‘This is how you should behave: what you learned, received, heard, and saw in and through me,’ through Paul the suffering and celebrating apostle. An open spirit that looks for goodness and beauty anywhere in the world; a renewed-human ethic which insists on gospel-shaped behaviour. Celebrate the goodness of creation; model the lifestyle of new creation. That double-edged vocation creates the context for the church to speak with integrity into the puzzled and hostile world.
Here I turn finally to John’s gospel for help in thinking how this might translate into a word to land in our culture. The days are long gone when the church, including bishops in the Lords, could expect to be heard simply on the basis that we are Christians. Many see that as a reason why we should not be heard; many Christians have gone along with this, restricting themselves to teaching the faithful how to escape the world. John’s gospel won’t leave us that option. Work back from John’s ‘great commission’ on the evening of Easter Day, in John 20: ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you.’ The church is called to be for the world what Jesus was for Israel – and, indeed, what Jesus, as Israel’s representative, was for the whole world, in the person of Caesar’s representative, Pontius Pilate. What might it look like for the church to address the world as Jesus addressed his people, and as, on behalf of his people, he addressed the dark and deadly empire?
John’s first answer is to insist that this is why we are given the Spirit. The Spirit is not given to make us feel good, though that may happen as a by-product. The Spirit is given to hold the world to account. In John 16.8–11, at the heart of the Farewell Discourses, Jesus declares that when the Spirit comes he will convict the world, prove the world wrong, in relation to sin, righteousness and judgment. The world’s failure to believe in Jesus is the give-away sign of its rebellion against God, its failure to be the genuinely human community it ought to be. We in whom the Spirit dwells are called to articulate that critique. The arrogant attempt of the world to do its own forms of justice ignores the fact that in raising Jesus from the dead God the creator has announced the true justice, the true putting-right of the world. All human justice must now take its lead from that ultimate revelation of divine judgment. We in whom the Spirit dwells are called to articulate that justice. The world thinks that it has the right to pronounce judgment; but ‘the ruler of this world’ is judged, is judged on the cross where the Son of Man is lifted up to take upon himself the burden of sin which enables the dark power to retain its grip. We in whom the Spirit dwells are called to announce that the ruler of the world is judged. This is the point at which we are to understand the roots of our current dangerous muddles, not just about Brexit (beware parochialism!) but about the refugee crisis, the new Cold War, and much besides.
This frightening agenda, inviting us to march boldly into the lions’ den, is exemplified almost at once as Jesus stands before Pilate, and argues with him about kingdom, truth and power. Our world is just as confused as Pilate was on all three counts. Different forms of kingdom have been tried and found wanting; truth has collapsed again and again into fake news; the only constant – as with Pilate – is the power of violence. The Farewell discourses and the trial before Pilate, ending with Jesus’ own death, constitute for me the centre of the New Testament’s political theology: Jesus gathers his followers and charges them to a life of unity and holiness, not so they can forget the world but so that they can hold the world to account, even as they are living out in themselves the new creation, the new way of being human, which will carry its own conviction.
I could give many examples of communities that are doing this, though as I said they don’t normally make the news headlines, so the church can easily be portrayed as stuck in its own ever-shrinking mud. I think of food banks, educations projects, drug rehab centres, marriage counselling, peace-making and so on. A high proportion of volunteers in our country, in these and other areas, are Christians. But I want to finish with this. The vision of new creation, and of Jesus’ followers as the new humanity called to model, announce and implement that new creation already in the power of the Spirit, will flow out of and flow back into worship.
I am deeply concerned about the unthinking slide, in the last evangelical generation, into a free-floating, disordered non-liturgical worship in which the Psalms are seldom if ever used, in which scripture is not read extensively in public, in which the sacraments are often perfunctory and apologetic, in which most of the sung lyrics, and the music which carries them, are essentially postmodern, with deconstructed fragments of dogma and devotion matched by the deconstructed fragments of tunes. This postmodern format, though perhaps a necessary protest against an over-formal earlier style, cannot be the right place to stay. Non-liturgical or even anti-liturgical worship is the liturgical equivalent of Brexit: it may be making a protest against the formality of an earlier modernism, but it cannot express or point the way into that post-postmodernism which our culture, our politics, desperately needs. Good liturgy isn’t everything, but bad liturgy isn’t anything.
You see, our culture is stuck because we have the wrong story in our heads. Non-liturgical worship allows that wrong story to go unchallenged. Good liturgy acts out the right story, that world history reached its climax in Jesus. Our culture is stuck in an Epicurean mode, the split-level world in which heaven and earth are held apart. Much evangelical and charismatic worship allows that to go unchallenged, merely relying on Plato to get the soul in good shape and on its way out of here. Good liturgy holds heaven and earth together, relishing the points at which, in physical beauty and movement, the life of heaven is portrayed here on earth (yes, with all the attendant dangers). Our culture imagines that ‘progress’ – social, cultural, even moral! – is automatic. Good liturgy challenges that with the drama of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the ever-fresh outpouring of the Spirit.
To put it starkly: if you never sing Psalm 72, how will you be reminded that Israel’s Messiah is already ruling from one sea to the other, from the River to the ends of the earth, and that his reign is what the world needs because he, and he alone, will deliver the poor when they cry, and rescue the widow and the orphan? The EU won’t do that, and neither will the Brexiteers. The Arab Spring didn’t do this, and neither will Trump or Putin. If you never live through the eucharist as the enacted drama of salvation, how will you be able to challenge the dominant narratives of our culture? And, as Israel’s king was charged with building the Temple so that the divine glory might fill the house, so, when the true king does justice – and we, his servants, are charged by his Spirit to announce just that – then, as in the glorious conclusion to Psalm 72, God’s glory will at last fill the whole earth. That vision in the Psalm sums up what I’ve been saying. My plea is that, in worship as in witness, we work our way through the odd collusion of postmodernity and low-churchmanship, and allow the full evangelical message of new creation to be lived, danced, sung, spoken transformatively into our muddled and dangerous world. Now there’s an agenda to keep Fulcrum going for the next fifteen years.
Tom Wright is Professor Emeritus of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews, and Senior Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford