A few weeks ago on a popular TV show in Australia called Q&A, an interesting yet hard to watch interaction happened that once again made me reflect on the need for us as Christians to think seriously on how we are going to choose to interact with our culture in the liminal space in which the church currently finds itself in.
The show was a part of the Sydney Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Opera house and as usual it gathered together a few key thinkers for an interactive panel style discussion on the topics of the day. Q&A has a reputation for being an intimidating show to be on. This time the international panellists consisted of a feminist, a gay activist, an author and a Christian, all known for their ‘dangerous ideas’. So as you can imagine the whole thing was a bit of a bloodbath. (You can watch the episode here for yourself, to make up your own mind) The Christian was Peter Hitchens, brother of the late Christopher Hitchens who was a militant atheist. Having seen Peter in other interviews, I know that he is more than able to handle himself in such situations; however I think he genuinely struggled to present a convincing Christian presence on the panel. No doubt that it was a very tough gig! The panel and the audience were already very hostile towards Christianity but Hitchens did not help in this existing climate, as he became occasionally defensive, unfriendly and generally lacked humility and humour in his interaction and defence of Christianity. Once again to say, it was certainly a difficult gathering for a Christian to be a part of and moreover to respond with grace. Some Christians debriefing the show afterwards felt that Hitchens had actually performed very well, they cheered him on saying that he ‘gave back as good as he got’ on a panel with people who overall, were aggressive and occasionally rude.
What is our Posture?
This whole episode made me wonder again about the church’s posture in our culture today. Marginalised as we are in the West how do we engage? In a culture that is increasingly hostile where we are tempted to become defensive do we ‘fight back’ in order to stand our ground? Perhaps we should just retreat and keep to ourselves? It is a true and comforting thought that God is the one who has led the church in the West into a liminal space but it’s upsetting to think that we could be sending ourselves deeper into this space due to our own confusion of not knowing how to respond appropriately. I live in a city which is increasingly hostile towards Christianity and if not hostile then indifferent to its claims and practices; how do Christians engage in a city like this and many others like it around the West? It’s not a matter of trying to dig ourselves out of liminality but more about reflecting on and discerning with God’s Spirit on an appropriate response.
Missional theology helps us to understand and see clearly that the Father sent the Son into our world on mission and his chosen ‘strategy’ was incarnation. As opposed to sending an impersonal messenger, God became personally ‘affected’ and instead chose to engage with us through the most intimate strategy motivated by love- he became one of us. God chose to embody himself in Jesus. As a result we could say that there was no real sacred-secular dualism functioning in Jesus’ thinking when he walked this earth. In a sense, if The Holy has put on flesh then everything is made holy. Roger Helland and Leonard Hjalmarson in their book Missional Spirituality: Embodying God’s Love from the Inside out, say Jesus ‘…turned water into vintage wine at a wedding reception, had a noon hour theological conversation with a Samaritan women in public, touched and healed lepers, spent more time on the road than in the Jerusalem temple, announced that his own body was the temple of God, told lots of down to earth stories, came eating and drinking wine to the point that people said, “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners”’. So then logic goes that if God embodied himself in Jesus, this incarnational strategy must be ours too. Despite the intimacy, no matter the risk, regardless of the cost, we are to literally touch the lives of others who are possibly hostile towards us, with the embodied reality of God’s love. Stephen Bevans puts it well in Models of Contextual Theology saying, ‘Through us God must become Asian or African, black or brown, poor or sophisticated, a member of twentieth- century secular suburban Lima, Peru or of the Tondo slum dweller in Manila, or able to speak to the ill gotten affluence of a Brazilian rancher. Christianity …must continue God’s incarnation in Jesus by becoming contextual’. So keeping in mind this incarnational strategy and praxis, a foundation in missional theology, I found Miroslav Volf’s concept of “Soft Difference” helpful when thinking about how to engage well with our culture following after our incarnational God.
In an article called Soft Difference: Theological Reflections on the Relation Between Church and Culture in 1 Peter, Volf takes a look at the persecuted Christian community in the first letter to Peter and notes that the Christians at that time certainly would have been right to perceive their community to be existing in a hostile world. As Volf analyses this Christian community he says that they kept their identity by being different to the world but that this difference was a “soft difference” meaning not necessarily a weakness but a softness rather than a hard difference. A hard difference ‘operates with open or hidden pressures, manipulation and threats. A decision for soft difference on the other hand presupposes a fearlessness, people who are secure in themselves…are able to live the soft difference without fear. They have no need either to subordinate or damn others, but can allow others space to be themselves. For people who live the soft difference, mission fundamentally takes the form of witness and invitation. They seek to win others without pressure or manipulation, sometimes even ‘without a word’ (1Peter 3:1).
Facing Hostility and Indifference
This is important I think for Christians in the West who are often faced simultaneously with hostility and indifference. We want to maintain our identity as different to our world but our difference must be ‘soft’ in that as we incarnate Christ to others, we do so from a position of humility and we become a ‘faithful presence’ in our world as James Davidson Hunter says in his slightly ironically titled book To Change the World. We continue to speak truth and act against injustice, we seek the welfare of our city and engage with our world knowing that Jesus has made everything holy. Yet we do this not with the weapons of this world but with a cruciform attitude, convincing people with our gentleness and hope rather than hardness and cynicism. We debate with others who hold radically different views to our own yet all the while knowing that people will not so much be listening to our words but they will be watching how we embody the gospel, they will be carefully monitoring us to see if our practices match our beliefs. The practice of an embodied Christianity matters today in our marginalised position. In other words we are not to ‘give back as good as we get’ but we are to allow the Holy Spirit to convince people of the wonder of God as we incarnate the gospel and embody Christ’s teachings being his faithful presence in our world.
(ps We did all shout a loud Hurrah however at the very end of the Q&A episode when Peter Hitchens was asked to give an answer to what he thinks is still the most ‘dangerous’ idea today- the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the Son of God.)