Wednesday, October 05, 2016

On not fighting the culture wars

For most of the British Christians I know, it is a source of some pride or at least satisfaction that we are not fighting the culture wars.  A quick glance across the Atlantic appears to reveal a war-zone in which Christians are fighting what looks very much like a desperate and increasingly compromised rear-guard action against the modern world.  We are pretty glad to be out of it.

There are a number of reasons we're not fighting the culture wars, I think.  For starters, Christians are fairly evenly spread across the main political traditions in the UK, which makes it almost impossible for us to act as a block in political matters.  There is enormous value in this for the church - it means that we have represented in our congregations people who see the goodness in each of those political traditions, which keeps us from becoming narrow, and it brings us regularly into contact with people who share our fundamental allegiance (to Christ) whilst having a largely different political loyalty, which keeps us from becoming too partisan.  This is good.  I think there is also a different tradition of Bible-reading and interpretation, less influenced by fundamentalism (in its historic, not its pejorative, sense), which is less quick to shut down discussion with a 'because the Bible says so'.  This, I think, is also good.

Because there are good theological reasons not to join in this fight.  I think the central reason is that the gospel is not a worldview or a philosophy or a rule-book for society, but is the glorious and joyful good news of what God has done in Christ.  That good news cannot be identified absolutely with any worldview or form of society, but critiques them all; it is therefore not in order to use the gospel to defend a nostalgic or utopian social order.  Then again, there is good theological reason to avoid fighting because the offensive or defensive posture necessary for the culture wars does not sit well with the openness of the gospel or the freedom of its invitation.  Angry or frightened soldiers don't as a rule look like emissaries of the gracious King.

Still, I have a few anxieties.  The first one is about motivation.  There are all sorts of potential motives for not fighting the culture wars which are really good, but I can't help feeling that quite often we don't fight because we want to look good or credible to the world, or just because we're afraid of taking a stand for anything.  That is something I need to check my own heart on.

Second, I'm anxious that by not fighting we must just be losing by default.  After all, it only takes one side to start a war.  When you notice the preponderance of stories on the BBC seeking to normalise the idea of gender fluidity, for example, it's hard to escape the impression that just because we're not fighting doesn't mean we're not being fought against.

Third, I'm anxious that we're allowing a social order to solidify which presents a sort of penultimate challenge (in Bonhoeffer's sense) to the gospel.  That is to say, although issues of, for example, sexuality or economics are not ultimately gospel issues, it is entirely possible to create a setup of penultimate things which makes it harder for the ultimate (the gospel message) to be heard.  I wonder if we're doing that.

Fourth, I'm anxious for my children, who are growing up in a world where a Biblical stance on numerous ethical and social issues is completely implausible - much more so than when I was young.  Have we let them down?

Fifth, but perhaps most urgently, I'm anxious - or rather, distressed - at the way in which we've allowed issues of the utmost importance - like the value of life - to become grey areas.  There's nothing grey about killing babies, and I'm not sure that avoiding fighting the culture wars, even for good motives, is a good reason not to speak up.

I don't want to fight the culture wars.  I don't think we'd win anyway, and I don't think it would do the cause of Christ's gospel any good.  But what are we going to do?


  1. If only more Christians were asking these questions! I think you describe some of the tensions the church faces very well. Some thoughts:
    I'd agree that the gospel is not a blueprint for a society: that's the issue I'd have with Reconstructionists such as Rushdoony, that they see the implementation of Christian law as a key part of the Church's mission (ironically, the church tends to get side-lined in the process). I prefer to think of Christian law as a result of mass conversion: if the rulers of society are supposed to serve Jesus (Psalm 2) and seek what is good for society as Paul suggests, it seems natural that Christian rulers would want to govern based on what has been divinely revealed as truly good. The law would then have a limited capacity in teaching what is ethically good and restraining evil as far as possible - no utopia, of course, in a still fallen world, but the best that could be done. The gospel would remain the distinct message of the church. I think that the Christian Culture Warriors of the US and (marginally) in the UK are often blind to the necessity of initial mass heart conversion - and, indeed, the secular assumptions of the right that undermine their project anyway.
    But perhaps more dangerous is that much of the church in the this country seems to assume our current system is a sort of neutral tool that’s basically fine – if only the state would knock off abortion and the gender-fluidity propaganda (I’m not saying that’s your attitude). But I do think that it’s hard to make a case against either of those things without a particular metaphysic – and no metaphysic can be privileged in a liberal society except for the lowest common denominator utilitarian pleasure/pain principle, or individualist rights language, to keep things together in some way. In other words, I don’t think we can make any case against abortion except for a theological one – but then, why not call for adultery to be illegal too, since that causes so much pain and social chaos? Are we constantly switching between two hats in terms of how we argue and what we argue for?
    In any case, I don’t think there’s much we can do. It’s far too late – I suspect our society is heading for self-destruction fairly quickly. God judged Israel harshly for its child sacrifice and perversions, so I think we can expect the same (although I’d pray for a different outcome, of course). The question is: will the church live as a witness to the beauty of God’s ways, whether we see a harvest or not? If our witness is still there on the other side, our nation may indeed turn back to God.
    Sorry to ramble, but I do find these issues fascinating.

    1. I think your central question really is the important one. Will we keep witnessing to the beauty of God's ways? It's made me think that the really important thing here is church as alternative society - open to and serving wider society, but in its structures and values being unashamedly different, and saying to the world essentially "are you sure God's way isn't better?"

      I do think that as a matter of short term tactics it is possible to mount non-theological arguments against abortion. One alarming thing I've noticed recently is a willingness to accept all the arguments - i.e. to accept that abortion may well involve killing an actual human being - but to insist that choice trumps it all. At that point I confess there are no non-theological arguments to be made, since it is already a theological argument - basically a human being saying "I am God".

      The lectionary took me to Psalm 37 this morning, which was helpful - "fret not yourself because of evildoers..."

  2. Yes, absolutely - there needs to be a much stronger sense of the church being a distinct society that eats at the table of the Lord rather than at the table of demons.

    Interesting point re: abortion. I've been reading Plato's Republic recently and was reminded by a passing mention of the fact that the Greeks were happy to leave unwanted infants in the countryside to die. We're not that far off such an attitude - or from Plato's State as the primary child-rearer, for that matter.