The forgotten allure of the Bible in a culture suspicious of words.

A few days ago I wrote about whether post-modernism might be waning as the predominant worldview in contemporary culture. This gave rise to some interesting suggestions of what might be replacing it, which you can read about here. However, even if we are beginning to see the tail end of the post-modern movement, it is still deeply embedded as a worldview so we can’t afford to ignore it just yet.

With this in mind, my second question as I came to lecture this week (on communicating ‘the written word to a visual culture’) was how the Christian church should respond to those who have a post-modern mindset, especially when it comes to Bible teaching.

Contrary to the view that many people hold, much of what takes place in the church is actually very attractive to Post-moderns. Authentic worship, genuine community, enquiry through discussion, and even the visual (and sensual) mystery of sacramental worship all tick the boxes on a checklist of ‘what post-modern people should like’.

But it is the Bible which should be our biggest asset when it comes to reaching post-moderns, because it is primarily narrative, and ‘story’ is THE defining method of communication for post-moderns.

Before I go on, I need to qualify that last statement, and it will come as no surprise that in an attempt to define post-modernism, I turn to Jean-Françis Lyotard, who in his 1979 essay ‘The Postmodern Condition’ writes “simplifying in the extreme, I define postmoden as an incredulity towards any meta-narrative”.

For Lyotard, a meta-narrative was a demythologised story, and what he was reacting against was the sort of the formula which Rudolf Bultmann had applied to the Bible. Bultmann was looking for a kernel of meaning in the text, but he sought to strip the story away to uncover this meaning (or truth) “so that modern people could still find the gospel relevant to their existence in the world without having to accept its miracle-laden stories” (view source)

Now with that definition of a meta-narrative, it seems incredible that evangelical Christians could claim meta-narrative as a Christian distinctive. But this is exactly what our natural response to post-modernism has been. In reaction to the claim that meta-narratives are bad, we have been quick to point out that the Bible is not a collection of unconnected stories, but the unified, unfolding, revelation of God by himself. Isn’t this a meta-narrative? Don’t we need to understand the meaning behind the story? Can we find a unifying system for understanding the text?

In the introduction to his recent book ‘The Christian Faith – A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way’ Michael Horton argues that to call the Bible meta-narrative in this way is to misunderstand Lyotard and so misread the post-modern reaction to the Bible. If we do this then we are in danger of a serious breakdown in communication with our culture, as we confirm their view that the Church has nothing to say to them.

For Lyotard, a metanarrative is a certain way in which modernity has legitimized its absolutist discourse and originated or grounded it in autonomous reason. “In philosophical discourse,” notes Merold Westphal, “meta signifies a difference of level and not primarily of size.” Biblical faith, however, does not legitimize itself or ground itself in this way. “Now, undeniably Christianity is a mega narrative, a big story. But the story that begins with ‘Let there be light’ and ends with the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ under the baton of the angel Gabriel is not a meta narrative. (view source)

“The prophets and apostles did not believe that God’s mighty acts in history (meganarratives) were dispensable myths that represented universal truths (metanarratives). For them, the big story did not point to something else beyond it but was the point itself.”

Does this undermine our insistence that the Bible has ultimate meaning? Not at all, I think it reinforces it. In fact we need to see that a ‘modern’ approach to Bible teaching presents just as many pitfalls for the Christian.

“Christianity has at least as good grounds as Lyotard to be sceptical and suspicious, sceptical of claims to be the voice of pure reason … and suspicious when … modernity’s metanarratives are seen for what they are, the self-congratulatory self-legitimation of modernity.”

“Metanarratives attempt to justify “us” and judge the rest of the world, while in biblical faith God judges us as well and justifies the ungodly” (view source)

If we agree with Horton (which I think we have excellent grounds for doing) then our response to teaching the Bible in a post-modern context will not be to insist that we have a meta-narrative to be accepted, but rather to show that our personal story is wrapped up in the biggest story, and that this mega-narrative enriches and gives meaning to our lives.

So much for the theory, what does this look like as we stand up and try to communicate the Bible to our culture. Well, first of all we might want to suggest that ‘standing up and trying to communicate’ is a fairly modern way of operating, and that we would get further by ‘sitting down and exploring together’.

While this is undoubtedly helpful (see what I did there – in Post-modernism things are no longer true or false, they are helpful or unhelpful), I am going to spend the rest of this post thinking about how we prepare for teaching. Maybe the comments could develop practical ideas for taking this further to dialogue and more ‘inductive styles of preaching.

As I said at the start, the Bible ought to be our biggest asset in reaching post-moderns, because it is narrative. That means that we need to let the story speak for itself, allowing the divine commentary to shape our interpretation and application.

At a recent PGP study day, David Jackman shared a very helpful equation, which has re-energised me to preach narrative (and to teach others to do so too).

Event + Explanation = Revelation

The Bible’s narrative passages come with their own commentary. These are the explanations which accompany the recorded events. Sometimes these are comments from the inspired author, sometimes more directly from the mouths of God’s human prophets and angelic messengers, but in every case they allow us to see the story from God’s perspective.

Take as an example, the passage I’m going to be preaching on this Sunday, 1 Samuel 13:1-15. This passage is a description of how King Saul (Israel’s first king) finds that his military skirmishes result in the full force of the Philistine army marching out to fight him, and as his courage and his army ebb away, Saul offers sacrifices to God.

Now as an event, there are a lot of lessons which we might want to draw out of Saul’s behaviour. It seems that his pride has led to the opposition from the Philistines. It seems that what today we would call ‘a serious failure of leadership’ has led to the desertion and demoralisation of his army. It might even seem to some that Saul’s hesitation to trust God and attack have already lost him the battle.

But none of these lessons are what I will be trying to draw out of the story, because this is looking at the event, without listening to the explanation. Because in the final verses of the passage the prophet Samuel comes to Saul and says (1 Samuel 13:13-14):

“You acted foolishly,” Samuel said. “You have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the LORD’S command.”

Suddenly the story has meaning, and we can see that all of the events recorded in verses 1-12 reveal that Saul is not a ‘man after God’s own heart’. So we see that Saul’s actions (his disobedience to God’s commands) point us to someone whose actions show us that they are ‘a man after God’s own heart’. In the case of 1 Samuel, this explanation points us first to David, ultimately to Jesus, and then (as we receive what Jesus has done for us and seek to fellow his example) to ourselves.

So-far, so modern, but once we’ve seen this we can then retell the story and dwell in the narrative, but at each point showing how this small story is part of the bigger story, and how this encompasses our story as well.

I need to credit Nick Gowers for much of what follows, but my outline for this sermon will probably be along the lines of:

The man after God’s own heart:

  • Doesn’t panic in the face of insurmountable opposition (vs1-10)
  • Doesn’t attempt to justify himself (vs11-12)
  • Has a secure future in God’s plans.

(This isn’t a sermon writing blog, but of course, any comments that will help my preaching will be gratefully received.)

So, in summary, are we confident to let the Bible speak for itself? In a culture incredulous about reducing the story to a statement of belief, we have all the tools we need to connect with our post-modern culture.

So let’s tell our story, and lets help our hearers to discover how their story can be caught up in the greatest story ever told.

Choosing worship songs for children

Every month we have an all-age ‘family service’ at church, and as in that service we try and include songs which are particularly suitable for children. At the moment we’re trying to increase our repertoire, but what are we looking for in a worship song for children?

Now I probably need to apologise in advance, because I’m not a musician, so I’m looking mainly at the words and content – I’ll leave the musical consideration to those who know what they’re talking about.

What makes a good Children’s worship song?

  • First of all I’m looking for theological substance. This sounds like a tall order for simple songs, but I want them to proclaim truth about God or express our response to Him in Worship.
  • Songs which make Bible verses memorable or easy to understand are a great way to get scripture on our lips.
  • Songs which tell a Bible story or parable.
  • Psalms.
  • Songs which lend themselves to actions mean that even children can join in.
  • As with adult songs, If the main premise is that we are praising God, I want to know why we are praising him. (Because of His work, His character, His attributes, etc.)

And which songs will be vetoed?

  • Songs which anthropomorphise animals. (I.e. singing about how much Mr Sheep loves Jesus.)*
  • Songs which don’t mention God.
  • Songs which try to use youth speak or trendy language. (Given how far behind the times the church often is, how long will it be before we have a song with ‘lol’ in it?)
  • Songs about being good (we’re not trying to create mini-morralists).
  • Songs which are boring to sing. (OK, I did include one about the music)

*Maybe this one is just a personal peeve, but I’m allowed to have one or two eccentricities.

So have you found any good new children’s songs recently?

Is Post-modernism Passé?

On Monday I’m going to be talking to PGP Students about how we teach the Bible to people with a post-modern worldview. The seminar is called “The Written word in a Visual Culture.” This is a seminar which I’ve led for the last few years, having inherited the subject (and borrowed most of the material) from Dr Sarah Dunlop, who was much more qualified to speak on the subject than I am.

This year I’m armed with the same script and Keynote presentation, but there are two questions buzzing around in my head. Neither of these will radically change what I’m going to teach, but they both challenge the received wisdom which we usually pass on in this sort of seminar.

The first question is one I’m going to leave for another post, and it concerns how Christians respond to post-modernism, especially when it comes to our Bible teaching.

The second question is whether we are just playing catch-up, as society moves away from having post-modernism as it’s predominate worldview.

I began pondering the second of these questions last week at a Diocesan training event. The topic was preaching, and one of the sessions was looking at how preaching needs to adapt to the culture of those we are speaking to. As an introduction to this session, the speaker said “This afternoon I was going to talk about post-modernism, but I’ve just had a conversation with someone who told me that his daughter was convinced that post-mordernism is being replaced by a sort-of neo-conservatism”

Now maybe this isn’t quite the right way to describe the culture that is emerging, but as a discussion starter I think it has some merit. Are we moving away from a culture which genuinely values diversity and whose catchphrase has been “this is my truth, tell me yours” to a culture which is much more insistent on conformity with what is right and wrong and whose refrain might be “you can’t say that!”?

To illustrate what this shift in thinking looks like is practise, I’m going to look at three examples and try and draw some preliminary conclusions. As I write, we are sitting midway between Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday, and like many of my colleagues up and down the country, tomorrow we will be holding a two minute silence at 11am as part of our Sunday morning church service. This act of remembrance, along with wearing a red poppy, is a tradition which has been going for the best part of a century, but in recent years, those who have opted not to join in have found themselves increasing unpopular. Take, for example the furore caused in 2006 when John Snow refused to wear a poppy on the Channel 4 news or when (a day earlier) Jonathan Bartley from the think-tank Ekklesia suggested that people should adopt white poppies as a symbol of peace instead of the traditional red ones. More recently, we have both government and the royal family lobbying FIFA to allow the England team to wear poppies on their shirts and Ken Clarke attracting attention for his lack of a poppy at Prime Minister’s Question Time.

Sociologists seeking to describe post-modern trends point to the fragmentation and re-tribalisation of traditional society. Put simply, this means that people no longer look to family and neighbours (or the church) for community, instead they see themselves as individuals who connect (predominantly online) only with those who hold similar beliefs and values. The hashtag could be said to be the apotheosis of the tribal culture, catagorising every statement and viewpoint in a searchable library of soundbites with each tribe competing to top the ‘now trending’ list.

Yesterday the top trends, however, were mostly variations on the theme of remembrance (#lestweforget, #armistaceday, etc.) and it seems that on days like these we are seeking solace in our national identity, rather than the tribes of post-modernism. As part of this, conformation to the rituals and symbols of the tribe may be optional, but those who choose not to join in become objects of ridicule and controversy.

A less emotive example of this might principle also be the recent row about the security checks at British airports over the summer. Anyone who has returned home from holiday to be greeted by the queues at border control checkpoints will have some sympathy with the decision to relax biometric checks during busy periods, but the political capital which has been sought on the back of this row all appeals to the public desire to distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – those whom we trust, and those we do not.

So, from the first example, re-tribalisation seems to be aligning itself with national identity rather than the global or value-based tribes of post-modernism. Also, this tribe seems to speak with a common voice – the voice of self-preservation. In order to protect ourselves, we are happy to accept limitations on our freedom and to impose limitation on others.

My second example of the change in thinking concerns the recent media attention given to Christians who have faced discrimination or legal action for acting in line with their religious beliefs (for example Peter and Hazelmary Bull & Adrian Smith). A genuinely liberal, post-modern, society holds tolerance as its highest value, and those who genuinely uphold this view allow for the tension caused when the rights of different people conflict. But this is not what we are seeing in the way these cases are reported or dealt with in the courts. Increasingly the right to act in line with your beliefs seems to be being replaced with the demand to conform to the consensus view, or (more worryingly) with the view of the loudest or most well-funded voices. As with the poppies, the dissenting voices are also vilified or silenced.

From this second example it would seem that the post-modern holding together of conflicting views (and the defence of the other person’s right to disagree with you) are being replaced by a new orthodoxy where some rights trump others. The important question is who is driving this process, and how do those who have conscientious objections to the conclusions exercise their right to protest?

My final example attempts to bring this question home to the church. We may well be playing catch-up in our attempts to be relevant to the culture, but this is one area where culture seems to have well and truly embedded itself in the church. I refer to the way in which theological principles are being debated, and to the way dissenting voices are treated, especially in the current debates about women in leadership.

I’ve already mentioned Twitter, and in my seminar I use Twitter an an example of our post-modern fascination with the personal story and experiences of others, and the expectation that others will find our story equally gripping. Maybe its just the sort of people I follow, but since getting more serious (obsessive?) about checking my Twitter feed, I’m seeing that these 140 character comments are less about sharing the story of your life, and more about peddling ‘ideas, opinions and recommendations’ (not my words, but quoted from a recent tweet from @Tanya_marlow). Also, 140 characters do not allow for much in the way of nuance, so debate is reduced to soundbites, which betray certainty rather than mystery.

Generally speaking, the debate in the Church of England has seemed to include plenty of opportunity to listen to others view and exchanging ideas with those with whom we disagree. But the end result (as it currently stands) does not reflect this process. The listening process has revealed that there are widely divergent theological and pragmatic stands on the introduction of women bishops. The voting from diocesan synods around the country, however, seems to favour legislation which some claim leaves no room for them to hold their position. If they are right, then post-moderen tolerance is no longer a feature of debate in the Church of England.

I might comment in more detail on the theology of the women in leadership debate in a later post, but for now I’m just using this an example of how post-modern ways of understanding seem to be being replaced by something else. It isn’t a return to modernism (where reason and logic are the final authority), so what is it?

I quite like the description of this new worldview as ‘neo-conservatism’ but I’m sure there is a more precise way of defining it. What do others think?