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?