Monday, 14 December 2015

Wrong, but wromantic; right, but repulsive.

Wrong, but wromantic; right, but repulsive. With these memorable words, Sellars and Yeatman summed up the Cavaliers and Roundheads in their fondly remembered "1066 And All That" - the source to this day, I must confess, of all my basic knowledge of British history. 

We are at a critical time for the church in the West. Fin de si├Ęcle change is all around us and, as ever, the church is the last body to catch on. That "last body" is not especially derogatory: we are the oldest body, with, by our very nature, roots most deeply anchored in the past, so caution and care ought to be intrinsic to who we are. Nevertheless, we have been caught out by the speed of change. 

It seems to me that there are two ways Christians are jumping at the moment. Some are standing firm on doctrine, strong and true, but sometimes doing so in a way that communicates hardness and brittleness. Others are buying into a more fluid understanding of the faith, and are emoting warmth and honesty and winsomeness in the process. 

Now please hear me out; I'm not saying that postmodern people are all warmth and openness. Actually there is more nastiness, arrogance, cruelty, dishonesty and abuse out there than ever. But some of the post-modern Christians whose voice is heard come across with an honesty and gentleness and kindness that is often lacking amongst conservative evangelicals. Evangelical rhetoric is not suited to the current environment; we may complain about that environment, but we still have to work within it. 

At its best, the more postmodern or liberal stream of Christianity can be very good at honesty about failure and weakness. The success of books like The Ragamuffin Gospel, of authors like Richard Rohr and of bloggers like Rachel Held Evans is in large part due to their honest and sympathetic handling of human frailty. We may critique them (I do!) but we must observe how they have a manner of speaking that functions culturally and draws people by its perceived integrity. 

And the fact is that evangelicalism is not the snow-white bed of honesty it wants to show itself to be. We need to remember that religiously conservative movements are ALWAYS the seedbed for pharisaism and hypocrisy. We are far from immune to that. 

Specifically, we have painted ourselves into a corner by hybridising our worthless-worm view of sanctification with a perfectionist expectation of those who lead us. We know we are all sinners, but expect perfect holiness, and create an environment of intense pressure to deliver that "holiness". 

This applies especially to leaders. Despite the repeated crashes as giants are knocked off their pedestals, we continue to insist on building more and higher pedestals. We are desperate for heroes - and then fast to utterly destroy any hero who shows himself to be mortal. 

I know to my cost what it is to allow a gap to develop between my publicly spoken, doctrinally impeccable, words and my personal devotional and moral life. I know what it is to hear temptation knocking at the door and feel that I couldn't open up about it for fear of losing my job - of coming off the pedestal for good. Every time I hear the words "mind the gap" on the tube I am reminded of the gap I did not mind in my own life - the creeping professionalisation that led to mask-wearing and levels of direct dishonesty and evil that make me shudder still. 

I am a passionate conservative evangelical. I believe in "true truth". Insofar as I ever want to 'rejoice in diversity', 'celebrate the liminal" or 'create a safe space for the exploration of ideas and for hearing different voices', I want to do so within the framework of a commitment to Scripture read as a united, God-given book. I am more than happy with the basic shape of classical reformation theology and appalled that so many are so quick to abandon that faith. 

But I am not at ease with what we have become if and when our conservative theology degenerates into an unkind pharisaism. My question is - Is it possible to retain the commitment to evangelicalism - to doctrinal orthodoxy - and at the same time be honest about weakness and failure, about fear and doubt, about temptation and sin? Can we speak the truth in LOVE? 

It jolly well ought to be possible! Our theology - of grace on the one hand and indwelling sin on the other (sorry - Salvationist/Wesleyan hat off today!) ought to make us kind and understanding more than any other tradition. But we aren't. We are very unforgiving - which leaves the struggling sinner very much alone. As a result, the casualties mount up - people bruised and burnt-out by their experiences of churches where grace has mutated into law, and holiness into hypocrisy. As my friend Robert Bannister put it, "the church is for people who have fallen off the roundabout" - but many churches have forgotten that.  

The Salvation Army is a church that is actually very good at helping roundabout-fallers like me. My prayer for our movement is for a fresh discovery of powerful preaching, with authority, and of genuine commitment to evangelical doctrine. May that come about without losing the love, the warmth and the grace to those who are hurting failures. 

And for every "staunch evangelical" church I pray - may you know and feel and practice the love and grace and patience and kindness and forebearance that flow from the very doctrines you love. For these things are fruit of the Spirit. 

As culture heads into meltdown, as Islam and Intolerant Tolerance threaten the church, can we manage to be Right but NOT Repulsive? 


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