Conservative Christians and history

RememberingTheReformationWhen I speak to conservative Christians, I am often struck by the fact that many of them have very little sense of history. Few of them for example are aware of or have any interest in the events between A.D. 100 and A.D. 1500. The middle Ages are not just Dark Ages, they are a period completely to be forgotten. The typical conservative believer will be aware of the main characters of the Reformation, Calvin and Luther, but they will have little sense of the context in which their ideas were formed and the important ways in which these same ideas have been developed and refined over the centuries since the 16th century. I am also always very suspicious when I meet a so-called expert in Reformation history. What they often have imbibed is a 16th century attitude to modern problems. They have internalised so well the mind-set of that period, that they are able to interpret every modern problem from that perspective. Once again history and the way that ideas have a tendency to change and evolve over time is being ignored. Somehow the ‘truth’ which even well-educated conservatives proclaim has become detached totally from its original cultural and historical context. The words of doctrine, whether or not articulated in 16th century style, have become placed above criticism or critical scrutiny. It is difficult to discuss anything with someone who has arrived at ultimate truth! I note that the two most influential evangelical thinkers in Australia, Peter Jensen and Broughton Knox were both originally experts in the Reformation period. They have successfully encouraged an entire generation of young evangelical scholars, through Moore College Sydney, to think in a similar way as they have done. The Bible is studied and read but what is produced is a conservative understanding with a decidedly Reformation/Calvinist flavour. It is no coincidence that the Anglican diocese of Sydney embodies the most reactionary and potentially destructive strand of Anglican conservative theology in the world. GAFCON and the Jerusalem Declaration both seem to be strongly influenced by the Calvinist culture of Sydney and the failure of its leading theologians to allow any development of theological ideas to be part of the Christian thinking process. Historical process is being denied and ignored. With no sense of history, theology becomes fossilised, static and sometimes dangerous.

The failure to deal properly with history by many conservative evangelical scholars is an issue which few wish to confront. But there is another good example of a total lack of historical imagination in the way that modern evangelical culture, particularly in the States, seems to embrace, not countercultural Christian values, but the values of our contemporary culture. These observations that follow are not ones that I have discovered for myself, but I unashamedly lift them from a critique that I have found in an American book about the mainstream evangelical establishment in that country. The book claims that the values of our modern capitalist culture are found deeply embedded in the typical conservative church while their own self-understanding declares that everything they hold is based on the timeless values of Scripture. Thus their self-understanding is seen to be rooted not in ahistorical biblical values but within the same vagaries of cultural and historical change as everyone else.

The churches within the Protestant conservative orbit will always emphasise individualism. This is also very much a value that fits in with our capitalist society where the individual consumer is the target of advertisers and manufacturers in an effort to encourage mass consumption. The Christian version of individualism is clearly distinct and relates to issues of salvation and moral choice. But we still need to contrast it with more biblical ideas implied by the words ‘kingdom’ and ‘body’. A stress on individualism would help to explain the excessive fragmentation that is found in much Protestant Christianity today. There is not the space here to argue that the Bible and Jesus himself are looking to present the idea of a redeemed unified humanity, not a fragmented one. I would want further to suggest that all of us need saving from our individuality and the process is summed up in the meaning of the word ‘love’.

Materialism. We have often had reason to comment on the strong emphasis among some Christian bodies on prosperity and wealth. I need hardly say more here than to mention that Jesus is far more concerned with the poor and the disadvantaged and says little about amassing more and more in the way of things.

Innovation and free-market competition. In noting the way that congregations and churches are for ever increasing in quantity (with questionable effects on overall numbers), we note the methods through which they compete with one another. In this race each church tries to be trendier, more attractive than the one down the road. The result is that many churches do not have a clue as to how they might cooperate with other Christians. They have drunk so deeply of the wine of competition that any memory of how to work together with other different Christians has long disappeared from their thinking. I am reminded of this problem in my own area, where churches, proud of their evangelical heritage, simply do not know how to work with other congregations and other denominations. They have been competing too long to be the biggest and the best in the area now to be able to adapt to co-operation and working together.

The next way in which many ‘modern’ churches swallow modern assumptions is through their welcome of entertainment and celebrity into their midst. Each Sunday morning has to be like a gameshow or an episode of ‘Stars in their eyes’. This is a result of changing worship into a form of mass entertainment. I’m glad that I have never been part of such a church. The effort involved in keeping up an attractive level of entertainment must be frankly exhausting.

A preoccupation with sex. It is interesting to note that while the world of entertainment, film, television and literature, is much preoccupied with the sexual lives of others, Christians are also focussed on this topic. While a Christian obsession with the sexual sins of others, particularly same-sex behaviour, is not the same thing as being entertained by it, there is a curious parallel between the two. I suspect that it is as hard for some Christians to stop preaching and talking about sex in their services as it is for the world of mass entertainment to depend on sexual themes to provide material to keep people entertained.

What I am claiming in this blog is that much popular conservative Christianity is deeply enmeshed in popular culture just as it has always been subject, in spite of its denials, to the vagaries of historical and cultural change and development. Conservative Christianity does not exist in some ahistorical limbo untouched by contemporary fashions of thought and the forces of culture. The more it tries to pretend that it is above and beyond such forces, the more it finds itself dominated by these same historical and cultural trends. And yet we know from even a brief reading of the New Testament that Jesus was deeply aware of many of the cultural attitudes of his day, some of which needed a strong challenge. Space does not here allow me to set out all the ways that Jesus stood out strongly against the assumptions of the people around him. But, to give one brief example, we can look at the way he spoke to his disciples about power in John.’ If I your Lord and master have washed your feet, so you must wash one another’s feet’. We are still trying to grapple with the implications of this readiness of Jesus to abandon his power in favour of service. He lived out this humility and powerlessness in a way that all who have followed him have found it almost impossible to imitate. We do not just fail to follow Jesus in this way, we also sometimes wilfully and deliberately misunderstood and sabotage these words. But in the light of the gospel record, how can anyone even think of abusing their power when they follow ostensibly a master who surrendered all his power on the cross? This blog with its preoccupation with issues of power, has to keep asking this question and suggest possible answers. Trying to do this is perhaps what keeps me going in producing material for this blog.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Cumbria. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

8 thoughts on “Conservative Christians and history

  1. Thanks Stephen. Isn’t the classic quote from Jesus on your point from Mark 10.42-44:
    ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.
    In answer to James and John asking for precedence – and previously all the disciples arguing about it. I see this as one of the key self-emptying messages of the gospel, and not just counter-cultural (which it is), but a truly challenging spiritual way for most people. The way of dominance is embedded so deep in all cultures because it’s embedded so deep in the human psyche.

  2. I agree with you. Yours is probably better but I was getting a bit short of space at that point and my quote was shorter! Both passages are revolutionary in their implications but we have not come close to working them out in our societies or churches. I see echoes of this argument in the conversation with Satan on top of the ‘high mountain’ by Jesus. ‘All these will I give you …’ I shall come back to these passages – no doubt!

  3. As always(!) I feel the need to have my little bleat! The evangelicals Stephen describes are thankfully more rare here in the UK. And it is so easy to critique the church of a foriegn culture (the USA) from the outside – all of the synchretic elements are clear to see. I suspect we suffer from plank in eye syndrome there…

    As for the place of reformation church history, I agree that it is sometimes over-emphasised – much to the chagrin of those more influenced by the Oxford movement. 😉

    On a more positive note, I think we need to look more at the history of the time of Constantine. Did Rome become christian, or did the church become roman? That is a very important question – and it underlies a lot of the issues raised.

  4. An amazing post. Stephen, you surpass yourself.
    I have recently read all four gospels one after another, which I commend as a helpful counterblast to the tendencies you identify. My main discovery was that while in the first three gospels it is the parables where Jesus is cryptic, in the fourth where there are no parables, his discourses are cryptic. We have to be like investigative journalists to get at what he was really after, it seems to me. So much for unlimited dogmatic certainty.

  5. Dick I would agree that some of the things I mention are commoner in the States eg materialism/health and wealth ideas. But I see the individualism, the competitiveness and the obsession with sex alive and well in the UK. Anglicans of all shapes and sizes are discussing sex as if the whole Christian faith was only about this one topic. In short blogs, I have to be allowed to exaggerate to make a point, otherwise the whole post would consist of qualifications and caveats. I am interested in your mention of the Oxford Movement. That was a movement which at one level was a rediscovery of the corporate/sacramental understanding of what it means to be church. It was, arguably, a very good counterblast to the individualism I am complaining about. The trouble is that it is very hard to say anything useful about these historical movements without straying into over-simplification. The point about entertainment is a continuation of my irreverent comments about Christian music.
    David. I wish more people were to read the gospels and the bible for themselves. They don’t and so they imbibe, not what Jesus said, but what church leaders want them to hear. These two messages are not often the same, sadly. Because there are so many ways of reading scripture, all these cultural and historical accretions come in. Thus the incredible and unhelpful fragmentation in the church today.

  6. Stephen – I totally agree, we are obsessed with sex and sexuality! My point about the Oxford movement was that like all readings of history, it is selective. I’m sure the church is much richer for the Oxford movement, as it was I believe for the reformation.

    In both cases however metaphorical babies were thrown out with the bathwater!!

  7. Didn’t someone say, we are throwing out the baby and bottling the bathwater to sell as sacred? Great post Stephen. Have you read Chris’ post from this morning on the introductory page?

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