There is a famous anecdote about a church producing some signage for the gable wall of their building, with the proud boast, ‘God is the answer’. An overnight graffiti artist, with a strong instinct for philosophy and irony, corresponded with the statement by spraying the words ‘What is the question?’ This story, be it true or untrue, exposed the fallacy at the heart of an over-confident modernistic perspective which failed to realise its capacity to set certain truths out as slogans with no thought of audience.
Sadly, in our own day the story might work more adequately through a reversal. To a world hungover from the hallucinogens of postmodernism, the Church can be at risk of over-defining the nature of the question, while forgetting to provide an answer. We have become experts at qualification, of the propensity of academic thinking not to land too heavily on any given truth, to give the impression of thoughtful consideration to the extent that we never trade in concrete truth or substantial responses. In my next two posts I want to think through some of the reasons for this, and some of the remedies that we might feasibly apply to correct this.
The Cultural Reason
I recently listened to a podcast produced by a church organisation in light of the Covid 19 crisis. Its headline posts advertised impressive issues – the nature of suffering, what God is doing in our current circumstances etc. The content, however, was at the skinny latte end of theological reflection rather than espresso. Front and centre was a concern for the aftertaste that statements might leave with the programme’s listeners. Sovereignty was asserted, but softened just enough so as to make it less problematic; omnipotence was fitted with a rev limiter which would stop the audience from recoiling at its explosive consequences; and sin was fitted with just enough of a silencer so as not to wake the residents when its rounds were discharged. This was ‘God is the answer’ but typed in 4point type on A3 card, truth but so contextualised so as to be consumed by the qualifications it bore.
Much of this approach is inevitable. We are locked into a world which is incessantly talkative, and among the voices which reach the media, those who say outlandish and hurtful things tend to get the most airtime. The conspiracy theorist televangelists, the theologically lobotomised bloggers, the raging fundamentalists, are all too keen to give their diagnosis and prognosis about what is happening, and what we are to do. Such voices often traffic in their own cultural specifics, with little sense of nuance, and absolutely no concern with self-reflection or the validity of their truth claims.
In this kind of culture, reasonable Christians can be tempted to solely define themselves against that kind of behaviour. We are so frightened of guilt by association, of being tarred with the same sociological brush, that our main concern is to push back against the poor speech of others. This, of course, has it’s place, but it ought to be at best the preamble to what we actually have to say. We would think little of a restaurateur whose main activity was discrediting the culinary output of the local kebab shop, but who never put food on the plates of his or her hungry customers. We ought to hang Westboro Baptist out to dry, we ought to disassociate ourselves from the lunatics and liars who emboss Bible verses on their favourite prejudices, but this is not all that we are called to do.
Secondly, we are behind the cultural curve of postmodernism. When I was a humanities postgraduate in the late 1990s postmodernism was the fuel which fed our academic boiler room. Everything was about New Historicism, and points were awarded to students who could best embroider the hem of the emperor’s new clothes. As a young man I was astounded that this phenomenon was virtually unknown in my local church, and in the Christian bookshops I visited. Around five years after I graduated postmodernism became the evangelical zeitgeist. Trendy talks and smart books worked the bellows on the spent fuel of postmodern discourse, and a conference sermon was somehow offbeat if it didn’t push the buttons of pluralism and relativism at least once. The sad thing was that this was the theological equivalent of a man in his 40s catching up with the latest fashion trend 18 months after young people have ditched it.
We are now, most decidedly, in a post-postmodern world. Some of those in our villages, towns and cities cling to its tenets, but they increasingly resemble the cultural figure that hippies did in the 1990s. Many people around us do not want equivocation, quibbling, and hyper-definition. They want truth. The fact that the political world has recognised and exploited this is not even enough for many preachers, writers, and speakers to realise that negation is badly off trend. Much of our uncertain sound is owing to our dreadful time lag as Christians, and typifies the folly of constantly seeking to wrap the gospel in the latest garb our culture offers. A preacher who unwaveringly told the truth of God’s word from the 1990s until today would, ironically, be much more culturally pertinent now than those who have descended into the slough of relativism in an effort to speak with relevance.
The Exegetical Reason
Away from culture wars, there are other internal reasons why our statements often fail to hit the mark. In our interpretation and exposition of the Scriptures we are scrupulous about avoiding the exegetical errors of our immediate forbears. My parents and grandparents were fed a steady diet of culturally over realised expositions of the Bible. This could reduce the Scripture to a crass eschatology (think The Late, Great, Planet Earth) or soft edged, individual therapeutic concerns (Don Carson famously said that eventually publishers would produce a study Bible for left handed athletes from Nebraska). All of this has created a sense of revulsion at the reduction of Scripture context and grandeur to the level of a magazine.
The reaction has led us back into an approach to Scripture that is so concerned with context that it never contextualises what it says, which is so obsessed with interpretation that application is either ignored, or bolted on to the end of an incessant lecture on the cultural background of the author and readers. This is all vital work, and the corrective is needed, but our tendency to push the pendulum too far is evident here. In the podcast referenced above, all of the promises that believers hold to were effectively neutered by their original context, until they became museum exhibits rather than live orders and ordinance for the Christian life. Alternatively, a passage which is powerfully relevant to our lives and our culture is cloudily qualified and then eventually applied in exactly the way that was commonly understood before all of the heavy lifting of exegesis was undertaken. The listener is given back what they held before, only it looks and feels somehow smarter now.
This is not a denigration of the careful work of exegesis, it is not an appeal to return to the literalistic and individualistic obsessions of those who make the Bible into what Sinclair Ferguson describes as a sanctified version of Where’s Wally? (Waldo), but there is a vital need for us to speak with relevance, and with boldness.
In our next post we will begin to think through how we should speak, and what we can speak without violating good interpretative principles.