The other day I was having a coffee and a chat with a local pastor friend. He’s recently taken over a congregation which has told him—in so many words—that they don’t agree with the idea of Christian growth. They don’t see the point of discipleship. It’s not something that they want. They come to church on Sunday; they pay their tithe; they’re doing their duty, and what more should the church expect of them? Should he not be focusing more on his duty of pastoral care and preparing sermons, rather than trying to get us interested in all this mission and personal discipleship stuff?
I was pretty shocked at the time to hear of these attitudes, but later I realised that it’s only shocking because it’s so baldly expressed. You’ll find precisely the same attitude in most Christians, although they’re more careful about how they express it.
Over the past fifty years or so, there’s been a lot of important work done in the area of how our culture shapes our Christianity. Theologians have come into contact with Christians from other parts of the world and have discovered that they don’t all think the same way. And that being the case, it raises interesting questions about what factors have shaped the inherited Christianity of the West. Whereas in the past, we saw our theology as normative and the theologies of Africa, Asia, South America and so on as novel and exotic, there’s now more of an understanding that all theology is contextual and that all expressions of Christianity are modulated by culture, even those of the West. When we talk about, for example, Jesus’s death as taking the punishment for sin, we now realise that we are talking out of a background of specific Western models of forensic legal process that may not relate to justice systems in other cultures. So this is progress.
But I think we’re missing a trick. We now understand very well that our cultural background is an integral part of our expression of faith, but I don’t see that anyone has pointed out how much our ideological background shapes our expression of Christianity.
What I mean is that you can take a politically liberal person and make him a Christian, and he will naturally gravitate towards the ways that the early church had all things in common, that the prophets spoke to structural and corporate injustices, and so on, and you will produce a politically liberal Christian. If you take a politically conservative person and make him a Christian, he will naturally gravitate to those passages in the Bible which condemn particular actions and speak about the moral responsibility and obligations of the individual, and you will produce a politically conservative Christian.
Each person has found theological justification for what they believed all along, and in neither of these examples has an encounter with the Bible fundamentally challenged the way that they see the world. For just as when we look at the Bible we see those parts which naturally resonate with our own cultural background, we also see those parts which resonate with our a priori ideologies.
To take the obvious examples of the day, if you already thought that that women and men were equal in status and gifting, then egalitarian theology would naturally be your cup of tea; and if you already thought women and men were different, then it would be utterly unsurprising if you were to be drawn to complementarian theology. It’s quite possible to be wholly sexist and wholly Christian, because you can always find ways of interpreting the Bible which provide a normalizing narrative for that sexism—just as it’s possible to find ways of interpreting the Bible which state that homosexuals do not deserve to be treated the same as heterosexuals.
I believe that an encounter with the Bible should change us. If it doesn’t, we’re just reading it in order to reinforce and find succour for our own prejudices, and I’m not sure that’s what the Bible is for. But for it to change us, we need to be both open and aware of the depth of our own preconceptions, and to honestly and earnestly desire the Bible to speak into the established patterns of our thinking.
And yet, based on the experiences of my friend above, I do wonder how much we really are ready for that to happen. Are we not all, to some degree, happier to find a justification for what we believed all along, rather than to think about the radical message of Jesus could actually interfere with our own core beliefs about how the world works?Subject tags: theologyevangelicalism