Being locked into a large room


FAS-III-pic-1I was revisiting some Francis Schaeffer the other day, and it reminded me how sharp he was. I know there are those who would quibble about some aspects of his reading of philosophy – quibbling’s what philosophers do best. But in one regard he was absolutely stonkingly right.

The history of Western thought, from Plato to today, has had a consistent pattern of seeing the world as a house with two storeys: what goes into the two will vary, but basically downstairs there’s the observable world that we see and manipulate, and upstairs there’s some kind of value system and its ultimate authorisation. Occasionally people deny the existence or relevance of either storey, and Christians have tried variations of a truce with whatever is the dominant model.

The current model is to claim that over the past three hundred years, everything of any value has been moved downstairs, as a secular worldview has increasingly dominated. We no longer need any supernatural narrative to explain or justify our common life, and so an irrelevant God must live upstairs, in an increasingly sparse attic, like an elderly relative. Those who visit him, do so in their own time. Downstairs, though, we have an increasingly ambitious building project, as we add rooms for all the furniture of ethics, politics, the arts which we used to store with God.

Now, that model needs to be challenged, and I recommend again How (not) to be Secular, by James K.A. Smith. It is simply not the case that Christianity has had to retreat in the face of an increasingly confident scientific worldview. That is a misreading of history, and a useful myth that has been created.

But Schaeffer was right – and here’s the kick: Christians and churches have behaved as if it were true, and have been spooked into retreating upstairs when they think abut God. So we encourage and equip our folk to read their Bibles, and pray, and be distinctive at home and at work – but all on the basis of a personal life. When we come together, it is to do together what we also do privately – we have a family visit to God in the attic.

But the next day, Monday, when we all go to work, we all go downstairs again, go our separate ways, and forget about the attic.

We have colluded with the secular narrative. We might feel free to talk about our faith over coffee with a colleague, but we don’t have a way of understanding the purpose of our work, or making decisions about it that echo a Christian framework.

And the irony is that having been bullied into accepting a secular narrative we discover what we should have known all along – which is that it is valueless and hollow, and its version of history is a myth. A Christian lawyer can have a deep sense of justice, guilt and innocence – but what happens when you put her in a firm where the agreed narrative is simply to bill for as many hours as possible? She is not allowed to bring her faith with to work (she thinks), so she echoes the only permitted common discourse, and ends up as cynical about her career as anyone else in the office.

What can we do?

I’m not suggesting anything new here, but I am suggesting something which is hard. Those of us who are pastors find it really easy to relate our faith to our work, because we basically live in the attic. We are tolerated as long as we stay in the attic, and actually we are quite comfortable there. It is quite a large room, and many of us haven’t noticed that we’ve been locked in.

And so when the family visits God on Sunday, we are comfortable talking about the attic – and they quite like it too, because it’s a break from a harsher existence.

Pastors – we’ve got to stop colluding with the myth. We’ve got to work out what it’s like downstairs, and equip our people to live down there. So here are six suggestions.

  • Read and watch more widely. Sharpen up your worldview skills, and get in the habit of analysing the principal cultural trends around us – and I mean culture in the widest sense, including business, medical, political ethics.
  • So name it. I’m starting to think that every time I speak I must add to my growing list of things to do, identifying an issue outside the Christian bubble and exegeting it. I need to model how to do it, so that people can do it themselves.
  • Be negative as well as positive. I need not just to answer the questions of people who are not yet Christians, but ask questions as well. If we are just random atoms on a random planet, then why should I get upset over children being malnourished? I don’t get upset when some meat goes off in a fridge – so why get energised when that meat happens to be living human meat, and gets ebola? I’m not doing that to score points off secular people – I’m doing it to destabilise the secular myth in the mind of Christians
  • Focus the issues. I’m considering setting up occasional groups for Christians in different kinds of employment. What you do will depend on your area and demographic, but there are probably clusters of ways people earn their bread, and they will have shared concerns. Encourage them to discuss issues on a Monday.
  • Do the hard work. Last weekend we had a Bible Overview event – it was great fun, and also helped people to understand the Old Testament better. It was a good thing to have done. BUT it left Monday unaddressed. To be fair to the event, it wasn’t meant to do anything more than it did – but it means I have to take things on a good deal further. What is the Monday morning significance of knowing the Bible better.
  • Think theologically. As anyone will know who has travelled a similar journey to me, there are complex issues here about the relationship between Christ and Culture, and the extent to which there is a ‘Cultural Mandate.’ I would suggest starting with Don Carson’s book, Christ and Culture revisited, and moving on from there. There are encouraging signs of an increasing awareness of the gap we need to fill in the arts, but other areas need to be re-occupied as well.  In particular we need to be clear on what we understand to be the value of work.

But above all, we pastors must not collude with the secular myth by allowing ourselves to be locked in a very pleasant attic.

9 comments on “Being locked into a large room”

  1. Of course, the next book people should read after Carson’s is quite an interesting one that’s coming out soon called A Wilderness of Mirrors. I’ve heard good things… 😉

  2. Thanks Chris, I’ve started working my way very slowly through A Secular Age. The interesting thing is that it is also quite illuminating in that many people in our neighbourhood are non secular

    1. I havnet tried the big book yet! I will, but I want to re-read ‘How (Not)’ first, to make sure I have the main road established. Yes, on non-secular.

  3. It’s worth it. It’s certainly a challenge. I find myself thinking “I wish I had Dan Strange’s brain!” Also very interesting coming from a reformed background and reading a careful analysis from a Catholic philosopher’s perspective and I expect that will become more fascinating as I go along. He links things back quite heavily to the Reformation. I think you are right to remind us about Schaeffer – it’s probably worth going back and reading him and Van Til alongside.

    A side lesson is being aware that change has its fair share of unexpected and unintended consequences.

  4. Is there potentially some value in encouraging pastors to actually step out of the attic by getting involved in something that others in the church will see as ‘coming downstairs’, partly so we pastors get a better sense of what it is like to live and work there, and partly so others see us modelling these things rather than simply telling others how to do it from on high? I’m thinking of things like getting involved in running a sports club or becoming a school governor. I realise these sorts of things won’t be possible for everyone, but fear that sometimes they’re seen as almost ‘beneath’ Bible teachers, and a distraction from Bible teaching and prayer. They could be, but presumably needn’t be?

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