Category Archives: Culture

Vale, Charlie

The first Rolling Stones song I ever heard was on a record my older brother bought home when I was eight years old – “Top of the Pops 1969”. The album had great classics like I Heard it through the Grapevine (Marvin Gaye), Something in the Air (Thunderclap Newman), Bad Moon Rising (CCR), Where Do You Go To? (Peter Sarstedt), and Honky Tonk Women (The Stones). It also had the Beatles (Ob-La-Di), Elvis (In the Ghetto), Bobby Gentry (I’ll Never Fall in Love Again), Zager and Evans (In the Year 2525) and fillers like Sugar, Sugar (the Archies). I was way too young to understand what the song was about, but what caught my attention was Charlie’s cowbell and drum roll intro. I still think Honky Tonk Women has one of the best guitar-driven rhythms and licks in the rock and roll era. And now I get the lyrics.

The first album I ever bought was on my fifteenth birthday (1976) – Get Yer Ya-Yas Out – The Stones live from Madison Square Gardens at the end of their 1969 US tour, and just before the infamous and tragic Altamont festival. There was Charlie on the front cover with an ‘interesting’ T-Shirt. It was years before I ‘got’ the shirt and the title, even though I was a teenage boy. Slow, I guess. During the concert Charlie was doing a few drum rolls at the end of a song and Mick said, “Charlie’s good tonight, innt ‘e?” before launching into their brand new single – Honky Tonk Women.

I was a Stones fanatic when I was young, and still enjoy their music. Charlie was eclipsed, of course, by Mick and Keith, but interestingly, at their concerts it seems he gets the biggest cheer of all when the band is introduced. The quiet type.

The Stones are touring the US again in the Fall and Charlie was already going to miss it, recovering from surgery. He’s still going to miss it. I guess the tour will likely go ahead, but with a memorial to Charlie included. The Stones website, though, doesn’t yet have an update. They won’t be the same without Charlie.

I am saddened, which is interesting to me. I never met him or knew him and yet somehow, he has been a part of my life’s story. Goodbye Charlie, and thanks.

“Positive Christianity”

On February 24, 1920, at a public meeting in Munich the German Workers’ Party proclaimed a 25-point programme, drawn up originally by Gottfried Feder (1882-1941),[1] with a variety of social, economic, and political aspirations appealing to everyone except the Jews and the communists. It was intended as an instrument to draw popular support, especially amongst the lower middle classes threatened both by big business and by leftist elements such as the labour movement. It sought also to appeal to Christians—the twenty-fourth article concerned the church:

We demand freedom of religion for all religious denominations in the state so long as they do not endanger it and do not oppose the moral feelings of the German race. The Party as such stands for positive Christianity, without binding itself confessionally to any one denomination. It combats the Jewish materialistic spirit within and around us, and is convinced that a lasting recovery of our nation can only succeed from within on the principle: The general interest before self-interest (Stackelberg & Winkle, The Nazi Germany Sourcebook, 65).

Like the rest of the Party’s platform, this article is carefully worded to appeal to as broad a constituency as possible, here amongst the religious population. The Party ‘demands’—will allow—religious freedom without favouritism for each of the Christian denominations in Germany: Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and United, covering most of the population across all geographical regions in the country. It will not bind itself to one or another of the Confessions, nor play them off against one another. Each will be free to maintain their own tradition and practice. The party stands for positive Christianity, speaking against ‘the materialistic spirit within and around us,’ and standing for an ‘inner’—spiritual—renewal of the nation, the common interest rather than ‘self-interest.’ Christianity will have a legitimate and respected place within the society.

Yet it is also the case that positive Christianity is a circumscribed entity, and that the promised freedom is freedom only within strictly defined limits. First, it is clear that freedom of religion does not include freedom for the Jewish faith—the anti-Semitism of the document as a whole is explicit even in this clause as it contrasts the inner spiritual dynamic of the Christian religions against the supposedly materialistic and self-interested character of the Jews.

More significantly, positive Christianity is a Christianity assimilated to the aims of the state and culture, ‘the moral feelings of the German race.’ It is a racialised and nationalist form of Christianity, legitimate ‘so long as’ they do not endanger the state or oppose these aims and feelings. The German Workers’ Party clearly intends to co-opt the church to serve its nationalist, racist, and political vision; anything that does not conform to Nazi ideology will be deemed ‘negative’ (Stroud, Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow, 7). The tragedy is that much of the Protestant church, especially, was complicit with this agenda.

The problem here is not primarily political but theological. The challenge is not so much that the church was being manipulated to serve a racist and nationalist agenda—which is bad enough, and a betrayal of its calling. Rather, the political problem and its devastating consequences were a symptom of a deeper and more subtle malaise. It was the church being placed within an overarching narrative alien to its true identity and being: the idea that the church’s primary service is to the state and culture rather than to the kingdom of God. It was the idea that the priorities of the kingdom of God could be identified with those of the culture. It was the idea that the church’s freedom derived from the permission of the state and that it was, therefore, a functionary or organ of the state and that, therefore, the state was its lord.

As it happened, freedom so long as, was not freedom at all, but servitude and betrayal. Hitler’s ‘so long as’ introduced an alien principle which determined the being and practice of the church. The church, accepting this circumscribed freedom, lost its true liberty in Christ. Where it gladly accepted the prohibition to oppose the ‘moral feelings of the German race’ it was unable to discern or affirm its distinctive calling as the people of God. Positive Christianity was, in fact, a misnomer: it was not Christianity at all, but an aberration. “It was, one might deduce, Christianity with no God, no Christ, and no content. It was the ‘politically correct’ version of an empty gospel” (Stroud, Preaching, 8). It was salt that had lost its flavour, fit only to be thrown out and trodden underfoot. 

To its great credit the Synod of the Confessing Church that met in Barmen in 1934 recognised this truth with great clarity:

Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in holy scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.

We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.     
(Barmen Declaration, Thesis 1).

[1] Roderick Stackelberg and Sally A. Winkle, ed., The Nazi Germany Sourcebook: An Anthology of Texts (London: Routledge, 2002), 63. Note, however, Mary Solberg’s contention that Hitler wrote the programme in Mary M. Solberg, ed., A Church Undone: Documents from the German Christian Faith Movement 1932-1940 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015). Hitler certainly approved the programme and refused to change it.

The Splintering of the Evangelical Soul

An interesting article in Christianity Today by Timothy Dalrymple, president and CEO of the organisation. The article, “The Splintering of the Evangelical Soul,” is a diagnostic-explanatory account of why,

Couples, families, friends, and congregations once united in their commitment to Christ are now dividing over seemingly irreconcilable views of the world. In fact, they are not merely dividing but becoming incomprehensible to one another.

Although we inhabit the same reality, Dalrymple says, we inhabit different ‘worlds.’ The article explores sociological reasons for the splintering of the evangelical worldview that gave the movement a sense of cohesion in a former generation. It explores what he calls the ‘informational world’ shaping the belief structures of people in our culture, the interplay of information sources and a person’s plausibility frameworks that filter information sources and content. Three informational sources are critical and evangelicals are in the midst of crisis with respect to each of them. The sources are media, authorities, and community.

Michael O. Emerson, a sociologist and scholar of American religion at the University of Illinois at Chicago, recently said he has studied religious congregations for 30 years but has “never seen” such an extraordinary level of conflict. “What is different now?” he asked. “The conflict is over entire worldviews—politics, race, how we are to be in the world, and even what religion and faith are for.” What I have offered above is a model for understanding how we have come to such a pass, and a mere suggestion of how we might begin the generational project before us.

We are not without hope. Lies ring hollow at the end of the day. Hatred is a poor imitation of purpose, celebrity a poor replacement for wisdom, and political tribes a poor comparison to authentic Christian community. We are a people defined by the resurrection of the Son of God. We are called to be redeemers and reconcilers.

The article is worth reading, especially for those interested in the future of evangelicalism.

Image: that used in the article;  Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Source Images: Kimson Doan / Unsplash / imtmphoto / Getty Images

Evangelicals and Nationalism

Much has been written about Evangelical support for Donald Trump over the last few years. Was this support an aberration? How could so-called Bible-believing Christians have supported so unlikely a candidate? Why did they resonate with his rhetoric and policy positions? In a recent interview on Politico Elizabeth Neumann, herself an Evangelical and so a sympathetic observer, identified several reasons why some American evangelicals fell for this temptation.

Religious nationalism is nothing new, of course, and nor is it restricted to North American Evangelicals or Christians generally. Many Christian groups over the centuries have fallen in line with the nationalist aspirations of their political masters. Where the head of the church or religion is also the head of state, the problem is compounded. But the head of state need not be the head of the church for religious nationalism to take hold of a population or certain segments of it. When a nation views itself and its destiny in terms of empire, and where a cultural synthesis occurs between church and state so that the aims of the church become aligned with those of the state, the conditions are ripe for the emergence of religious nationalism.

Part of the problem here, as Neumann contends, concerns the authoritarian streak that runs through some streams of Evangelicalism. But part of it might also be traced to a theological malaise in which the Christian imagination has been subverted and co-opted to the vision of the secular order. In a brief discussion of the rise of Nazism in Weimar Germany James Hawes argues:

It is worth hammering this point home: if you’re trying to forecast whether a random German voter from 1928 will switch to Hitler, asking whether they are rich or poor, town or country, educated or not, man or woman and so on will scarcely help at all. The only question really worth asking is whether they are Catholic or Protestant (The Shortest History of Germany, 164).

He cites Jurgen W. Falter: “Hitler’s strongholds were clearly in the Lutheran countryside.” Further, only 17% of Nazi voters came from the predominantly Catholic regions (Der Spiegel, 29 January, 2008, in Hawes, 164).

Why and how did this religious support for Hitler surge between 1928 and 1933. No doubt part of the answer to the story is the ongoing suffering and shame of the German people which Hitler manipulated to his own purposes. But the Protestants were vulnerable to this manipulation also for theological reasons. Over the preceding centuries, and arguably back to Luther’s appeal to the German princes to support the Reformation, German Protestantism had actively looked to political authorities for support and in return also supported the political authorities.

Karl Barth also recognised the theological roots of Protestant support for Hitler’s regime in the preface to the first part-volume of his Church Dogmatics, published in 1932, the year before Hitler came to power in Germany.

Or shall I rather bemoan the constantly increasing confusion, tedium and irrelevance of modern Protestantism, which, probably along with the Trinity and the Virgin Birth, has lost an entire third dimension—the dimension of what for once, though not confusing it with religious and moral earnestness, we may describe as mystery—with the result that it has been punished with all kinds of worthless substitutes, that it has fallen the more readily victim to such uneasy cliques and sects as High Church, German Church, Christian Community and religious Socialism, and that many of its preachers and adherents have finally learned to discover deep religious significance in the intoxication of Nordic blood and their political Führer? (CD I/1: xiv).

I believe that I understand the present-day authorities of the Church better than they understand themselves when I ignore their well-known resentment against what should have been their most important task, appealing from authorities badly informed to authorities which are better informed. I am firmly convinced that, especially in the broad field of politics, we cannot reach the clarifications which are necessary today, and on which theology might have a word to say, as indeed it ought to have, without first reaching the comprehensive clarifications in and about theology which are our present concern (CD I/1: xvi).

A great danger for the church is that it loses its theological moorings and so substitutes other commitments and convictions in place of Jesus Christ—‘the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death’ (Barmen Declaration, Thesis 1, 1934). Barth, too, understood ‘there is within the Church an Evangelical theology which is to be affirmed and a heretical non-theology which is to be resolutely denied’ (CD I/1: xv). It is evident that the non-theology to be denied was the theological assimilation to National Socialism that occurred in the so-called German Christians.

Some—certainly not all—North American evangelicals fell into the same danger in their naïve support for the Trump agenda. This is not to say, of course, that everything Trump did was evil. But by accepting the Trump package, these evangelicals lost their ability ‘to discern what is excellent’ (Philippians 1:10) and in the end accepted and even celebrated a leader who exemplified a form of life alien to that of Jesus and his kingdom.

Bob Dylan – “I Contain Multitudes”

Bob Dylan has dropped two surprise songs in recent weeks. The first was the 17-minute ‘Murder Most Foul’ which has received mixed reviews. Sometimes a Dylan song grows on you, or on me at least, though I am not sure this one will. It is not amongst his best work. But I did enjoy this second song ‘I Contain Multitudes’ which has something profound and original in its idea that who we are includes the compilation of all the various influences that have shaped our life, attitudes, vision and behaviour.  This is true, including as well, those not-so-good influences which are nevertheless real and really part of who I am and have become.

I have also included a clip of one of his early, amazing folk-protest songs which some of you might enjoy. If you like Dylan, the Guardian also recently published someone’s list of Dylan’s best songs. It will give you something to argue with!

 

A Christianity that “Deserves to Perish”

On June 3, 1959 Karl Barth was a guest at the Basel chapter of the Swiss Student Association Zofingia, a fraternity established 200 years ago in 1819, and of which Barth himself had been a member in his student days. The photo shows him at a function in about 1906 (seated RHS). Now a famous theologian, Barth had been invited by the association to address the question: What are the role and duties of the Christian as a political citizen? Does Christianity commit the citizen to a certain political stance?

Barth responded by writing ten brief theses on the topic, delivering his short address and then took questions. It is clear that the primary issue concerning his audience was communism, especially Russian communism. One interlocutor insisted it was a Christian duty to resist it. Barth responded:

Reaction against Communism [is] only necessary when the Russians are at Lake Constance. We have not yet passed the test [that would then have to be passed]. What we have done up to now is stupid chatter and has not freed anyone from Russian subjugation. To join in, sounding the same note and writing condemning articles, is not necessary since virtually everyone is agreed about Communism. It was different at the time of National Socialism. An acute danger was manifest. Whether out of fascination or fear of attack, numerous people all over Europe began to yield and proposed accommodations. 

To this, one Dr Gerwig answered: “Communism is a great danger for Christianity. We must fight before it reaches Lake Constance.” And then came Barth’s marvellous riposte:

A Christianity that is in danger of Communism deserves to perish. The best and surest weapon against Communism is that one become a good Christian.

Barth was often criticised because he did not condemn Communism in the 1950s the way he had condemned the National Socialists in the 1930s. He argued that they were two completely different systems and so not comparable. This does not mean he supported Communism; he did not. But I love his comment. It is rhetorical, to be sure, but he is speaking of a form of Christianity rather than the lives of individuals confronting a brutal empire. Nonetheless, a “good Christian” is one who understands and lives in accordance with reality of the world-reconciliation accomplished in Jesus Christ, and so is bound to him as the “one Word of God which we have to hear  and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death” (Barmen Declaration, thesis 1). Bound to Jesus Christ, the Christian is liberated from every lesser allegiance and claim, and find their life and hope solely in him and the promise given to humanity in him.

Further, Jesus Christ is God’s mighty claim upon the Christian’s life, and thus “through him befalls us a joyful deliverance from the godless fetters of this world for a free, grateful service to his creatures” (Barmen Declaration, thesis 2). The church is “solely his property, and it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectation of his appearance” (Barmen Declaration, thesis 3).

This kind of Christianity has a role to play within the culture but is neither over-awed nor overwhelmed by it. In word and deed it bears witness to the coming kingdom, even if the result of this witness is suffering and shame. It holds fast to its confession in the midst of a sinful world “with its faith as with its obedience” (thesis 3).

This is a Christianity that knows whose it is, a Christianity for whom Mark’s gospel and the letter to the Hebrews (not to say, the Book of Revelation) are not alien, but well-known, lived. They know First Peter and walk in the path of its author, as he walked in the path of the Master.

My guess is that Barth would say the same today to those Christians concerned at the increasing secularity of Western culture: “A Christianity that is threatened by secularism deserves to perish.”

Ash Barty, Don Bradman, Grace and Virtue

I have enjoyed watching Ash Barty play tennis for several years now, and her win in Paris last weekend—her first Grand Slam title—was the icing on the cake. What is it I like?

To begin, she has extraordinary talent. Ash is a pint-sized giant killer, unafraid to face those taller and stronger than she is, and with impressive trophies already in the cabinet. She has a never-say-die attitude, and seems like she doesn’t know when to quit. If she was the kind to throw in the towel perhaps she might have done so in the Paris Semi-Final against Amanda Anisimova. Barty was up Five–Love in the first and lost it Five–Seven. She was down Three–Love in the second, and it must’ve seemed like a good time to quit. But she did not and went on to win the Semi and then the Final as well. Nevertheless, when all is said and done, she knows it is just a game.

Equally impressive, however, is that she is so down-to-earth, so ordinary in the best sense. With so many egos and prima-donnas strutting around, especially amongst the just-as-talented Australian male players, Ash is refreshingly different. Asked in January whether she really did not fear any of the women on the professional circuit, Ash thought for a moment before responding, “Fear won’t get you anywhere mate.” After she won the Miami Open in March and lifted her world ranking into the top ten she said, “It’s amazing what happens when you put your hopes and dreams out into the universe and do the work, you know? It’s amazing.”

I could be wrong but I don’t think we should take that literally, as though she really believes the ‘universe’ responds to our hopes and dreams—a not uncommon modern idolatry—but more symbolically: decide what you hope for, put yourself out there, do the work, back yourself. Otherwise expressed: put aside fear, focus on your hopes, do the work, see what happens.

So far I have not said anything remotely Christian. But there is grace here too, creational grace at least. In a pre-final interview with her first coach, he recalled meeting her as a very young child and noting that she had hand-eye coordination like no one he had ever seen. But grace does not operate on its own without works—even saving grace. Certainly we are saved without works but in order to do good works (Ephesians 2:8-10). And Ash Barty has worked. To the natural advantages she gained at birth and in the course of her upbringing she has added hard work, consistent work, probably lonely work many times, unseen work, seemingly unrewarded work, except she has been rewarded, and not merely in winning the French Open: she has become who she is, a better person.

Australian cricket great Don Bradman once said,

When considering the stature of an athlete or for that matter any person, I set great store in certain qualities which I believe to be essential in addition to skill. They are that the person conducts his or her life with dignity, with integrity, with courage, and perhaps most of all, modesty. These virtues are totally compatible with pride, ambition and competitiveness.

Again, Bradman does not refer to grace here, and his comments may reflect an earlier time in Australian life. Far earlier still, Aristotle commended the virtuous life. The measure of one’s life is not merely one’s achievement but the kind of person they have become. If this is true of persons in general it must especially be true of those who are Christians, to whom are given the Beatitudes, the fruit of the Spirit, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. And remember Peter’s words: ‘Add to your faith, virtue…’ (2 Peter 1:5).

I am indebted to Will Swanton’s article in
The Australian
June 10, 2019 for the citations in this post.

Playing a Long Game

I came across this quote in a recent newspaper article in the aftermath of George Pell’s conviction for sexual abuse of two children. It is a prediction made by fellow Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who looks a great deal like former Senator David Leyonhjelm, who died of cancer in 2015, and who predicted hard times for faithful church leaders in an increasingly aggressive secular western culture:

“I expect to die in bed; my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilisation, as the church has done so often in human history.”

We might ask whether this exhibits a pessimistic or fatalist attitude, or is otherwise an exhibition of gross arrogance and a delusion of grandeur. Is western society actually on such a downward trajectory that it is heading for ruin? Might this be the pessimistic ‘hope’ of a churchman mourning the loss of public acknowledgement and position, one whose vision of the Good has been thoroughly superseded by social progress in the modern era?

I suspect that many voices would argue that this is in fact the case. The myth of progress is still deeply entrenched and virile in the western imagination. And Cardinal George was promoted to the position by John Paul II, a recognition of his traditionalist understanding of central Roman Catholic commitments.

Nevertheless, I also suspect that his prediction might contain a more realistic appraisal of the contemporary situation than such critics allow, even if his suggested time frames prove to be inaccurate. He anticipates, probably rightly, an increasingly hostile confrontation of the church by the surrounding culture in years to come. He also believes, rightly or wrongly, that the present trajectory of the culture will lead to its ruin in years to come. Finally, he is convinced that the church will not only endure but survive the ignominy of its cultural rejection, and will be present in the midst of the coming cultural and civilisational crisis to ‘pick up the shards of a ruined society, and help rebuild civilisation.’

What I liked about the quote is his multi-generational vision. Cardinal Francis George was playing a long game. And in this, he was fundamentally correct. If the church today is focussed only on its own ‘success’ and growth, and is not also the church of the martyrs, and a community of humble service, I wonder whether it will survive the coming days.

See: Tess Livingstone, “‘Faith, innocence’ sustain stoic leader in darkest hour” The Weekend Australian, March 2-3, 2019, 18.

See also the appreciative eulogy on Cardinal Francis George by George Weigel.

Tell the Story!

Carroll, The Birth of Meaning (Christmas)In a recent article in the Weekend Australian entitled “The Birth of Meaning”John Carroll, professor emeritus of sociology at La Trobe University, wrote a quite penetrating complaint concerning the infantilising of Christmas in western culture. It was an article in the Christmas edition of the paper and so concerned the place of the nativity in recent western culture. (If the link is blocked by a paywall, use the link above the image to access a PDF copy.)

The whole article is worth reading. Carroll targets the churches with a particular criticism:

The churches have been derelict in their primary duty: they have failed to retell their constitutive and defining story in meaningful contemporary terms … They have inherited the richest cultural treasure in the Western tradition, yet they turn their backs on it and wonder why their pews are empty. They compensate by taking up social justice and political causes. However, once they have become indistinguishable from social workers and political activists, why should anyone take their religious pretensions seriously?

His advice: tell the story! With all its metaphysical claims, and its whole-of-life Jesus narrative.

Sounds like welcome advice.

Neo-Marxism & Christian Hope

Matthew Rose’s “Our Secular Theodicy” over at First Things is well worth reading. It explores the message and legacy of Ernst Bloch, a German philosopher of hope often cited by Moltmann in his work. Here are a few citations:

Bloch is a guide into the concealed theology of contemporary liberalism, whose outlook remains profoundly, if paradoxically, biblical in one respect. Having rejected a Christian understanding of nature, it retains an intensely Christian understanding of history. It sees human history as goal-oriented and our advancement as a series of conversions and liberations, the outcome of which is the creation of a community that can redeem our fallen history…

Theodicy is the attempt to justify the goodness and providence of God in view of the reality of evil. Bloch is engaged in theodicy, too, but of a much different kind. His theodicy is humanistic. It is an attempt to make sense of humanity in view of its apparently senseless history. Only by creating a just community, Bloch posits, can we vindicate past and present injustices. Hope gives us the strength to undertake this massive, world-justifying responsibility. It refuses the limitations of the visibly possible and rebels with the conviction that a radically different way of life is attainable. Hope is therefore not the power to wait patiently for a home in eternity; it is the daring power to create a true and lasting home here on earth. Aquinas named this the vice of presumption, but for Bloch it is the one thing needful…

To my knowledge, Bloch is the only philosopher to have used Jesus to defend outright atheism. . . . According to Bloch, however, Jesus achieves a lasting victory in his error and defeat. Through his life and death, this ill-fated Spartacus becomes the savior of humanity—not by reconciling humanity to God, but by freeing humanity from God. Bloch arrived at this remarkable conclusion by interpreting the Bible as the story of the awakening of human autonomy and its rebellion against all forms of oppression…

Bloch saw Christianity as the most revolutionary movement in human history. It opened the way to political goals that could not otherwise be discovered, creating what Immanuel Kant called the “immanent expectation” of “the victory of good over evil.” The God of the Bible offered humanity the saving hope of liberation from captivity. In doing so, however, God gave us the keys to his holy kingdom. We learned that we are meant, in Bloch’s words, to “walk upright.” And this subversive imperative leads believers to take leave of God in the name of God.