Tag Archives: Post-Christian

Relevance or Resilience?

Mark SayersMark Sayers from Red Church in Melbourne wrote an interesting article for Christianity Today (July/August 2016) entitled, “Creating a Culture of Resilience.” The article argues that the Christian strategy of being culturally relevant in order to win converts, that is, of reducing the cultural distance between the believer and unbeliever, is unlikely to prove effective in today’s “progressive” culture. It is not that relevance is not a strategy that can be applied in some contexts, but the progressive culture sweeping the West is fundamentally post-Christian.

The emerging progressivism has tapped into a long-repressed desire, particularly in the young, for a radically different and better future. In the new progressive cultural mood, Catholic writer Jody Bottum sees a facsimile of Christianity, in which the categories of sin, shame, guilt, salvation, and the elect return, shaped around not theology but the goals of progressive politics. Every missionary tries to build cultural bridges in order to communicate the gospel. But the new progressivism subverts and frustrates this search. It is precisely the church, after all, that progressivism judges as immoral and sinful. The new progressivism is ultimately a form of post-Christianity. It is a new faith that attempts to achieve some of the social goals of Christianity—especially the elimination of oppression, violence, and discrimination—while moving decisively beyond it. For many young adults, leaving the church is less a leap into apostasy than a step toward social aspirations the church imperfectly realized, while subtracting dubious religious restrictions and the submission of the individual will (59-60).

He warns that when the church seeks to evangelise the progressive culture by means of a strategy of cultural relevance, it is likely that the church itself will be colonised by that culture. Instead, he counsels a strategy of resilience, which he defines in terms of faithful and courageous commitment to what the early Christians termed “The Way”:

An overriding commitment to church and Christian community, seeking to follow Jesus with the entirety of one’s heart, soul, and mind in the face of endless choices and options. The commitment to surrender one’s will to God, sacrificially following him as a servant. The decision to live fully with the Holy Spirit’s guidance in a world of anxiety, fragility, and emotionalism run wild. … True relevance to this culture will not come by accommodating its demands, but by developing the kinds of people who can resist them. … Resilience amid the third culture will require the patient and unyielding demonstration of human flourishing, the kind that comes only from embedding our personal freedoms in Christian commitments (60).

Diaspora Judaism: Analogy for the Post-Christendom Church? Part 2

"Leaving Zion" Detail from the Arch of TitusYesterday I posted a piece on Diaspora Judaism, and asked whether patterns of life in Diaspora Judaism might serve as an analogy for being the church in a post-Christian environment? There are obvious differences between the contemporary church and Diaspora Judaism, especially the fact that Diaspora Judaism was at its core, an ethnic community with common ancestry, custom and heritage. Perhaps, though, the contemporary church might learn from the success of Diaspora communities which managed to maintain their distinctive identity and faithfulness, sometimes for centuries, in the midst of a foreign and sometimes hostile environment.

Paul Trebilco identified several key features which sustained Diaspora Judaism, including their legal status within the Roman world, which offered some degree of protection from local persecution. Other features identified may offer some insight into how the church might retain its unique and distinct identity and ethos…

1. The local community
The community itself was central to life in the Diaspora. It was here that ethnic Jews found the acceptance, identity, value, friendship and support they needed to live faithfully in foreign and sometimes hostile environments. Community life included weekly gatherings, regular feast and fast days, and financial contributions, all of which helped reinforce their distinctive identity and lifestyle, and bond them together in solidarity.

Trebilco emphasises the social significance of the local community and weekly gatherings. It is, perhaps, this aspect of community life which is more difficult to nurture in a post-Christian context. Majority-culture Christians are typically highly assimilated with so many relational opportunities, that participation in the local Christian community loses its impetus and value. We simply do not need the community the way the Diaspora Jews often did. One strategy to alter this circumstance is to intentionally nurture the relational and social aspects of community life, so that genuine friendships and supportive relationships might occur. More important is the fundamental shift of one’s core identity to being essentially Christian. If being a Christian is our core identity, we will more naturally gravitate toward and value the community.

2. Endogamous Marriage, Parenting and Re-socialisation
Diaspora Jews by and large married within their own ethnic group, and raised their children as Jews, passing on Jewish traditions and heritage from generation to generation. Proselytes and others seeking entry into the community were re-socialised, learning the ways of the community and adopting them as their own.

I don’t know how easily these could inform contemporary Christianity. When I married it was almost assumed that a Christian would marry another similar-brand Christian. I am not sure that is still the case, especially for Christian women, for whom the options are often quite limited. This key feature of Diaspora Judaism points to the necessity of ministries that support and nurture marriage and family life, including the raising of children in an environment of active faithfulness. I suspect this will become increasingly important as marriages and families continue to suffer the stress and breakdown which characterises the contemporary West. I suspect that it will also become an important aspect of Christian witness.

The ancient church had a strong tradition of re-socialisation: new converts received extensive mentoring and catechesis before finally being baptised and accepted into the full life of the community. This period of instruction and training was designed to help converts learn and adopt the beliefs and practices which sustained the community in the midst of the hostile Roman empire. Many voices are calling for a restoration of such practices in the church today.

3. The Torah
Regular instruction in the Law was a key element in the weekly synagogue and laid the foundations of Diaspora identity. Trebilco makes the interesting observation that Moses was seen as a “skilful lawgiver, a profound philosopher, a noble king, a supreme military commander, miracle worker and priest” (298). This indicates to some degree, the assimilation of teaching to categories of thought common in the surrounding culture.

The more important observation, of course, concerns the centrality of Scripture to identity, community and life formation. Personal and communal transformation requires extensive and intensive engagement with the texts of Scripture, learning together to inhabit the world of the biblical text, and to embody that world in the daily realities of life.

4. Visible Practices
Trebilco identifies the importance of Jewish dietary laws, Sabbath-keeping and  circumcision as “key boundary markers of Jewish identity, with great social significance” (298). The first two, in particular, were highly visible commitments which distinguished Diaspora Jews from their countrymen, and reinforced their distinctive identity. The third, perhaps visible in the context of public baths, constituted, says Trebilco, a strong affirmation of Jewish identity for men. I find the visibility of the Diaspora community intriguing.

Perhaps the closest analogue to these practices for the contemporary church is gathering for public worship, followed closely by practices of gathering for common meals. Other practices could be such things as serving the poor or other good works in the public sphere. In any event, visible identification with the cause of Christ will effectively enhance one’s core sense of Christian identity.

5. The Fundamental Commitment
Finally, Trebilco notes the fundamental belief which underlies the entire structure of Diaspora Judaism, including even the core reality of ethnicity: monotheist belief in the one God of Israel, whose people they are. Belief that this God was the “God of Israel” implicated them ethnically. Belief in the one God entailed the rejection of all other so-called gods, idols and cults.

In the post-Christian environment in which we now live the church will continue so long as there are people whose identity is grounded in the reality of the divine grace by which we have been chosen and called, that is, those whose our existence is a response to this God who has given himself to us in Jesus Christ. An essential difference also emerges here: Diaspora Judaism was inherently an ethnic community; with the revelation of God in Christ, we understand God in universal terms and not simply as God of the Jews only. Diaspora Judaism grew by procreation and occasional proselytes. The Christian community is commanded to make disciples and so to grow by conversion as well as by procreation. It is a Diaspora community characterised by mission.

Diaspora Judaism: Analogy for the Post-Christendom Church?


"Leaving Zion" Detail from the Arch of Titus
“Leaving Zion” Detail from the Arch of Titus

The term “Diaspora” became almost a technical term in the first century to identify those Jews who were “scattered” all around the Middle East and the Mediterranean. The term was quickly applied to Christian Jews and perhaps Christians more generally, by some early New Testament writers. For example, James addresses his letter to the “twelve tribes who are scattered abroad [diaspora]” (1:1). Luke refers to those “scattered” [diaspora] by the persecution that arose after the death of Stephen (Acts 8:1, 4; 11:19). Nevertheless, the term is used especially of Diaspora Judaism – those Jews who lived amongst the gentiles, outside their ancestral homeland. This phenomenon started in the centuries before Christ as a result of conquest: foreign powers took many prisoners into captivity. But many of these refused to assimilate to the culture of their new masters. Rather they clung tenaciously to their Jewish identity even in the midst of foreign and hostile environments.

P. R. Trebilco’s article on Diaspora Judaism (Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments, 287-300) distinguishes between the assimilation, acculturation and accommodation of Diaspora communities. Assimilation refers to the degree of social contact and interaction Jews had with their new gentile neighbours. Acculturation refers to the degree to which they adopted gentile culture and practices, including language and education, ideology and worldview. Accommodation refers to the use they made of Hellenistic culture.

Trebilco argues that most Jews had “medium” levels of assimilation; that is, they had significant social ties with their non-Jewish environment, but still retained their Jewish identity, and remained faithful to their Jewish traditions. Some Jews, usually those seeking social acceptance or upward mobility, assimilated so completely into their new environment that they lost or even forsook their Jewish heritage. At the other end of the scale, some Jews remained aloof from their new environment, keeping their own company and carefully preserving their own traditions. Most Jews, however, “were neither socially and culturally isolated nor simply blended into some social amalgam. While their boundaries may have been defined variously in differing circumstances, it was precisely the ability to maintain these boundaries while continuing everyday social contacts with non-Jews that was the peculiar achievement of the successful Diaspora communities” (295).

According to Trebilco, the core of Diaspora identity was ethnicity: the combination of Jewish ancestry and custom that could be voluntarily adopted or abandoned (297). He identifies a variety of commitments which supported and sustained this identity: (a) modes of marriage and parenting, kinship and re-socialisation for outsiders joining the community; (b) the centrality of the local Jewish community in the life of individual Jews, and the links of particular Diaspora communities with other communities; (c) the Torah as key text for nurturing identity and life; and (d) beliefs and practices which reinforced identity, distinguished Jews from their surrounding culture, and facilitated continuing identity formation in the community. These included such things as a commitment to monotheism, adherence to the dietary rules of Torah, which also facilitated common meals, the practices of circumcision and Sabbath. These practices were key boundary markers with great social significance, which set the Diaspora communities apart from their neighbours, though without leading the communities into isolationist modes of life.

I read Trebilco’s article in the context of other work, but it got me thinking about the present state and context of the church. The question is: might patterns of life in Diaspora Judaism serve as an analogy for being the church in a post-Christian environment, in which the church is a minority community in a disinterested, sometimes hostile environment? Or put differently, how might the church retain and sustain its distinctive identity and ethos in this environment, and communicate it across generations?

I will post some further reflections on this tomorrow.