Identity Crisis? Faith Shift(s) & Amorphous Affiliations – Part Three: (Post) Evangelical?

*Links are highlighted.

This is the third post in a series wherein I attempt to explore the nature of my evolving Christian faith. In part one I sketched a vague backdrop of my own experience of (re)embracing Christianity, and by proxy Western Evangelicalism, as an adult convert. In part two I expanded upon some of my formative encounters with the Pentecostal-charismatic movement, and reflected upon how they began to shape my journey as a new believer. This post also dealt with the significant influence of pastor Bill Johnson and Bethel Church, Redding, upon my inherited outlook and understanding of a distinctively pentecostal-charismatic spirituality. Following Johnson’s endorsement of Donald Trump at the apex of the recent US election, I finally arrived at a place where, after much soul searching and reasoned reflection, I felt that I could no longer self-identify with North American Evangelicalism.[1] Rather than continue to glibly accept the label ‘Evangelical’ as a descriptor of my faith, I decided instead that “simply ‘Christian’ will have to do”.[2] I shall now begin to articulate, at least to some extent, what this means for me going forward. Without further ado:

(Post)Evangelical?

A UK based Anglican priest called Dave Tomlinson latched onto the phrase ‘post-evangelical’ in 1993, and subsequently published an influential book by the same name. This was of course during the murky morass of the dark ages before the widespread adoption of the internet, and I was a mere schoolboy (so it’s a somewhat dated term by now!). Dave describes the process on his website as follows:

What is a post-evangelical? I suspect the term had entered our consciousness surreptitiously a couple of years earlier, but no one had ever got around to elucidating what it meant. The next day I awoke, determined to have a go. The Post-Evangelical, was published in the UK two years later, just in time for the 1995 Greenbelt Festival.[3]

And so:

The book is, in fact, a pastoral essay directed at people who struggle with the restrictions in evangelical theology, spirituality, and church culture—yet who still want to journey with the Christian faith.[4]

He elaborates:

The post-evangelical impulse does not necessarily imply a move away from Christian orthodoxy or evangelical faith – though it does for some. Rather it demonstrates that in order to remain true to a tradition, we must come to terms with its changing cultural context so that an authentic expression of that tradition can be found…[5]

The desire for authenticity in the midst of rapidly changing global contexts seems particularly relevant to my own evolving faith shift, which apparently fits with many an anecdotal account of the purported postmodern mindset that tends toward a hermeneutic of suspicion, particularly where absolute truth claims, authority figures, and institutions are concerned.[6] Whilst the book itself is only just finding it’s way onto my never-ending reading list, Dave’s short blog post provides enough insight into what a post-evangelical looks like  for me to co-opt his broad definitions. For instance, he describes some of the correspondence he has received from many Christians, in response to his book, in the following terms:

The letters told stories about the struggles people experienced trying to make sense of their faith in churches where their questions were far from welcome. Some talked about intellectual tussles with doctrines they couldn’t swallow, others of longings for a deeper spirituality. Some were frustrated at the lack of social and political engagement in their churches, others cringed at self-righteous moralizing. Most found the evangelical subculture insular, self-congratulatory, and often, embarrassing.

Many of the letters I received also voiced exasperation at the sense of certainty and hype experienced in some evangelical churches, where they found it particularly hard to express disquiet or to question prevailing attitudes. In my opinion the fundamentalist tone in much charismatic theology fuels this post-evangelical impulse.[7] – (Emphasis mine)

All of the scenarios mentioned above seem very familiar to me as I consider my own sense of disquiet and longing for greater spiritual depth in my walk with God. The words ‘certainty’ and ‘hype’ also stood out to me as being far too reminiscent of my experiences in Evangelical charismatic churches. As for the ‘subculture’, well, that could take up a whole separate blog series! It is fascinating to me that Tomlinson equates the influence of a ‘fundamentalist tone in much charismatic theology’ as being relevant to the droves of people who seem to be adopting the term ‘post-evangelical’. I have quite recently stumbled across a number of similar references with regard to fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, which merit some attention in the next section of this post. It seems that Tomlinson is not alone in making this connection.

It is worth remembering at this stage that my writing here is driven by a number of questions which relate to the title of this post. Firstly, in light of my previous blog post: Am I now ‘post-evangelical’? It would seem so. A concomitant question might be: “What does that really mean?” In order to answer these, a more pressing question might be: “What is an Evangelical?” To all of these questions, we shall now turn.

Evangelical Identity?

A helpful study on this very topic was compiled relatively recently by David Bebbington and David Ceri Jones. The introduction to Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in the United Kingdom During the Twentieth Century provides a number of useful starting points for a brief discussion of the matter in question. For instance, Donald Dayton is cited as a voice of scepticism which casts doubt upon the notion of forming any meaningful definition of the term ‘evangelical’:

Evangelicalism, [Dayton] argues, is a diverse patchwork whose constituent elements possess so little in common that an overall definition is impractical.[8]

By way of contrast, the editors also summarise David Bebbington’s broad definition of ‘evangelicals’ as Christians who define their faith by stressing a number of crucial factors.[9] As Bebbington himself puts it: 

There are four qualities that have been the special marks of Evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be termed crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism.[10]

Both perspectives ring true to me. On the one hand, Evangelicalism is far from monolithic; like any complex movement it is undoubtedly nuanced, fuzzy, and inherently difficult to clarify with any degree of serious, all-encompassing precision. On the other hand, it does not utterly defy a definition of any kind. Bebbington’s ‘quadrilateral’ arguably offers a very useful rubric for understanding the key features and tropes that characterise the movement as a whole; albeit only in a vague, limited, and generalised manner within the blurry boundaries of the ‘diverse patchwork’ that Dayton describes. 

My own journey has consisted of a staggeringly disorientating sense of uncertainty as regards ‘evangelical’ identity. Why do so many ‘evangelicals’ (especially close friends and acquaintances) hold radically different views on how to interpret Scripture, and where do I stand on any given issue that is being disputed? Whose ‘evangelical’ am I? Why do I seem to sit in the ‘progressive’ camp on some matters, and yet remain entrenched in the ‘conservative’ one on others? Studying for an MA in Theology has been enormously helpful in answering some of these questions, and at the same time has also added innumerable layers of complexity to my understanding (or lack thereof) of the Christian faith, and Evangelicalism in particular. 

To clarify, ambiguity is surely inevitable since the postmodern turn, insofar as one may conceive of the contextually bounded limitations of all human knowledge and endeavour; Uncertainty is arguably inescapable (though this is, of course, far from certain!). Thus, defining the meaning of ‘evangelical’ Christianity in any kind of detail is not a straightforward task; nevertheless, at least in terms of historic Western Evangelicalism, it has a vaguely discernible shape. 

Thus, despite such prevalent uncertainty I have in fact observed the distinct fourfold pattern that Bebbington describes. In my experience ‘evangelicals’ do indeed emphasise conversion (my own being a case in point!), activism (I have been on the receiving end of and engaged in evangelism, outreach, etc), biblicism (The Bible is held to be ‘authoritative’), and crucicentrism (Jesus Christ crucified and the implications of this event constitute the ‘main thing’). Even now, in the broad sense that Bebbington describes at least, I remain steadfastly ‘evangelical’, although the devil remains hidden within the details of how one actually defines each of these factors and, as ever, translates theory into practice. One may ask, for instance, to what extent is one person’s ‘Evangelicalism’ functionally synonymous with another person’s ‘fundamentalism’? Answering such a question may prove to be source of considerable discomfort and tension for many hapless, oblivious ‘evangelicals’ (I would include myself in such a category until very recently!).

For me, becoming ‘post-evangelical’ is, as Tomlinson noticed, driven by a desire to eschew what I consider to be numerous negative attributes which (my understanding/experience of) ‘Evangelicalism’ has imbibed from ‘fundamentalism’. Yet even drawing this comparison is problematic, as we shall see.

Evangelicals & Fundamentalism?

As the authors of Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism have also noted, ‘Fundamentalism is more complex to analyse’ than Evangelicalism, the latter of which they claim ‘is more or less understood’.[11] At present, insofar as the study in question is concerned, the authors assert that ‘Fundamentalism [has] emerged as a trans-confessional phenomenon’.[12] In other words, it is not confined to North American Protestantism, or indeed any single world religion or sociopolitical movement (or expression thereof). Thus, much like Dayton’s critique of attempts to clearly define Western Evangelicalism: 

Fundamentalism is not best seen as a single worldwide impulse channelling generic religious energies in a particular direction. Rather, as it has been argued, fundamentalisms must be regarded as plural.[13]

In Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction, Malise Ruthven illustrates the extraordinary challenge of attempting to capture and summarise the plurality of potential meanings, connotations, and associations that a term like ‘fundamentalism’ conjures; all of which effortlessly and indiscriminately criss-cross within and beyond the somewhat arbitrary geographical borders and historical epochs of human culture(s). Some of his particularly relevant insights include:

Fundamentalism, according to its critics, is just a dirty 14 letter word. It is a term of abuse levelled by liberals and Enlightenment rationalists against any group, religious or otherwise, that dares to challenge the absolutism of the post-Enlightenment outlook.[14]

And:

The F-word has long since escaped from the Protestant closet in which it began its semantic career around the turn of the 20th Century…Put at its broadest, it may be described as a religious way of being that manifests itself in a strategy by which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their distinctive identities as individuals or groups in the face of modernity and secularization.[15]

Ruthven applies Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of ‘family resemblances’ to construct his discussion of ‘similarities and relationships’ between varying ‘fundamentalisms’, which, by virtue of their inherent diversity, defy scholarly attempts to produce ‘a single, defining feature’.[16] That said, Ruthven does aver that:

Fundamentalists everywhere tend towards a literalist interpretation of the texts they revere…At it’s starkest, literalism means that the letter or exact wording of a text carries the whole weight of its meaning, excluding any unmentioned or extraneous data. [17] – Emphasis mine.

With the benefit of the foolish wisdom of hindsight, it is this particular quality of religious fundamentalism(s) that most frequently springs to mind when I consider my past experience of, and participation in, Western Evangelicalism. I have, to my shame, both uncritically embraced and espoused far too many examples of fundamentalist literalism throughout my short time as an adult Christian convert. After all, if “the Bible says it”, and “I believe it, that settles it”.. right?[18]

Biblicism defined in this (admittedly very narrow) way, is one of the less helpful reoccurring features of my numerous encounters with diverse expressions of Western Evangelicalism that I am keen to shed. Familiar rhetoric springs to mind immediately, such as “the Bible clearly teaches…(read: it doesn’t, but I’m right and you’re wrong)”, “God’s word is clear, sharp, and precise…”(read: and I shall now proceed to stab you with it), ‘X’ preacher is “bringing the word of God” (read: their unqualified, biased, and oftentimes exegetically disastrous interpretation of various proof texts) to any given congregation or gathering; so one must suspend all intellectual faculties, eschew critical scrutiny, informed dissent, or open minded enquiry, and “submit”to the teaching in question (no questions asked). 

Perhaps most disturbingly, I recall numerous instances wherein a given charismatic preacher says something along the lines of “God/The Lord has told me/is saying.. [insert contentious assertion here]…So if you want to respond [obediently] come forward”. At this point either they, or one of their ‘ministry team’, can slap their palms upon your forehead after a time of “worship” (read: enthusiastic singing), and the Holy Spirit (read: or perhaps the power of suggestion and/or a firm shove through your center of balance) might just force you to the floor.[19] Apparently this is how one recovers authentic New Testament Christianity in certain pentecostal-charismatic circles.[20]

In short, this virulent variant of ‘evangelical’ biblicism is all too often nothing less than a sinister weapon which is used to manipulate and assert control over unwitting (albeit, oftentimes willing) participants. Fundamentalist literalism of this kind can be a dark, blunt instrument in the hands of both well meaning and malicious zealots. Either way it has the propensity to bludgeon the mind, body, and soul into submission to various ‘evangelical’ agendas such as ‘complementarianism’ (read: the functional subjugation of women), syncretism with nationalism, white supremacist ideologies, just war theories, anti-intellectualism, social conservatism, and so forth. Granted, some ‘evangelical’ agendas may in fact be consistent with Jesus’ life and teaching, although the examples cited are clearly (arguably) not.

I am increasingly ‘past’ the kind(s) of Evangelicalism(s) that adopt fundamentalist literalism in such a way that transforms so called ‘evangelical’ theology and practice into toxic, pernicious ideologies that bear all the hallmarks of ravenous wolves and false prophets.[21] In contrast to any such Evangelicalism(s), I am unashamedly ‘post-evangelical’. This clearly needs to be fleshed out, and my negative assertions must be balanced out by positive and constructive suggestions (particularly as regards my embrace of the Anglican Tradition). However this post is already out of hand and far too long! Until then:

Teaser: Next Post 

In my next post, I shall attempt to engage with Martyn Percy’s penetrating study of John Wimber, which is entitled Words, Wonders, and Power: Understanding Contemporary Christian Fundamentalism and Revivalism.  In so doing, I intend to offer a sketch of what my developing spirituality and mixed denominational affiliation is starting to look like: That of a ‘post-evangelical Anglican Wimberite’!

Comments are welcome!

M

End Notes:

1. By proxy, this has also involved a concerted effort to consciously distance myself from Bill Johnson’s/Bethel’s particular brand of charismatic theology, which has necessitated a deliberate, self-imposed moratorium on my prior tendency towards voracious media consumption (particularly Christian pop-rock songs and recorded sermons by Bethel). Additionally, to cite Johnson does not lay the blame for my own emerging faith shift away from Evangelicalism solely at his feet; many other white male pastors (E.g. Wayne Grudem, although he later recanted) endorsed Donald Trump, and this particular issue was (for me at least) very much a case of the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, as it were. It would be unfair (and inaccurate) to refer only to Bill Johnson and the Trump phenomenon as the catalyst(s) for my own disillusionment with Western Evangelicalism.

2. See the conclusion to my previous post.

3. http://www.davetomlinson.co.uk/post-evangelical/.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Whether such a hypothetical ‘postmodern’ mindset actually exists in the concrete lived realities of the human condition is itself, of course, a proposal to be highly suspicious of. Quite how one defines ‘postmodernism’, beyond a vague reference to Jean François Lyotard’s infamous ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’, is another story entirely (well, almost).

7. See [3].

8. Bebbington, David W., and Ceri Jones, David (eds), Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in the United Kingdom During the Twentieth Century, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, 1-2. See also: Dayton, D. W., ‘Some Doubts about the Usefulness of the Category “Evangelical”’, in D. W. Dayton and R. K. Johnston (eds),  The  Variety  of  American Evangelicalism (Knoxville, Tenn.,  1991),  245–51.

9. Ibid.

10. Bebbington, D.W., Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History From the 1730s to the 1980s, London: Routledge, 1989, 2-3.

11. Bebbington, Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism, 2-3.

12. Ibid, 3.

13. Ibid. See also: C. H. Partridge, ‘Introduction’, in C. H. Partridge (ed.), Fundamentalisms (Carlisle, 2001), pp. xv–xvi.

14. Ruthven, Malise, Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, 5.

15. Ibid, 5-6.

16. Ibid, 6, 53, 122, etc.

17. Ibid, 40-41.

18. Wrong. Drastically so.

19. As dreadful and provocative as this caricature may be, it is a fairly accurate (albeit it mildly sarcastic/playfully mischievous) representation of many experiences I have had in distinctly Pentecostal-charismatic settings. I have mentioned it previously, however it seemed worth reiterating once again in this context.

20. It’s not of course, but it’s very often framed in this way; we have the real deal, other so called ‘Christians’ are lesser, unbiblical impostors who need to be “set free”.

21. It may be a hangover from my uncritical embrace of fundamentalist literalism, but I see too many kernels of truth in Jesus’ recorded statements warning his people about false prophets and teachers. By their fruits, one can recognise them (e.g. Matt 7:15-20). 

Trajectories: Branded Religion vs Incarnational Diversity

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*Links are highlighted.

Global brands, popular music, and evangelical Christianity are products of cultural flows (Appadurai, 1990) that facilitate interaction between the “global” and the “local,” in What Roland Robertson (1995) has referred to as glocalization. [1]

For various reasons, I have had cause to consider this uncomfortable topic in recent weeks. It is perhaps entirely fitting for me as a musician, evangelical Christian, and budding theologian to reflect critically upon my own experience of how Western Evangelicalism appears to have been influenced by business principles, and marketing in particular. The above quote from Thomas Wagner’s article takes a sober look at how strategies from the sphere of commerce have proven to be highly ‘successful’ at growing a local Church into a global brand. In this case, Wagner focuses on none other than Hillsong, whose substantial organisational growth has been well documented in recent years, and has in some cases been met with suspicion and criticism.

Brand Identity & Sensory Experience

Wagner uses the example of Hillsong to argue for the drawing together of ‘the experience of brand, music, and religious discourse as a gestalt “Sound”.’ [2] As he notes, the Hillsong brand is ‘inextricable’ from the music they produce, which he claims is the driving force behind their growth as a globally recognised brand. Wagner cites (and provides strong evidence for) the manner in which Hillsong ‘focuses on the consistency of its product’, via standardisation and homogenisation, as a key factor which has enabled them to have an ‘outsized influence on both the Australian and global Christian sonic (and theological) landscapes (Evans, 2006: 87-109)’. [3] In other words, thanks to a savvy marketing strategy and meticulous brand management, the Hillsong “Sound” has proven critical in ensuring that they punch above their weight as a megachurch.

Another important aspect of how Hillsong have achieved this resides in the way they have fused the experience and ‘social imagination’ of congregants in diverse local contexts to ensure that they ‘realise the meaning of the brand as they engage with…its music’. [4] One fascinating feature of this phenomenon was the testimony of a member at Hillsong London, who claimed that their Church’s rendition of the Hillsong “Sound” was typically faster and louder than their Australian counterparts. In reality this was not the case, as songs were played to a metronome at standardised tempos in both contexts. Nonetheless, despite being familiar with both Australian and European versions of the Hillsong brand, the interviewee in question described a different, subjective experience of each context. Participants in this global brand identity thereby contextualise, and relativise their own individual (and presumably corporate) interpretation(s) of the “Sound”. [5]

If nothing else, such a startling example demonstrates the fickle nature of human perception, proving the axiom that reality is fiendishly complex. To what extent can we, as interested observers (in this case of a megachurch context), trust our senses when the perspective we experience is prone to subconscious bias? To ask the most troubling question from a believer’s point of view, are we (Christians) experiencing an authentic encounter with divine reality (i. e. The presence of God, manifested via the Spirit)? Or are we plummeting into the shallow depths of brand driven, consumer-oriented euphoria, which bears an uncanny resemblance to mass hysteria (or perhaps a U2 concert)? Questions of ambition and integrity rise to the surface of such stagnant pools, wherein a conflict of interest between promoting a brand, and the pursuit of authentic biblical Christianity is a genuine danger.

It’s All About (Jesus’?) Mission

My intention here is not to critique Hillsong per se, but rather the model of ecclesial homogeneity that the process of such branding inflicts upon any church. As Wagner points out, efforts to develop a distinctive European sound by Hillsong London were abandoned in favour of standardisation. Instead of nurturing a unique, contextual “Sound” with London based musicians and songwriters, Hillsong Sydney decided to retain control over the aesthetic and artistic direction of the music. Innovation was quashed by centralisation. [6] For the Hillsong brand, uniformity trumped unity amidst diversity. Game changers need not apply.

This leads me to wonder if Jesus’ mission is being best served by ever expanding, glocalized megachurches. Does it follow that Jesus’ mission entails building a global brand like Hillsong, which ‘listed earnings of $64 million in 2010, with total assets of $28.7 million and income from conferences of $6.7 million (McMillan, 2011)’, whilst operating under the auspices of a charitable (read: Income tax exempt) organisation? [7] A very pertinent article with more up to date, albeit unverified financials was printed this month, here.

One could perhaps legitimately posit divine favour as the source of Hillsong’s explosive growth and healthy financials. However faithful or sceptical one may be, this remains a distinct possibility. One could also offer the suggestion that cohesive branding sells, and business can be a rather blunt instrument. Whatever the case, if homogeneity is an effective ingredient within a successful branding campaign, is the underlying motivation for pursuing said campaign, a desire for participation in Jesus’ mission to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth? If so, is the overall strategy effective at achieving it’s intended purpose? The better angels of my nature would like to believe that the answer to these questions is yes; in which case, homogeneity for the sake of building a brand is arguably justified. On the flip side, naivety is endemic within polite, white, middle class, Western Christianity. Cultural blindspots are always the hardest to see; subcultural ones even more so. What if building a brand detracts from Jesus’ mission, or worse yet, misses it entirely? A word of caution to any ‘thriving’ Christian ministry is hauntingly summed up by Jesus’ words to the Laodicean church in Revelation:

‘You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.’
(Rev 3:17-18 NIV)

Riches are by no means a sign of Gospel faithfulness, integrity, or clarity of vision clothed in the garments of purity before a holy and perfect God. Jesus makes it very clear that his people must not assume that abundance and numerical growth in various areas is synonymous with his direct provision and blessing. That is prosperity theology, and as he boldly states, this is fool’s gold.

A Moment of Clarity

To be very clear, I have no desire to repaint every large church with the same brush. Building a megachurch or movement based on homogenous branding isn’t necessarily a sign of divided loyalties, or divine favour. I have no doubt that many large Christian organisations can, and do produce a substantial amount of fruit for Jesus’ Kingdom purposes. I have certainly experienced tremendous blessings, particularly via spiritual and emotional healing through large, well branded church ministries. I celebrate churches that strike a balance between the rock of consumerism and the hard place of confronting contemporary culture with the Gospel call to repentance. No two churches will be exactly the same. In reality, many would be hard to define in terms of where they might fit on a spectrum between pursuing Jesus’ mission, and ending up off course and in the wretched condition that matches the above diagnosis of the church in Laodicea. So to avoid singling out any specific churches which may have inspired this article, let’s consider a purely hypothetical, caricatured, worst case scenario type of example of any congregation which chooses to adopt the Hillsong model, and label it church ‘X’:

The Church ‘X’ Factor

Combine the fruits of aggressive ambition, causality, market forces, branding, and a blinkered theology similar to neo-papal infallibility when it comes to Charismatic Christian leadership, and you have a potent cocktail for flawed ecclesiology and missiology. Numerical growth, both fiscal and human, can quickly be seen as evidence that church ‘X’ is on the right track. Questioning the leadership and strategies of such large, influential congregations is seldom encouraged. In any case, senior leadership in such contexts often operates within a top-down, hierarchical framework which makes them relatively inaccessible. Far from shepherding the flock, and being aware of any stray individuals who are leaving the proverbial 99 behind (Matt 18:12-14, c.f. Luke 15:4), senior pastors of megachurches like church ‘X’ function more like CEOs with a business mindset, wherein the growing masses of people constituting the church’s membership becomes a sea of nameless anonymity. Faces that fit the brand are quickly encouraged to rise through the ranks and occupy key positions as ‘leaders’, whilst the misfits and unlikely candidates are not considered photogenic enough to fit the emerging picture.

Thus, rather than polish the rough diamonds into shining, the ‘awkward’ folk (who might just be the hidden pearls that Jesus has gifted to a given congregation) are left wondering how, where, and if they can squeeze their square pegs through the round, branded hole. Meanwhile on the other side of such an impassible portal, an army of yes men awaits those who might offer informed dissent, ready to quell any unrest. The brand grows, whilst the disillusioned leave. Church ‘X’ is succeeding at building something, which may or may not be consistent with Jesus’ mission, but at what cost?

Incarnational Diversity

The revelation of true divinity within the person and work of Jesus Christ is the most stunningly unfathomable, holistically liberating and existentially challenging event in the history of the created order. One of the many remarkable passages of Scripture which points us to the inherent mystery of Jesus being God ‘incarnate’ (literally: ‘enfleshed’ or ‘in flesh’) is found in Philippians 2:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:5-8 ESV emphasis mine).

There are so many things that have been (and could be said) about this short segment of the Bible. Reams of scholarly literature already exist providing detailed exegetical, hermeneutical, lexical, philological, and theological insight into the range of potential meanings to be found therein. My purpose here isn’t to delve into this turbulent miasma, since that may have to wait for a future research project. I do think, however, that Jesus’ incarnation has plenty to say to the subject matter in question, as it shows us how much God values the reality of our very messy humanity. More specifically, it shows us how Jesus eschewed opulent glory in favour of the simple and authentic humility of being present amongst us in the raw, uncensored warp and woof of life as a relatively poor 1st century Jew, who was not initially held in high regard by his contemporaries.

As the Old Testament prophetic imagery often associated with Jesus puts it:

‘…He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.’
(Isa 53:2 NIV)

Quite the opposite in fact:

‘He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.’
(Isa 53:3 NIV)

Indeed, as the gospel narratives show us, Jesus was not recognised for who he truly was. Instead, he was maligned, betrayed, arrested, falsely accused, flogged, beaten, and crucified to death by his own people who were in collusion with the Roman Empire. [8] So, it is fair to say that Jesus’ own branding campaign and marketing strategy had adverse consequences. He isn’t portrayed as being particularly image conscious or keen to impress the religious and civil authorities of his day. Instead, he deliberately undermined the dominant cultures of the ancient near Eastern context into which he chose to manifest himself, showing no deference to either the Messianic expectations of his own people, or the power structures of Empire. No light shows, loud music or metronomes here for his triumphal entry as King; just donkeys, palm leaves, blood, sweat, tears and Truth.

Jesus’ Motley Crew

Jesus stooped to conquer his enemies, choosing instead to intimately associate himself with the unclean, outcast, morally suspect, and marginalised people of his time. He embodied authentic, unfeigned love for the lowly and downtrodden, whilst frequently rebuking and condemning religious insiders for their pretense and compromised loyalties. Worldly success was apparently not part of his game plan, since his Kingdom is not of this world (e.g. John 18:36). Yet despite his subversive intent, Jesus took time to be with people in person. He chose to honour and make time for those whom society had forgotten, despised, considered untouchable, and deemed to be of no material benefit to maintaining or building the status quo. [9]

What is more, at no stage did Jesus or the early church in Acts seem concerned with preserving aesthetic homogeneity for the sake of cultural accommodation within their evangelistic strategy. The first Christians didn’t mimic the world around them by presenting a sanitised version of the gathered church wherein only the prominent, privileged, well educated, photogenic, young and ‘gifted’ (using the term gifted in a narrow, worldly sense) members formed the vanguard of Jesus’ Kingdom driven mission. Rather, the early church was a ragtag bunch of common, uneducated, uncouth miscreants (see Peter & John in Acts 4:14), reformed fundamentalists (Paul in Acts 7 & 8), tax collectors (Levi in Luke 5:27-32), formerly demonised women (Luke 8:1-3), sorcerers (Acts 8:1-9-25), Roman soldiers (Acts 10), and other, generally unlikely candidates.

All told, Holy chaos might be a better way of describing life with Jesus’ original crew of misfits than the kind of well planned, branded stage shows being disseminated by Hillsong/church ‘X’. The early church were more a band of sanctified rascals led by the unpredictable wind of the Spirit, than they were an army of affluent social climbers hell bent on ‘changing the world’ with skinny jeans and self-help sermons. I doubt the apostle Paul felt any need to keep tickling his congregations’ ears with a fat feather of prosperity theology, relentless positivism (read: hear no evil, see no evil..), cinematic visuals, surround sound, and visiting stand up comedians dressed as gospel preachers  who charge a princely honorarium for their rendered services. I should say at this point, that I have no issue with talent, skinny jeans, Gospel contextualisation, big worship meetings, loud music, large congregations, or well produced multimedia content in the pursuit of global transformation per se. I do however have a problem with the glorious incarnational diversity of Jesus’ Kingdom people being overridden by a callous branding strategy, in a way that misses the diverse Gospel nuance of the vision presented in Revelation 7:9-10:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.
(Rev 7:9 NIV)

Jesus’ Kingdom revolution promises us that ‘many who are first will be last’, and that those who desire to be great amongst his people must be servants, with childlike faith (e.g. Mark 10:13-14, 31,35-45). Such words ought to make us question how we choose which faces fit with our particular style of church, and what our choices say about our value systems.

I could go on of course, but for the sake of brevity I shall end by asking the obvious question(s): Do our churches model brand driven homogeneity verging on elitism, or Kingdom driven humility where the usual suspects don’t end up taking centre stage? [10] Does the well marketed, expensive, slick, consumer-oriented, comfortable, pop-music driven brand epitomised by the Hillsong model look like Jesus? Would church ‘X’ sum up his strategy?

Following on from this, a final question linking back to the title: What can discerning believers do when confronted with the reality that their own church may be heading down a broad path, wherein their trajectory has far more in common with Hillsong/church ‘X’ brand, than the narrow, Kingdom-oriented life modeled by Jesus? Assume that divine favour must be at work, as the branding builds momentum? Remain indifferent and carry on, business as usual (pun intended)? Stay and fight for change, or run and trust God for the details? Another option? What do you think?

Personally, I would tread very carefully indeed.

M

1. Wagner, Thomas, in Stolz, Jörg, & Usunier, Jean-Claude, Religions as Brands: New Perspectives on the Marketization of Religion and Spirituality, Ashgate Publishing Surrey, England: 2014, 59.

2. Ibid, 60.

3. Ibid, 62.

4. Ibid, 64.

5. Ibid, 65-67.

6. Ibid, 67-70.

7. Ibid, 62.

8. e.g. Matt 13:53-58, 26:1-27:55, c.f. Mark 6:1-6, 14:1-15:40, Luke 4:16-30, 22:1-23:49, John 7:25-31, 11-19:30.

9. e.g. Matt 8:1-13, 28-34, 9:9-13, 18-34 12:9-14, 15:21-28, Mark 1:40-45, 5:1-34, 7:24-37, 10:46-52, John 4:1-44, 5:1-17, 7:53-8:11 etc.

10. I realise that this is a massively oversimplified contrast, which may in fact be a false dichotomy. Nevertheless, I think it’s a question every church should routinely wrestle with.

Fallen Idols

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(Links are highlighted)

I have a confession to make. For many years now, I have been a fan of comic book narratives. Since childhood, I have been fascinated by Superheroes, who generally inhabit entirely implausible, larger than life story lines populated by tawdry, one dimensional characters serving as tenuous plot devices. I am a veritable pseudo-expert on the thin line separating Science fiction from fact, having whiled away thousands of valuable hours watching programmes such as Michio Kaku’s Physics of the impossible, and reading books like The Science of Superheroes. Even to this day, I can get caught up daydreaming about alternate universes, time travel, supernatural occurrences, real life superhumans, unexplained phenomena, and how quantum uncertainty points to a complex, multilayered reality far beyond the capacity and limitations of modern science.

Consequently, I’m a sucker for any compelling popcorn flick which is centered on (any of) the above themes. Inevitably, such cinema requires a momentary suspension of disbelief, and enables a vague sense of escapism from the confines of a mundane, material existence. I realise that the plots are often paper thin, the acting is generally wooden, underlying worldview(s) thoroughly absurd and unbiblical, moral compass way off due North, portrayal of gender roles frequently reprehensible, and so forth. Living in Cambridge ensures that one is given frequent reminders of the less than intellectually satisfying nature and content of Hollywood blockbusters. One of the most amusing, recent illustrations of the yawning chasm separating my love of comic book narratives from the kind of cinema enjoyed by a typical Cambridge intellectual, was a brief conversation I had with (some very lovely) friends who both studied at the university. I was left collecting the proverbial tumbleweeds when I admitted to being a fan of the Batman trilogy by Chris Nolan, in response to their comments about how much they loved Japanese Art House films. The brief silence was almost palpable.

By this stage, you’re probably wondering where all of this is going. Well, I’m not entirely sure, but consider this a foretaste of a more in depth post I’m thinking of putting together in response to the recent Mark Driscoll/Brian Houston/Hill Song controversy. More specifically, this current post relates to the lone protestor called Natalie Collins, aka “God Loves Women”, who braved the O2 arena in London during the Hill Song conference to stand in solidarity with those affected by the Mars Hill meltdown. In a nutshell, I think that there are compelling lines of convergence between the stand Natalie took against a well oiled, male dominated, consumer oriented, evangelical industrial complex, and numerous comic book narratives. Heroes invariably appear to have the odds stacked against them when facing seemingly invincible foes whilst polarising public opinion, and are frequently cast as the underdog in a prize fight that for all intents and purposes, is virtually impossible to win.

You see, as I think about the relationship between Western Mega Churches, the problem of Patriarchy, Feminism, Consumerism, marginalised voices, the “Dones”, and so forth, I’m reminded for some reason of the recent Batman vs Superman trailer. It’s perhaps an unhelpful parallel to compare a brave, lone woman standing up to unhealthy mindsets propagated within Western Evangelicalism (particularly with reference to patriarchal misogyny) and two fictional male characters, who arguably embody the quintessential archetype(s) of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. Nihilism aside however, and poorly construed stereotypes notwithstanding, similar biblical parallels can be found in the David vs Goliath, and Gideon narratives (1 Sam 17, Jud 6). Thus, believe it or not, there is a biblical precedent for going against the grain and engaging in direct prophetic confrontation with dominant power structures, cultures, and prominent figures (to say nothing of Moses, Deborah, Elijah, Esther, the major & minor prophets, Jesus, or Paul). For the sake of defusing the gender stereotypes represented by Batman vs Superman, let’s imagine that in this current post we’re considering a similar, metaphorical face off between Bat(wo)man and Superman.

So what am I saying? Well, not much of substance yet. I’m merely sharing random collections of thoughts which are at best a precursor to a longer, more considered post. I’m giving you an insight into the imaginary, contemplative world of a stay at home Christian father (for the Summer holidays at least) who is taking note of the latest episodes in the Evangelical soap opera. However, as I observe and dialogue with an increasingly broad variety of Christians who are experiencing  mutual dissatisfaction and disillusionment with institutionalised, branded, supermarket Christianity (to borrow/steal a term from Natalie Collins herself), I’m starting to wonder if something bigger isn’t afoot.

I sense a nascent movement gaining momentum, traction, and a measure of ‘progressive’ interconnectedness (pun intended). I see formlessness giving way to an ’emergent’ shape (2nd pun intended). I hear a cacophony of diverse tongues blending into an intricate symphony of contrapuntal motion verging on harmony. In short, after years of reservations, polemic, suspicion and doubt regarding the integrity of what some call ‘progressive’ Christianity, I’m finding myself feeling uncomfortably at home amidst people who adopt this label. Now, I know that labels have limits and can be disastrously unhelpful, as one of my former lecturers points out in this excellent post. I’m also beginning to realise that the fragmentation of global Christianity won’t be solved by taking arbitrary sides in the Evangelical culture wars, so often characterised by internecine fighting.

Nevertheless, I’m coming out of the theological closet and admitting that I lean ‘progressive’ (whatever that means) in numerous areas. As regards gender roles, I have embraced an egalitarian perspective for biblical reasons, which presumably plants me firmly in the ‘progressive’ camp. In others, I’m unabashedly ‘conservative’ (whatever that means). I am of course, still a work in progress and hopefully subject to change. The thrust of all of this is simple; I am tentatively suggesting that one of the critical theological disputes that can and must be solved prior to the completion of the church’s great commission, is the issue of gender roles from a Christian perspective.

This, I submit, will almost certainly involve standing with the minority voices of our sisters against a veritable Goliath of an opponent: the root cause of Patriarchy itself, which is sin resulting in a fallen world wherein men rule over women (Gen 3:16). Thankfully, Jesus has something to say about this. The idols of Western Evangelicalism are both falling and fallen. I intend to add my own relatively obscure, inconsequential voice to the developing conversation, in the hope of bringing such idols to their knees. Jesus also had something to say about power dynamics, empire, wealth, influence, marginalised voices, non-violent resistance, and his coming Kingdom. Something tells me that supermarket Christianity might be buying into (amongst other things) the wrong aspects of this list. If Superman represents the consumer Christian mindset deceived by (amongst other things) the same narrative of power that crucified Jesus, this raises serious questions about how we classify heroes, villains, and controversial celebrity pastors like Mark Driscoll.

If it comes down to it, I think I’d rather stand with Bat(wo)man. This doesn’t necessarily make Superman the enemy, but it does require a choice from us. Where do you stand?