A Call to Cultural Re-engagement – The 3 Chasms

Cultural Distance in the UK

When I had more spare time, I used to lead many Alpha and Christianity Explored courses. The first talk on the Alpha course is always: ”Christianity: Boring, Untrue & Irrelevant?” In order to engage we need to first understand where people are. This talk seeks to engage the pre-conceptions and misunderstandings that people have in order to re-engage them with Christianity.

I believe Alpha’s first talk was true to the questions people were asking a few years ago, but now, I believe, UK society has moved further away. Let me say that I’m a big fan of both Alpha and CE and I have used them both many times in the past. However, I believe we have underestimated both the size of the gap between us and society and the depth of the problem. 

As I watch UK culture, I believe that religion is no longer seen as something misguided but benign, but rather something that is actually harmful to an enlightened society. The case is being made by prominent secular humanists, parts of the media and some political figures that religion is actually a source of corruption and a dumbing down of our natural intellect. It is explained as a vestigial coping mechanism that might have had a use in giving us a misguided comfort before science removed our need for false hope in gods and superstitious fear of ghouls. It is now redundant and primitive.

As I was thinking about these things, I was studying Acts 26 for a message and it hit me the difference between Paul standing before Agrippa and us standing before our society today. Standing before Agrippa Paul could rely on three levels of common ground – general revelation (nature / creation), special revelation (biblical revelation) and shared cultural values (those of the Jewish nation).

My proposition was that all these three have been removed in our day, so I titled my talk: “A Reasonable Faith: Christianity: Unscientific, Corrupt & Intolerant?” I believe these three areas describe the areas where society is questioning the integrity of the Christian faith. I recognise that it is a spectrum of views – not everyone is thinking like this, but many are and they are asking questions that we, on the whole are not answering.

  • Unscientific? We now face a credibility gap where science is seen to have provided the answers and we are holding onto out-dated ideas. It has removed the shared ground of General Revelation – a common understanding in our origins.
  • Corrupt? With the increasing confidence of authors such as Dan Brown and the decreasing biblical literacy, false information and inaccurate historical claims can easily sway public opinion. We now face a reliability gap when the historical reliability of the New Testament is assumed to be a matter of personal opinion. The church is thought to have re-interpreted or even edited earlier versions to suit their own political purposes. This has removed any remaining Special Revelation common ground, so that biblical authority is an oxymoron.
  • Intolerant? As the faithful believers continue to hold onto biblical truth and society’s moral standards diverge from these truths, our stance is seen as being intolerant of other positions. We now face a compassion gap, where we are seen as intolerant bigots for not allowing everyone a right to have their views accepted. This has eroded our common ground of Shared Cultural Values so that we can no longer assume or expect others to share or even understand our ethical views.

Do you agree that this is a fair assessment of where our society is at, or perhaps at least, the direction it is heading? If so, then the question we need to ask ourselves is whether we are bridging the chasms in our cultural engagement or throwing well-intentioned homilies into the abyss? If people really are thinking this way, how do we leap across the chasms to speak something meaningful to them?

Paul himself explained that God was the creator, sustainer and saviour of the world to the mainly Greek audience in Athens is a way that would engage their cultural antenna – referring to their poets and influential thinkers of the time (see Acts 17.22 and following). He explained the good news of Jesus using the language and concepts of the Athenians – sometimes seeking to build common ground, at other times directly challenging it. But the important thing is that he had clearly thought through the challenges and adapted his style to his different audiences. Have we thought through the challenges these chasms present and come to a position that we can articulate? Are we prepared to think the hard thoughts that possibly our current ways of communicating are simply lost across the chasm because we are assuming a common ground that no longer exists? These are the challenges that face us in engaging with our culture. Tools such as CE and Alpha are still vital as we live in a heterogeneous society with the remnants of a Christian heritage, but we cannot rely on a one-size-fits-all approach.

Or perhaps you are on the other side as you read this – an atheist, agnostic or you prefer not to label yourself. How do you see things from the other side of the chasm? Reach out and let me know. I’m listening.

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