So I want to mention 2 books which have made a big impression on me over the last few months. Both books force us to reconsider how we look at the world and cultures around us, albeit in very different ways. And for those involved in the task of articulating and defending the heart of the Christian message, this is essential. I’ll come to Tim Keller’s stuff in a future post, but want to focus on Wade Bradshaw’s SEARCHING FOR A BETTER GOD today. I read it on holiday this summer, and couldn’t put it down.
I met Wade almost 20 years ago when he was a member of staff at English L’Abri, but he is now a pastor back in his native US. He has noticed profound changes in the ways in which people argue against the gospel, and he has summarised the differences in what he calls ‘The Old Story’ and ‘The New Story’. While obviously not an exact parallel, seismic changes in perception led to many in the Roman Empire converting from the Olympian pantheon to the Christian Trinity. As he says:
If I am right, Zeus ‘died’ not because a scientific expedition to the top of Mount Olympus found it deserted but because people saw that he was morally inferior to them and unworthy of their devotion. The God of the Christians, on the other hand, seemed noble and properly austere. This God didn’t date anyone at all. (p23)
Articulating The New Story
Something similar has happened in our generation, but unfortunately, it has gone the other way. ‘The New Story’ maintains that far from the Christian God being morally good and pure, he is oppressive at worst, morally flawed at best.
In Devil’s Advocate, it dawns on the audience only slowly that the unnerving character portrayed by Al Pacino, the head of a multinational law firm, is Satan himself. He oozes a constant sexual hunger, but it is not until the end of the film, when everyone’s identity is known, that he finally drops his usual aplomb and rants at the human he is trying to seduce with his power. It’s a fine piece of acting that leaves one admiring (and a bit worried for) Pacino:
Let me give you a little inside information about God. God likes to watch. He’s a prankster. Think about it: he gives man instincts – he gives you this extraordinary gift – and then what does he do? I swear for his own amusement, his own private gag reel, he sets the rules in opposition. It’s the goof of all time. Look – but don’t touch. Touch – but don’t taste. Taste – but don’t swallow. And while you’re jumping from one foot to the next he’s laughing. He’s a sadist, an absentee landlord! Worship that? Never!
This is an example of what I call the New Story. This is not the scientific skepticism that doubts God’s existence or His role as Creator. Nor is it the pride of Milton’s 17th century Satan, for whom it was better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven. The great suspicion here is that God exists but is not worthy of our affection or devotion. He cannot be a source of hope, not because He isn’t real, but because He would not be god to know and to live with forever. (p17)
A Better God
This New Story works itself out in a whole host of ways in what Bradshaw terms ‘common-sense theology’. These are the axioms that our tolerant western culture adopts unthinkingly, and which render a defence of orthodox Christianity complex and even fraught. The flash points for ‘common-sense theology’ are obvious once they’re pointed out:
- issues of gender
- issues sexuality
- divine judgment
- universalism/uniqueness of Christ.
In each of these areas (and of course, many others), people reject the gospel, not because they can’t believe in God (the old, atheist & Enlightenment, story) but because, quite frankly, they don’t think this god is worthy of they belief. They are therefore ‘searching for a better God’. Better than the Christian God… Now, it is interesting that the New Atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens and co have jumped on this New Story bandwagon – the former’s God Delusion is an action-packed rant about the immorality of what is (to be fair) a distortion of the OT God. But most people won’t go the whole Dawkins hog and reject theism altogether – which is why they are often as critical of Dawkins as they are of the gospel.
A film like Fight Club confuses and terrifies us when the character Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt) expresses contempt for both redemption and damnation. And the Church must revise its thinking to comprehend something like the novel Hannibal, the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, where the serial killer Hannibal Lector
… had not been bothered by any considerations of deity, other than to recognize how his own modest predations paled beside those of God, who is in irony matchless, and in wanton malice beyond measure.
Unspeakable statements are becoming everyday, throwaway observations, and the Church is shocked, slapped in the face, punched in the head, and reeling. (p36)
There’s a lot of work to do
Quite how we respond, Bradshaw goes onto explain. And perhaps that is a post for another day. He is determined not to retreat into a safer apologetic (that might have been useful a generation ago), nor will he compromise or change the message to fit with the culture. Forging a new path to engage with the new story is bound to be risky – but it is VITAL. He gives some very helpful pointers in how to go about that. But at this stage, I simply want to whet appetites and strongly encourage people to read this book. What I found so helpful was that it articulates what I’d vaguely been aware of, but never quite been able to put my finger on. In London, observing that we live in a culture that prizes tolerance above all other virtues is a common place – but this book helped me to grasp how profoundly this means people reject traditional orthodoxy. And once you get it, it’s everywhere.
A case in point is the recent hoo-ha about the so-called Top 10 Worst Bible Passages, published last week in the Telegraph (of all places), picked up from The Ship of Fools. The Apostle Paul comes in with 3, and most of the others are gruesome OT narratives or laws. Quite apart from the many and inherent dangers in plucking the most spine-chilling and tabloidy verses out from context (yes, I know that’s what people always say, but it’s still true), what do you notice about the list? Don’t they all belong to the New Story’s rejection of trad. Christianity?
We have a lot of work to do. Society’s anti-Christian (and indeed anti-religion) narrative has undergone a paradigm shift. I’m just not sure that (for the most part) the Church’s apologetic has yet caught up at all.