The dehumanising metrics of modernist ministry 3: The Past
No man is an island entire of itself said the prophetic priest-poet of old. Modernism and its western offspring, individualism, have done their utmost to prove him wrong. In vain. For whether we like it or not, we are all part of one another. And while Donne was clearly speaking of human society, he could equally have been referring to human history. For one of modernity’s most damaging trends has been to legitimise our innate haughtiness about the past. So having discussed how modernist culture shapes our present, and then sensed the crushing power of modernism’s relentless pursuit of progress, we must close the circle by considering the past.
The Curse of Chronological Snobbery
This is a topic that I’ve returned to on several occasions on Q - e.g. with regard to the propaganda against medieval science, our need to engage with what I called The Shock of the Old, as well as Martin Bashir’s observation on interviewing Rob Bell last year. And I certainly can’t claim credit for the phrase: CS Lewis coined it in his Surprised by Joy, speaking of what he learned from his friend Owen Barfield:
[Barfield's] counterattacks destroyed for ever two elements in my own thought. In the first place he made short work of what I have called my “chronological snobbery”, the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find out why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about is truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realisation that our own age is also “a period”, and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those wide-spread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them. (Surprised by Joy, 1990, p187)
But let’s face it: such snobbery is entirely understandable, and even necessary, in a modernist mindset. If the future is about the relentless pursuit of progress, then ‘the new’ is now de facto good and ‘the old’ de facto bad.
Now, it must be said that there are a lot of things that have improved. I mentioned dentistry before – but just think of transport and communications. Until the railways arrived, the technology to get people around the planet hadn’t changed for centuries. The Tudors and Stuarts were still moving around in essentially the same way as the Incas, the Romans and Ming dynasty. Then it’s hard to argue that many of the social shifts resulting from the fights against poverty and injustice are negative.
But the modernist trick is to con us into thinking that everything is better than it was. Or even if it isn’t, then it certainly will be. Onward and upward. Which means we are justified in thinking we can ignore history. The past is dark but we are growing ever more enlightened (and remember, the assertion that the mediaeval era should be named ‘The Dark Ages’ was classic Enlightenment, and then Modernist, propaganda). This has tragic consequences generally… but can be profoundly damaging for us in ministry.
Some Consequences of Chronological Snobbery
- We fail to connect… to our humanity
This crushes the heart because it is a fundamental denial of what it means to be human. You perhaps think I’m exaggerating. But if we return to Donne briefly, and consider him speaking both socially and historically, we are reminded of the interconnectedness of things:
No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
So we can say that to deny our history is to be diminished somehow. It’s an old saw that ignorance of history necessarily leads to repetition of history. That is a contentious notion. But I do like the line (reasonably) attributed to Mark Twain that “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Arrogantly assuming that our own age is necessarily an improvement on the past is not only absurdly blinkered and parochial, it also condemns us to echoing past tragedies, or to rhyming with the vice, folly and humbug of our forebears (the exposure of which Ian Hislop wonderfully summarised as satire’s purpose). But past ages have MUCH to teach us about who we are – of course people are cottoning on to this (hence the revival in popular genealogy).
This is NOT the same thing as being wedded to our traditions, ecclesiastical or otherwise. Ironically enough, I suspect that understanding the history of those traditions can have the opposite effect – grasping the reasons for something makes it easier to recognise when they’ve passed their sell-by date. Traditions too often become asphyxiating when divorced from their true purpose. This is the case on the grand scale (e.g. in denominations) and on the local (e.g. why the flowers need to be done by Mrs Miggins on the 3rd Sunday, and why the bell-ringers need to sit in the 3rd pew on the north aisle).
And in ministry, there are few things more soul-destroying than going through the motions having forgotten why you’re doing it. Of course, this is not a uniquely modernist phenomenon. But the worldview doesn’t help.
- We fail to connect… to our elders
If the pursuit of progress entails obsession with novelty, then it sort of follows that a higher status will be accorded to the youthful over the senior. Shane Hipps makes a fascinating observationabout what advances in social media and technology have done to the generation gap.
This shift marks the first time in the history of the world that parents have limited access to the world of teens and children. Go back five hundred years to the dawn of the print age and the situation was reversed. Printing empowered adults. It led to a more pronounced elevation of adults over children It shrouded the adult world in mystery, leaving children on the outside straining to look in. A child wanting to access adult information was required to learn a complex code – phonetic literacy – which could take decades to master. (Shane Hipps, Flickering Pixels, p134)
Contemporary western culture, and sometimes even a lot of church culture, barely gives a moment’s thought to the old – one characteristic that is most scandalous to African and Asian friends. We simply expect them to ‘get with the programme’: the onus is on them to keep up rather than the rest of us to slow down (as if speed was the only true value – see previous). But this is deep down a particularly modernist disease, tinged with a bit of social darwinist survival-of-the-fittest ideology to boot. Just as novelty does not have intrinsic value, so youth is not inherently superior (or, for that matter, inferior) to age. Both have value as Proverbs rightly noted:
The glory of young men is their strength, grey hair the splendour of the old. (Prov 20:29)
For example, just because someone is a bit forgetful or frail, doesn’t make their memories and experience less worth exploring and appreciating. I don’t say this now simply because I’m clearly middle-aged myself and can foresee the day when I’m past having a seat at the table (well, according to my children that day has already come)! It’s about being human. Human value and dignity have nothing to do with our productivity or contributions to society. They derive purely because we are created in the divine image. And that’s an image that doesn’t deteriorate with age, unlike other parts of us. In fact, one can say that in Christ, the renewal and repairs of that image grow daily.
So the next time you hear someone described as ‘old school’, don’t immediately dismiss them as irrelevant or burdensome.
One of the most counter-cultural aspects of Christianity for the modernist is the fact that our message is old. Very old in fact. Obvious, I realise, but we must confront it. It doesn’t bother us most of the time – we ignore the point as an inconvenience, or perhaps circumvent it by constantly striving after relevance. In extremis, people do this by ditching what modernists regard as unpalatable or unbelievable – as Rudolf Bultmann famously declared back in 1941:
It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles” (Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology, 5)
That is always the liberal impulse – perhaps driven by the best of motives, but always doomed to loose moorings with the givenness of the gospel. There is far more to credal Christianity that is NOT up for grabs than is recognised in such circles. [Note, I don't think more conservative circles have history quite right either. Our impulse is to imagine that we can bypass 2000 years of history and soak up the vibes of the 1st Century church directly. So we can both ignore the past, ironically enough, although I would still want to argue that there is primacy to the scriptural canon.]
The gospel forces us to be profoundly connected to the past. Scriptural genealogies are a key way of doing that. Of course, the bible doesn’t contain any after Matthew 1 and Luke 3 for a simple reason. Race is no longer a pre-requisite for belonging – but adoption into the divine family is. This makes us links in the chain of history. And central to the gospel is the confidence that the chains were begun by God himself when he stepped inside history.
There are other fish to fry!
Now, these three posts have clearly been rather a jumbly ramble through a few random thoughts – but that’s the nature of blog-posts. Not going to print allows for a less than polished production. But I through them out as meandering provocations about what our culture can unwittingly do to us. I certainly don’t want to suggest that everything is bad or harmful. I merely want to expose the features that are. And I also realise that ours is not an undiluted modernist culture. Whatever we might call it, the ‘postmodern’ has an equally difficult relationship with history (albeit for very different reasons) – the past is reduced to artefacts on a country fair pick-and-mix stall offered to furnish lifestyle choices or bolster partisan arguments. There are loads of other fish to fry here! So perhaps, one of these days, I’ll look at some of the difficulties a post-modern narrative presents for ministry.
But don’t hold your breath (I can hear the sighs of relief already). There’s quite enough to be getting on with here…
Let me close with the words of one of the greatest poetic prophets of them all: Jeremiah.
This is what the Lord says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’
I appointed watchmen over you and said, ‘Listen to the sound of the trumpet!’ But you said, ‘We will not listen.’ (Jer 6:16-17)
Read on and you find the results are disastrous.