Newbigin, the Gospel in Pluralist Western Culture, and Culture Class
Dallas Willard, in his book Divine Conspiracy, writes about the Christian life as a way of living in this world not just a set of doctrines, or a gospel of “sin management”. Christianity is much more than dogmatics, it is about a way of living. The earliest Christians were known as followers of the way. The title of my blog, indicates that I too identify myself as an apprentice of Jesus, one who is following the ancient Christian path of transformation. I have not arrived, I am on the way.
Secondly, it points to a stance that I believe the church must take if it is to recover and be freed from its Christendom distortions. I heard Jim Schrag talk about the need for the Church to go back to school to learn what it means to be a missional church. I think of someone like Bishop Leslie Newbigin, who in many ways was a catalyst for the missional conversation among Western churches.
Ryan Bolger writes that Newbigin created a space for Western churches to analyze their relationship to Western culture. Returning to 1980s Britain after forty years in India, Newbigin viewed the Western church with a different set of lenses, and he spoke a message that the Western church needed to hear.
Newbigin returned to a church held captive by the culture and its own church traditions. He asked how the church had become so marginal to public life. He traced the church’s current form back to the Enlightenment, with its focus on reason, the individual, and the removal of values from the public (or factual) sphere. In addition, Newbigin identified another source of the lifeless nature of the Western church – Christendom. Because of the church’s historic relation to the state, Western churches served passively as chaplains to the culture, baptizing the culture’s agenda. With the church’s domination by the powers (the ‘isms’) and its historical relationship with Christendom, the church found itself beaten-down with little ability or energy to respond.
All was not lost. Newbigin argued for a response, another way out of the church’s predicament. Because of the historical nature of the church’s position (it was not a ‘given’), other trajectories were possible. He advocated that the gospel must be the starting point for Christians -- specifically the as expressed in the Incarnation and the Trinity. The gospel must frame all other structures and practices, not science or any other ‘tradition’. The gospel can handle pluralism, provided the gospel is located at the center. The church, not the culture, sets the agenda, speaking from within the biblical narratives to the wider world.
For Newbigin, the church must embody this public truth in all realms, foregoing the facts/values split of the Enlightenment, e.g. in neighborhoods, in arts, science, politics and economics. Rather than accept life on the margins, the church must serve as pointer to the coming reign of God. In retrospect, Newbigin gave the church a gift by exposing the powers and encouraging a gospel-like response in all spheres of culture.
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to participate in a Culture Class with 16 students from Spain who have been in the United States as a part of American Home Life International. This was really a great time of interacting with the Spaniards around the question: “Do you have any spiritual beliefs?” This question became a great springboard for conversation about God, the scientific worldview (secular), values, Jesus, the Bible, what is shaping their beliefs… For these Spanish young people, talking about faith and spirituality in a personal way was something foreign. Many would have some Catholic roots, but are essentially agnostic, or secular humanist in practice. What is the Gospel, the good news, for these Spanish young people? How does Jesus cut through the distortions and baggage created by their experience, by their cultural context, the history of Spain for the over the last century? We had some good open conversation and I trust some seeds were planted that will continue to grow in their lives.