Canadian author Lee Beach, in his recent book The Church In Exile, helps us imagine what the hope and mission of God’s people can look like in a post-Christendom culture. Here is the first of a two-part interview with Lee on some of the points from The Church in Exile.
Forge Canada: You write about the community of God’s people developing practices that set them apart from the practices of the larger culture (page 60). What are some of the practices of the larger culture that has shaped it into what we have today?
Lee Beach: I think that it is accurate to say that mainstream Western culture has been shaped by the economic ideology of consumerism and materialism. These are the prevailing narratives that guide our times. The idea that fulfillment comes through the acquisition of goods and the pursuit of leisure is the prevailing narrative of our culture.
Also, the move toward a postmodern worldview that values individualized truth and the rejection of meta-narratives has made our culture one that is largely based on individualism. People find their cultural connection in increasingly cohort-based ways (e.g., through ethnicity, generation, religiosity, specific interests). These affinity-based choices have led to the fracturing of culture so that “culture” has to be understood as a loosely connected group of individual cultures that relate to each other in an “as needed” fashion. We are now a culture of cultures whose ethics are group based as opposed to being based on a cultural consensus.
The challenge for the church is to not simply capitulate into being another cultural group. We do need to cultivate our distinctiveness in a way that makes the Christian worldview plausible and attractive, but without being a cloistered segment of the fractured whole.
Forge: You argue that one of the needs of being an exhilic people is to stop trying to go back to the way things were and to embrace a future that looks different (page 102). What would you say are some of the “way things were” that the church in Canada keeps trying to restore? What are some of the irreversible changes that have taken place that we must accept?
Lee: The place of the church has shifted from near the centre of culture to nearer to the margins of it. The term “Church” and even “Christian” are generally perceived as negative terms for most Canadians. This does not mean that they perceive individual Christians negatively, especially if they have a relationship with one. But there is a huge perception in the public sphere that Christianity is not a helpful contributor to cultural progress.
Further, the Christian voice must accept that it is one among many with no pride of place anymore. We must understand that our voice will only be persuasive as it is able to engage other voices on equal footing and it will only have influence if it is backed up by authentic action. Certain social changes around sexuality, family, even abortion are not going to be reversed. This is not to say that the church should not stand for justice on particular issues, but trying to reverse laws or spend a lot of energy engaging political structures on these things is probably not the best investment of our time.
Instead we need to focus on figuring out how to serve our communities in a redemptive, positive way and offer critiques on the various issues of injustice that continue to plague our world and have both international and local implications like human trafficking, the environment and poverty.
Forge: You encourage us to read Scripture with the contemporary culture as a conversation partner (page 127). Can you explain how to go about this? Who would you say is someone who is doing this well?
Lee: Culture can help us to read Scripture better if we are willing to accept that we all live with a certain limited vision. That is, we all have blind spots due to the culture we are raised in and that we live in. Thus, we limit what Scripture is saying to what fits into our own predominant cultural vision.
Sometimes culture helps us see that our assumptions are misguided. For instance, imagine you grew up in a time and place when your church said it was okay to think of black people as inferior. Then imagine you move to a new part of the country where those stereotypes are not only challenged but also condemned. When you meet some African American people who impress you with their character and intellect, you may take another look at whether what you were taught by your church is actually an accurate interpretation of Scripture. In this way a new cultural experience helps you read your Bible better.
We need to be open to the idea that our current views of how to understand Scripture are shaped by our cultural location and as that location shifts it may actually shed new and helpful light on our theological convictions that may unearth the need for us to adjust them.
Walter Brueggemann is an example of someone who is doing a good job of reading Scripture and culture together. He is the one who initially got me onto the exile paradigm as he looked into culture and began to reflect on how the emerging contours of North American culture could shine new light on old texts and bring new understanding.