In our faith let us ‘show, don’t tell’

In our faith let us ‘show, don’t tell’

I am all too aware of my shortcomings as a writer here but once upon a time I took a cursory course in creative writing. I did little to nothing with it afterwards but one thing I came away from was with the idea of ‘show, don’t tell’. In writing this is the view that instead of merely explaining what is happening in a scene it is better to show the scene to the reader. In one letter the writer Anton Chekov wrote.

When describing nature, a writer should seize upon small details, arranging them so that the reader will see an image in his mind after he closes his eyes. For instance: you will capture the truth of a moonlit night if you’ll write that a gleam like starlight shone from the pieces of a broken bottle, and then the dark, plump shadow of a dog or wolf appeared. You will bring life to nature only if you don’t shrink from similes that liken its activities to those of humankind.

Anton Chekov, Letter to Alexander Chekhov, 1886

The incarnation itself can be considered a divine instance of showing over telling. Colossians describes Christ as “the visible image of the invisible God” and Paul elsewhere writes.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

1 Corinthians 13:12, NIV

As people we exist in physical space, this seems obvious at first but in our increasingly literary and now digital age we often now forget this. We were created in a realm not just of thoughts and feelings but actions and senses. This is why it is significant that Jesus was born, lived, died and was resurrected in a physical way. Its this realisation, and an increasing disillusionment with certain interpretations of ‘word and spirit’ typified by groups like both the reformed and charismatic movements thats making me look at this in different ways.

In our contemporary western churches it is arguable that we have slipped into the practice of telling rather than showing people the Kingdom of God. Our contemporary emphasis on lecture style preaching is indicative of this. Our worship is increasingly self-referential and advocating what we should be doing in Church rather than reflecting or depicting the agency and character of God in our world. Our architecture is also increasing bland, historically these buildings worked to direct people to God through their aesthetics and structure, today they are often utilitarian and basic buildings with a simplistic and stunted externals. This isn’t due to any pragmatism or frugality but a shift in areas of emphasis from an embodied soul to a disembodied mind. A shift from a present reality to proposition, this is most obvious in the older church buildings being repurposed for contemporary style services. Stained glass and vaulted ceilings on one side and comic sans bulletin notices and projector imagery appealing to the sublime on the other.

In my readings of the Old Testament I’m struck by the Prophets consistent use of props and their own lives to communicate what was given to them. Theres an earthiness and realness to them that so often seems missing in contemporary Protestantism, even amongst the charismatics. The work of God isn’t just vocalised but spat into the ground and rubbed into the eyes of those who couldn’t see. Yet even in many churches the practices handed down to us, the bread and the wine, are tacked on rather than taking centre stage in our gatherings. A Church that shows rather than tells quickly becomes a way of life, an exercise in world building. Jesus taught us several clear ways to do this the most obvious to be sharing in his blood and body, baptism and prayer.

This is important because in the act of showing we are engaging to the whole of us, not just our minds. The process of developing the sacraments and prayer into regular habits from a purely pragmatic perspective enables us to link thoughts, prayers and memories to our actions bringing all of ourselves in unity to the work and worship of God in the world.

There is also an added strength in doing such things as a body of people, it reinforces our identity with one another as members of group united not just by creed but by practice. This isn’t true just in church gatherings but even in areas like Sporting teams and the rituals they acquire. Creeds and statements said in the midst of actions and activities no longer become a series of propositions but something that informs our thoughts and in turn our lives. It also means that whilst being linked to theology actions aren’t dependent on understanding and in this way does not discriminate against those unable to grasp some of the weightier theological issues at work in the life of the Church. Understanding is important, but Jesus didn’t ask us to necessarily understand him but to trust and follow him.

All of this reminds me that there have been times in Christian history where the process of changing the words said during a liturgy has resulted in the shedding of blood. At first I couldn’t understand why people would be willing to become martyrs over small word changes, but I know now these words aren’t just words. They were joined with actions and together said something more about these people, the church and what it did and how it perceived God. The other thing I realised is such things exist in stark contrast to much of contemporary christian music where the words sung are seldom considered by the congregant who is increasingly relegated to the position of audience.

In writing and thinking about this I realise that whether by design or accident many of the liturgical and sacramental services of the church that we abandoned in the 20th century actually do what I’m talking about well, at least on paper. That these are increasingly unpopular with Churchgoers also raises questions about the validity of what I’ve been writing here. Yet we also find ourselves increasingly unable to remember scripture, remember songs and in the public sphere beating a retreat or defined increasingly only by the times Christians and Unbelievers find sources of friction. What does a Christian look like? What does a Christian sound like? What does a Christian do? There is increasingly no consensus on these things. Some positives exist as a result but these are arguably outweighed by the negatives and I’d wager only contribute to the erosion of the Christian presence in the West. Ultimately showing over telling is a good thing, but showing the world together the Gospel of Jesus Christ is better.

Is evangelicalism in trouble?

Is evangelicalism in trouble?

I was listening to a podcast recently where the Presbyterian speaker proclaimed ‘Evangelicalism is in serious trouble.’ This was news to me yet the statement has stuck in my mind and I’ve been turning it over ever since. Is this man true? Is this man false? I don’t really want it to be true and to some measure I think we’re all in trouble all the time if we consider enough different angles. Yet is there anything specific to evangelicalism that makes it in trouble in a clearly visible way?

The appeal of evangelicalism to society at large has always been something prominent to me. James KA Smith in his book on Charles Taylor’s ‘A Secular Age’ suggests that the appeal of ‘scientism’ to some is the story it offers to others. One that is a stance of ‘maturity, of courage, of manliness, over and against childish fears and sentimentality’ (p.77). He suggests that our response to argue over the nature of evidence for one thing or another doesn’t really address the underlying issues at work. A better approach is to offer these people a more compelling story that offers a more robust vision of faith. A faith that in the words of James KA Smith channeling Taylor ‘isn’t some vague theism but the invitation to historical, sacramental Christianity’.

Atheism, as mentioned previously is one of the few belief systems that skews heavily towards men at a nearly 70/30 gender split. This would feed into Charles Taylor’s assertion that the narrative of scientism is one of ‘manliness’ at least in image and appeal. That the words of St Paul ‘When I was a child I thought like a child but when I became a man I put away childish things’ is applied more by those who leave the faith or reject it today than those of us who adhere is indicative of something wrong. Is our faith perceived or in fact increasingly childish or outlandish and alien to the public? Does it offer no challenge? No courage? No maturity? Is it overly sentimental?

One of the claims laid at the feet of evangelicalism is its panacea-like vision of God at work in the life of the believer. Drawing close to God and being open to his work in your life would sort you out. The movement in general is replete with stories of lives turned around or struggles left behind. We come together to celebrate and rarely to lament. We seldom engage with lasting challenges because we believed God would inevitably overcome all of them on our behalf. From some perspectives this can seem childish, as a child my parents solved my problems, as a man I have to solve not just my problems but am expected to help those I come into contact with. Its not that we don’t want lives turned around and struggles left behind, its that we don’t know what to do with people when their lives don’t turn around and their struggles stay with them. Their is no challenge other than that of continuing in the growth of our love for God.

As an evangelical I personally felt somewhat directionless. I was expected to draw closer to God but what did that look like? Was I supposed to become more like my Pastor? Like Jesus? Did my Pastor reflect Jesus? Evangelicalism is complex precisely because its so open ended. In our effort to draw closer to God we can be lead down all sorts of bizarre (at times heretical) cul-de-sacs of which our only gauge can be our emotions, which is to say no real gauge at all. It also places the self at centre of this process, we lead a private self-defined faith thats ultimately is between us and God alone. This is why we see trends of many who consider themselves Evangelicals feeling led to dispense with Church altogether at times as it doesn’t square with their relationship to God. This is why we see increased theological divergence even amongst those who sometimes attend the same church. Its partly a lack of discipleship but its partly evangelical nature. Just recently I was swimming and caught myself wondering ‘I want a faith that is simple like swimming, one arm in front of another, towards some goal.’ Then I realised thats precisely part of the nature of liturgy. There might be different types of swimming but we don’t all swim in our own way, we use the same strokes and movements which gives us something in common, and even children can do it well. Evangelical dispensation of classical liturgy can be disorientating, its like being thrown into the lake with no knowledge of how to swim and being forced to invent our own style. That might lead to some creative and original techniques, but many people will likely drown without support. For much of Church history some form of liturgy has been present, Christ himself gave us the sacraments of baptism and communion.

The problem then, if it exists, with Evangelicalism is that many people on the outside increasingly don’t relate to it. It came into being as a renewal movement within the church but we live in an age where the vast majority of people are outside of it. The public doesn’t seem to relate the evangelical experience to their own experience of life (generally). The inside of evangelicalism is also becoming increasingly fragmented as time goes on as the relationship with God for the private individual is prioritised over the publics shared relationship and experience of God. The current worship/lecture system both focus on the interior self driving a wedge between the interior (mind) and the exterior (body). This is unfortunately wherein our society is currently orientated more around the exterior than the interior. However it might explain the appeal of the charismatic movement in bringing an exterior dimension to the Evangelical church, albeit one that is still privatised and in some ways the antithesis of liturgy.

This entry is no doubt me projecting my own thoughts onto the statement outlined by the Presbyterian in question at the start of this entry. One might also ruminate on the current state of the Presbyterian church, perhaps it is no better than Evangelicalism in some ways. Yet the statement stayed with me and chimed particularly with what I’m reading currently and my current thinking on evangelicalism. I think it has a lot of good things going for it, but it also has some major problems. I still consider myself evangelical but I think we should be Christians first and anything else second, when we get it round the wrong way thats when we suffer.