Just over a week ago I presented a short paper to a group of Christian educators in Australia on the methodological approaches I am using to research with, and added to that presentation, a trial version of the research liturgy that I began to develop on this blog earlier. It was an interesting time, although presenting at midnight meant that I didn’t hang around for the keynote from the wonderful John Collier, former principal of St Andrew’s Cathedral School in Sydney, which organised the conference: I was too committed to going to sleep afterwards. What was interesting was the extent (and I saw this in some short introductions in a conversation group and in one of the questions arising from my paper) to which these Christian educators, largely though not exclusively from the evangelical wing of the church, saw their mission as bringing the gospel to those who they taught: they were committed to using their work to ensure a proper presentation of the gospel, so that others could understand and believe. I think, in the face of such committed passion, I must have come across as some kind of woolly liberal, but in that expression ‘a proper presentation of the gospel’ I have some unease. There was nothing wrong or inappropriate in what was said, just a hint perhaps of the job of teaching being somehow merely a vehicle for evangelism rather than an expression of God’s kingdom into a pained and bleeding culture. It felt more ‘come to us’ than ‘go to them.’ I might be completely wrong, but the unease remained.
I came across the same unease in the book I have just finished reading: Brittle with Relics: A History of Wales, 1962-1997 by Richard Hywel King.
It is, as some reviewers have pointed out, a history rather than the history. For a start it is an oral history, compiled from the assembling of sections of interviews. There is much here that is omitted, but what is included is compellingly told. What is unusual is that the narrative is carried exclusively by edited and arranged interviews with a very large number of people. King is a music journalist, and so the role of punk and rock music in the development of national thought, language and political awareness is a central theme, and interviews with musicians (Datblygu, Ffa Coffi Pawb/Super Furry Animals, Manic Street Preachers, Dafydd Iwan – all these and more) get a large voice in the storytelling, which is unusual. As a technique it reminded me of Svetlana Alexievich’s two magisterial sets of interviews Voices from Chernobyl and Second-Hand Time, except that King has cut and paste more to let the historical narrative take precedence over the development of individual experiences. The central themes are the struggle for the language by Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, the struggle for political equality, justice and devolution for the nation of Wales, environmentalism, the struggle against Trident by the women from Wales at Greenham Common, the 1984-1985 miners strike and the long process of deindustrialisation, the growth of music as a medium for Cymraeg as a language, and the long imprint of Tory policies on South Wales in particular through the Welsh Office and the Welsh Development Agency – and lots more. It is a fine book, despite the fact it focuses on Gwynedd, the Welsh-speaking part of Dyfed and the South Wales valleys more than on, say Powys and the north-east; and for a nation of farmers, there are not many voices from them here. But as a memory of a time when I lived in Wales and got interested in its history and politics, I found myself reawakened. Its first sections overlap in a way with the final chapter of John Davies’ classic Hanes Cymru (A History of Wales, Penguin, 1994), but King gives room for voices that Davies’ book might never countenance.
Why this is important is because Wales for a long time – like Northern Ireland – had a concept of itself of a particular type of Christian country, one that had experienced some very significant religious revivals in 1735-1760, 1820, 1859 and 1904. These revivals, with the exception of the last one that was marked by the holiness movement and a deep awareness of the role of the Holy Spirit, were focused on the written scriptures, the word of God brought to life through powerful preaching and the conviction of the Holy Spirit through the word. Indeed, Martyn Lloyd Jones believed that the failure of the leaders of the 1904-05 to root the experience of the new Christians in the traditions of New Testament orthodoxy led to its ultimate dissipation, and the ‘capture’ of Calvinistic Methodism (the chief vehicle since the 1740s for renewed spiritual life in Wales) by the higher criticism coming from theologians in Germany.
By the time we get to the 1960s and 1970s, the gospel in the chapel life of Welsh-speaking Wales had largely moved from being the great political, theological and educational force that it had been into a very conservative – and distant – cultural expression that served as a motif against which to rebel, in which the young had less and less part to play. And it is here where the book is completely enthralling to me: the large number of interviewees who had had a Christian chapel upbringing, often with parents as pastors or in some form of religious leadership, but who found that too stifling and not speaking to the inclusivity and political struggle that the younger generation. This extends to the way that Welsh was conceived of as a language, and why Welsh punk was such a renewing force, simply because it enabled the sung language to find a different role from that of chapel hymns and folk song (see the words of David R Edwards’ Can i Gymru for a way of using Welsh that exemplifies this).
The unease I felt here was that lack of awareness of the gospel as something that impacted and was a gift for every culture, not just that of the chapels.
And then this week, we see the reignition of the gun debate amongst Christians following the entirely shocking-but-not-surprising events in Uvalde, Texas. Jon Kuhrt has written a helpful piece on this, contrasting some of the evangelical right’s approach with that of Shane Claiborne, who has opted to serve the poor in Philadelphia for the past 24 years.
I am not for a minute suggesting that my wonderful Australian Christian interlocutors, the earlier generations of committed Welsh pastors, and those idolatrous US evangelicals defending the gun lobby in the light of the shooting at Robb Elementary School (I think Kandiss Taylor’s campaign bus advertising Jesus, Guns, Babies is perhaps the most perverted version of this theology recently) are morally equivalent. Of course they are not. The first two groups do/did not, for a start, embrace violence as a means of civic peace.
But they have this in common, I think: a looking back to, maybe even a longing for, an idealised Christian version of our culture, where the Bible was respected and honoured as a civic document governing political life. It is somehow a commitment to an idolatry, to a version of what we think Jesus should be and do, rather than a seeking to find out where and what he is doing in our culture today, going ahead of us, calling us to follow.
And that idolatrous fantasy world simply is not a place that we are called to. The word of God is living and active, says the writer to the Hebrews, sharper than any two-edged sword. But the word of God is no longer – and never has been, for most Christian traditions – simply the scriptures: it is Jesus himself, calling us to the margins. Yes the scriptures are critical for us – apart from anything else, they remind us daily that we have external criteria by which to live and define our identity, and draw our hope – but we follow Jesus as the living word, and the Holy Spirit as the interpreter of that living word to us. And where Jesus is now, is not – and never has been – comforting the professional middle classes in their well-appointed, bible-based churches, but somewhere on the margins of our culture and national life.
As difficult as it is for us to accept this – and I have enjoyed those well-appointed, bible-based churches as much as anyone – I don’t think any more we have the luxury of not following him to the margins, and bringing his love and light there. And what that means for us – for me – each day is submitting our lives to His spirit of adventure and hope, and being ready to give an answer for that hope – and perhaps reignite it in the hopeless.