The barbarians and Christian exile (Stage Two)…

Stephen McAlpine

The barbarians “have already been governing us for quite some time.”  That’s one of the lessons that Alasdair MacIntyre has tried to teach us—a lesson that for some Christians has been slowly sinking in during the 34 years since After Virtue was published in 1981.


But that is not the most potent point that MacIntyre was making.  In a limited comparison to the circumstances during which the ancient world descended into the Dark Ages, MacIntyre added this significant qualifier


This time … the Barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament.


Fortunately, a “consciousness of our predicament” has been developing during this long thirty-four-year period.  Contributions have been made by Richard John Neuhaus in The Naked Public Square, by Charles Colson in Against the Night: Living in the New Dark Age, and by Lesslie Newbigin in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society—along with many others.


More recently, Os Guinness brings the challenge of living in our new “Augustinian Moment” into focus in Renaissance:  The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times, just published in 2014.


Can the Christian church in the advanced modern world be renewed and restored even now and be sufficiently changed to have a hope of again changing the world through the power of the gospel? Or is all such talk merely whistling in the dark – pointless, naive and irresponsible?


It is encouraging to see pastors also wrestling with answers for these sorts of questions.  A recent blog post by Australian pastor Stephen McAlpine asks Dr. Guinness’ question a bit differently:  “Christian:  Are You Ready for Exile Stage Two?”


The Australian situation is, of course, somewhat different from that of Evangelicals in the United States.  Yet, it falls within the trajectory of the events unfolding more broadly throughout the West, making pastor McAlpine’s article an important read.


The Western church is about to enter stage two of its exile from the mainstream culture and the public square. And it will not be an easy time.


In Stage One Exile, many pastors and church planters defined the church’s problem in the culture as irrelevance—a dilemma to be remedied by pursuing relevance.


In Exile Stage One the prevailing narrative was that the Christian church was being marginalised, Christendom was over; the church needed to come up with better strategies; to strip away the dross, and all in order to reconnect Jesus with a lost world. We were all about “ad fontes“, a second Reformation getting back to the ecclesiastical source – hopefully utilising the Bible – or at the very least the Early Church Fathers and a bunch of candles (now-now – Sarcastic Ed).


The biggest problem the church had, according to Exile Stage One thinking, was that no one was talking about us anymore.  And as Oscar Wilde wryly observed, the only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about. So in Exile Stage One the conferences and front-room conversations were busy talking about what it was like not being talked about. We’d been marginalised; locked out of interesting rooms; been abandoned at a rate of knots; discarded. Only a few perceptive people had seen it happening. How many? Well probably no more than in this front room with us, and perhaps a few others who meet at pub church every third Sunday.


And oh, everyone was quoting Lesslie Newbigin, or at least the only line of his they knew about the congregation being the hermeneutic of the gospel or some such. Everyone was discussing what it meant to have Christian convictions, but be post-foundational. Christendom was collapsing, and isn’t that a good thing, given all the fighting and crusades and bad stuff priests did? Were we not sick of simply being chaplains to the culture? Time to refresh. Time to do organic/total/on-the-other-side/radical church. For Exile Stage One adherents there was a kind of glee that Christendom was falling. And if it was holding out in some areas such as North America, so what?  Who wants to be a Southern Baptist anyway, what with single malt and cigars being so tasty and all?


Of course, I am being a little facetious, and in a way I have a right to be.  I got involved in this Exile Stage One process and it has informed much of my thinking and that won’t change. I also met amazing people, creative thinkers and theologians who deserve a hearing and a reading. …


But there was a problem with Exile Stage One thinking:  It left “Christians completely unprepared for Exile Stage Two reality.”


There were a set of assumptions made by Exile Stage One-ers that have not lined up with what is going to pan out over the coming three or so decades if the last five years are any indication.  Let me map out some of these misplaced assumptions briefly:


1. We Assumed Athens not Babylon


For all of the talk about exile, the language of Athens, and the need to find a voice in a culture of competing ideas, was far more prevalent than the language of the true city of exile, Babylon. We were exploring ways to deal with the culture being disinterested in us, not despising us.  I well remember myself saying “People are not walking past your church and saying, ‘If I never go to church, that’s the one I am never going to.’ No, they don’t see it at all.” That’s Athens talk, and assumes that if we can just show a point of connection to the culture then the conversation will flow and we will all get along.


I have changed my mind on this one. If the last five or six years are any indication, the culture (read: elite framework that drives the culture) is increasingly interested in bringing the church back into the public square. Yes, you heard that right. But not in order to hear it, but rather in order to flay it, expose its real and alleged abuses and to render it naked and shivering before a jeering crowd.  It is Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego standing up before the statue of gold, whilst everyone else is groveling and going, “Pssst, kneel down for goodness sake!” It is officials conspiring with the king to show that Daniel’s act of praying towards Jerusalem three times per day is not simply an archaic and foolish hope, but a very real threat to the order of the society and the new moral order that will hold it together.


If the primary characteristic of Exile Stage One was supposed to be humility, the primary characteristic of Second Stage Exiles will have to be courage.   Courage does not mean bombastic pronouncements to the world, not at all.  It has to be much deeper than that.  It will mean, upon hearing the king’s command that no one can pray to any god save the king for thirty days, that we go into our rooms with the window open towards Jerusalem and defy that king even as our accusers hunt us down.  It means looking the king in his enraged face and saying, even in our God does not rescue us from the flames, we will not serve your gods or bow down to your statue of gold.  Unlike Athens, Babylon is not interested in trying to out-think us, merely overpower us. Apologetics and new ways of doing church don’t cut it in Babylon.  Only courage under fire will. …


2. We Assumed a Neutral Culture Not a Hostile World


If we assumed neutral culture we assume we can get involved in, and play with, culture without getting infected by it. That we can remain distinct from it, undrawn to its more sickly parts, and more than capable of knowing when to say no to culture’s soft-focus, slow-motion beckoning and effete “Join us! Join us!” plea (Game of Thrones anyone? – Netflix Ed).


Simply put we assume that we can have more impact on culture than it can have on us.  That is dangerously naive thinking.  Jesus never said the culture will misunderstand you, he said the world will hate you.  He did not say to his disciples, “Display reckless abandon and go out there and change culture,” he said “fear not, I have overcome the world.”(John 16:33).  How have I seen this play out over the past decade?  Sadly in too many ways. Whilst good has come of it, I have watched too often as burnt out evangelicals who are sick to death with fundamentalist infightings drift first from saying we must get back to the source of the gospel for the sake of the culture, to re-interpreting the gospel in the shape of the world.  I have watched as what began as a series of questions beginning with “What if we changed the perspective on how we look at this traditional issue?” to “Did God really say?” And painful though it is to say, the post-evangelical Sexuality Gospel has simply replaced the Boomer Prosperity Gospel for a generation that idolises the comfort that experience offers, rather than the comfort that money offers.


The result? All too often Exile Stage One became Exit Stage Left. Post-evangelicalism/post-foundationalism took many people down the path of post-Christian, providing a soft landing for those who wanted to jump out of the plane but were afraid of heights. …


3. We Loosened Our Language Just When The Cultural Elites Were Tightening Theirs.


There is a whole book in this, but suffice to say, many Exile Stage One proponents were busy loosening the bolts on their language wheels at the very time the cultural framework was tightening up theirs. And no prizes for guessing whose wheels have fallen off!  Or to use another metaphor if we fail to appreciate and use the language in our armoury then someone will steal in, take it and use it against us.  We’ve cultivated a half generation of Christian literature completely certain about its uncertainty when it comes to terminologies.  Meanwhile the cultural framework is more and more certain about its terminologies.


A prime example relates to public ethical matters.  A church that has gone all loose on language for the sake of reaching the culture – dropping the categories given to it by its time-tested theology – is suddenly finding its own terminologies and thought-forms used against it, and it is unsure how to respond.  When it comes to sexual ethics now, it is not simply that traditional Christianity has “strange” or “weird” or even “interesting” perspectives, but rather “wrong”, “bad”, “unenlightened”, even “sinful” positions. Read the opinion pages.


The semantic field of “heretic” will increasingly surface in Second Stage Exile when describing traditional Christianity.  Now I am not saying it’s the church’s role to scold the culture, it’s not, because the primary and critical place the church loosened the wheel nuts of language was in the church! Exile Stage One proponents were very often critical of the Boomer-led Mega-church which jettisoned theological language to reach an indifferent, consumer culture.  But their criticism did not extend to picking the language off the floor, dusting it off and using it again. If anything they exacerbated the Boomers’ mistake of displacing theological language by distrusting theological language (the new Reformed crowd being an exception).  That junking of language categories was a crucial error. If our God is a speaking God, then language is deeply theological and deeply moral.  It’s no mere play-thing to put to one side when we are disinterested in it.  We use it or we lose it – to others.


Now that loss will surprise you if your city category is Athens, but not if it is Babylon. Listen to what Peter says to his exilic communities scattered throughout the Roman Empire:


“Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:11-12) …


Pastor McAlpine concludes with references to the book of Jude, summarizing the response of the early Christians to their outsider status.


They were hated right from the moment Jesus was nailed to a tree, but got on with contending for the faith, godly living in their communities and love towards God and others nonetheless.


That is what we must recover. Second Stage exiles do not place their hope in a city here, be it Athens or Babylon, but seek a city that is to come. (Hebrews 13). Second Stage Exiles do not need the approval of the culture, neither do they need to provoke the culture in order to feel good about themselves. No, true exiles can live out their time in exile with confidence, love and hope because they trust in him “who is able to keep [them] from stumbling and to present [them] before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy.” (Jude 1:24). …


Stephen McAlpine promises another post in which he returns to some of the themes of this article.  Hopefully, that will mean offering insight into just what it would mean today for Christians to “get on with contending for the faith, godly living in their communities and love towards God and others nonetheless.”



Stephen McAlpine serves as pastor and church planter for Providence Church in Perth, Australia. “Christian:  Are You Ready for Exile Stage Two?” is available online at his personal website.



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