Strange Days (Review)

In my previous post, I reviewed Australian pastor and cultural critic Mark Sayers’s book Disappearing Church. Just after finishing Disappearing Church, I read his next book, which came out in 2017: Strange Days: Life in the Spirit in a Time of Upheaval

As I read the book, I kept thinking of conspiracy theories. Not that Sayers is a conspiracy theorist at all, but like conspiracy theorists he is interested in answering the question: “What in the world is going on?” If you’re drawn to conspiracy theories, you want to believe that there is a pattern behind everything that is going on in the world, and that pattern is sinister. What is really controlling things is the government/the conservatives/the progressives/the deep state/the evangelicals/the Illuminati, or whatever. In fact, Wikipedia has a handy list of conspiracy theories.

9780802415738Sayers essentially argues in Strange Days that there is a conspiracy going on: the kingdom of God is breaking into this world, fighting its elemental forces, and those who live life “in the Spirit” can join in this battle on the good side. “The social structures and movements bouncing this way and that in our world have spiritual forces behind them and, thus, require spiritual solutions” (98).

The book comes in three parts. In part 1 (chapters 1–2), he posits that there are forces of chaos in the world and looks at where this chaos comes from. In part 2 (chapters 3–8), he looks at the historical pattern of chaos, asking how we can find the spiritual dimensions behind war, terrorism, “non-places,” the breakdown of the family, and other issues. In part 3 (chapters 9–13), he explores how life in the Spirit offers an alternative to chaos, promising the ability to live in light of Christ’s victory over the flesh and the elemental forces of the world. His goal, as he says in the introduction, is “to grasp our cultural moment, to help you understand its landscape. There is a pattern to the chaos, and what is more, there is a door out, into the holy expanse that is life in the Spirit” (18).

Sayers writes a lot about how humans want to create spaces of order that keep the chaos at bay, and are compelled to police the borders between order and chaos: “Because humans are spiritually homeless, we dream of holy spaces, utopias, motherlands, golden ages, and soulmates. We yearn for reconnection to the divine, re-admittance to the sacred and pure space” (25). Again, “behind all social architecture, be it ancient or modern, Western or non-Western, are ‘practices concerning holiness, purity, and sacrifice.’ These are the rules, rituals, relationships, and social structures that organize life” (42). We create these rules in accordance with the elemental forces of the world, which the New Testament calls “the powers”: “The powers are the unseen superstructures behind human life, and, just like places, nations, institutions, they protect us from the chaos in the world that threatens to break through” (106).

However, the problem with policing the borders with chaos is that chaos and “the flesh” live inside us: “The structures, communities, and institutions we create in order to protect ourselves from the chaotic ravages of the flesh do not free us from the effects of the flesh. For the flesh is within us” (31). In all this he acknowledges his debt to Peter Leithart’s book Delivered from the Elements of the World.

Modern Westerners, even many Christians, might dismiss this kind of talk as very woo-woo. We’ve moved past all that, haven’t we? On the contrary, we might sometimes convince ourselves we have, but this only seems plausible inside the safety of the “non-places” we have created—the places, like an airport or a shopping mall, that allow individuals to pretend they are rational, autonomous, cut off from their community and even their own history: “Non-places are the temples of the West’s religion, which masquerades as a non-religion. Preaching an oversimplification of life. Appearing to be content free while discipling us in a secular fundamentalism. The gospel that the world is your playground. Evangelizing us into a faith that fails” (69–70). Interestingly, terrorists usually attack non-places.

So faced with a situation where we can’t manage the chaos outside and inside in our own strength, where we try to hunker down inside non-places but the chaos and meaninglessness break in anyway, where the powers make us feel helpless, what do we do? “This is the good news of the gospel. Humans no longer have to be bound to these myths and powers. Those trying to scratch out Eden in the dust don’t have to anymore. There is a way out of the fray. And for those who already have come to believe the gospel, and who feel displaced and dizzy in all the chaos, this truth remains a comfort. All the powers swarming around us, most of them beyond our understanding, have been disarmed. Yes, they are still active, but only in the same way a chicken is after its head is cut off” (108).

The good news is that Christ has “disarmed the powers” (Col 2:15). Those who follow him are called to live in light of this disarmament: “As the gospel was preached, as history unfolded, Christ’s victory over the powers would spread. The elemental forces had been fundamentally altered, and a new kingdom had broken in, and thus the powers gradually lost their hold over people. However, as Christianity spread, so did heresy” (116). The powers have been defeated, but there is now the threat that the church should become ineffectual by embracing ideas that are not in accord with the gospel.

These heresies, Sayers says, currently tend to take three main shapes, which could be classified as the heresies of the non-place, the right, and the left:

Some churches will reshape themselves as kinds of Christian non-places, detached from history, relationships, and given identity. … Other churches, attuned to the dislocation and meaninglessness created by the non-place of globalization, will fiercely create nationalist, social, and racial boundaries, presenting meanings that emerge not from Christ and the kingdom, but place, nation, myth, and the flesh. … A third group of churches, recoiling both from the implicit prosperity gospel of the churches that create Christian non-places, and disturbed by the falling back into cultural Christianity and the blurring of nationalism and the way of Jesus, will link arms with the New Left. (117–19)

To resist these temptations to heresy, the church must remember that she is in exile—but not the same kind of cultural exile that the Jews endured when they were taken away to Babylon in 586 BC. “This is a post-elemental forces faith. Thus exile cannot be the same. … As heavenly citizens we exist in a kind of exile, but in a different epoch, thus deserving of a different missional posture. Yes, we are called to flourish, but we are called also into a spiritual war against the powers and principalities, now humiliated on the cross by Christ. There is a key nuance here: flourishing needs a fight against the flesh” (157–58)

So the solution to finding meaning and purpose and finding order in the chaos all around us and within us is to live life in step with the Holy Spirit. “Christians live life in the Spirit before a watching world. We are not called to retreat from the world, nor to embrace it, but to live on earth as it is in heaven. … Our exile is life in the Spirit, but that spiritual life is exceedingly practical” (165). We still struggle against the flesh, so we need to test our own motivations and desires through prayer and discernment in community.

Since most of this review has just been me recapping the argument of the book, you probably know by now that I enjoyed it and recommend it. It is short, as all Sayers’s books tend to be, but it packs a big conceptual punch. He is doing nothing less than seeking to expand modern Western Christians’ view of the world for the sake of mission. To engage in mission in the West, you have to be aware of the powers whose existence our culture has resolutely denied, and to be aware of how Christ has disarmed them. Because the truth is that

our age is not as modern, unique, and progressive as it believes. Like all ages, it is shaped by the elemental forces. Even in its secularism it is thus ultimately religious. Thus with our heavenly viewpoint we can become interpreters of the age, godly guides, merchants of holy hope. Our age is an age of clashing stories. Do not underestimate the power of the story you carry within your heart, the gospel that drips with goodness. For when a community of people, called by Christ, living as the church, come together, something truly wonderful happens. (170)

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

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Disappearing Church (Review)

I had heard the name “Mark Sayers” here and there over the past few years, but I never really paid attention until Sayers, a pastor in Melbourne, Australia, got together with Portland pastor John Mark Comer and started recording a podcast, “This Cultural Moment.” In brief episodes, Sayers and Comer explain culture through the lens of intellectual history and try to apply the discussion to the average Christian in the West.

I’ve been enjoying these podcasts very much and wanted to see where else Sayers had expressed his ideas about culture, so this spring I read two of the books he has published in the last few years with Moody Publishers: Disappearing Church and Strange Days.

9780802413352Both are short (under 200 pages) but wide-ranging, showing a variety of influences, from Philip Rieff to Jonathan Sacks to Peter Leithart. In Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience, Sayers argues that the church’s strategy of trying to make itself relevant to the surrounding culture leads to a dead end in which the church loses its distinctiveness:

What if our attempts at relevance, at mimicking and outdoing the beautiful world, actually limit our ministry potential? What if our increasing strangeness to Western culture is actually to our advantage? What if the fact that you can no longer be warmly embraced in the contemporary cultural fold if you are an orthodox Christian is actually the best thing that has happened to us? (140)

What the church needs instead is what he calls gospel resilience: “We cannot solely rely on the contemporary, Western church’s favored strategy of cultural relevance, in which Christianity and the church is made ‘relevant’ to secular Western culture. Instead we need to rediscover gospel resilience. To walk the countercultural narrow path in which we die to self and re-throne God in our lives as the supreme authority” (12).

While he critiques the strategy of relevance, neither does he want the church to embrace irrelevance. Rather than calling for complete seclusion from the world, he wants the church to commit to becoming a creative minority, a term that originated with historian Arnold Toynbee and was resurrected by Jonathan Sacks: “Creative minorities find themselves withdrawn and distant from what they know and find comfort in. This distance enables them to see the myths and blind spots of their own culture, to reject these myths, and find a greater dependency in God. This dependency on a source of power and truth outside of the dominant culture leads creative minorities to refresh and reinvigorate ailing cultures” (50). There is a movement in creative minorities of both withdrawal and return, where withdrawal is undertaken for the purpose of greater effectiveness upon the return.

Sayers’s main reason for choosing gospel resilience over relevance is that post-Christian culture is not the same as pre-Christian culture. “Post-Christianity is not pre-Christianity; rather post-Christianity attempts to move beyond Christianity, whilst simultaneously feasting upon its fruit” (15). If your main strategy of preaching the gospel to post-Christian culture is relevance, Sayers says, you are likely to be unwittingly colonized by the culture. Post-Christian culture is happy to retain various emphases of Christianity, like justice and dignity, but sees itself as having transcended the hard parts of Christianity—the parts about being a disciple. Post-Christianity is seductive because it tells you that you can have it all without sacrificing anything.

In the latter half of the book, Sayers shares specific practices for recovering gospel resilience like rejecting the implicit prosperity gospel and reinvesting ourselves in institutions (the church, specifically). Here I thought there was a lot of ground covered in a relatively small space, and I have to admit that in a few places I wasn’t quite sure what he was proposing. I will probably have to read through it again to really understand and figure out how to apply chapters 6–10.

But in general I’m sympathetic to Sayers’s analysis, especially of the difference between a post-Christian culture and a pre-Christian culture. While he is creative in the connections he makes, he is not calling for the church to change or abandon the historic faith. He still believes the gospel has the power to speak to the greatest needs of individuals and culture: “What if the answer is what it has always been? The path of walking in Jesus’ footsteps, of following the traditions and teaching of the apostles. What if the answer to our culture’s challenges is still the gospel?” (48) We just need to recognize that the times have changed, and prayerfully discern how the gospel can best be preached in these times.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I just read two books by Sayers. When I finished Disappearing Church, I wondered what else he could possibly say about this cultural moment. I’ll get into that in my next post.

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.