West Aussie blogger-pastor-public theologian-social commentator-runner Stephen McAlpine wears a lot of hats. He’s a riddle wrapped in an enigma. A Rorschach test. A canary in the coal mine of the evangelical church. Something of a prophet. Legitimately a whistle blower on church abuse. He is an excellent writer. He’s also my friend; we spar occasionally in the ‘commons’ of Facebook, or the comment section of his blog, and I’ve been known to write essay length reflections on conversations he starts, but we also regularly exchange messages and banter in private.
Stephen is a good man. He sent me an advance copy of his new book, Being the Bad Guys: How to Live For Jesus In A World That Says You Shouldn’t, not with the expectation of a review (though we all knew that was a possibility), but because it’s an ongoing contribution to a conversation we’re engaged in hoping to sharpen one another, and serve our churches. You can pre-order the book from the publisher, or support the good guys at your independent book retailer The Wandering Bookseller. It’s a book that is quintessentially him.
If you read and love his blog, you’ll love the book. If you read and struggle with his blog (because he’s a Rorschach test and you see conservative culture warring at play) then this book might give you extra ammunition — but it might also, over the course of 130 pages — give you a sense that he’s actually doing something a little more nuanced than just being a crunchy conservative.
One of Stephen’s gifts — one that helps him transcend the ordinary punditry you might find on social media and gets him cut through (increasingly global cut through, which is nice to see) is his ability to coin a metaphor, then to put the coin in a slot, then to guide a metal claw into your organs and wiggle it round a bit aiming for your heart. He’s a real skill tester. Some of us are still learning metaphors. Metaphors keep Stephen’s writing punchy and memorable. Another strength is his integrity; he calls out bad behaviour on his (sometimes our) own side of different conflicts. His willingness to call out abusive behaviour in the UK’s Crowded House church (from first hand experience) years ahead of the curve came at great personal cost for him, but was a catalyst. His recent defence of Aimee Byrd after her book publication exposed a pretty toxic culture within the Reformed scene was also courageous. He apologises when he gets things wrong. He doesn’t just chuck ideas out into the aether, but he, with his church community, walks the walk. This isn’t a review of Stephen, but of his book — and yet ethos is so fundamental in the communicative (and interpretive) exercise, and my knowledge of Stephen — even our friendship — does shape how I see and respond to his writing. None of us comes to a Rorschach test as a blank slate, and that’s kind of the point. They expose us, not the people who make the ink blots.
Both these strengths are on view in Being the Bad Guys, from the titular metaphor, through a variety of others he includes in the mix (some favourites — the ‘Schackleton Option,’ ‘the second service Christian’ and ‘renovating the wrong house’), to the way his own life as a good-bad guy plays out. Stephen’s cultural and theological and theological-cultural analysis is always coherent and compelling, sometimes I’m not convinced, sometimes the claw misses my head and doesn’t raise me up, or it drops me early (ok, I’ll stop), but even when I’m not convinced he’s shifting the conversation the church needs to be having in directions they need to go. Maybe he’s making it easier for the next player to grab hold of that plush toy their kids keep asking for in the shops (ok, I didn’t stop). There is more skill than failure in this work, and it’s worth a read (especially because, as I mentioned earlier, it’s a one-sit read at 130 pages — and the pace and punch, the timbre, of Stephen’s writing, coupled with metaphor-induced aha moments makes it an easy read).
Here’s where I’m not convinced.
I’m not convinced we have to be the bad guys, or that, universally, we are. I still think there’s space for us to reform the church, and so reform public perception, through a commitment to ‘living such good lives among the pagans’ — there’s plenty of room in Stephen’s book to point the finger at the church, not just the culture, for public perception. I think we can point a bit harder to some of our responsibility for our public perception, and repent, and perhaps play a different role in the culture to the one we’ve played, and I suspect there are plenty of people not on Twitter who aren’t as sold on the church being a black hatted villain. This actually just means embracing Stephen’s suggested solutions with a particular sort of zeal.
I’m convinced there’s a certain stream of Christian in the late modern west who are the bad guys, and that sometimes they dictate our behaviour, but also that they’ve (for too long) dictated public perceptions about Christianity. Where I am convinced is that if these Christians were to follow the way of life Stephen describes — both in the posture taken by ‘the church’ (as an institution) and in the posture taken by us Christians (‘the church’) in everyday life in the world (and our workplaces) — then we would stop being the bad guys. At that point, if Christians were known for the things he calls us back to, rather than for being repugnant warriors in a destructive culture war — then, if we keep being perceived as being the bad guys, his book would have an even edgier prophetic thing going on.
For those reading Stephen from a politically conservative angle (and it is blurbed by the former Deputy Prime Minister, and leader of the National Party, John Anderson, so that’s an audience), there’ll be plenty in the Rorschach Test reaction that will fuel, or confirm, their fear about the pace of cultural change, especially around the area of sexuality — but for those people, Stephen offers the balm of the Gospel and our hope, and the reality of the kingdom of Jesus being expressed in and through the church. I’d have liked a few more illustrative examples showing how ‘the right’ is actually every bit as hostile to Christianity and destructive to the church (especially post-Trump), because the illustrations are part of the blots that people are going to emotionally respond to — but what I will say in Stephen’s favour is that he doesn’t point the finger of blame at ‘the left’ or even the ‘sexular revolution’. He sees these as symptoms of a deeper problem in the post-Christian west. Following arguments developed by Charles Taylor, Dale Kuehne, and Mark Sayers, Stephen describes the modern ‘iWorld’ as a secular context where loyalty to a transcendent creator has given way to loyalty to the self, but where we live in a post-Christian culture profoundly shaped by Christianity that is desperately trying to cut ties with its parents like a rebellious adolescent. Where once we maybe thought the death of Christendom meant a return to pre-Christendom, and were excited by that — now we’re having to grapple with the reality that the post-Christian return doesn’t move backwards, but forwards.
Sayers gets a lot of credit for his insight about moderns wanting ‘the kingdom without the king’ — and Stephen quotes him, but, credit where credit is due (and, Taylor was also saying this just in a really long winded way), Stephen’s ‘Exile Stage 2’ basically made the same point. Before all these writers though, C.S Lewis made the same observation in his first speech as the Chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge, he said:
“Of course the un-christening of Europe in our time is not quite complete; neither was her christening in the Dark Ages. But roughly speaking we may say that whereas all history was for our ancestors divided into two periods, the pre-Christian and the Christian, and two only, for us it falls into three-the pre-Christian, the Christian, and what may reasonably be called the post-Christian. This surely must make a momentous difference. I am not here considering either the christening or the un-christening from a theological point of view. I am considering them simply as cultural changes. When I do that, it appears to me that the second change is even more radical than the first. Christians and Pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not.”
This analysis came from the ‘golden age’ of modernity. The point most social conservatives seem to look back to with fondness as the halcyon days of Christendom that must be recovered — where we can have our modernity cake, and eat it too. I quote Lewis from 1954 to illustrate a point that Stephen makes, while also to suggest that the challenges facing the church are not a product of a recent cultural moment — a precipitous one, even — but an age old one. Lewis, like Jacques Ellul (writing at the same time) point the finger not just at technology but a sort of instrumental or utilitarian framework where we believe, because of technology, that all progress is good. This belief requires (and creates) a shift where we aren’t in an enchanted or supernatural cosmos, where God is the author of life, to one where we are at the centre as authors of our own destiny, pursuing an authentic “identity.” Identity politics, one of the ‘bad guys’ trotted out by conservatives, and Christians, to fight a culture war against the left is a product of this shift, and one of the best parts of Stephen’s cultural analysis here — is that he sees this identity politics, and the underlying cultural shift, affecting both left and right — and damaging the church and our witness. He is genuinely offering a ‘third way’ in the culture wars — despite what our bias might want to hear him saying. He particularly sees ‘identity politics’ problematically playing out around the victim-perpetrator schema made popular by progressive politics (with the same underlying assumption as the so-called ‘conservative’ politics of the iworld — that is, the autonomous self-as-identity).
Here’s an example of the ‘Rorschach Test’ effect in a paragraph.
“We may feel that to allow our opponents to claim victimhood and not to highlight cases of our own is like fighting with one hand tied behind our backs. However, to begin with we must acknowledge the very real and painful injustices that most minorities have experienced at the hands of a dominant culture. There have been victims, and the church must recognise that it has a special calling to the marginalised.
Yet, without taking away from these horrific situations, there is an impersonal identity-politics agenda that (ironically views humans in a binary manner. You’re either a victim or a perpetrator, says intersectionality ideology — and who wants to be a perpetrator, right?”
Plenty to offend or inspire all of us… then he says:
“Christians should not play this game. It gives us a losing hand, since other levels of victimhood are seen to have a stronger claim on the chips in the middle of the table. More importantly, it is not a tactic worthy of those whose identity and worth is in Christ.”
While his premise is that the world is more hostile to Christianity and its claims than in previous generations, he doesn’t want us to turn to victimhood, or the idea that we are a persecuted people (explicitly in the west). He’ll go on to say that the story of the Gospel positions all of us as both victim and perpetrator; life is not so simple as the post-Christian iWorld would like it to be.
The premise is that while we aren’t ‘persecuted’ we no longer occupy the central position in society (or even have a seat at the table at all). He’s a little less prepared to place all the blame on this shift on the church and our misbehaviour than I am, and a little more convinced that there’s no way back (or to ‘being the good guys’) than I am (while I am in full agreement with his take that when Christians fully embrace the iWorld and sexular liberation the road to being a ‘good guy’ from society’s perspective becomes fairly wide and clear). He says, for example:
“It is indisputable that the church’s role in our culture is shifting from central to marginal. That drift may take some time, for, as Tom Holland points out, the West is ‘firmly moored to its Christian past”. But these moorings will either slip off eventually, or be cut, and the Western ship will drift into uncharted waters. And they are uncharted… For all of secularism’s self-confidence, we actually don’t know what it will be like on the “other side of God.”
On the whole, Stephen is more pessimistic about the course of life in the world than I am, and though he resurrects the metaphor of a zombie apocalypse to describe the current age, I found the optimism of Alyssa Wilkinson and Robert Joustra’s How To Survive The Apocalypse, more compelling — even as both it and Being The Bad Guy land in very similar places, from very similar analysis. When I dug back in my archives to find a review of How To Survive the Apocalypse, I found a response I wrote to n earlier version of Stephen’s thesis — one he called embracing a ‘plan B’ strategy. Taylor’s secular age diagnosis includes the idea that we live in after a ‘nova effect,’ with stacks of different options (including spiritual/religious options), which means every belief, every issue, every moment is contested, not all conclusions are foregone. Both Stephen, and How To Survive The Apocalypse end up with different diagnoses, but strikingly similar treatments (the Daniel option, really). And that’s ok. Maybe this is the book to give your pessimistic friends — or those who are too optimistic — because ultimately it pushes us towards genuine hope; the hope we have in Christ, as the solution to our cultural moment.
What we can be sure of in this shift, Stephen points out (eventually also quoting David Foster Wallace), is that the secular future will still be ‘religious’. There is no dogma free public square, “there are only different types of dogma.” This is where the ‘second service’ Christian comes in. Stephen builds this metaphor from the phenomenon experienced in his church, with its evening service, where many attendees belong to another church in the morning and his service is their ‘second service’ — it’s hard, he says, to disciple someone if that’s their engagement with your church community. The problem is that we are all ‘second service Christians’ because we are “immersed in a highly effective discipleship program offered by our culture Monday through Saturday. In everything from our phones to Netflix to advertising and news items, we are being offered a discipleship program that invites us to a completely different way of life, mediated to us through a dazzling array of images, sounds, stories and suggestions.”
Look. People might come to Stephen for a manual on how to fight the culture war — a way to tackle the reality of a hostile frame, or, they might come to Stephen to read someone who, on face value, is a conservative culture warrior saying things that make us uncomfortable and ‘blaming the progressives,’ and, to be clear, the sort of progress Stephen blames for our modern malaise (as Taylor would put it) is not left wing politics (though it includes them, and he often illustrates using them), but the sort of individualism that comes from liberalism, and especially the idea that liberalism liberates us from the divine. You might come with your pre-conceptions framing your reading… but, consistently, what they get in response is a manual for how to be the church. And this book is no different.
“In response, our church gatherings on Sundays must offer discipleship programs that are deeper, richer, and more compelling than those offered by the culture.”
And here’s where I’d offer another little bit of pushback. where, perhaps this is a product of a different ecclesiology at play. Stephen often plays Monday to Saturday against church on Sunday to the point of reinforcing it; both in good ways, and bad. He sees the task of the church as preparing her people to face the workaday world, but it almost feels like he sees us being tasked to face that world alone, as individuals (who might have a few friends in the mix). Part of the thicker discipleship his solutions require (and part of the life he describes) requires discipleship to be the product of much more than just “our church gatherings on Sundays” — he describes, but doesn’t name, the idea that church can’t just be an event on a Sunday (and unfortunately that quote above, in isolation, reinforces that view).
My other bit of pushback is around the idea that the project of pluralism failed us, simply because our opponents act as aggressive monotheists, or polytheists, having learned a thing or two from the Christendom playbook. At one point he describes the missional church’s misstep where we thought post-Christendom would look like pre-Christendom, in this optimism we thought “given the chance to offer our wares alongside everyone else, our products would be more compelling. All we had to do was to strip away the detritus of Christendom that had built up over the centuries — the overt institutionalism, the push for temporal power, the alignment with economic structures that fuelled greed, and the less than attractive liturgical forms. The pure and simple claims of Christ could be presented and examined without prejudice by a culture just waiting for some good news.” This optimism doesn’t appear to have aligned with reality, and now (apart from other evidence), Stephen is ready to declare it a mistake, suggesting that one of the things that got us our present situation was the assumption that “the post-Christian secular public square would be a neutral venue, a space for everyone, where all sorts of ideas would be discussed freely. We prepared our strategies for an open market, never realising that huge tariffs would be imposed on anyone selling their wares in the public space. The public space is not neutral. Why not? Because secularism is not neutral.”
Now. Note again the beautiful metaphor… and he’s right that the public space is not neutral. I’d say one of our missteps as the church is that we assume the neutral public space required we, the church, make neutral arguments — rather than making religious arguments and asking for those to be accommodated as one view among many, we tried to make neutral arguments that would reinforce our authority. We didn’t treat the public space as a free market but as a market to monopolise (see, ‘Postal Survey, The’). I’m also not sure we ever did the reform work necessary across the board, in a way that shifted public perception of the church or the Gospel — and while we spend lots of time calling out bad behaviour of progressives outside the church, and those who give in and join them from the church community, and Stephen does this in his book in a convincing way, I don’t see many Christian voices calling out the Christian right and the culture wars with such explicit vigour. Perhaps because so often our politics and theirs are more aligned. There’s nothing in this book that explicitly names figures behind the ‘progressive right’ — or that side of the culture war; the kind that produces Trumpism, or the ACL (though these are discussed in very general terms), while he’s quite happy to specifically name names and movements from the left (like Rob Bell and Josh Harris, or pressures and examples from outside the church like Roz Ward, or Jazz Jensen).
And the problem might not be that we assumed the public square would be neutral, but that we didn’t act as though it should be neutral; and when others adopt the same aggressive theism that we adopted, and so want to topple statues, and our remove our God, from the public square, maybe the virtuous, true, and beautiful line for us to run is actually to affirm what the public square should be. The catch is, how to do this knowing that though the public square should ultimately belong to the Lord Jesus, who declares ‘every inch his,’ in this world the powers and rulers and people conspired to crucify Jesus ‘in the public square of that great city’ (Revelation 11:8).
The good news is that you don’t have to accept the premise of this metaphor for the book’s conclusion (or even its argument) to be a blessing, and this lies in Stephen’s strength as a prophetic voice who applies Biblical truths about God as saviour and judge to our present times and calls us to repentance and life. It’s Stephen’s integrity as a commentator on both the word and the world that keeps driving us back to Jesus — the good news of the Gospel, but also Jesus as an example for us to follow as we live in a world that was hostile to him (and look, sorry to be self-referential for a moment, but my response piece to Stephen’s very famous ‘exile stage 2’ article was to challenge the premise that the world has ever been something other than the world that killed Jesus. We’ve always, even with the success of the Christian socio-political project, for good and for ill, been operating in ‘Rome-Babylon’ — this isn’t a new cultural moment). Stephen’s consistent antidote to the pressure of the world is what it always has been — from Revelation (God’s actions) to Revelation (the book) — the answer is to see Jesus as he truly is, and so know God as he really is, and to be the people of God he is re-shaping us to be by his Spirit.
Stephen’s call to be the church in a hostile world is not a call to bunker down, or a call to arms, but a call to hold out hope, and, even if people think we’re the bad guys, to live such good lives that we adorn and commend the Gospel. There’s lots to love where Stephen gets specific about what churches and Christians should do as ‘the bad guys’ in our culture’s eyes. Confession. Repentance. Transformation. These are also things that, if you’ve been watching Stephen long enough, he has modelled with integrity. They aren’t silver bullet solutions to win a culture war against secular vampires — they’re a turn to virtue and to doing the business of being God’s people in the world.
His call to create communities that are ‘thick and rich” and “don’t get caught up in the increasingly toxic culture war” is built on a twin strategy of ‘admitting reality and ’embracing possibility’ — to admit reality is to own our failures, including the way Christian power was used to marginalise or exclude others, and to embrace possibility is to not try to get our seat of power back, but to ’embrace a place at the margins’ (learning from those churches that are already doing this well).
I don’t want to spoil his last three chapters, that are where ‘new’ content can be found for those who are regular readers of his blog, but his call to self-denial in the face of a culture built on self-affirmation or self-flourishing is worth the price of admission. So too, his unpacking of what it might look like for us to be “confusing, intriguing, attractive, and compelling” communities of bad guys (and gals) — those called to “identify not just as “persons” but as a people”, offering hope and life to those the post-Christian culture of radical individualism chews up and spits out. His work on Haggai and Daniel as paradigms for navigating life in exile are helpfully connected to the great truth that, in Jesus, our exile from God is over and we are now citizens of the ultimate ‘new city,’ the city of God. His strategies for renewing the church are wise, creative, and virtuous, whether or not you share the cultural diagnosis that underpins them, and are actually the sort of actions that would be required for us to be living as the ‘good guys’.
Whatever you make of the diagnosis underpinning the book, whatever your ‘default’ Rorschach-like reaction to its framing — perhaps defined by where you stand in the culture war — we’d all be better off if the church heeds the clarion call Stephen offers in the pages of this book, and that he finishes with:
“You can refuse to allow the atomising nature of modern individualism to get its grip on you and pull you away from God’s people. And you can go forward together to engage with the world bravely and courageously and with love and concern: to continue to be all that Jesus has called us to be.”