The oddness of living post-Christendom

Posted on July 5, 2011

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Iain made a comment on the previous post about the post-Christian cultural context in which we now live, and the sheer lack of understanding of Biblical/theological references that is now general amongst the Scottish population. I take the point, but it is more complex than just ignorance…

Pre-Christian societies are simply ignorant of the gospel. Nobody knows anything; the evangelist must start from scratch, finding culturally-meaningful resonances that start to make gospel narratives comprehensible. Meeting a new person, it is a very safe bet that they know nothing of the gospel, have no memory of Biblical narratives, and have no inkling of central theological concepts (‘grace’; ‘redemption’; ‘incarnation’; ‘creation’; ‘resurrection’).

Christendom societies – which perhaps still includes some or even much of the USA – are contexts where one may not assume that someone one meets has faith, but one may assume that Biblical stories and theological concepts are meaningful to them, even if those stories and meanings are misunderstood or distorted.

Post-christian societies – the whole of Europe, except perhaps Poland; Canada too, I believe – are more complicated. Certainly one must be prepared for astonishing ignorance of the basic grammar of faith and of the most foundational stories. My old friend Stuart Murray-Williams collects and distributes anecdotes to remind us of the extent of the ignorance we might encounter; one concerns an English tour party being shown Gaudi’s magnificent Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (it’s the only thing in Barcelona more stunning than what goes on on the pitch of the Nou Camp – could there be higher praise?). The details of the decoration are being pointed out, including a magic square, with everything adding up to 33, because, the guide explains, that’s the age at which Jesus died.

A teenage lass at the back comments, ‘That’s very young – what did he die of?’

Certainly, that’s a significant part of the reality of living post-Christendom: an ignorance as complete as any pagan living before the first missionaries arrived. Equally, however, there are pockets of remembered faith. Iain mentioned specifically the non-denominational schools in Scotland; I know what he means, but I also know that the village school our daughters attend does a fair job of introducing its pupils to the basic stories and grammar of Christianity.

It is fashionable in some circles to criticise the Alpha course because of how much it assumes about the basics of Christianity. The criticism is in one sense fair, but the course in its origin was designed by someone whose education ran from Eton to Oxbridge for others with the same sort of background. In the public schools (=’expensive and exclusive fee-paying schools’, if you’re not up on the curious British vernacular) chaplains are employed, Religious Education is extensive and straightforwardly Christian, and chapel attendance is often compulsory, or at least normal. When these kids get to university – we see it in St Andrews; it’s more pronounced in Oxbridge – they still regularly attend college chapel, because that is what one does of a Sunday. They have a selective, but ingrained, knowledge of Biblical narrative and Christian concepts; to reach them with the gospel one should assume this, and build on it, as the Alpha course does.

Pre-Christendom, meeting someone new, I could assume they knew nothing; in Christendom, meeting someone knew, I could assume they knew much; post-Christendom, I can make no assumptions; she might be completely ignorant; she might have plentiful knowledge. In front of a crowd of British students, particularly, the challenge is to be relevant to both the extremes and everything in between.

And it is hard…

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