Politics, culture and society

Thursday 14 July

Peter is a former barrister and wannabe theologian. He leads Evangelical Alliance in NI and is on the leadership team at Causeway Coast Vineyard. He tackled the question “What are the local and global political trends telling us?” Kerry Stewart summaries the conversation.

 “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What on earth is water?”

David Foster Wallace told this story which beautifully illustrates how we can be impacted by the sources we get our information from. Sources which are often skewed, and tapered to what we historically have been seeking information about or searching for.

In Daniel 1, we read about how Daniel is being trained in the Babylonian ways. He is learning the language and culture, being educated so he can engage with the locals. So often in our lives something similar goes on in many aspects but not in our faith. It gets stuck at a Sunday school level. Daniel became qualified in how to serve and he became more effective within the culture.

How do we, as Christians, connect with the public square?

Jeremiah 29:7 says,

 “Also, seek Shalom, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

Eugene Peterson defines Shalom like this,

“Shalom is one of the richest words in the Bible. It gathers all aspects of wholeness that result from God’s will being completed in us.” 

To get to a place of wholeness and prosperity you need to know who you are now. The identity question is one that constantly rears its head. Who am I?

Daniel 1:8, “But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way”.

In order to influence the culture he was now part of, Daniel had to achieve a deep-rooted sense of the story that truly formed him up to that point. By deciding against the royal food he was saying he’d embrace much of the culture, but not every bit of it. He had trained in this different story.

In our world today, thinking in the midst of Brexit, there’s a sense in a way we have let politicians and the market shape us – yet so much of my fundamental identity remains the same. What has changed on a daily basis since the EU Referendum? Not a lot. However, because the news and information we consume is not unbiased, we are getting countries where one half does not have any idea about what the other side thinks.

A lot of what we understand of our modern stance flows from the Reformation. There was a large separation between the state and the church at the time resulting in a strong influence on a number of European countries. For hundreds of years we have been having this conversation about the shaping and framing of the church alongside the state. In this country, there are lots of localised politics clashing with tribalism. Many of us choose to step back from that for various reasons but being absent from the table isn’t going to be the solution either.

We are a culture wrecked by doubt and most people aren’t sure what is shaping them. Christians are more comfortable in who they are but we must be careful that that doesn’t turn into complacency. In general, stories are how we communicate things, particularly in Ireland.

How do we communicate something about ourselves? How would we tell someone about when last God showed up in our lives if we are trying to link the story of God and His grace to a person who doesn’t know it? What are our God stories? In answer to these questions we need to be prepared to push into people stories just a little bit while simultaneously getting better at telling our own story. This is a world so deeply in doubt that is doesn’t even believe there are answers to be had. Christians are not good with questions historically.

Purpose – Why do we do what we do?

Daniel resolved not to defile himself as he lived his faith but if you are an Israelite living your faith how do you know God? Where is God? Where do you worship if there is no Temple? It has to happen in the everyday, in every way, everywhere. This applies to us.

“The ordinary things are all acts of worship. Praising God begins to occur in the place where you are: in work, in the surgery, in the classroom, in the kitchen. Anything can become a small daily ritual if you put it in place.”

Jamie Smith author of “You are what you love. The Spiritual power of habit” tells us in the book that who and what we worship fundamentally shapes our hearts. While we desire to shape culture, we are not often aware of how culture shapes us but that worship develops our loves and longings so that our cultural endeavours are focused on God.

If we’re not catching the hearts and desires of people then we are missing out on opportunities to spread the Word of God.

Smith goes on to add that we overemphasise the power of knowledge and neglect the power of love, longings and desires. We are not so much a thinking thing but have been made by God as something of love. We’re to love what Jesus loves.”

As culture isn’t an individual pursuit we are to recognise the importance of community and how it’s possible to re-orientate in order to form alternative communities, firstly in a small way and building it up. You don’t even have to be the boss. How you talk to people and engage with them is an act of worship and reflection of a culture.

Power and authority –

In Daniel 2, we see an example of how excellence paved the way of influence for Daniel but he previously had to spend three years watering vegetables. God gave him the knowledge and the ability to interpret dreams which was the integration of the cultural and supernatural, and that was an incredibly powerful witness.

Our culture in 2016 has become more imminent, tight and narrow so people feel the need to look in all the wrong places for influence hence the rise in popularity of Game of Thrones, Being Human The Walking Dead and many more – all too often the supernatural isn’t found in our churches so people aren’t aware that it truly exists at a local level. As Christians we’re regularly guilty of being on the back foot when it comes to speaking truth into the culture.

People begin to question whether or not there is truth. You have your truth and I have my truth, everyone is ok with that. Live and let live. If your truth is found in Jesus, then your truth works, that’s the power of culturally relating supernatural insights. We pray “Your kingdom come”, not, get me out of here. We are the first fruits. The greater the need for the Holy Spirit to act then the more we need to lean into that. We have to be bolder in some of the encounters we have with others. The more godless the culture, the bigger the need is for the supernatural.

We have access to an abundance of creative delights, inspirations and joy found in the Bible so we therefore can change cultural conversations.

The crucial element of any change is starting with us and cultivating what is in our hearts. There is an order of how we should do things – what comes from our mouths or how we engage others begins with making small steps that we then incorporate this into our lives through our families, our work, our parish. It doesn’t have to be complicated.

In my church we are running a programme called 10,000 hours which is going into the community to do jobs and tasks that won’t get done otherwise. We go and ask them what they want, we don’t tell them what we are going to do for them. It is made simple. The community is hearing a new conversation because of it. We are cultivating our own culture.