I have read a lot of books on leadership both secular and Christian and found useful insights in many of them. (My top ten are listed at the end of this article.) But recently I read a study of major leaders of the 20th C. “Leading Minds -An Anatomy of Leadership” by Howard Gardner.(1) Many of the leaders he analyses faced the enormous challenges of the Second World War period, the post Colonial era and the dramatic changes of the sixties. Included are people as diverse as General George Marshall who conceived and implemented The Marshal Plan for the reconstruction of Europe after the devastation of the war and Martin Luther King Jnr. who lead the successful civil rights campaigns in the US. In the 60’s
I found Gardner’s analysis and conclusions about the common elements of effective leadership insightful and compelling. They also resonated with my own experience of leaders and leadership.
Here is his own summery of what he describes as the six enduring features of effective leaders.
A leader is likely to achieve success only if he or she can construct and convincingly communicate a clear and persuasive story; appreciate the nature of the audience(s), including its changeable features; invest their own (or channel others) energy in the building and maintenance of an organization; embody in their own life the principle contours of the story; either provide direct leadership or find a way to achieve influence through indirect means; and, finally, find a way to understand and make use of, without being overwhelmed by, increasingly technical expertise. (2)
The six key things identified here (in my order) are:
1. The ability to develop a story and communicate it. This is what is sometimes called the power of a vision. It might be the possibility of curing a disease or creating an organization to eliminate poverty in a community or provide a new education system that will engage marginalized youth or building a business that will be more efficient and profitable and fun to work in or it might be the vision to transform a church into a radically committed and powerful community. The story has to be clear and understandable by both the tutored and untutored and it must be communicated convincingly and persuasively.
2. The leader must embody the story in their own life. If the vision is to eliminate poverty in a community then the leader must live a life style that is frugal, sacrificial and responsible. They must demonstrate personal commitment to the story.
3. The leader must build an organization and channel others energy into the organization. The story will not be translated into reality without an effective organization. The organization must be maintained for the story to have long term effect. To have wide influence and long term effect the leader can not just be an impractical visionary.
4. Understand and appreciate the ‘audience’ and its changeable features. What is sometimes called the ability to read the culture of the people you want to lead and influence. This is ‘the language of the people’: their idiom, style, music, level of formal or ‘street’ education, their humor, employment, their entertainment, etc. Over time this changes. This is all crucial to communicating the story and motivating people to participate in developing the organization.
5. Provide direct leadership. Politicians are direct leaders and their ability to speak directly to the ordinary voters is crucial to their success. Providing hands-on direct development of an organization is direct leadership. Influence may also be exercised through indirect leadership, which Gardner sometimes refers to as creative leadership. Thiscan be exercised through the influence of symbolic creative work. Artistic works like the novels of Solzhenitsyn who had no direct political role but contributed significantly to the unraveling of the Soviet Unions moral credibility. Some leaders can combine both. Vaclav Havel who led the Czech Republic out of Soviet control at a critical time was a poet and a direct leader whose poetry was very influential with the Czech people. Academic research can also produce indirect leadership like Sir Mc Farlen Burnett’s scientific research work. Creative academic leadership is often confined to a particular sphere of activity.
6. Understand and make use of new and developing technology without being lost in technical detail and expertise. For example in an earlier period in churches it was sound systems, copying machines, slide and movie film and overhead projectors, later computers, data projectors, DVD, now web based communication systems like email, face book, twitter etc.
The nature of the ‘story’.
An interesting issue that Gardner raises is how inclusive or exclusive the leaders ‘story’ will be. He makes the point that most effective leaders have an inclusive story. They help people to feel part of a broader community or movement. But inclusive leaders will eventually be challenged by some group or faction who feel that their story is the correct one and the leaders story is not pure enough or is compromised. It is also true that for any organization or movement or church to have cohesion and momentum it must have a limit to its inclusiveness, or to put it another way its story must also have an attractivedistinctiveness. Gardner makes the point that the fascist leaders of the WW 2 period were powerful and influential because of their exclusive stories, eg: Hitler’s ideas of the purity and superiority of the German race. Religious cult leaders also tell exclusive stories. While they are powerful they can also be enormously destructive. There is of course a big difference between extreme exclusive stories and those with a healthy and constructive distinctiveness. Every reformer has a distinctive story or moral call that excludes something.
Space for reflection
Gardner’s study also shows the importance of space for reflection for the direct leader. He calls this retreat to the mountain top. Without this the direct leader can loose the big picture or the sense of vision or the moral imperative energizing them and their sense of ‘agency’, that, they are an agent of change and influence. It also enables the regaining of perspective and awareness of change.
In an examination of the early lives of effective leaders (or as he expresses it Exemplary leaders), he shows that often while still young and inexperienced they were willing to challenge the leadership above them, often to their disadvantage. Established leaders of organizations should be sensitive to this as they can thwart the potential talent because they challenge the status quo and don’t toe the line. They also show early on skill in speaking, posses a general energy and resourcefulness, they also have a concern for moral issues. (3)
This book is a rich mine of insights on leadership and will repay the time spent in reading it for anyone involved in the selection and development of leaders.
In the 2004 edition of his brilliant and provocative book The Wreck of Western Culture –Humanism Revisited, John Carroll has added a last chapter on the significance of 9/11 and the attack on the Twin Towers in New York.
He argues insightfully that the attack on the World Trade center in New York has deep symbolic significance for western culture. He makes the acute observation that Osama Bin Laden did not target the Vatican, Westminster Abbey, Washington Cathedral or some other religious symbol of Western culture but the city that is home to the ‘persuaders’ of Madison Avenue, to Wall Street and the building that housed the bond traders, bankers and money manipulators at the heart of Western capitalism. New York has come to symbolize many things with its ethnic diversity and rich cultural life, its art galleries, theaters and vibrant music scene. But as they daily ring the bells at the NY Stock exchange it has also come to symbolize the real heart and soul of contemporary Western culture today – money and materialism. Bin Laden attacked and successfully destroyed a most potent icon of this, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
Bin Laden correctly judged what has now become the soul of Western culture, what it’s real metaphysical core is – Mammon. This is what has replaced its Christian foundation, lost as a result of the impact of the secular humanism that grew out of the enlightenment. (1) Having lost its faith the West is now vulnerable to those who are unafraid to die for theirs.
The towers of the World Trade Centre are being replaced and once again will house the Bond Traders and the ‘money changers’. But the 2976 who died and the 6000 who were injured are not to be remembered with a memorial that reflects the West’s Christian foundation, such as a cross as in many of our past war memorials, but an International Freedom Center, although apparently this idea may now be abandoned as a result of controversy about its meaning and purpose. But what is the nature of the freedom that might be symbolized in this building? Is it the freedoms and rights expressed in the US Constitution, or the freedom of the individual from all moral restraint, the freedom that has all but destroyed the best in the West? Carroll wryly quotes the Janis Joplin song “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose..!” (2)
There are also two reflective water pools as part of the new center. Their dark stone walls will bear the names of the dead. These are to “reflect absence”, presumably the absence of those who died. It may also ironically reflect the absence of our spiritual heart, the story that gave Western culture its greatest creative and moral energy. That built the soaring towers of its cathedrals to the glory of God. What will a visitor see as they stare into those pools? Will they see a reflection of our emptiness or will they see people made in the image of God whose glory shines most clearly in the face of Jesus?
God, who said “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. (3)
In spite of impressive progress with construction it seems that Ground Zero is to continue to be surrounded with controversy. Now, in a strange twist, that ironically brings into sharp focus the real tension in all this, there is a plan to build a $A.123 million Islamic center with a Mosque and “Interfaith Center” just two blocks from Ground Zero. The plans have touched off a furious debate in America between those siding with the Constitutional right to freedom of religion and those who feel this is an insensitive affront to those who died at the hands of Islamic extremists. This debate taps into a very sensitive nerve in the US and other Western countries. It is interesting, that to my knowledge, no Christian body has planned to build something as significant near Ground Zero. This tragic site is set to be a controversial symbol for the West for a long time to come.
(1) Carroll J “The Wreck of Western Culture”, pp261-265.Scribe 200
Irvin D.Yalom writes fascinating stories based on his experience as a psychotherapist. His work in group psychotherapy is highly regarded in the US and Australia by professionals in the field. In one of his books Loves Executioner he describes his approach as ‘Existential Psychotherapy.’ His basic assumption is that we all experience what he calls ‘existence pain’. “In my therapy…my primary clinical assumption, on which I base my technique, is that basic anxiety emerges from a persons endeavors, consciously or unconsciously, to cope with the harsh facts of life – the givens of existence” (1)
He lists four primary givens of existence that give rise to existence pain:
The inevitability of death for each of us and those we love.
The freedom to make our lives as we will.
Our ultimate aloneness as individuals.
The absence of any obvious meaning or sense to life.
Yalom is not a Christian but his insights about people and their basic issues are very astute. You may not be a fan of psychotherapy but Yalom is a penetrating and thoughtful thinker about the human condition. It is worth considering how one can shape evangelism and evangelistic preaching to speak to these needs and show the relevance of the gospel to them.
There is no doubt that the gospel is relevant to them, the question is how to creatively connect with them in a way that is not simplistic or crass. It must be subtle and nuanced, almost approached obliquely. It is like the experience we sometimes have when reading a novel or story or seeing a film and finding deep inner feelings and thoughts stirred and touched. The aim must be to find common ground with the hearer, to connect with their experience, in particular their experience of the anxiety and pain that arises from the four givens of existence – death, freedom, aloneness and meaning.
Here are some suggestions:
Use an inductive approach – begin where the people are. With the inductive approach the communicator begins with the life experience of the hearers and draws them towards concepts, principles and conclusions. He takes the hearers on a journey of discovery rather than beginning by announcing and asserting.
Use your own experience. Tell your own stories about your existence pains.
Use the stories from widely viewed films by tapping in to the experience people have had while watching the film e.g.; ‘Do you remember the scene from Saving Private Ryan where Tom Hanks……..as I watched I felt this sense of …………..’ Powerful films tap into these existence pains as do good novels.
From the Gospels show how Jesus speaks and relates to these issues e.g.: By retelling the story of the death of his friend Lazarus and Jesus’ obvious grief. The scriptures are full of the experiences of people struggling with these issues. Consider Moses in Exodus 33. when he tries to deal with his disappointment and anger at the people’s apostasy and to come to terms with whether he can continue to lead them, and if there is any point any way; or Hanna’s despair in 1 Sam 1. at not being able to bear a child and all that meant then for the significance and purpose of her life.
Read one of Yalom’s books to see how he helps people talk about these questions. I suggest you start with Loves Executioner (2)
Read Inductive Preaching by R and G Lewis, Crossway Books 1983.(3)
Think of the process like a letter slipped under the door rather than a battering ram!
It should be noted that the use of inductive techniques in preaching should not undercut the Evangelical theological commitment to preaching as the proclamation of God’s Word. Indeed it is the commitment to enabling people to ‘hear’ the Word that should drive the preacher to find the most effective way to engage the listener. ‘Hearing’ is more than making peoples ear drums move! The inductive method is a way to take the listener on a journey with the preacher to the answers found in the Gospel. (See Acts 17:16-34, Rom.10:14-15.)
Irvin Yalom, Loves Executioner, Penguin Books 1989 p. 4,5
Ibid. See also Staring at the Sun, Scribe 2008 and The Schopenhaure Cure, Scribe 2005 and When NietzscheWept, Basic Books, Harper Collins, 1992
Ralph L Lewis and Greg Lewis, Inductive Preaching – Helping People Listen. Crosway Books 1983
Australian churches stand at the threshold of a great evangelistic and church growth opportunity. The challenge is to evangelise and plant churches among the large number of new immigrant groups in Australia. As a result of increased immigration and the receiving of refugees and asylum seekers many local congregations now find themselves in rapidly changing suburbs with new settlers from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. This is a great opportunity but it requires some significant mind shifts for most congregations.
The ethnic and cultural make up of an area can change very quickly. What was a generally anglo/celtic area and reflected in the churches membership becomes multicultural. It may take place gradually and creep up on a church or it may happen quickly. When I became the senior minister at St. Hilary’s Kew in 1975 it was solidly anglo/celtic. Now it has a Chinese congregation, a West Papuan Fellowship and a ministry to refugees and asylum seekers and a small but significant ministry to Afghanis. The area of North Balwyn, now part of the Parish, has a rapidly increasing number of Asians. They now make up approximately 60 % of the students at the North Balwyn Primary school. When I was a curate at Holy Trinity Doncaster in the 60’s it was solidly anglo/celtic and european. In addition to those of English background there was also a number of orchardist’s with German heritage and a healthy Lutheran congregation was well established in Doncaster. Holy Trinity now has two Chinese congregations and in recent times has baptized a significant number of new Chinese Christians. Several years ago I was speaking at a Presbyterian conference in Brisbane and met the pastor of the largest Presbyterian Church in Queensland – it was Korean! These stories could be repeated in most of our large cities now.
The aim of this paper is to raise people’s awareness of this growing mission field and to outline some principles when establishing a new work.
1. Remember the Great Commission.
In the great commission in Mathew 28: 18-20 Jesus commands us to …to go and makedisciples all nations…(The Greek is pan ethnae – to all ethnicities, all ethnic people groups.) At Pentecost the Spirit fell on believers gathered from a multiplicity of nations and people groups (Acts 2:1-12), each of these groups took the gospel back to their own people. From the beginning we were an international, multilingual and multicultural movement. Paul expressed it this way, in Christ …there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus… (Gal. 3:26-28.)
As our world shrinks, and as a result of massive international people movements, all the great cities of the world have become multi racial and multicultural. Western democratic societies are particularly attractive to people wanting to escape oppressive governments or violent conflicts. This is presenting Western liberal democracies with significant challenges. How do you hold together a society with people who now have very diverse cultures, worldviews and values. Will the great experiment of multiculturism survive and thrive or end in crisis? If anyone has an answer to this question and a unique contribution it is the community of Jesus! Indeed this was one of Christianities great contributions and attractions in the first three centuries of its rapid growth. (See Rodney Stark’s “The Rise of Christianity” Harper Collins 1997.)
Christianity has no sacred language like Islam or Judaism, it is not ethno or culturally specific or limited by race and language. Christians have lived as the citizens of many different cultures. Christianity is transcultural, every culture it inhabits is judged and influenced by the transcendent values of the Kingdom of God, the Christians ultimate home. From the very beginning Christians prayed in their own native languages. The Bible has been translated into over 7000 different languages. Speaking of the Christian community the NT says, Here there is no Greek of Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all in all. (Col.3:11)
2. Study your context.
Many congregations have slowly died because they failed to respond to the changing demography of their area. Research your area to see what opportunities there may be to begin a ministry to a new immigrant group. Some, like the Sudanese in Melbourne come from an African Christian background, others like the large new Russian Jewish immigrant community have come with very little Jewish religious background. Years under the Soviets have left them with a great spiritual hunger but little to satisfy it. There are now several flourishing Christian Messianic congregations growing among this people group in Melbourne. The story is similar for many mainland Chinese immigrants. Years under communism has left them with little or no religious world view. Such people are very open to the gospel. On the other hand immigrants with an Islamic background will be much more difficult to reach and less open.
3. Study the people group’s culture.
Each people group has very different and specific cultural issues that must also be studied and understood before commencing a ministry to them. Attitudes to men and women, hospitality, social rules, time and punctuality, and of course language will all be different to your own. What is the most polite and effective way to issue an invitation to an event could be a critical piece of knowledge. Paul’s principle of cultural adaptation as outlined in 1Cor. 9:19-22 is to be our guide. This is cross cultural mission and the understanding and skills need to be acquired. Your CMS branch or your local theological college missions department should be able to assist you.
4. Recruiting a worker who speaks the language.
Language is the big issue and while many new immigrants are keen to learn English generally it will be critical to find a native speaker to head up the new work. Some congregations have started ESL courses as a contact point with new immigrants.
5. Connect the new work structurally with the main congregation and work towards strong relational connections.
Many ethno specific churches that were started in Melbourne in the past were begun by a group seeking permission to use an existing church building but with no formal link to the local congregation. The local congregation wishing to be hospitable made few demands on the new group. Such new church plants often remained independent, later acquiring their own buildings. One of the major problems with these churches is that they can easily remain isolated in a first generation ethnic enclave. Understandably they wish to preserve their language and culture but this often results in a reactionary conservatism that the second generation reacts to by drifting away. The original group refuses to have an English language service or to adopt any contemporary style. The leadership is frequently very patriarchal and often resistant to younger second generation leaders who have absorbed the Australian culture. (A few years ago some Italian academics came to Melbourne to study the Italian spoken here by the post war generation of Italian immigrants as it had been preserved in the Italian community here in its 1940’s form while the language in Italy had evolved and changed!)
One of the ways to overcome these difficulties is to be closely linked to an established congregation. It is very important for the second generation to have a link to a wider Christian community that reflects more closely the host culture that they have now integrated with so they can transition from what they will often feel is the narrow world of the ethnic congregation. For young people to be able to attend a youth group run by the established congregation can be crucial to them continuing with an active faith rather than dropping out.
It is also important for the ethnic congregation to have strong links with the wider church. This is a correction against theological novelty, extremes and error and also reinforces the crucial idea that the Christian community is transcultural, that membership is by grace not race.
Ethno-specific or culture-specific evangelism and church planting is a very effective missiological strategy but has its traps and congregations can easily loose their missional and evangelistic edge if they remain trapped in an ethnic enclave. In some parts of the world this is forced on Christians by a very hostile culture but in Australia this is more likely to happen because people like the comfort zone of their own people. The same thing happens with middle class Australian congregations who fail to move out of their comfort zone to reach other socio economic groups who are different. It is also important for ethnic church leaders to be exposed to the ongoing training, ideas and resources available in the wider Church. The wider church also needs the enthusiasm, vitality and commitment that many new immigrant churches bring.
6. Leadership development.
The development of the next generation of leaders should begin as soon as possible and be part of the initial strategy for the work. The host congregation and the ethnic leaders should be on the look out from the beginning for the potential leaders in the next generation and begin a mentor and development program from early on. This will be crucial for sustaining and growing the work and keeping the second generation.
7. Develop a priority for evangelism.
One of the dangers for new immigrant churches is that they can become preoccupied with maintaining their traditions and being a cultural haven. This can turn them inward and away from outreach and evangelism. So developing this as a priority at the beginning is important, especially towards there own people.
(This was originally delivered as an address to the teaching staff chapel service at Trinity Grammar School Kew in Melbourne in 2010)
During the American civil war and the battle to emancipate the slaves, the then U.S President Abraham Lincoln said he “often felt like a man standing on a burning platform.”
Many people in leadership today, whether it is in politics, business, education, health or public administration feel like Lincoln did. The times are so uncertain and the problems so challenging. What does the future hold for us?
Just think of a few of the headline issues we face. Global warming and the environmental crisis, water supply and security, world population growth, the global financial crisis, which is really a crisis of greed and morality that may even herald the twilight of the dominance of Western capitalism. Then there is the clash of civilizations as massive people movements around the world force radically different cultures and world views into uneasy connections. The U.N estimates that there are now approximately 43,000,000 refugees and displaced persons around the world as a result of wars, ethnic conflicts, poverty, hunger and climate change.
In the West we are becoming increasingly disturbed by the fraying of the moral and social fabric in what have been for some time relatively stable societies like Australia and the U.K. Drug and alcohol abuse are at alarming levels, and while we have never been wealthier, the percentage of dependent children being taken in to state care keeps rising steeply each year. These depressing examples could be multiplied.
So, what does the future hold for us?
Can we predict it? More importantly, can we influence it?
We have of course always been fascinated by the future but particularly in times of crisis. Our artists and novelists have often prophesied for us – George Orwell’s ‘1984’, Aldus Huxley’s ‘Brave new world’, the prolific H.G Wells, a pioneer of science fiction, wrote many very prescient novels like ‘The World Set Free’ and ‘The Shape of things to come’. In our own times when film has become the literature of the people visions of the future appear in films like ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Gattica’, ‘The Matrix’, ‘Akira’, ‘Mad Max’, ‘Brazil’, ‘Existenz’, ‘Twelve Monkeys’, ‘The Children of Men’, ‘District 9’, etc. Then there are the natural disaster films like ‘2012’ where a giant tidal wave submerges the world in a modern flood narrative even with contemporary Arks! Then there is the recent film of Cormac McCarthy’s bleak but very moving novel ‘The Road.’
Interestingly these are mostly dystopian and pessimistic visions. That is probably because we tend to see the future through the lens of the present. In confident times we are optimistic and hopeful, in anxious and troubled times we become pessimistic even apocalyptic.
There are three alternative ways we can face the future:
(1) With Pessimism: Pessimism leads to resignation, loss of hope, the suppression of creativity, distraction and the growth of self interest.
(2) With Nostalgia: Nostalgia is a longing for the way things used to be. There is nothing wrong with a little nostalgia, there are many good things to honor and preserve from the past, the past shapes our identities. But you can not steer your vehicle into the future by looking mainly in the rear view mirror, that’s a good way to miss a vital turn you need to make.
(3) The third way is with Creative Imagination: Creative Imagination is that way of thinking that sees the future in a new way and by its vision creates the future.In spite of the plethora of futurologist’s, we can not predict the future with any accuracy. Nor do we discover the future. In fact we create the future! The future is a decision we make now, an intervention in the present. The present is of course the only field of action we have.
To create the future we must first imagine it. Creative imagination, coupled with passion, sees, feels and dreams new possibilities. But to have the energy to create a positive future you have to have an inspiring and guiding moral vision. Whether it’s the dream to create a new vaccine to deliver millions from a debilitating disease or to free people from hunger or injustice, it requires a moral vision.
Hugh Mackay the Australian social researcher has made this point about the need for such a vision in Australian society. We have yearned for a guiding story that would help us make sense of what is happening to us, and to our society. But no such story has emerged, because no such leadership has emerged. (The Mackay Report 1997)
Nietzsche, that strange prophetic voice from the late 19th C., made many pertinent observations about the future direction of Western culture. He wrote:
When cultures loose the decisive influence of God and God dies for a culture they become weightless.
Nietzsche had lost his own faith and he observed that as Europe was loosing hers, the culture was hollowing out. What had given it its energy, strength and moral vision was leaking away and it was becoming weightless. We are living in the remains of that movement today. Western culture is like an old neglected masterpiece that is fading, the paint peeling, mould growing on the canvass. What was it that gave our culture its weight?
Psalm 24 concludes with this shout:
Lift up your heads, O you gates;
Lift them up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is he, this king of glory?
The Lord Almighty –
He is the King of glory.
Glory is one of the most frequently used words in the Bible to describe the character of God.For us it conveys the idea of radiance, brilliance, light, but the Hebrew word Kabod also carries the idea of weight. But weight in the sense of heavy with truth, laden with love, loaded with justice and holiness – gravitas, the epicenter of reality.
It was this idea that was the defining source of Western cultures values, its energizing creative force, the origin of its sense of meaning and purpose.
I recently read A C Grayling’s book “Towards the Light”. The sub title is The story of the struggles for Liberty and Rights that made the Modern West. Although he is an atheist he makes it quite clear in his book that many of the most important forces in the human rights movement were Christian. People like Anthony Benezet the French Huguenot who became a Quakerand influenced many of the English and American leaders in the anti slavery movement including Thomas Clarkson and Wilberforce, all committed Christians. There is also a direct line out of that movement into children’s and workers rights and the modern labor movement and finally the UN Charter.
We are still living on this moral and spiritual capital but it is running down. Like money in the bank, if you only draw it down and don’t replace it eventually it runs out!
My point is a fairly simple one – you can provide an excellent education for the young people who pass through your hands, an education that will equip them with all the tools they need in our society to construct successful careers. But to what end? What will they build? What will guide them in how they build? What kind of society will they construct, with what sort of values? The answer to these questions lies in the spiritual and moral realm, where the real weight of a culture is measured.
We can and should provide our young people with an excellent education but unless we also provide them with a moral and spiritual vision we have not provided them with the most essential thing.
As a school with a long Christian tradition I urge you to keep going back to the well, back to that which gave us the best things we have inherited from our culture and its energizing vision. It is true that our Christian institutions have sometimes failed us and failed the Christian vision, but the vision has never failed. It may fade in our minds but its essential glory does not fade.
The New Testament picks up the Old Testament idea of God’s glory (the kabod) and in II Cor.4:6 Says: “God, who said, ‘let light shine out of darkness’ made his light to shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
This is the heart of the vision, this is where our attention should be focused.
The main stream Protestant churches in Australia are in serious decline and have been for some time. To give but one example: attendance at worship on an average Sunday in the Anglican Church in Melbourne has dropped from an estimated 50,000 in 1981 to 21,000 in 2006. How did we get to this point so quickly?
As accelerating secularism began to hit Australian society in the 1960’s the churches were not only unprepared they were also weakened by several trends that had been developing for some time.
One of the most significant was the trend in clergy trainingto become overly focused on pastoral maintenance rather than pastoral leadership, ministry skills and growth. The times called for new initiatives, new models of ministry, the ability to initiate change, new styles of worship that related to the rapidly changing culture. The training of clergy has properly always had a strong pastoral care element but three influences exaggerated this: the psychological counseling movement that developed momentum post war; the Christian Education movement; and the undermining of preaching and teaching by Liberal theology. As secularism and rapid social change hit these influences coalesced to fatally weaken pastoral leadership.
There is always the danger in ministry of becoming over reactive to the individual demands and needs of the flock and loosing the ability to look outward, be proactive and to take initiative, to give time to evangelism, training, discipling, teaching and new creative initiatives. This leads to a pastoral maintenance syndrome. In times of social buoyancy for the Church this is not so damaging but when the social context is becoming unsupportive it is fatal.
These three influences worked in the following way.
The influence of the pastoral counseling movement encouraged many clergy into an even more passive and reactive role. CPE or Clinical and Pastoral Education became a standard part of post ordination training in the 60’s and has continued on. While there were and are useful insights in all this for dealing with particularly troubled people it was overly influenced by the fashionable psychological models current at the time and played down more traditional methods of spiritual counsel. Not only was pastoral counseling significantly secularized by this but more importantly the energy and attention of clergy was being refocused. At the very point when leadership, practical ministry skills and a focus on evangelism were needed many clergy got side tracked by this influence in their training.
The influence of the ChristianEducation movement grew out of a real concern to see adults as well as children educated well in the faith by using the new educational insights that were being developed in the 50’s and 60’s in the wider educational field. There were many valuable insights gained and changes made to the way we taught people in this period. Most denominations developed large departments of Christian Education which lasted into the early 80’s before financial constraints reduced them dramatically. In many denominations they no longer exist. The Anglican Church had, as well as separate state bodies, a significant federal organisation the General Board of Religious Education (GBRE), now long gone. The Joint Board of Christian Education was formed to service what became the Uniting Church in this period.
But the dream that Christian Ed would save us has not been fulfilled. Some would say that is because it was never properly instituted at the local level but there were other factors. The movement became focused on process rather than content. The worst example was in the uncritical enthusiasm for the insights of Group Dynamics in adult learning. “Group Life laboratories” became the flavor of the month. The insights from the understanding of how groups work is fascinating and can be very helpful, it can also be used manipulatively, sideline solid information and create legitimacy for pooled ignorance. In an over reaction to the old jug to mug approach to teaching process overpowered content.
The influence on many clergy was two fold: they now saw themselves as group facilitators and enablers rather than leaders and teachers. Systematic teaching and Biblical preaching was downplayed. At a time when local churches needed to rethink and renew their mission and adapt their style and methods lay people were led into endless and frustrating non directive group consultations on “What is our Mission?” These consultations rarely got passed collections of butcher’s paper with ideas scribbled on them that were never acted on. The result was that lay people became disillusioned and many clergy became paralyzed, for some it even became a way of avoiding decisions and action.
As liberal theology contributed to emptying pastoral counseling of its classical content and psychologising it, so also it affected Christian Education and preaching. Uncertainty over theology and the Bible led Christian Ed away from content into process. While it was certainly true that much preaching was dull and uninspiring the emphasis in Christian education at the time on discussion and adult learning models further undermined respect for preaching. This leads us to the third and most influential trend.
The profound influence of liberal theology. The theological reaction of large parts of the Church to the impact of secularism in the 60’s was a form of extreme theological accommodation. This sought to reduce those ideas in the Christian faith that the current culture of modernity found implausible to something it could believe. The impact was not at the periphery but at the core. Classical orthodox beliefs about the resurrection, the atonement, the authority of the Bible, the nature of salvation, the need for the response of repentance and faith, even the divinity of Christ were reconstructed to fit the prevailing plausibility structure. But because the traditional terminology and symbols were preserved while their first order meaning was being emptied out or radically changed, lay people were largely unaware of what was happening – their faith was being eroded by stealth.
As mentioned before preaching was also deeply affected by this. Lack of theological clarity and certainty led to a general loss of confidence in preaching and produced bland vague moralizing and shallow ‘reflections’ in the pulpit. Preaching fell out of fashion! Because adult education was never rigorously pursued in most local churches, slowly but surely congregations became uninformed, shallow and unclear about their faith, commitment levels dropped, evangelism lost its imperative.
It was the perfect storm! Just as secularism hit and the old social buoyancy around the local church was eroding and it needed to take new creative initiatives, reinvent its model of church, its methodology, its communications, its style of worship, music, and ministry, it was being led by people trained in pastoral maintenance rather than leadership and whose confidence in orthodoxy was deeply compromised. The style of ministry that could maintain congregations while community acceptance of their place and role was strong and a high proportion of people identified with the church, even if nominally, no longer worked in the emerging culture of the 60’s. People left in droves. In 1960 the church I served at while I was in training had 500 children in the Sunday school and 200 boys in a mid week club. By the end of the 60’s Sunday school attendance and confirmations had plummeted. This pattern was repeated every where.
Generally speaking those denominations and churches who have been less affected by the Pastoral Maintenance syndrome and Liberal theology have faired better. Overall Evangelicals and Pentecostals have actually grown while others have declined.
The lessons from all of this seem fairly clear. The knowledge and tools from the social sciences can be very helpful but they are also powerful and seductive and can easily overpower our theology. They also frequently promise more than they can deliver. When the Church’s grasp on its core beliefs is weak or compromised they quickly become a substitute for the gospel. The other lesson is that Godly proactive leadership is critical in difficult times.
Peter Corney June 2010.
NB: Another factor that affected Anglicans in particular was the demise of the Anglo Catholic wing in the Anglican Church. (See the paper on the website: “The Future of the Anglican Church in Australia in the light of the decline of the Anglo Catholic Movement” find under the category: The Anglican Church in Australia)
There is no effective leadership without power. By power I mean the ability to influence people organizations and structures, the ability to effect change. I will call this ‘real power.’ Such power can be acquired and used legitimately or illegitimately. Formal authority and power are connected but power can be exercised without formal or appointed authority, in such cases it develops its own informal authority. Formal or appointed authority can be without real power and as such is therefore ineffective.
(A) How is power acquired legitimately?
By valid and proper election or appointment such as an election by voters or appointment by a legitimate authority. (Where the criteria used is appropriate gift, ability and some of the other factors listed below real power may also accrue to the person)
By the recognition by others of a persons good character – their integrity, honesty, humility, consistency, commitment, servant hood.
By charisma. Not in the NT sense but in the indefinable attraction that some people posses, the ability to inspire and attract.
By giftedness and talent. More related to the NT gifts of ministry. Eg: Teaching, preaching, organising, leadership, wisdom, relational gifts, etc.
By developing and communicating powerful ideas that people respond to.
By developing vision. This is related to (5)
By communication skills, persuasiveness.
By the ability to engage and involve others skills, gifts, creativity and energy.
By building and earning trust.
By constructing effective structures and organizations.
The empowerment of others is one of the most constructive uses of power. Healthy leaders who have real power and use it well empower others. This multiplies both the effect and the extent of the legitimate use of power. (This is related to (8) above.)
In a fallen world power is often acquired illegitimately and frequently misused. There is a “will to power” in fallen human nature that can be traced back to our original rejection of God’s authority – “You will be like God” were the tempters words. In almost every group a struggle for power and control is present at some time, and some would say, in every relationship. In groups the struggle emerges strongly if there is a vacuum of leadership, poor process and structure or weak leadership. Someone will always seek to exercise power in these situations either out of frustration for the group’s purpose or out of personal opportunism and the desire for power. Insecure leaders create a power vacuum or become over controlling as a way of protecting themselves. This in turn leads to negative reactions and challenges to their authority or passivity and withdrawal by members.
(B) Why and how is power misused?
Through the desire to dominate and control.
Through the fear of others controlling us – control or be controlled.
Through pride and the desire to inflate our own importance.
Through the desire to reinforce prejudice and avoid challenge or change,eg: fundamentalism, racism and xenophobia – the fear of the different other.
Through intense or unbalanced conviction, leading to the coercion and control of others. The conviction may be true or false. Leaders of extreme political ideologies, sect and cult leaders fall into this category and sometimes also mainstream religious leaders. [“Convictions can be more dangerous enemies of truth than lies” (1) “Beware of the well lit prison of a single idea.” (2) ]
Through leaders putting themselves above or outside critique, accountability or due process.
Through the devious manipulation of legitimate processes.
By doing the right thing by wrong means.
Through bullying and threatening others.
By “spiritual blackmail”. This is when the leader claims to have a privileged insight into God’s will and so any resistance to his ideas is resisting God. By controlling others through claiming to have special spiritual insight into a person and using that to control or direct them in a way that effectively removes decision and choice from them. This is also a characteristic of sect and cult leaders.
By over controlling the flow of legitimate discussion and disagreement.
By manipulating peoples vulnerabilities and fears to achieve an outcome. Political leaders sometimes use this to reinforce prejudice, racism, hatred and xenophobia. Religious leaders can do it by threatening the people with God’s disapproval or judgment unless they follow a certain line espoused by the leader.
By playing on the fear of rejection and the desire to belong. There is always a tension between healthy and unhealthy Christian community. Without a sufficiently strong sense of belonging a group has no cohesion or strength. On the other hand if it is too insular or controlling it becomes unhealthy. The key is the creation of a climate where everyone feels free, and is free, to choose and make their own decisions about belonging. A healthy community has permeable and flexible boundaries at the edge but very clear commitments at the center.
Through the desire to be served, feted, privileged, given special treatment and favors’ rather than to serve those they lead.
(C)The results of the use and abuse of power
(1) The illegitimate use.
The illegitimate and abusive exercise of power is immensely destructive. We can all easily recall tragic examples in the political field. Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China and numerous African states, the latest being Zimbabwe. We all know a family somewhere with an abusive parent or overbearing and controlling spouse. Most of us at some time or other have experienced a bullying or manipulative boss. We have all experienced peer groups controlled in the cruelest manner by a dominant teenage de facto leader. There is the teacher who uses their power over certain pupils to humiliate and control them, and there are teachers who have received the same treatment from a powerful group of students! Then there are the Church communities that have been destroyed by the abuse of power by leaders.
There is also the failure of power. That is the failure to exercise it when it is ones responsibility. Many organizations and Churches have been hurt, weakened or died because their leaders failed to exercise their legitimate power. Out of fear of failure or conflict, lack of imagination, or laziness or loss of vision they fail to exercise their power. There are as many organizations and churches hurt by this as by the abuse of power.
(2) The legitimate use.
The result of the legitimate use of power is as constructive as its abuse is destructive. Organizations are created that educate, grow, heal and develop people. People are empowered by the legitimate use of power. Businesses are developed that provide employment and manufacture goods or provide services that we need. Scientific research is carried out that produces new drugs to heal diseases. Churches are planted and grow and people are led to Christ and developed as healthy disciples. Government exists and at its best provides order and justice to our society and constructs the infrastructure we need of health and transport and education and to redistribute wealth through taxation to the poor and disadvantaged. One could go on! None of this is possible without the legitimate exercise of “real power”.
(D) Power and institutions
Frequently in institutions, particularly those in decline, the power of appointed authority becomes in effect limited to the rules and regulations of the institution because for various reasons it has lost the ability to energize, renew or change the institution. Often it is those who have acquired real power (see (A) 2-10 above) and informal authority, but who are outside the formal authority structure of the institution, who are the only ones able to renew or change a dieing institution. This may be done by those with real power taking over the old authority at the centre. This is usually resisted and difficult! The other alternative is working from the edge of the institution by new initiatives that ignore or bend the rules or move outside the comfort zone of the institution. This is usually disapproved of by the appointed authority. Rarely, but occasionally, the institution comes to recognize these initiatives as positive and embrace them as a means of renewal. This response is usually very delayed and it is often too late for the institution.
The original purpose of the institution may also be renewed and continued in a fresh way by those with real power and informal authority leaving the institution and creating a parallel or competing new work.
The recent tragic events in Haiti (13/1/10) raise this question acutely for us once again, but the question is always with us because we all experience suffering in some form or other in our lives and the lives of those we love.
There are no simple or glib answers to this question, but if one is to live in hope and not despair it is essential to think it through. The following is an attempt to provide a Christian framework from within which to consider the question.
1. We need to observe that suffering has different causes:
(a) It can be the result of human decisions and actions that are selfish, exploitive, cruel, unjust or evil. E.g.: Economic exploitation, war and other forms of armed conflict, pollution that leads to disease, individual life style decisions that lead to alcoholism or drug addiction, heart disease or diabetes, etc. Human actions can also compound the effect of natural forces like flooding or seasonal cycles of cyclones when people are forced for economic or political reasons to live in flood prone areas like parts of Bangladesh or Burma. Climate change is another example of this. The tragic impact of the earthquake in Haiti is compounded by the political corruption, instability, poverty and lack of infrastructure in that sad country.
(b) As a result of the natural physical order; Storms, earthquakes, volcanic activity, etc. The creation is dynamic; it is continually evolving and changing. We humans are part of the natural physical order and our suffering sometimes occurs when we interact with it. While it is largely predictable it is not static. Often we take risks in our interaction with the creation, e.g.: building in flood prone or volcanic areas.
(c) Diseases, genetic distortions etc., that seem to be part of the ‘natural order’. We will return to these later.
2. The religious answers to the reality of suffering are many but two of the most significant are Christianity and Eastern Mysticism (EM), but they are very different.
(a) In EM the basic answer given is ‘detachment’ or disengagement. Suffering is caused by our desire for things; money, health, love, power, recognition, possessions, etc.
When we don’t have them or they are taken away we suffer. The answer is to get rid of our desires, detach, and disengage from the world. This is attempted through mental and physical exercises like Yoga. The ultimate detachment is where self consciousness is absorbed into the so called ‘cosmic consciousness’ and disappears in a kind of self annihilation. The other idea in EM that affects the attitude to suffering is that the material world with its particularity and differences is really an illusion and so not important. So the East’s answer is disengagement!
(b) Christianity on the other hand is the complete opposite to this; it is about engagement with suffering, in particular Christ’s engagement with suffering. It is based on the following seven ideas. It is essential to the Christian understanding of and response to suffering to understand these key ideas.
The seven key ideas:
The first four concern the way we understand God’s relationship to the physical order. We understand that:
1. God created the world and set in place certain physical laws like gravity.
2. God sustains and interacts with his creation in a ‘self limiting’ way; which means that even though he has the power to interrupt or intervene, generally he follows and upholds his own physical laws in a consistent and reliable way. Can he intervene? Yes. Does he intervene? Yes, but generally not . Later we will discuss an example of his intervention.
3. Because God sustains and interacts with his creation in a ‘self limiting’ way the world is both a marvelous and consistent place. The seasons come and go the sun rises and sets, etc. This means scientific and medical research is possible. But it is also a dangerous and risky place for humans particularly as they pit themselves from time to time against the powers of nature. Mountains are exhilarating to climb but gravity is a danger! The sea and sailing can be a wonderful experience but storms are dangerous!
4. God created us as ‘embodied’ people; which means we can experience pleasure and pain, love and grief, rest and exhaustion. As embodied people in a world of powerful nature this carries with it certain implications. We also need to recognize that pain has an important protective role.
(The last three key ideas concern God’s relationship to the people he has created and certain ‘moral and spiritual laws.)
5. When God created us he set in place certain moral and spiritual laws (like his physical laws); e.g. Knowledge of and freedom of choice between right and wrong; the power to affect the creation for good or ill; relational choice – to relate to God or not, to relate to others rightly or wrongly, etc. Now God interacts with us like the rest of his creation in a self limiting way; which means according to his moral and spiritual laws. So he allows us the freedom to choose wrongly or selfishly as well as rightly and that may cause suffering for ourselves and others. Can he intervene? Yes. Does he intervene? Yes, but not normally. His aim is to call forth from us a free response not coerce us.
6. The sixth key idea is what Christians call ‘the fall’. The Christian faith holds that God’s original creation has been disturbed by humanitiies challenge to God’s authority. The story, described in mythic and theological language in chapters 3 and 4 of Genesis, explains what happened and the results. Our rejection and assumption to ourselves of God’s authority disturbs our relationship with him, with one another and with the creation. The natural intimate relationship with God is replaced with estrangement, fear and guilt. The man and the woman’s relationship is also disturbed. Mans responsibility for the creation remains but is changed, thorns and weeds grow with his tilling of the soil, the work is now hard. Finally in chapter 4 we see violence and death enter with the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. God pronounces judgment on Cain, he will be alienated from the soil, from other men and from God, cursed to restlessly wander the earth never finding his true home. It is such a prophetic picture of the alienation experienced by contemporary people, environmentally, relationally and spiritually, and expressed in much art and literature. (See the article on the website “Is the 20th C’s scream of alienation still echoing in the 21stC?”)
This is why many things are not the way they were meant to be and so produce suffering and disease. The created order is ‘fallen’, out of joint, the world is broken. The rest of the Biblical story is essentially God’s response to this and his rescue mission.
7. The intervention! I said earlier that God does sometimes intervene and takes the self imposed limits off himself. Generally it is difficult for us to know when he does this, but the big intervention and the one we can be sure of, because he said it was, is the ‘incarnation’. (John 1:1- 18) God stepped into our history in the person of his son Jesus Christ, took on human flesh, identified with us and suffered for us and with us. Here we see the great difference with EM. God engages with us, enters into our brokenness and suffering. Christianity is about incarnation not excarnation, it is about attachment not detachment, engagement not disengagement with the real world. God is with us in our pain.
But he not only identifies with us in our suffering, he confronts its major cause – our wrong and selfish choices. In his death on the cross he takes on our evil and guilt. God absorbs the power and effects of evil and death and suffering and it judgment in himself and then rises to new and eternal life.
So by his death and resurrection he banishes death and decay and suffering. His resurrection releases Gods renewing and recreating power to renew the whole creation. When a person ceases rejecting Gods authority over their life and submits to it and trusts in Christ they are reconciled with God through Christ’s actions. They receive the Holy Spirit of God and God’s life enters their life. This is like a down payment on their future transformed life in Gods’ renewed creation. Christians do not believe in annihilation at death nor do they believe we will exist in some disembodied consciousness but in real renewed bodies in the new heavens and the new earth where all pain and suffering will be wiped away. (Romans 8: 18-25)
Jesus’ miracles were not so much violations of the natural order but a restoration of the fallen natural order. God did not create a world with disease and death in it. Jesus’ miracles were signs of the future complete restoration that is to come (1)
This understanding leads Christians to be in the forefront of caring for those who suffer. They created the first NGO’s for aid and development, the first hospitals and orphanages, etc. Like Jesus they are driven by love for the broken world and a desire to be signs of the vision of the future God has in store.
The alternative to this is stark. Richard Holloway expresses it with disturbing clarity in these words:
The person who gives up belief in God because it brings with it certain unresolvable dilemmas ends by believing in a dying universe in which there is no meaning anywhere, a universe that came from nothing and goes to nothing, a universe that is cruelly indifferent to our needs. And there is no point in feeling resentment against such a universe, because in a Godless universe there is no reason why anything should not happen, and there is no one to resent, no one to blame. We are alone in an empty universe. No one is listening to our curses or our tears. We stand, tiny and solitary, in a corner of a vast and empty landscape, and if we listen, all we hear is the bitter echo of our own loneliness. (2)
References: (1) Tim Keller ‘ The Prodigal God’ p112, Hodder, 2008.
(2) Richard Holloway ‘ Paradoxes of the Christian Faith and Life’ p29, Mowbray, 1984
Summary: Artists, writers, film makers and playwrights in the 20th C often reflected in their work a sense of alienation, of being alone in a hostile and dystopian world. There was a feeling of bleakness about the present and frequently an apocalyptic vision of the future like Orwell’s “1984”. Other examples are Colin Wilson’s “The Outsider”, Graham Greens fascinating but sad explorations of the dysfunctional interior worlds of his anti hero’s like the man in “A Burnt Out Case”. James Dean played to perfection the iconic outsider in the film “Rebel without a cause.” The existentialists like Camus explored the possibilities of finding meaning in decision and heroic moral action but, as in his novel “The Plague”, in the end it all seemed pointless, the plague won. Francis Bacon’s paintings of a screaming Pope captured in disturbing images the angst of his contemporaries. Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot” summed up the feeling of the times: we are alone in an unfriendly world and there is no point in waiting for God to turn up again, he is dead!
The questions I raise in this essay are: has this sense of alienation continued into the 21st C, or have we become so used to the absence of God and any greater meaning and purpose to our lives that the mood has significantly changed, or are we just expressing the absence and aloneness in a different way, or have new anxieties like saving our ecosystems replaced the old ones, or has our tendency to use popular culture to distract ourselves from deeper questions accelerated as it has been made easier and more accessible by the electronic media? It seems to me that these are important questions for Christian communicators and educators.
The 16th C Spanish artist Velazquez produced a large body of work, two of his paintings are The Crucifixion and the portrait of Pope Innocent X.
Two 20th C painters, one English, Francis Bacon, the other a fellow Spaniard, Antonio Saura were inspired by Velazquez but produced images much more disturbing than his. They are images that express and reflect the twin anxieties of their times: the loneliness of the modern self and the horror of human violence and brutality. They had lived through the Second World War, the Jewish holocaust, the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Stalin and Mao’s totalitarian regimes. These two regimes brutalized thousands and forced the mass starvation and death of over 40,000,000 people in the Ukraine and China, the list goes on.
Bacon’s Pope, distorted into an endless silent scream of horror and alienation, is his response to this. The author J G Ballard wrote “Empire of the Sun” the fictionalized account of his boyhood experience in China during the Japanese invasion of China and the following rise to power of the communists. He experienced at first hand the terrible suffering that resulted. In his autobiography Miracles of Life, he describes Bacons paintings in this way: Bacons paintings were screams from the abattoir, cries from the execution pits of World War 2. His deranged executives and his princes of death in their pontiffs’ robes lacked all pity and remorse. His Popes screamed because they knew there was no God. ( Bacon went further than the surrealists, assuming our complicity in the mid century’s horrors.) (1)
Interestingly Bacon himself said very little about the inner meaning of his work with the exception of this comment: We are born with a scream; we come into life with a scream, and maybe love is a mosquito net between the fear of living and the fear of death.(2) This implies that his paintings were concerned with the individual’s struggle with the pains of existence, the struggle for meaning in the midst of living with the fear of life and the fear of death. Love provides a partial solace, but its fragile and gossamer nature gives but thin and brief protection for a short time.
Artists like Bacon reveal with stark honesty the high cost of living in a reality that excludes God. Perhaps because of their sensitivity they are more willing to face and express the nihilistic implications of their loss of faith. Antonio Saura’s crucifixion series reflects the same themes.
Saura’s crucifixion is confronting. I first saw it some years ago in an exhibition in the Victorian National Gallery called “Beyond Belief”. He painted a number of versions, the one I saw was in stark black and white. It is a very large painting and shocked me when I turned a corner in the gallery and suddenly came upon it. It captures not only the physical brutality of torture and death but the malevolence of the evil that is its cause. The figure is distorted to the point of transformation into that which caused its suffering. The violence and cruelty, the aggression and arrogance of human evil has become concentrated in the crucified figure. He has become what has afflicted him!
Saura made this comment on the painting: Through this image of the crucified, I wanted to depict my own situation of being alone in an unfriendly world that one can only react to by shrieking. On the other side of the mirror, however, I am also interested in that absurd tragedy of the man – man not God – nailed to the cross. That image……could be seen as the tragic symbol of our age.(3)
Ironically, while Saura has created a brilliant graphic description and visual explanation of substitutionary atonement, according to the comment above, he sees in the crucifixion only the symbol of the terrible suffering man has afflicted on his fellow man. For me his painting does far more. It certainly is a confronting symbol of man’s cruelty to his fellow man – our tragic dilemma. But it also powerfully reveals the meaning of Christ’s death as the NT explains it, that he bore our sin and evil, became sin for us, that we might be forgiven and reconciled with God. Only by embracing this meaning are we able to be set free from the guilt of our complicity in the tragic dilemma. Only by embracing God the Holy Spirit are we able to find an inner transformation that can overcome the heart of darkness that is in us all and find in restored relationship with God, the answer to our sense of alienation and our despair at humanities condition.
Over sixty years earlier the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863 – 1944) painted his famous scream series that visually, expressed the beginning of Western culture’s sense of alienation, a feeling that was to become the constant dull ache of the twentieth century. Munch’s own life mirrored the risks as well as the spirit of his age. He was born into a deeply religious family but his mother and elder sisters died from tuberculosis, his other sister suffered from schizophrenia. This, coupled with his fathers religious fanaticism and mental instability, contributed to his loss of faith. He was also very influenced by the charismatic nihilist philosopher Hans Jaeger. In his pain Munch retreated into his art.
“The Scream” has become one of the most famous and recognizable images of the 20th C. constantly reproduced in prints. It frequently accompanies serious journalistic pieces on our contemporary angst’s and anxieties. Ironically it has even become part of the consumer clutter of our times appearing on coffee mugs, coasters and T shirts that add to the mountains of useless detritus we produce. If for a moment we were to pause and consider the absurdity of drinking a latte’ out of a mug with a picture that expresses horror at the futility and cruelties of our world, would we laugh or cry? Maybe this is a perfect Post Modern moment, full of irony and contradiction; it’s only meaning what we choose to give it!
Perhaps this is the point at which we should come to the present and consider the question: does the 20th C’s angst and sense of alienation carry over into the 21st?
My own view is that it does but in a different way. The people of today’s world are not conscious of the loss of faith because they never had it to lose. Their anxieties are prompted by secondary losses, those that grew out of the loss of faith by the previous generations, like the loss of the values which were based on the Christian faith. Parents with a vague memory of past values feel alienated from their children as if they are from another planet. The whole discussion today about values in education is a reflection of this. It is illustrated by the decision of a third of Australian parents choosing, at significant cost, to send their children to private faith based schools. In most cases the faith issue is secondary, what parents want is a more disciplined education and what they vaguely perceive to be ‘good values!’ There is also a general woolly concern about whether we have removed or relaxed too many moral fences. If they knew it, many parents would quote G. K Chesterton when he said “Before you remove the fences ask why they were first erected!”
There is a general uneasiness about the loss of cultural unity and identity, an anxiety about what is an Australian or French or English or Indian identity now. Multiculturalism, large scale immigration both legal and illegal from cultures with a vastly different world view are raising the old xenophobic fears. The so called ‘clash of civilizations’, international terrorism, and uncontrolled people movement are creating significant anxiety and one that people feel they can not express publicly.
The British film “The Children of Men” picks up this theme with its bleak apocalyptic scenario of a Britain that is virtually an armed fortress against the avalanche of refugees from a Europe that has descended into chaos. A sign daubed on a wall reads- the future isa thing of the past. The South African film “District 9”, that describes the arrival of aliens in Johannesburg also picks up this theme and also raises the issue of the contradictory nature of humans. The treatment of the aliens by the Africans is a fascinating parable of a repetition of apartheid by the very people who fought to free themselves from the first apartheid. The same issue is being played out in real time now in Palestine. The scream of frustration at our inhumanity and stupidity goes on!
There is also a deep unconscious dissatisfaction created by consumerism. The media marketing monster, inextricably entwined with popular culture, creates a constant desire for new acquisitions, something better than what we have now. But when we get it we are still not satisfied. This breeds an underlying angst and dissatisfaction, a feeling that we are constantly being conned. TV shows like Australian Idol have now created a fantasy world that claims to make any one a star or celebrity.
In the disturbing film “Fight Club” * the writer puts these words into the mouth of Jack, one of the disillusioned young men trying to find some reality and authenticity in their empty consumer lifestyle through the violence and pain of the Fight Club. The idea is that only in this extreme experience can one feel really alive. We are the middle children of history – no purpose or place. There is no great war for us to fight, no great depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on Television to believe that one day we’ll all be millionaires, and movie god’s and rock stars. But we won’t. We’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.
Disillusionment can lead to depression, anger and violence, either directed inward to ones self or outward to others. It can lead to self medication through drugs or alcohol to relieve the pain or fill the vacuum. This may be one of the reasons why currently we have such an epidemic of drug and alcohol abuse and violence among young men. “American Beauty”* taps into this same theme of despair and middle class angst at the superficiality and ephemeral nature of the consumer culture where the wrapper seems to have become the reality.
Quinton Tarantino’s films like “Pulp Fiction”*, “Kill Bill”, and “Inglourious Basterds” are intriguing but unsettling with their violence and postmodern, non linear story lines. Their references to other films point to the incestuous and self referential nature of the media. Is our ‘reality’ just a construction of the media like “the Truman Show?” Their ironic and dark humor reflects a feeling of the absurdity of our world and its absence of any meaning or truth foundation. These are artistic deconstructions of what we think is reality. To gauge the artistic world’s reaction we only need to note that Tarantino’s films have won almost every prestigious award: The Academy, the Golden globe, the Palm d’Or and the BAFTA. (Even the ironic ‘Scream’ Award in 2007!) Like the earlier cult classic “Blade Runner” (1982) “Pulp Fiction” continues the Post Modern theme with new energy.
Another reflection of contemporary anxiety is the fear of Technology overwhelming us or blurring reality and virtual reality so we are confused about what is really real. This comes through in a number of recent films like “The Matrix”, “The Sixth Sense”, “The thirteenth floor”, “eXistenz”, “The usual suspects” and “Inception”.
These examples show that the artistic production of dystopian prophecies and apocalyptic visions, and cries against man’s inhumanity and screams of despair are still very much with us in the 21st C., but they have a new edge, a new factor. We have moved from the loss of faith and angst of modernity to the confusion of post modernity. Not only does God not exist but there are no other foundations or objective truths and realities either.
My interpretation may be quite off the mark and it may be that the children of the 21st C are simply indifferent, that the scream has been replaced by “whatever!” It is certainly true that by far the most viewed media today is computer games* and the most watched conventional films are fantasy like “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter”! Perhaps as Neil Postman said of the 20th C post TV generation we are still just amusing ourselves to death.
(* The computer warfare game “Call of Duty- Modern warfare 2” released in 2009 grossed a record $591 million in the first five days!)
How should we respond?
Quoting Camus or Orwell may not connect us to the cry of the 21st generation but exploring contemporary art and film may, particularly film. We need to remember that film, and electronic media is the principle way in which this generation receives its cultural and artistic expression. Once we have raised people’s awareness to what they are feeling and responding to, in a film like “American Beauty”, and identify what is being expressed, we have gained real insight and personal identification with their need or loss and so have achieved an experiential starting point for connecting them with the Gospel. This generation, unlike the previous may not know what they have lost but the vacuum, the absence is there, the longing is there. We will have to now work back from the ‘secondary losses they are aware of to the primary loss.
In response to the reaction of some people to the suffering and apparent futility of our world, Richard Holloway wrote:
The person who gives up belief in God because it brings with it certain unresolvable dilemmas ends up believing in a dying universe in which there is no meaning anywhere, a universe that came from nothing and goes to nothing, a universe cruelly indifferent to all our needs. And there is no point in feeling resentment against such a universe, because in a godless universe there is no one to resent, no one to blame. We are alone in an empty universe. No one is listening to our curses or our tears. We stand, tiny and solitary, in a corner of a vast and empty landscape, and if we listen , all we hear is the bitter echo of our own loneliness.(4)
All who mutter quietly or those who lift up there voices to scream their how’ll of despair at the world and life should ponder this statement. This is the real stark alternative to rejecting belief in God, or the absence of belief in the living God.
1. J G Ballard, ‘Miracles of life’ Harper Collins 2008, p157.