Space for divergence?

Monday, 23rd June 2014 at 6:00 UTC Leave a comment

I wonder what sort of response you would get if you surveyed the general attendance of British churches on the following two questions: Have you heard of the Christian Industrial Complex? What does the term mean to you? Yet I know that I’m not the only one who’s starting to feel we need new space to deal with its smothering of new ideas in today’s church.

I suspect the answer would be about 95% saying ‘nope, doesn’t ring any bells’, and about 5% saying something between “Yeah, it sort of means (vague attempt at definition)” and “Of course, its the biggest problem facing the development of Christianity in the English-speaking world today”. The CIC is something you either know about and resent, or its something you’ve missed completely.

For certain, there are plenty of churches who don’t interact with Christian Industries very much at all. But for those that do, there’s an increasingly limited diet of the same authors, with the same theology and the same music, which all sounds, well, the same. And we, being Christians and therefore concerned about unity to the point of neurosis, are hardly able to verbalise what’s wrong with it without someone jumping at us for being envious, or divisive, or whatever.

The problem is that theology that sells is unlikely to be the best, or the deepest, or indeed the most academically rigorous. It has to be accessible and uncontroversial, or at worst, only controversial in ways that publishers know will be acceptable. Music needs to be easy on the ears and fit a mould for which there is already an audience.

In a way, it feels like a toxic combination of the worst of monopoly economics (the number of publishers and suppliers that the ‘market’ can sustain being necessarily small) and deference to religious authority and a need for unity. Of course, these aren’t really religious authorities in a strict sense; never before have we relied on publishers to determine who will and won’t get to use the pulpit. Of all the ways to determine the direction of Christian Orthodoxy, the market has to be about the worst.

What particularly suffers, it appears, are creativity and divergence. Anyone who sounds different or looks different is excluded. This can be in the tone of their voice, their accent, their outward appearance (especially if it points to a different life experience) or the message they are delivering. We’re left with a set of cultural norms in the church that are almost a pastiche of the cultural norms around us – accented and awkward, standing out in ways that awkwardly reinforce, rather than radically challenge, our society’s.

Supposing that this is a problem that we want to face down, then what would the solutions look like? Starting with a few of the barriers to solutions, it would require space to be created for discussion. That space isn’t just going to create itself – secular experience of diminishing of public space and the need to reclaim it points to this. Suggesting a DIY approach has its problems in a body of people used to awaiting validation or permission. But a DIY culture is needed none-the-less.

Blogging has been a great way for many people to challenge dominant narratives in the church, but its big failing is the isolation that it often brings. Its very easy for a few people who feel threatened to gang up on someone who has meant them no harm. Perhaps some kind of indy-publishing collective is needed. There are any number of bodies that have existed such as the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SPCK – now rather a part of the problem). Maybe there’s scope to develop a Society for the Propagation of  Variant Christian Thought (an illustrative suggest; I’m not seriously proposing anyone uses that name). Even a straight forward newsletter to signpost material from around the web that would otherwise go unnoticed would go some way to helping.

It would hopefully allow space for a number of different issues to be resolved, both in the creative (especially musical) area and in the theological thought and publishing realm. The web provides solutions for both, but I’m more tied to solving the theological side. Would it be possible to start a series of talks-turned-discussions on changing social and scientific theories and how these inform and mould our views as believers? As our metaphysical understanding of the world changes, what happens to our beliefs? How do we spiritually analyse the world around us, rather than being conformed to it? An anthology of off-the-wall but biblically-inclined pieces would be welcome. Experience suggests that, even if only in the mid-term, good ideas spark good ideas, and so the waters are, for a time, stirred up. Such a stirring is long overdue.

I’d be delighted to hear what people want to throw in – how space for divergence is created and what possibilities need to be explored within it.

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Entry filed under: Church, Culture, Faith, Free Space, Theology.

When movements move on Familiarity lost: coping with new people

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