Archive for March, 2023

When I heard about Being the Bad Guys: How to Live for Jesus in a World that Says You Shouldn’t by Stephen McAlpine I was excited. The title catches how I feel in this cultural moment.

Sometimes reality is not as good as what you anticipate. That isn’t to say this is a bad book. It is a good book that I hoped would be great.

It feels like a cross between The Triumph of the Modern Self and Live Not By Lies. I say this because it covers the same ground in those books though the philosophy Trueman covers exhaustively is presented in a Cliff Notes version accessible to more people (like Trueman and Keller he refers to Charles Taylor and Philip Rieff often). In terms of Live Not By Lies, instead of relying on the testimony of those who survived the Soviet oppression, he looks to the Scripture more often than not.

The author Stephen McAlpine lives in Australia. He used to be a journalist and is now a pastor. He includes more contemporary stories than Dreher. It is also written with a more pastoral bent than academic bent. He is not writing an Australia-centric book, but one that addresses Christians in western cultures.

What precisely is he writing about? He’s writing the cultural shifts that have taken place in the last few decades so that we have gone from relative “good guys” to being cultural bad guys. He’s writing about how to live faithfully in this circumstance. The former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, John Anderson, notes: “At last, a neat and accessible explanation of what is happening in our culture.”

The book has three parts: How Did We Get to Be the Bad Guys?; What Being the Bad Guys Looks Like; and Being the Best Bad Guy You Can Be.

How Did We Get to Be the Bad Guys?

He has two chapters cover about 35 pages to explain this. See what I mean about Cliff Notes.

For many in western cultures now, Christianity is the bad guy. Most societal ills have arisen from our doctrine and oppressive morality. We have shifted to a post-Christian (and post-truth) society driven by the expressive self and critical theories.

We do have a spotty record. The Church and Christians have done many great things. They’ve also done some awful things. But in the binary ideology of critical theories you are either victim or oppressor. Christians are decidedly the oppressors of the sexually immoral and sexual minorities. We have and continue to stand in the way of the pursuit of the authentic, expressive self.

As we continue to affirm what the world, not just the church, has believed for thousands of years, we are cast as oppressors, bigots and on the wrong side of history (which hasn’t been written yet by the way).

McAlpine doesn’t just parrot others. He does provide some good insights. He also provides different insights than Trueman. From Mark Sayers he describes the progressives as seeking the “kingdom without the King.” (pp. 19) As others have noted, they borrow so many concepts from us but rip out the foundation from them so they become unstable houses of cards.

Post-modernism has not brought us to a pre-Christian world (though the sexual ethics are very similar) but a post-Christian world with no transcendence, objectivity and horizontal identity. We have gone from a Story with an Author (1st culture world) to a Story without an Author (2nd culture world- modernism) to neither a story or an author (3rd culture world) or what I call a Make Your Own Adventure kind of world. When I used to work in a bookstore in the 1980’s, we sold teen books where they made choices at key points which brought the story in one of 3 possible directions. You chose rather than an author choosing for you.

As individuals we are all autonomous and everyone must celebrate our autonomous choices (unless, it seems, they are traditional). If you choose to follow Christ you’re choice will not be celebrated unless it is the kind of following that ignores most of what Jesus taught and the Bible says.

Sadly, as he explores in the second chapter, most of us are surprised by this. This means we have actually ignored some important passages in Scripture. Jesus, Paul, James and Peter all warned us just as explorer Ernest Shackleton warned potential members of his expedition.

Instead of surprised, we should be joyful. He notes that our joy is future-focused. The circumstances we experience are not the source of our joy. Christ and our hope are.

Anger or outrage are sure signs that the future joy guaranteed to us has fallen off our radars as we are insulted or sidelined or scorned. Reacting with joy is a better reflection of reality.” pp. 40

He reminds us from Scripture that we should suffer for faithfulness to Christ, not as criminals (1 Peter 4). We also shouldn’t suffer for how we treat others. We are to be seasoned with grace, not anger and insults.

What Being the Bad Guys Looks Like

McAlpine addresses this in three chapters. He begins with holding to a biblical truth of two genders instead of an evolving number and name of genders. Holding to the traditional (and scientific) views are called oppressive and suffocating to the expressive self.

The public square is not neutral but biased and biased against what Christians have historically believed. The public square is also inconsistent. One the one hand you can be born gay, but be born the wrong biological gender. It is all shifting sand.

There can be a high price to pay for speaking truth in a culture with its own truth that always changes. You can be cancelled, fired, ruined financially and more.

In the face of these lies, we need to continue living by truth in the Church. The stability of our communities will attract many who find themselves ruined by the prevailing spirit of the age. We show the wisdom of God’s way over and against the folly of the world.

Secondly he gets into identity politics (what I’ve called critical theories) which is binary. Gender isn’t but identity is. Oh, there are plenty of identities but they boil down to victim and oppressor depending on the kind of critical theory (race, gender, class…).

Some argue that Christianity is not persecuted in the west. They define persecution quite narrowly as hard persecution, meaning at the hands of the state. Even that is narrowly defined to mean prison and torture. The government and other citizens can sue you into ruin but that isn’t considered persecution. Soft persecution is that not being done by the government but it can sure feel hard when you are the one losing a career, being assaulted or killed, threatened or insulted.

The Church should admit when we’ve done wrong. We should not call God a liar but confess our failings to groups and individuals. We haven’t handled sexual abuse well. We haven’t stood against racism as consistently as we should have.

We should prepare to live on the margins of society. Our denominational college is preparing for when student loans involving the government would force them to hire people living immoral lives. We aren’t focused on winning a culture war but living faithfully according to God’s will. We focus on the consummation of the kingdom.

The next chapter focuses on Jesus’ call to self-denial in contrast to our culture’s call to self-actualization. It begins with the story of Phillip Scholfield, a British TV personality. He decided to share his truth that he was actually a homosexual. The problem was that he did this publicly, to the horror of his wife and kids. He was praised by many for coming out, but he dropped a bomb on his family. There was plenty of collateral damage among those who loved him.

For someone in his shoes to remain faithful to his commitments is viewed to day as not being authentic or true to himself. The problem is that the time for being true to himself was before he married and had children. I know too many people who have come out after years of marriage, often with children. They devastate people they made promises to.

Christianity isn’t about self-expression but self-denial. We believe we find our authentic self in Christ, and won’t be all we were meant to be until glorified. Jesus calls this the path of life, but our culture sees this as the path to death. There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death (Prov. 14:12; 16:25). Self-denial trusts God that His way is best and leads to life. Self-denial would put a person’s spouse and kids before themselves.

Being the Best Bad Guy You Can Be

McAlpine then shifts to a strategy for the church. Instead of looking Communist nations like Dreher does, he looks to Israel in Babylon and the return to exile. Living surrounded by enemies tempted them to lead a quiet life focused on self-preservation and de-emphasizing living for the glory of God. They rebuilt their homes instead of God’s temple and the city.

We need to forsake our culture’s individualism and think more consistently in terms of the community of faith and how our lives affect the rest of the church. What may be good for us (our career) may be bad for the local church. Self-denial will provide time and energy to serve Christ’s interests. As we build deep relationships beyond our social and racial boundaries, we provide a glimpse of God’s kingdom. We can be the community they long for, displaying the truth of the gospel.

This community of faith is a worshiping community as well. We declare His praises. This points us to rich theology in song and sermon. We disciple people to pray, confess sin and faith, and how to listen to Him.

In our anxious culture, our focus on God’s promises as a part of our worship should promote trust and peace of mind. We can be a healthy, community living for something bigger than ourselves and seeking reconciliation among lonely, alienated people marked increasingly by broken relationships and acts of violence.

We can serve the world though it often scorns us. We send people into the world to love our neighbors and meet their needs as displays of love to open doors for the message of the gospel.

He then addresses when the world comes to us in the workplace. I’d think we’d be going to the world, but let’s roll with it anyway. Many Christians are facing increased pressure to affirm and promote the LGBTQ+ community and values. Companies (and the government) end up rewarding people based on their demographics or identity, not on competence, skill and playing well with others. Many pastors don’t understand that pressure, or even think about it.

by Peter Paul Rubens

Daniel had to live with the repeated calls to conform to Babylonian and then Persian culture as a student and then a highly ranked official. He was able to strike a compromise with the man in charge of his instruction. But there was no such opportunity when other officials sought to trap him. Daniel was faithful to God through it all, even though it may have cost him his life in the lion’s den.

Pastors need to prepare people to live in Babylon, in an environment hostile to their faith. Church need to provide groups in which people are encouraged in this struggle. We should be open to hearing of their struggles in the workplace. They may need to come to terms with the fact that they may reach a ceiling in their careers not on the basis of their ability but based on their faith.

We want to be sure that when we suffer, it is not because we are doing anything wrong but seeking to be obedient to God. Be sure that you accurately understand God’s commands. Sometimes we struggle to understand how to obey God and be gracious to others in a pluralist society. We should not be aggressors. Don’t fight the culture war in the workplace- it will get you nowhere and won’t really change anything. Be kind and holy so no accusations will stick. People will see you interact with those with whom you disagree in an honorable fashion. We are to adorn the gospel with a quiet and gentle spirit.

Obedience is complex. What do we stand firm on? Where should we flex? … Should we expect the world to hold to a standard that is not recognized outside the gospel community? Scripture tells us not to engage with any “brother or sister” who is sexually immoral or greedy but applies no ban to those of that description in the world.” pp. 119

We are not to live in fear of people. We are not to despise them either. This only happens when we fear God (trembling in joy before His awesome reality). This only happens as we remember those people are also made in the image of God.This is why McAlpine says the church you belong to matters. You need to hear about a Big, holy, merciful God.

Fringe: The Day We Died

McAlpine then shifts of the city in the city. He illustrates this with The City & the City by China Mieville. In that story there are twin cities: one grimy and one glorious. It is a murder mystery in which the detective has to travel between the cities frequently. The cities occupy the same space. (Perhaps the season of Fringe with the alternative universe would be clearer here)

The City of God and the City of Man are not in different geographic locations but intertwined with one another. We move between them each and every day. As Phil Keaggy sang, we walk in two worlds. Citizens of the City of God we spend much of our time in the City of Man. It is much easier to adapt to the City of Man than the City of God. While in the City of Man we are continue to live by the values of the city of God. Too often people privatize their faith and live in a way that is appropriate to the City they are presently in.

Here McAlpine speaks of the already/not yet and two Corinths. The cross and resurrection mean that the converted enter the new Corinth (new age) but are still surrounded by the old and fading Corinth. When Christ returns, the old passes away completely. The new has already come, though not completely. The old has not yet passed away.

While they live among people embracing the old Corinth, they were to live like the new Corinth. They were to excommunicate those who persist in living according to the old Corinth’s values. There is joy in living in the new Corinth or City of God. It is good. It is sturdy.

At times we can smuggle in practices and assumptions of the City of Men around us and think it is part of the City of God. Identifying those practices and forsaking them is a good view of “deconstructing”. Sadly, for most that means not separating true Christianity from cultural add-ons, but destroying faith and letting doubts prevail. Too many flush the faith in that worldly version. Christianity can withstand examination. The new culture, which cannibalizes Christianity is not on firm footing because there are no basis for many convictions (like justice) without God behind, beneath and above them.

The key is this: are we proclaiming the gospel message, and practicing the gospel ethic it demands, among ourselves first? Now is the time to get our own city in order.” pp. 137

Bottom Line

In many ways this book using lots of shorthand. He condenses arguments so this is not a tome. In a sense, you wonder if he’s trying to do too much. On the other hand, you don’t want to complain about what is without providing a way forward. Trueman’s book, for instance, has relatively little in the latter area compared to the size of the book. But I was looking for analysis in his book. In McAlpine’s his goal and my expectations were different.

He is writing for the layperson, not the academic or professional. It is not overwhelming in philosophy. He has a different audience than Trueman. He meets his audience. He articulates his points well. Rather than being overwhelmed, at times I was underwhelmed. But many other may not have been thinking about this, and working through 1 Peter like I have been. They may not be underwhelmed but rather than confirming the road I’ve been on places them on a new road.

Called to live within these cultural shifts, it is wise to think about how. McAlpine helps us to do just that.

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