Being the bad guys

Feb 12, 2021 by

Andrew Symes reviews a new book by Stephen McAlpine:

In his introduction, McAlpine briefly and simply traces how the perception of Christianity and Christians in society has shifted from being “the good guy” – the solution to what is bad, the foundation of law and morality – to being “one of the guys” i.e. one option among many, to “the bad guy”, seen as the problem. Most Christians haven’t yet accepted or adapted to this new reality; they are continuing to assume a “neutral space” in culture, where the Christian message competes on equal and friendly terms with other worldviews. As a result, many either become aggrieved with the world, or apologetic and seeking to win back the world’s favour. Instead, counsels McAlpine, Christians should learn how to live as “the bad guys” in a calm, clear-sighted and even joyful way.

Certain truths need to be faced straight away. Firstly, Jesus predicted that his disciples and his message would not be accepted by the world. Secondly, critiques of some aspects of church culture and behaviour by Christians may be valid. Thirdly, the main battle ground currently is around issues of sex and gender,and there can be no peaceful coexistence between the historic Christian view and the increasing consensus of ‘progressive’ ideology, as there was in the past when the dominant thinking was nominally Christian or liberal/pluralist.

Christians who refuse to accept the new dogmas of the sex and gender revolution are facing discipline in the workplace, and even ostracism in families and some church denominations. Parents with conservative morality are working out how to cope as their children’s schools promote the rainbow pride view of personal identity and family life. Abortion continues unchecked, and euthanasia in increasingly permitted in Western states around the world. Christians are wondering: how has this happened so quickly? how can we protect our freedom to express and live by our beliefs? why is the progressive culture not collapsing but appearing to flourish?

McAlpine asks: how can we offer the gospel to the world which regards it not just as ridiculous, but harmful? And how can we offer a programme of discipleship which detoxes us from the lies of the culture? Chapter two explains why the persecution of Christianity shouldn’t take us by surprise: the New Testament can be summarised as “suffer now, glory later”. Jesus in the Gospels and the apostle Peter in his first letter both encourage us to rejoice at being vilified, focussing on our union with Christ now, our being formed in his likeness, and our future with him. McAlpine commends Christian organisations which seek to defend freedom of belief, but counsels against ungodly anger, and confusing certain types of political action with establishing God’s kingdom.

The book then turns to address how traditional ideas about sex and gender are now seen as repressive, harmful and needing to be eliminated like racism. In contrast the new non-binary, rainbow idea is shown to be liberating, creative, affirming of difference, loving and even backed up by science. Christians have been blindsided by the speed of this change, by the hostility of those advocating it, and by the powerful links between sexuality, identity and spirituality. McAlpine shows how the wholesale rejection of the Genesis 1 and 2 understanding of creation does not just make life uncomfortable for Christians now – it will be disastrous for humanity in general.

The voices which warn about this are suppressed, while increasingly, “some churches and denominations are opting out of the Christian vision and joining the rainbow one”. What can we do? McAlpine is not in favour of working in the public square to repeal unjust laws, or retreating into ghettos. The author goes on to warn against playing the game of “competing victimhood”, agreeing with secular commentators that Christians in the West are not really persecuted. Also, the church has to admit that it has been aligned with the powerful for centuries, and has sometimes abused that power.

So rather than complaining about injustice and trying to get back into power, Christians should apologise for past failures, demonstrate concern for the marginalised, and look for opportunities to witness among those disillusioned with secularism. Will the future be “arid post-Christian existence full of fear and empty of human kindness”? In which case there could be potential for effective mission.

Chapter 5 deals with true and false “authenticity”, and contrasts the false and self-serving “being true to myself” of the celebrity who “comes out”, with the self-denying discipleship that Jesus calls us to. Christians must look at themselves and repent of putting worldly comfort and security first, and pursuing our “rights” with bitterness instead of forgiving those who wrong us. McAlpine imagines that winsome and loving Christian community will be attractive and compelling. This needs to be carried out through radical commitment to the local church, and what this looks like is explored in chapter 6. The prophet Haggai helps to remind us where our priorities would be as we try to survive and thrive by God’s grace in a dominant culture largely hostile to our faith. God’s glory and the building of his house, a diverse, loving and joyful community, takes precedence over our own personal and family projects.

But what about when Christians are faced with the dilemma of either having to conform to the sexual revolution ideology, or lose their job (for example, being asked to support a “LGBT pride day” at work). Chapter 7 posits such a scenario, and takes the reader to the book of Daniel who was faced with a much worse choice. The answer is to establish intentional discipleship programmes in the church to prepare Christians for “reflex faithfulness” in such situations, in which we trust in being vindicated by God in the end whatever happens. This needs to be backed up by genuine support from the church for members who find themselves in trouble as a result of their faithfulness, and ensuring that the church is known for its friendliness and programmes of practical help in the local area.

The final chapter looks at themes from 1 Corinthians, bringing a biblical perspective to the problem of living as Christians in two parallel, or even overlapping ‘cities’ with opposing values. The temptation for Christians is to imitate the world, close our eyes to it and form a separate subculture, or attack it. Rather, McAlpine says, our hope is in the fact that the present world is passing away – the stable place to be is a community faithful to God and his word, while the enticing progressive vision has no consistency or ultimate certainty. While it may be painful to be treated as the bad guy, the story has a happy ending.

There is much in this book that is excellent. Although authors Carl Truman and Rod Dreher are not mentioned, their influence in clearly in the background in McAlpine’s analysis of culture and his suggestions of building strong counter-cultural Christian communities. He does not shy away from addressing the real threat of the progressive sex and gender ideology to authentic Christian discipleship and freedom of thought and conscience, unlike some who think this is too negative and confrontational. His use of the bible and illustrations from contemporary films and everyday life complement his simple and clear explanations of secular culture and how we got here.

However, there are a couple of niggles for me. Firstly McAlpine attacks the easy target of the angry, complaining Christian culture warrior too often in the book, as if such people are the real problem, rather than the actual crisis of increasing enforcement of wokeness in society and church. Yes there are those who express their opposition to the progressive agenda in an obnoxious and sometimes unhelpfully party-political way on social media, but they are outnumbered by hundreds to one by Christians who believe there is nothing to worry about, who are silent and confused, or who support that agenda. Secondly, and related, he is perhaps too optimistic about the effectiveness of ‘winsomeness’ in enabling the church to turn the situation around. I’m left wondering whether these weaknesses are from McAlpine himself, or evidence of the editing process for the English market.

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