The Dangerous Vocations:
Church, Media and Public Life in a Post-Rational World
Church’s Media Network Conference
RSA, London, 20 October 2016
Prof N T Wright, University of St Andrews
I have two brief preliminary points, three somewhat fuller comments about the developments that have taken place in my adult lifetime, and then – my main contribution today I think – four points that attempt to retrieve a biblical and Christian view of public life and of the tasks of church and media within that. Our time is brief and I will have to cut plenty of corners, but I hope we can follow up key points in questions at the end.
First preliminary point: I have been out of public life now for six years, and no doubt that will show. I have kept my eye on things but I am not being briefed every day as once I was. I have plunged back into the world of the first century in the firm belief that the better we understand the New Testament in its context the more we shall at least raise the right questions about how to live by it in tomorrow’s world. For this reason it wouldn’t surprise me if I appear somewhat behind the game in some practical and contemporary issues. We shall see.
Second preliminary point: in a short presentation it will sometimes be necessary to talk about ‘the media’. As we all know, however, that phrase covers not only a good many disparate fields, from glossy magazines to blogsites and plenty besides, but also includes people who not only differ radically in their views about everything but differ also in their view of what role the media – any media, theirs in particular – ought to have in our lives. I have had various bit-parts in ‘the media’ over the years, from bits and pieces of broadcasting to occasional op-ed pieces in newspapers. So if ‘the media’ constitute a problem, I am part of that problem, and though brevity requires generalization I will try at least to hint at nuance.
So to my three more substantial comments about where we have got to and how we’ve got there.
First, we have witnessed in my lifetime the subtle but powerful shift from high modernism to what some call late modernity and others postmodernity. Hard to define, of course, but quite easy to recognise: the hermeneutic of suspicion; the death of the metanarrative whether political, social or religious; the deconstruction of the ‘self’. Perhaps the best example was the Diana tragedy where the fairy-tale turned into a nightmare steered if not driven by the media. A post-rationalist world which sometimes retains the form of reasoned argument but actually works on rhetoric, on spin and smear. Classic examples there would include Tony Blair’s speech to the Commons the day before the bombing began: full of holes as an argument, but surfing the waves of popular feeling which itself had been whipped up by elements in the media, on both sides of the Atlantic, to assume that whatever had caused 9/11, itself a classic postmodern moment, if we went and beat up Saddam Hussein that would somehow make it better. Some of us said at the time that every bomb we dropped would be another recruiting agent for Al-Qaeda: the only mistake there was not to see that behind that horrible movement would be another, far worse again. And this is where postmodernity eats its own tail: because, having destroyed the larger metanarratives that might have explained how and why such movements exist and what they are aiming at, all we have left, reporting on the current chaos, is that there are very unpleasant people out there and our only choice seems to be either to bomb them or to try to ignore them. Other features of the modern-to-postmodern shift include the confusion over Europe, which began as a classic modernist construct, a secular parody of an older European holy empire, and is now under threat of deconstruction as the smaller identities reassert themselves. It has been depressing to find nobody explaining our confusions in these terms, but instead lapsing back into easy rhetoric revolving around hot issues such as immigration without realising the deep-level cultural drivers that make them hot in the first place. (In other words: yes, there is such a thing as racism; but there are also major narratives about complex identity which are not addressed by the threadbare neo-moralism in which racism is one of the few remaining sins.) Postmodernity, then, seems to be here to stay, not least because the media first thrive on shifting cultural signifiers and then instantiate that way of seeing the world in the popular mind. And, as I’ve often said, postmodernity seems to have the vocation of preaching the doctrine of the fall to arrogant modernity, but having done that it has no gospel to announce. There is no redemption; only play; and the play turns out to be a witches’ dance on the edge of a volcano, as the unaddressed global problems erupt once more in new and terrible ways.
The second of my three comments about where we’ve got to is the sheer confusion about ‘religion’, and indeed that word is itself a symptom of the problem. In the ancient world religio meant that which binds things together – particularly, the binding together of the visible and invisible inhabitants of a polis, a community, in other words the human inhabitants and the divine inhabitants. Ancient ‘religion’, then, was by definition the rich and complex interweaving of the gods and the humans, whereas since the breathtaking redefinition of the Enlightenment ‘religion’ has been about a detached area of life, separated from politics and the public domain in general. In the same way, ‘religion’ was what bound a whole society together, part of the social glue; whereas in the modern and now particularly the postmodern world ‘religion’ appears as a maker, and marker, of socio-cultural division which at best creates an us-and-them mentality and at worst generates bombings, beheadings and a thousand other horrors. Because of course though we in the modern west have redefined ‘religion’ as that which is precisely not public life, most of the world has seen no reason to go along for the ride (not least because they see that our redefinition was always self-serving, releasing the west from divine constraint and so freeing it for exploitation and empire). And the fact that sometimes, perhaps with a protestant suspicion of the word ‘religion’ itself, we speak instead of ‘faith’ communities is itself of course a nervous Christian construct: it is precisely Christianity, with a distant memory of St Paul, that thinks of itself in terms of ‘faith’. That has never been the chosen self-characterization of Jews or Muslims, still less of Hindus or Buddhists, though when they join in the modernist discourse they use the term and thereby help to make it even more fuzzy. My second point, then, is that precisely within modernism and then postmodernism the key terms have been corrupted with our confusions so that we hardly know any longer how to name, let alone to address, the deep problems we have been facing. The media are inevitably caught up in this, obliged to say something but robbed of a language with which to say it clearly and cleanly. We are back to Eliot’s lament about words slipping and sliding and not staying in place, as the Word in the desert is most assailed by voices of temptation.
The third shift which has been going on for two hundred years but which has reached new levels in public discourse in my lifetime is the sheer rampant confusion about theology. Since most public commentators don’t think they are doing theology this itself is masked, but it is real and powerful, and emerges in the so-called ‘new atheism’ of Richard Dawkins and his ilk and the shrill attempts to push ‘religion’ or ‘faith’ out of the public square once and for all, with real anger about ‘faith schools’ and knee-jerk reactions to bishops in the Lords, and all that. The problem is that the meaning of the word ‘god’ has itself shifted in popular imagination. In my boyhood the word still had some vestigial connection with Jesus, with a strange though powerful message of love and hope. Now that has almost entirely gone, and victory is all but complete for the Epicureanism of the Enlightenment, in which god or the gods, if they exist at all, are a long way away and by definition never get involved in our world. That was an ancient philosophical position reserved for the rich elite who could afford it, and though it has been creeping back into western life ever since Poggio Bracciolini discovered the full text of Lucretius in 1417 it has become the de facto, and in France and America the de jure, public perception of god and the world, leading, as it was designed to do, to a practical atheism in which moral restraint was merely prudential, lacking divine sanction, and public expressions of religion such as parliamentary prayers seemed a mere category mistake. And this is the point at which, when a newspaper or radio station employs someone to report on ‘religion’, what the editors mostly want is stories which reflect this public mood, seldom if ever showing the thousand positive sides of church or synagogue or mosque life and instead showing churches or other religious communities as divided, confused, backward-looking and hypocritical. (When Pope Benedict came to Britain six years ago it was beyond caricature how the media were desperate to talk about sex while Benedict was equally determined to talk about Jesus.)
Here, then, are three cultural snapshots; there could of course be many more, but I think we will all recognise them and I hope we can see that together they cause multiple interlocking confusions. And the confusions are not merely at the level of comprehension. As Marx said, the point is not to understand the world but to change it, and by not understanding the world we live in we are blundering around simply making matters worse, changing it in fact but in all the wrong ways. All of this has come to a head in the crisis which has been looming up ever since the Blair/Bush adventure of thirteen years ago, which itself showed that we had learned nothing, and from which we seem to have learnt nothing except that we don’t want to try that again. The trouble is that, despite the warnings from diplomats and others who did understand the complexities, the western powers, led ironically by the only two publicly practising Christians among the G8 leaders, operated out of the shallow modernist narrative according to which you simply have to topple the tyrants and then peace, love, flower-power and western democracy will automatically spring up in their place. This was always a dangerous half-truth when the Americans did it in the late eighteenth century. It makes no sense whatever in the Middle East where, as in Iraq, the tyrant in question was our creation in the first place and where he was at least keeping the lid on the volcano. And when western leaders, looking at the so-called Arab Spring, declared that it was important to be on the right side of history, they were simply parroting the modernist narrative, assuming a Whig interpretation in which history is automatically moving towards our western vision of ‘freedom’ – at the very moment when, as current events show only too worryingly, our great democratic institutions throw up bizarre choices and unthought-out new fixed points. It takes a peculiar blindness to imagine today that we in the West understand how the world really is while everybody else is waiting, and perhaps even wanting, to catch up with us. The only sense in which that is true is that they are literally washing up on our shores, partly because the economic and industrial policies we have adopted and the political and military actions we have taken around the world have made life impossible for many. And just as we don’t have a narrative to explain why this is happening we certainly don’t have any kind of narrative to suggest what we ought to do about it. This itself is the human fall-out from the failure of the modernist dream. As long as the countries of the Enlightenment could keep the rest of the world at bay, sending the occasional gun-boat to sort out the natives or the more frequent cargo ship to bring back diamonds, emeralds and amethysts, sandalwood and cedarwood and sweet white wine, we could sustain our narrative, but those days are gone, crashing to the ground like the twin towers themselves. And if our only response is to blame Russia – which has had its own quite different, and similarly dangerous, narratives for a long time, and fails to see why it should adopt ours – we are merely refusing to address the real problems. Someone asked me the other day, in public, what St Paul would say if he could address an epistle to Theresa May, and I think he would want to highlight the fact that we live at a crisis point where the multiple worldviews of a dangerous world are like ignorant armies clashing by night, and if the tide of the older faith has retreated from the shore we have no resources to draw on to understand, let alone to address, the things that urgently matter.
Now at this point I would be stupid to pretend that I had a few rabbits to pull out of my hat that would run around this confusing room and tidy it all up. But let us at least understand something of a biblical view of how human societies ought to operate. In my experience this is not usually well understood either inside the churches or outside, so that those with Christian faith try to put Christian labels on ideas which come from elsewhere and those without that faith look at the church and see it muddled and uncertain. And in the middle of all that, with multiple uncertainties about the task and role of the church itself, it isn’t surprising that the media are likewise uncertain both about what the church’s task might be and about what the media’s own task might be, and how those two might relate to one another, might perhaps even work together instead of appearing to be trying to claim the same little piece of cultural turf. Let me offer you four central points which I think have not been well understood but which might at least clear some ground for discussion.
First, the God of the Bible is what I call the dianthropic God, the God who desires and designs to work through human beings (Greek dia and anthropos), through his image-bearing creatures, in the world. The gods of Epicureanism do not want to work in the world at all; the distant god of Deism, the soft and pseudo-Christian version of Epicureanism, might want to work in the world but if he did it would be by occasional sudden interventions, bypassing human agency. The gods of pantheism, as of paganism before it, are simply part of the general life-force, at work equally in rivers and volcanoes, eagles and antelopes, as in humans. But the biblical God has called his humanoid creatures to reflect him into the world, and equally to reflect the inarticulate praises of all creation back to him. This is central to the ancient faith of Israel; and this, brought into sudden and frightening focus in Jesus and his cross and resurrection, is integral to the Christian faith. These distinctions are not well understood, because if they were we might have quite a different view of what we must call ‘theocracy’, the idea of the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven (which is after all what Jesus taught his followers to pray for). For us, ‘theocracy’ smacks of mad clergy bossing people around and threatening them with hellfire, or at least decapitation, if they resist. But the question of theocracy is, of course, which theos are we talking about? And if the theos in question is the God we see in the Bible, the God whose perfect self-expression is named as Jesus of Nazareth, then we are faced with what might appear an oxymoron: a cruciform theocracy, a God who rules the world by the unexpected power of self-giving love. Humans are called to be the ‘royal priesthood’, standing between the creator and the creation and reflecting worship back to God and stewardship into the world. That is a general point, but it has a sharp focus in terms of social, cultural and especially political life: if this is what the biblical God is like, then it’s clear – and the New Testament frequently insists on this – that this God wants the world to be wisely ordered through human agency. Western modernism has been so afraid of tyranny, partly for historical reasons but equally because of ideological agendas, that we have been suspicious of rulers as a whole, though we have flicked back to them under crisis situations; and some in the churches have supposed it is their task simply to pull down the mighty from their thrones rather than to affirm the goodness and God-givenness of human rulers. Human political systems have broadly been designed to ward off tyranny on the one hand and anarchy on the other; and though the Bible does indeed warn against tyranny it is very clear that God does not want or like anarchy. God is the working-through-humans God, and human authorities whether they know it or not have the noble vocation of bringing God’s wise order into the world. The corollary of this, equally clear in scripture, is that God will hold people to account for their stewardship of these vocations; and that holding-to-account, which will one day be clear and complete, must happen already in the present time. That is the point in the argument at which the specific vocations of both the church and the media come into focus, and I shall return to that presently.
My first point, then, is that the biblical God is the working-through-humans God, though the lamentable absence of theological education in the public at large has all but hidden this truth behind the fog of Deism or the denials of atheism. And it leads directly to the second point, which is that in the Bible there are maximal and minimal duties of the humans through which God wants to work in the world. The maximal duties are set out in a passage like Psalm 72, where the vocation to do justice and mercy, and to take special care of the orphan and widow, the poor and those who have nobody to plead for them, are graphically displayed. It would be good for all rulers to have a copy of that Psalm pinned up somewhere prominently and to remind themselves of it frequently. But alongside that they would need to remember, also, the striking saying in Matthew 28, where the risen Jesus declares that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him; so that all other authority, whether the so-called ‘authority of scripture’ on the one hand or the authority of political leaders and rulers on the other hand, must be understood as in some sense delegated authority, the means by which the cruciform theocracy is to be worked out. And if Psalm 72 and similar passages give us the maximal task for those to whom this authority is delegated, passages like Romans 13 give us the minimal: the rulers must keep the peace, must sustain a society in which, very broadly speaking, virtue is allowed to flourish and vice is kept in check. In particular, some kind of criminal justice system is necessary, if only because otherwise vigilantism will spring up in its place – a point which, thinking globally, is hugely necessary just now. That is the logic of the end of Romans 12 and the start of Romans 13: private vengeance is ruled out because God wants the human authorities to deal with crime. Human authorities are thus poised, by the gospel of Jesus, between the inaugurated kingdom of God through Jesus himself and the ultimate kingdom in which God’s glory and justice will flood the whole creation as the waters cover the sea. And human rulers must therefore be reminded that their task will only ever be approximate and partial. We have seen in recent decades some disastrously naïve experiments in messianism in which rulers suddenly discovered that there was this thing called ‘evil’ out there in the world and thought that they could deal with this ‘evil’ by dropping bombs on it. Along with the vocation to a delegated authority, then, there must go the necessary humility of knowing that our attempts at justice and mercy – which we must go on making – are never going to be perfect, and that we will be held to account especially for any arrogant assumptions about our own superhuman powers.
So here we come, in my third point, to the specific tasks of church and media in relation to the God-given tasks of earthly rulers (and I stress that these God-given tasks apply whether the earthly rulers recognise God or not). Let me start with a word about the media. In the ancient pagan world there were many political systems and parties. But in the great democracies such as Athens and Rome (not that they were full democracies in our sense, but they were trying), and even within some other systems as well, there were well developed ways in which the wider public, outside the immediate political process, could reflect on and comment on and critique what the politicians were doing. We see this most clearly in the poets, the philosophers and not least the dramatists, both comic and tragic. Sometimes the roles overlapped, as philosophers like Seneca were made official advisors to the emperor (in his case, Nero, unfortunately) and as at least one philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, actually became emperor. Sometimes court poets were simply wheeled on to flatter the rulers and boost their public prestige. But often poets and philosophers, and playwrights as well, were able to hold up a mirror to power, to speak uncomfortable truths in ways that could be heard by a wider public and perhaps, however dangerously, by rulers themselves, whether tyrants or elected (and of course many tyrants have come to power on a massive popular vote). And this, it seems to me, is the proper ancestry of the task of the media in our world today: to combine the philosopher, the poet and the dramatist, to tell the truth – or at least one angle of the truth – in the public arena, to raise the awkward questions and remind both rulers and ruled of dimensions of the problems which might otherwise be swept under the official rug. Of course there are some newspapers and radio stations which are more like Aristophanes than Sophocles, more like Diogenes the Cynic than like Plato or Aristotle. But they also serve. And the church, if it knows its business, should respect these various callings, and encourage those of its members who have the talents and time to engage in them, reminding them of their responsibilities and warning them that they, too, will be held to account for their stewardship.
But at this stage in the argument – still within my third point – we discover that the church itself has a God-given role which often goes unnoticed. It is a central feature of the whole Christian dispensation, the New Testament vision of reality as it has been transformed by the gospel of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord, that in this interim time between the establishment of God’s just and wise order in Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension and the full implementation of that just and wise order in the ultimate new creation, when the earth shall be filled with God’s glory as the waters cover the sea, those who follow Jesus and invoke him as Lord have a non-negotiable and Spirit-driven responsibility to hold the world to account. This is like the ancient work of poets, philosophers and dramatists but it transcends and in a way supplants that work, and I think if the church and the media are to have any chance of working together wisely and fruitfully in the days to come it would be as well if this were understood between them, which it certainly has not been. Let me put it like this.
The church, from New Testament times onwards, has been aware of many vocations in the world. It has never been simply about saving souls for a distant ‘heaven’: that is the gospel of middle Platonism, which became a convenient siding into which the real gospel could be shunted by the Deists and Epicureans of the eighteenth century who wanted the church off the patch and so told the Christians to get people to heaven while they, the power-brokers, could carve up the earth undisturbed and uncritiqued. No: the church has always had the vocation to work with and for the poor, to feed the hungry, to bring medical help to those in need, particularly those who couldn’t afford it (nobody else in the ancient world was doing this), and also to bring education to the masses, which again was unheard of in the ancient world. The church has been doing these things for two thousand years, and though we rightly celebrate our NHS and struggle to improve our public education systems we do well to remember that the church was there long before. And the church has always campaigned for justice in the world, whether it was bishops rebuking emperors for going on using the death penalty or whether it’s church groups today who have had some success at least in campaigning for the dropping of the unpayable debts which unscrupulous bankers allowed unspeakable tyrants to run up and which have then kept the poorest countries of the world enslaved to the richest. (The iniquity of this was exposed in the crash of 2008 when quite suddenly the bankers themselves had to be bailed out, and the very rich did for the very rich what both had long refused to do for the very poor.) And the church is of course called to go on praying for all people and especially for those charged with exercising human authority, God-given whether or not the rulers realise it.
But within these vocations the church has always had the calling to speak the truth to power. In John 16 Jesus declares that when the Spirit comes, the Spirit will convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgment. It’s a complex little passage but at its heart it insists that the Spirit – who is given to the churches so that it’s actually Christians, in the power of the Spirit, who are to do this – will hold the world to account. This too is a matter of inaugurated eschatology; that is, God himself will hold the entire world to account at the end; this process has already begun when God raised Jesus Christ from the dead and thereby declared what the standard of sin, righteousness and judgment really is; and, in between those two, the church is to implement the latter and anticipate the former, by speaking words of truth, words given by the Spirit as people wrestle with the complex issues, naming and shaming wickedness in places both high and low and calling and recalling the world’s rulers to their rightful tasks. This is what cruciform theocracy looks like: the church working with the poor, campaigning for justice and mercy, for health and education and wisdom, and prayerfully and cheerfully reminding the rulers of the world what their job actually is whether they want to hear or not. This is what Paul was doing in Philippi in Acts 16: he and Silas are arrested, beaten, imprisoned, singing hymns at midnight (as you do), there’s an earthquake, the jailer is converted . . . and next morning the magistrates send a message saying ‘tell those men to leave town’. Paul isn’t having it. ‘Roman citizens . . . beaten without trial . . . imprisoned without conviction . . . sounds like a public apology?’ And he gets it. He reminds the rulers what their job is. Yes, it’s dangerous. He suffers. But the job is being done.
This vocation to speak truth to power can of course be abused, and has been abused. The church itself needs to have in its midst prophetic and wise voices so that the church itself can be called to account. But just because we can and do get it wrong that doesn’t mean we should give up the vocation. We cannot – though of course a lot of people would like us to do so, and there is the rub, the rub particularly between the church in its vocation and the media, or some elements of the media, in its vocation. I have stressed that the media really do have a vocation, going back to that of poets and philosophers and dramatists, of speaking truth in the public square in a way which can shine an unwelcome light on rulers and their follies. But the church, too, has its vocation of speaking the truth to power, which goes all the way back to Jesus’ argument with Pontius Pilate in John 18 and 19 and Paul’s arguments with the Roman officials in Philippi in Acts 16 or with the chief priests in Jerusalem in Acts 23. Hence the clash: because many journalists in our own day, precisely because of the cultural and philosophical climates which I sketched so briefly earlier, strongly believe that the church has no place in the public square, or only a small circumscribed place called ‘religion’, carefully screened off from everything else; and they believe that the job of holding rulers to account (or indeed of commenting on many other aspects of public life) belongs to the media only; so that, when the church tries to say something, we are warned off the patch by secular journalists who have appointed themselves as not only poets and philosophers but also as high priests of our culture. Here we come at last to my fourth and final point.
It seems to me that the failure to understand these deep cultural and theological vocations are bound to lead to a clash between the church and the media, in which of course the many people who belong firmly in both those camps, including many of you and me as well, are caught in the middle. And at that point we cannot simply settle for short-term pragmatism, for muddling through. We urgently need fresh wisdom to understand how the roles map out side by side and how they might work together rather than in uncomprehending competition. At the moment the church has often retreated, browbeaten and sneered at by some in the media, so that the church creates its own world whether liturgical or theological and only occasionally glances sorrowfully over its high walls at the mess outside. That’s how many in the media like to keep it, of course, but it won’t do. The church has to recapture the art of Spirit-led, wise critique, speaking truth to power, holding up the undistorting mirror to the often distorted and distended ambitions and pretensions of the world’s rulers. And the church needs to do this with mature wisdom, so that it isn’t just shooting from a would-be Christian hip at every problem that comes round the corner but is responding with deep understanding and reflective Christian thoughtfulness. And this is of course where wise Christian journalism has a vital role. The church needs to make space and time, and Christian journalists need to make space and time, prayerfully to work together so that the different kinds of critique which we both must bring may be clearly and properly articulated. This is of course extremely important in a political situation such as we have at the moment, with the opposition in disarray and the government itself having to make things up on the fly. (And that’s only in the UK; let’s not look across the Atlantic just now.) But it is also vital in a situation such as we had in 2003 where 90 percent of MPs voted for a disastrous war which is one of the many contributory causes to our present multiple crises. The church must speak with wisdom and expertise, and not be put off by the neo-atheists or anyone else; the media must recognise that this is part of the church’s vocation and task, and must find ways of working creatively so that the proper vocations of all may be properly exercised. And if possible the church itself should seek out and celebrate its own poets, philosophers and dramatists who, like St Paul in his famous Christ-poem in Philippians 2, are able in sharp and memorable phrases to declare under Caesar’s nose that Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t. This is part of the task of early Christian ‘apocalyptic’: to create a glorious, poetically imagined world in which people are able to glimpse what it might mean to say that on the cross Jesus defeated all the powers of the world, and then to live from within that newly imagined world. And if the church’s artists, musicians and poets are to do this for tomorrow’s world they will need to know how to use the media itself wisely and well.
I am calling, therefore, for a fresh appraisal of the vocations of church and media alike, rooted in a larger biblical theology of the God of Israel, made known in Jesus and the Spirit, and able to address the multiple confusions and sorrows of today’s dangerous world. The vocations themselves are dangerous, there’s no question about that. We will get them wrong and need further internal and external critique and correction. But that is no excuse for not making a fresh start.