Mark Greene wonders if we’ve learned anything in the past decade
December 31st 1999 – Millennium Eve. I wonder if you remember what you thought the following ten years would bring.
The nation had just voted John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ as the song of the millennium, our fondness for its melancholy yearning perhaps best capturing our tentative hope that our world might actually get better.
Ten years on and it hasn’t. Ten years ago most of us hadn’t heard of al-Qaeda and most of us had never been through the kind of financial meltdown that may well take us 20 years to recover from. Ten years ago Christian leaders were wondering how to get religion on the national agenda, now it’s on the agenda, but often for all the wrong reasons.
And ten years ago, most cultural commentators were telling us that we were in the postmodern era, that there was no longer one overarching story driving Western society forward, and that the age of the rationalistic enlightenment was over.
Societies are made up of many different primary institutions – government, business, voluntary sector, church, family. According to Calvin all these ‘spheres’, as he called them, should be submitted to Christ. In different historical periods, different spheres have become dominant. So, in the 12th century, the dominant sphere in Europe was the Catholic Church. All the others were affected by it and operated in terms of its priorities. In the 19th century the dominant institution was government. In the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century, business has become the dominant institution. As such, the dominant priorities and ideologies and language of business are likely to shape the priorities and language of all the other institutions in our society.
Now this is not to demonise business. According to the Bible, business, like all work in partnership with God’s kingdom cause, exists to contribute to human flourishing (Genesis 1, Genesis 2:15, Colossians 1:20) by creating goods and services that make people’s lives better. Business has a high calling. There is no poverty alleviation without wealth generation. The poor need jobs, not just aid, and the Church has spent far too much time wagging its finger at commerce and too little working out how to help business people fulfill their God-given mandate. More people have been lifted out of a dollar a day poverty in China and India in the last ten years than all the aid that has been poured into Africa in the last 50. Nevertheless, as we look to the future we need to discern the ideas that are driving business and therefore our whole world and ask ourselves whether they are likely to lead to human flourishing.
MODERN LIFE IS ISM
Now, the three main ideas driving business are modernism, individualism and consumerism. All three are deeply opposed to the gospel. But it’s modernism that is, for many, the surprising survivor.
Modernism is the child of the enlightenment. Modernism believes that reason and education and science and technology will deliver a better future. They haven’t, but the machine whirrs on and on and on. Modernism measures things. And so the business disciplines of measurement, of outputs, of quotas, quarterly results, targets, percentiles, league tables are imposed on every area of life.
Indeed, business terminology has come to dominate the way we think about the world. Psychologists no longer have patients they have clients. Even art teachers no longer have students, they have clients. The NHS does not measure itself by patient wellbeing but by the number of people treated, the number of operations performed against what timetable.
As for education, well, if you are a reader of The Times you’ll have seen countless articles evaluating a university education in terms of how much more income it will deliver to the individual over a lifetime, rather than how it might contribute to the enrichment of our national communal life to have well-trained, articulate, literate people. Chillingly, in The Times of December 2nd a chart appeared evaluating ‘school productivity’ by measuring two outputs – GCSE results and school attendance – against four inputs – staff, inputs, services, capital. There was nothing about character, nothing about happiness, about current contribution to society, about parental satisfaction.
Still, lest we gloat too loudly over this reductionism, ask yourself whether we Christians and our pastors are too prone to evaluate the ‘success’ of our churches based on ABC – on how many people Attend on a Sunday, the state of our Buildings and how much Cash we have in the bank, rather than on ‘D’, on the extent to which people are being discipled to follow Jesus in all of life. The question ‘Is the church growing?’ is, after all, almost always a question about numbers, not about character, or love, or obedience, or poverty of spirit, or meekness. Indeed, in such a culture, the title of Elim General Superintendent John Glass’ book Building Bigger People is profoundly radical.
Overall then, despite the assertion that we are living in a postmodern culture without any overarching story, we are actually living in a hypermodern culture where the overarching story is: performance matters. You are only as good as your last quarter’s results. In sum, one of the main drivers of our culture is that old enemy: salvation by works.
What overarching narrative have our children been reared on? Your future depends on your exam results – salvation by SATs, by GCSEs and A levels. Fail here and your life is over. The result is that our children are brought up with anxiety as a constant companion. In this kind of a worldview it is success that gives you significance – and this ideology has penetrated all our major institutions, colours so much of our language and corrodes so many of our interactions.
However, according to the gospel, we are already significant. God thought of us before the foundation of the earth, knit us together in our mother’s wombs and will have had his loving eye on us from our first breath to our last. There was nothing we could do to make God think of us in his mind before the foundation of the earth and there was nothing we did to make ourselves worthy of being created – we weren’t around. Similarly, there was nothing we did in our mother’s wombs to make us worthy of being born. And there is nothing we have done or will ever be able to do earn God’s love. Indeed, if we measure ourselves by his standards, all of us fail. The good news is that our future is not dependent on what we do, on our works, but on our response to what he has done in Christ, on his work.
Christ’s sacrificial love for us opens the way. Indeed, it is out of a profound and deep acceptance of that love, of our inherent significance, that we are liberated to seek success. God’s love, then, is both a springboard and a parachute. The experience of being loved launches people into adventures that the fearful would not contemplate. And what adventures he has for us – not least in fulfilling our role in being shalom-makers, cooperating with him in making his world a better place.
Secondly, because we will stumble, fail, blow it, the active knowledge of being loved by the king of the universe cushions our fall when otherwise we might come down to earth and shatter. We may start on our knees but he is there to help us to our feet. In his service.
In sum, as we begin a new decade we can be as confident of the power of the gospel of grace to put the numerical pharisaism of modernism in its place just as Paul was confident of the power of the gospel to demonstrate the futility of first century pharisaism.
You are worth more than whatever it says on your annual appraisal form. So are your colleagues and neighbours. Pray that the Lord will help us all find a way to tell them.