What is a Christian poet? This seemingly inane question had the power, at one time,to drive me to distraction. Discipled in a good Christian youth group and struggling to write, I would spend hours with pen and paper, or hunched over my 18th birthday present - a portable Olivetti typewriter - trying with all my might to write words that I could legitimately describe as ‘Christian’. The problem was that my training told me that ‘Christian’ words would be words about ‘Christian’ things, and every poem should somehow capture the Gospel message. If I couldn’t get halfway up Calvary by verse two, the game was lost. Good theology never seemed to make good writing: and good writing took me to places my evangelical framework was telling me not to go. It was a frustrating and ultimately fruitless time. I knew I wanted to write, and I knew I wanted to honour God – but I found it all but impossible to do both at once: and the waste bin at my feet spilled over with screwed-up, half-made poetry.
Imagine the sense of liberation when I discovered how wrong I had been. I remember it to this day with the force of a second conversion. Somebody helped me open a window, and I came to understand that Christian writing was not writing about Christian subjects - it was writing about every subject, seen through the eyes of one who is seeking to follow Christ. Suddenly I could write about anything, and yet be true to my faith. And I did.
Love, marriage, parenthood, nature and the urban landscape all featured in a torrent of writing over a period of around four years, along with filofaxes, shopping trolleys, Mormons and waterbeds.
This is a fairly graphic – if personal – picture of a problem that has dogged the Christian church from birth. Usually described as dualism or as the sacred-secular divide, the tendency to divide the world into two distinct camps – holy and unholy, sacred and profane, church and world – is present in just about every phase of our heritage and history, and holds us back from knowing the true depth and richness of God.
The champions of this approach at the time of Jesus were the Pharisees; the most religious of Jews, living-out a creed of separation and piety.
Pharisees were respectable, clean living, judgemental and legalistic; and Jesus went out of his way to distance himself from their approach. Proclaiming the arrival of the Kingdom of God, he preached a faith based not on religious observance but on the rule of God – discovered and explored in every area of life. “The word Christian means different things to different people”, Eugene Peterson has written “To one person it means a stiff, uptight, inflexible way of life, colourless and unbending. To another it means a risky, surprise-filled venture, lived tiptoe at the edge of expectation.… If we restrict ourselves to biblical evidence, only the second image can be supported.”
What are we to do, as the 21st century unfolds before us, to avoid the distortions of dualism? How can we abolish the sacred-secular divide? The four suggestions offered here are have been road-tested in my own experience. They are by no means a comprehensive solution: but they offer, all the same, four places to begin.
1. Connect with Creation
“If you want to understand the Creator”, said Columbanus “seek to understand created things.” There is a clearly theological dimension to the problem of dualism. At its heart is the forgotten truth that God is, first and foremost, our creator. Before he was the God of Sinai or of Calvary, our God was the God of Eden. His relationship with the world begins in the fact that he made it.
“Heartbeat in everything”, Andy Thornton sings, “you make the stars and the atoms spin”. From sub-atomic particles to exploding super-novas, from the invisibly small to the unimaginably vast, the cosmos is bathed in the love and care of its creator. Dualism is ill founded because – by definition – there can be no part of created reality that is not God’s domain. As Abraham Kuyper said: “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out ‘This is mine – this belongs to me’. Rediscovering the claims of God over the wideness of the world he has made is a vital first step in bridging the ‘sacred-secular divide’.
2. Make ‘sacred’ the ‘secular’
A second step lies in ‘making sacred’ the spheres of life we have thought of as ‘secular’. If our prayer and worship has tended to unfold in artificially separated, ‘holy ’places, how can we learn to ‘practice the presence of God’ in the real world?
Firstly, we can offer the ordinary. Jean-Pierre de Caussade in ‘The sacrament of the Present Moment’ writes:“To discover God in the smallest and most ordinary things, as well as in the greatest is to possess a rare and sublime faith. How might ‘secular places’ be transformed if we could learn to offer to God, as an act of worship, each ordinary task we face? Is it possible to live in such a way that our daily routines become a sustained conversation with God, in which we share our lives with him as completely as we would if he walked physically beside us?
Secondly, we can learn to linger. “A popular saying”, writes Dallas Willard, “is ‘take time to smell the roses’. What does this mean? To enjoy the rose it is necessary to focus on it and bring the rose as fully before our senses and mind as possible. To smell a rose you must get close, and you must linger.” All too often we don’t discern the involvement on God in our ‘secular’ world because we don’t take the time to seek His presence there, to create moments of stillness in the flow and fury of our busy lives.
3. Smuggle the ‘secular’ into the ‘sacred’
In my teenage years I was an enthusiastic jumble–sale shopper. Saturday afternoons were often spent out-flanking and out-smarting the old ladies who would quite happily dig you in the ribs with their umbrella to get to the choice items before you. One of my prize purchases – which became a favourite for many years – was a full-length gabardine customs-officer’s coat. It still had the official labels, and was so heavy that on a wet day it gave me backache. It was dark blue, and swished when I walked in it. It’s this kind of coat I imagine being worn by the invisible customs officers who guard many of our churches. These highly skilled operatives hover somewhere near the door of the church building. Their aim is simple: to prevent any hint of the real world being carried into worship. So well do they perform their task that most worshippers don’t even attempt to smuggle reality in: we willingly go through the mental gymnastics that ensure that the things that seemed to matter so much just moments before we entered the building – issues in our marriages and relationships; pressures and decisions at work; news reports about starving children and the inequities of globalisation; our concern at the proposed closure of the local hospital – have evaporated like scotch mist by the time we are ‘in church’.
True worship, Maggi Dawn has said, “is the crucible where real life and experience meet theology head on.” Worship that takes our minds away from the concerns of the real world is escapism. Writing of the depth and beauty of the Lord’s Prayer, Tom Wright reminds us, “We live, as Jesus lived, in a world all too full of injustice, hunger, malice and evil. This prayer cries out for justice, bread, forgiveness and deliverance.” And yet we so often fail to make the connection, and pray this and other prayers as if they had everything to do with the world inside the church’s walls, and nothing to do with the suffering and pain that thunder outside. Dualism, if we’re honest, rears its ugly head in all of our lives.
4. Opt for obedience
The trump card played by Pharisees down through the ages has always been their claim that they have chosen the harder – and therefore nobler – path. Avoiding ‘worldliness’ is tough: it demands discipline and sacrifice and sets you apart from the crowd, or so it seems. In reality, the reverse is true.
Dualism is actually an easy option – a kind of religious cop-out. It is always easier to label things than it is to understand them, sorting the boxes of our lives into ‘holy ’ and ‘unholy’ like homeowners preparing for a move. Wrestling with obedience and holiness in the mud and grime of the real world is hard work: it takes energy and commitment, and more often than not leaves us bruised. Successive generations have found that it is easier simply to define certain things as holy and stick with them. It’s like shopping from a catalogue instead of trudging the length of the high street, like growing blackberries in a greenhouse to save the hassle of harvesting the hedgerows.
Dualism limits the spheres in which we need to be obedient to God. If the theatre and card playing are outside of the scope of the Kingdom, then we will never face the hard work of finding out just what it means to be obedient to God in these activities. If our ‘work life’ is not part of our ‘church life’ then we never need to wrestle with the issues of ethics, justice and righteousness that unfold around us every day.
By contrast, the decision to seek the Kingdom in all these spheres will land us with the hard task of unravelling their complexities and working out what the rule of God demands of us. Seeking the Kingdom in every sphere does not let us off the hook of obedience; it spears us right on it. The salt and light of kingdom people is squeezed out of them in the midst of complex, pressurised and difficult situations.
Writing in AD200, an observer of the faith that had swept through the Roman Empire like a flood said, “Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humankind either in locality or in speech or in customs. For they dwell not somewhere in cities of their own, neither do they use some different language, nor practice an extraordinary kind of life. … While they dwell in cities of Greeks and Barbarians … and follow the native customs in dress and food and the other arrangements of life, yet the constitution of their own citizenship, which they set forth, is marvelous, and confessedly contradicts expectations.”
How willing are we to take on the hard work – supporting one another in the tough thinking and action that obedience demands – to make of the 21st Century church a body as radical of that of the 1st, with an equal capacity to connect with its culture?