Ben Chang’s new book Christ and the Culture Wars aims to help Christians speak for Jesus in an increasingly divisive world. Heather Tomlinson says that although the ideas aren’t new, they may prove useful for those who are new to the subject of identity politics
Few people disagree with the idea that women, racial minorities, transgender and gay people should be treated well and not discriminated against. But today’s debate has gone much further than that, as Ben Chang describes in his book, Christ and the Culture Wars
Now, the discussion around these issues includes claims of the intrinsic injustices of our societies and their structures: for example white privilege and the patriarchy that oppress ethnic minorities and women. Radical change is prescribed.
Yet the movements that profess to challenge these oppressive structures have grown powerful themselves. Criticising them or questioning them can get you cancelled – where important people will not work with you or engage with you. Just ask author JK Rowling, whose opinion that men cannot just change their gender and become women, has led her to be widely ostracised – some editors refused to work on a recent book, and Harry Potter actors regularly criticising her.
Many Christian pastors have got involved in these kind of debates, and are loudly arguing either for or against.
If you’re aware of these culture wars this is all old news, but much of the general public – especially older generations and the working class – are only just starting to hear about it. So what should the churches that aren’t already dressed in battle armour and fighting hard, do about all this?
This book’s title might give the impression that Chang is taking up his sword himself – but when he says “speaking for Jesus” in the title, he means evangelism, not taking a side in political arguments. He argues that the new social justice narratives make preaching the gospel harder, and Christians need to reflect and think about this from a missional point of view.
This book could therefore be useful in your average church, as a very short and brief summary of what are complicated and important topics. It starts by outlining the old school kind of feminism and civil rights movements that most people are familiar with, and moves on to the more recent changes in these movements. The coverage is necessarily short and highly selective, and as such it will probably annoy anyone who knows a lot about these topics. But as an introduction, it is helpful. It’s also not too partisan – it presents the events without drama and only briefly mentions some of the arguments and counter-arguments.
Next, the author critiques how the Church is responding, and what these societal changes mean for evangelism. In a nutshell, he argues our response hasn’t been good, and that we will have to rethink how we present the gospel.
He uses existing frameworks from well-established conservative evangelicals to think through these ideas, including theologian Christopher Wright, the late John Stott, and psychiatrist Glynn Harrison.
He argues that so far, the church has largely either mirrored the identity politics debates, e.g. claiming Christians are a persecuted group; argued, by debating the issues such as whether transgender teenagers should be given puberty blockers or whether it’s fair to describe groups of people as oppressors; – or finally, ignored the problem, hoping it will go away. He criticises all these approaches and says they’re not working.
This is somewhat simplistic. For example, I think the reason many Christians are “ignoring” the situation is more about the fact that many are not aware of it, as it has not affected their day to day lives. It’s possible to be unaware if they don’t spend much time on Twitter, live in big cities or work in education or the public sector.
Ben’s suggestion – which is nothing new – is that Christians need to tell a “better story” to engage modern social justice campaigners with the gospel. He looks at some possibilities – nothing new, again – such as historian Tom Holland’s analysis that a lot of the positive aspects of progressive politics come from Christianity. He takes some of the principles of the social justice movements, such as oppression, justice, freedom and equality, and gives short suggestions of how Christianity presents the best answer to and/or embodiment of these ideals.
He also argues that the redemptive power of the gospel should be emphasised, though it has not been well used in mainstream evangelism products such as Alpha and Christianity Explored. There seems to be an invite here to the well-known speakers who are quoted in and have endorsed this little book.
Finally, he says that Christians need to live out their faith better to share the gospel. Again, that’s hardly a new idea.
If the ideas aren’t fresh, the concise summary and the presentation of the problem is. But, the proof is in the pudding. Can he show that a different approach helps to engage modern activists with the gospel? I am sceptical, because I question the motivations of the new movements and their roots. I think a deeper look at the anger, pride and hunger for power that lies behind the negative side of modern “identity politics” is needed. These negative human instincts also lie behind the numerous problems in the Church and its witness, so acknowledgement of past wrongs, repentance, grace and truth are all required.
A deeper spiritual diagnosis is lacking in this book. However, for ordinary evangelicals who are not too invested in the culture wars already, it is a useful start.
Christ and the Culture Wars: Speaking for Jesus in a world of identity politics by Ben Chang (Christian Focus) is published on 16 May
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