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Outside In: The Legacy of Lesslie Newbigin
The purpose of these posts is to reflect on the intersection between Jesus Christ and our contemporary culture. My hope is that if you are skeptical or resistant to Christianity, you might pause to reflect on your pre-existing ideas about the way things are – and perhaps think again. For those who have embraced Christianity, I would like to encourage you in your ability to communicate the gospel in a way that takes our current cultural context seriously.
Please feel free to send me your questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would be delighted to hear topics and themes that would be of interest to you in the future.
After I completed my first year of seminary, my wife, Ashley, and I spent the summer of 2003 in Tokyo. Ashley, who was a student at Columbia Law School, had lined up a summer associate position at a Japanese law firm, whereas I had the good fortune to spend several weeks reading. (Yes, I know; tough life!) While Ashley slaved away in the office Monday through Friday, I would often venture out to a nearby establishment to knock books off my summer reading list. Two things of note happened during these daily excursions. First, I met several grandmothers who seemed puzzled by why a young man who did not speak a lick of Japanese would spend day after day reading books by himself. Many of them generously took it upon themselves to improve my linguistic skills by teaching me to say “coffee” and “cheeseburger” in Japanese. But second, and more importantly, I was introduced to a new way of thinking that revolutionized my conception of the Christian life.
This was the first time that I had spent an extended period in a cross-cultural environment without possessing the ability to speak the language, and this experience prompted me to reflect critically upon my own culture and to grapple with the question of how to communicate the core message of Christianity in a radically different cultural context. Given that I spent the summer overseas, it was fitting that one of the authors whom I read extensively was Lesslie Newbigin, a British missionary who was educated at Cambridge and ordained in the Church of Scotland. In 1936 Newbigin set out to serve as a missionary in India, where he would eventually become a bishop in the fledgling Church of South India. He retired in 1974 and returned to the United Kingdom at which point he entered a new phase of life as a prolific author.
As an author, Newbigin is perhaps best known for his insight that the West has become “foreign territory” from the standpoint of Christianity. He spent the majority of his career in India as a foreign missionary where he learned to embody and communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ within a context in which the prevailing presuppositions of the broader culture made the central claims of Christianity appear incredible. When he returned to the West, however, he discovered that the world had changed while he was gone. Quite to his own astonishment, he was once again facing the same predicament in England that he had experienced in India. As he put it, “One is again in a culture where, when you attempt to communicate the gospel, you are going completely against the stream.”
This came as quite a shock. Newbigin expected to be an outsider in a foreign country, but he was not prepared to feel like an outsider within his own culture. Moreover, Newbigin realized that Western culture is not a “pre-Christian” society, in which the message of Christianity is regarded as novel or attractive, but rather it has become an increasingly “post-Christian” society that is perhaps even more resistant to Christianity for having once been so deeply shaped by it. To add another wrinkle, Newbigin concluded that while Western society is often called “secular,” it is not really a neutral society with no gods, but rather a pluralist society with other gods. At a superficial level, Newbigin identified those alternative gods as money, sex, prestige, power, etc., but he suggested the true reasons for Western society’s rejection of Christianity run much deeper – yet are often hidden from view.
Newbigin surmised that there are unspoken beliefs in every culture that hide a concept of reality. These beliefs about the world are rarely articulated because they are taken for granted. (Don’t bother asking a fish to describe water!) Everyone accepts these beliefs unthinkingly. They are simply assumed and considered beyond question. These unspoken beliefs create what the sociologist Peter Berger called “plausibility structures.” Things that fall within the plausibility structure of Hindu culture or Western culture, for example, are immediately believed, whereas things that contradict it are rejected without even having to think about it. The plausibility structure of a particular culture determines in advance what is and what is not believable.
In the West, the plausibility structure has changed dramatically within a relatively short period of time. Seventy-five years ago, let’s say, the cultural institutions, such as the arts, the academy, the marketplace, the government, as well as the church, all seemed to point to a similar constellation of values and moral truths. That does not mean that everyone was a Christian. We know that is not true. But the various cultural institutions pointed to a set of beliefs and values to which the vast majority of people could agree regarding who God is, who we are as human beings, what is right and wrong, and what happens after we die. Just think of the popularity of biblical blockbusters in the 1950s like The Robe (1953), The Ten Commandments (1956), and Ben-Hur (1959). Even Hollywood supported a view of the world that was largely informed by the Bible. This constellation of values created something like a “religious consciousness” in the back of the mind of the average person. People had a general understanding of concepts like “God,” sin, guilt, and salvation. In sum, the broader culture pointed to a kind of “orthodoxy” that made the Christian gospel seem plausible.
Consider the way in which the self-described atheist Walter Sinott-Armstrong describes growing up in the southern United States during the 1960s in the book Philosophers without God.
“My childhood was inundated with Christianity. It’s not that my family was especially religious. They weren’t. It was just that I grew up in Memphis. Like most southern U.S. cities in the 1960s, Memphis was overflowing with Christianity. There was more Christianity in Memphis than water in the Mississippi River. Just as the Mississippi was hard to escape when it flooded, so Christianity was unavoidable in Memphis, especially around Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving. Anyway, I didn’t try to avoid it. I went along, like any good child would…Religion did not bother me at the time. My point is just that Christianity was so pervasive that any child who grew up in such an environment would be susceptible. Religious thoughts would become automatic. If someone had asked me if I believed in God, I would have answered, ‘Of course,’ not because I had thought about it, but because I had not thought about it.”
Notice that Sinnott-Armstrong describes the religious thoughts of his youth as “automatic.” They did not require reflection. The plausibility structure of Memphis in the 1960s reinforced Christianity. But now, of course, all that has changed. There are still many places in the world where Christianity is received without hesitation, but in a place like New York City, typically religious thoughts are met with automatic skepticism rather than automatic embrace. The unspoken assumptions of contemporary society make the claims of Christianity seem preposterous rather than plausible.
The core message of Christianity is that God became a human being in the person of Jesus Christ not only to show us how to live, but also to die in our place on a wooden cross as a substitute for sin so that we might be reconciled to God. God the Father vindicated Jesus’ claims by raising his one and only Son from the grave to a whole new mode of existence. Those who place their faith in Jesus will be not only forgiven, but also adopted into God’s family and filled with God’s Spirit as a foretaste of the future life God has promised when Jesus returns to restore all of creation. Let’s be honest; to many ears all of this sounds quite strange and far-fetched. To the average person today, the gospel seems as plausible as being abducted by aliens.
What troubled Newbigin most was that Christians in the West have seemed to continue with business as usual without realizing how much has changed. Christians need to wake up to this radically new situation. In addition, Newbigin could not understand why Christians were so timid in light of the new challenges posed by late modern culture. He remarked that when Christians talk about their faith in Jesus Christ, a listener might say, “I can’t believe that!” and many Christians tend to hoist the white flag immediately and say: “Well, of course we can’t expect you to!” But why do Christians in the West fold so easily? A foreign missionary, by contrast, would anticipate that what they have to say about Jesus runs counter to the dominant culture. They would not retreat from the conversation, but rather would try to understand why the Christian message sounds implausible to their listener’s ears in order to make a more compelling case for it.
Newbigin called for Christians to assume the posture of a missionary within their own culture. If you are a Christian, you know that you do not need to cross an ocean to find people who think Christianity is ridiculous, confusing, or strange. All you have to do is cross the hall of your apartment building. The fundamental question that Newbigin asked was: What would be involved in a genuine encounter between the gospel of Jesus and this whole way of perceiving, thinking, and living that we call “modern Western culture?” In many ways, I could say this is the question that drove me to enter the ministry and which has animated my entire career.
So where do we begin in our conversations about spiritual reality? As Newbigin would put it, you have to start with Jesus. Western culture provides us with beliefs, convictions, and understandings about the world in which we live that make Christianity seem absurd. We are told that we can only believe what we can see and touch, measure and analyze. But Jesus provides us with the clue to understanding a deeper reality. If Jesus conquered death on the cross and rose to new life, then the world is a far more complex and mysterious place than we had ever imagined, and one that is far more dazzling and hopeful. If it really happened, then we have to rethink everything we know from this new starting point. Moreover, if Jesus was raised from the dead, then this is not a private matter. This is public truth. Jesus offers us a truth that is not merely true “for me,” but “for the world,” and he provides us with a view of reality that is more inclusive of the whole of human experience than the very helpful, but limited, rationality of a strictly scientific point of view.
How can the gospel of Jesus be considered credible in our contemporary Western society? Newbigin suggested that the most powerful argument for the gospel will be a community of people who believe it and live by it. This is the intrinsic purpose of the church, and this is the kind of community we are seeking to form at Central. Newbigin writes in his classic book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society:
“The reigning plausibility structure can only be effectively challenged by people who are fully integrated inhabitants of another. Every person living in a ‘modern’ society is subject to an almost continuous bombardment of ideas, images, slogans, and stories which presuppose a plausibility structure radically different from that which is controlled by the Christian understanding of human nature and destiny. The power of contemporary media to shape thought and imagination is very great. Even the most alert critical powers are easily overwhelmed. A Christian congregation is a community in which, through the constant remembering and rehearsing of the true story of human nature and destiny, an attitude of healthy skepticism can be sustained, a skepticism which enables one to take part in the life of society without being bemused and deluded by its own beliefs about itself. And, if the congregation is to function effectively as a community of truth, its manner of speaking the truth must not be aligned to the techniques of modern propaganda, but must have the modesty, the sobriety, and the realism which are proper to a disciple of Jesus.”
Newbigin challenges the Christian church to be a place where a healthy skepticism can be maintained regarding what our culture tells us should be believed. There may be more to the world than what meets the eye. In other words, we need to be skeptical about our skepticism.