I’ve watched Adam Curtis’ new film Hypernormalisation twice now, both times late at night – the dreams were trippy. If you’ve not seen it, it is an interesting, if at times exhausting consideration of how we got to many of our current positions of deep distrust of everything we see and hear. For many of us in the West, all experts are biased, politicians are corrupt and the media is run by liars. In the words of the film, ‘we are living in a post-truth society.’ I don’t know if it is all accurate, the content and meaning of the film causes you to question that same content and meaning, but if it is accurate it is as challenging as it is disturbing. Watch it, it’s worth it.
Since watching Hypernormalisation I have been trying to think through what, if the message of the film is accurate, the idea of post-truth society means for the church. How does the church, which for centuries has defined itself as a stronghold of truth and an authority on most things, communicate to this so called post-truth world.
In the small amount of thought I’ve had time to put into the idea, I’ve come up with these three things.
We must return to being a movement of people.
For many the church is seen as a powerful group of wealthy organisations which gather in ‘franchises’ across the world. In a post-truth world this is the definition of something which must be viewed with suspicion. Multi-national, wealthy organisations are the enemy and must be destroyed. If you want evidence for this, search through Twitter discussions about Anglicanism or Catholicism.
The church didn’t start off as an organised religion. It didn’t start off as a wealthy or powerful organisation with layers and layers of law and hierarchy. The church started off as a movement of people who were bound by a view of the world and a story to tell. This view of the world and story led them to not only share their faith by words but by actions of kindness and generosity. It was a movement of people who stood in the face of persecution from power and wealth. If you read the books of Acts and Revelation with the idea in mind that they are the literature of a movement that were diametrically opposed to the idea of Empire you will read them in a slightly different light.
One theme of Hypernormalisation is the focus on people movements such as Occupy and the Arab Spring. These are movements of people which are light on structure but are built around shared belief systems. There are definite influencers within both of these movements but there is no large hierarchy as we have seen with more traditional political movements. These movements, fuelled by social media, are catching the imagination of many and have had significant impact both culturally and politically. The Corbynite movement in the Labour Party, centred around Momentum is another example of this, a people movement, fuelled by social media, that has changed the landscape of UK politics. Old structures have crumbled in the wake of these movements.
It seems that the church’s return to its roots as a people movement and, at the very least, a slimming down of hierarchy and structure is key to its place in current society. The removal of clergy focussed ministry towards an equipping and releasing of regular church members towards service and ministry is essential. If we are to engage in this world we must move from the layers of authority structure we have, towards circles of influence in which every player is a key player in the mission. Recent church strategy has been that individual leaders cast a vision and design projects which are then filled by church members – ‘professionals’ guide ‘amateurs.’ Church as a movement of people will be a group of people filled with the culture and values of the Jesus released into living those values out in society. The vision is culture and value, not projects, events and organisations.
The dominant learning style enacted within churches is still aural learning, that is, one person gives a lecture, sharing their opinion on a set topic or passage of scripture. The vast majority of church members play a passive role in this experience. In essence it is the model which the post-truth society railed against and ‘people are sick of experts as Michael Gove told us during the endless Brexit debate.
I don’t think we should throw out theological training and I don’t think we should remove the voices of those who have committed their lives to study of the Bible but I do think we need to be studying the scripture collaboratively. It’s why I love the Havarim groups run by Pais. Havarim groups, named from a Hebrew word meaning ‘friends who learn together,’ is a method of learning the truths of Christianity in which most members of the group are active participants in the forming of the message. At the Havarim group I attended for a 8 weeks experts were involved but mainly via smartphone web searches. People discovered the knowledge for themselves via the internet and shared those discoveries in the group. This is a teaching method that sits well in Adam Curtis’ post-truth world – everyone is given credence and the expert in the room doesn’t dominate the discussion.
We must move towards more collaborative forms of church. Not just in learning, but also in how we form and cast vision and create outreach projects. If Hypernormalisation’s premise is correct, and the world is moving towards ‘post-truth’ culture then every church member’s voice must be involved. We must move from top down teaching towards this form of collective, crowd-sourced theological learning.
Kindness trumps moralism.
Don’t get me wrong, holiness is still a vital part of vibrant Christian faith but as culture has moved on rapidly in the past 40 years the church has worked hard to enforce the morality of those who make a choice to follow Christ on those who do not. This has involved the entrenchment of the idea of Christian nations which seems to be at odds with what I think is a Biblical idea that the Kingdom of God exists outside and superseding any sense of nationhood.
The second outcome of this type of holiness movement has been that the voice of the church in the public square has been known more for the legislation of personal morality than it has as a voice of justice. Of course there are many within the church that have been shouting loudly about social justice but what has been heard more loudly by many outside of the church is a moralistic voice.
The church that I have experienced throughout most have my life has been a holiness movement which has played out with what has boiled down to behavioural control which qualified one as a ‘good witness’ and the lack of this control labelled you as a ‘backslider.’ Of course this was all done under the understanding of, but in some ways opposed to, the belief that holiness is actually the result of undeserved grace and a result of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The holiness movement of the church of the past decades has involved avoiding certain people, a quote from one highly influential leader – ‘don’t associate with sinners,’ and behavioural focussed holiness as a qualification for mission.
Are we in need of rediscovery of the meaning of holiness? If your holiness movement involves avoiding ‘sinners’ it is not a holiness movement. Nor is it a holiness movement if it doesn’t have kindness and social justice at its heart. Nor should it be based on self-improvement. If holiness was based upon our personal ability to behave, as opposed to the imputed righteousness of Jesus, then there is no need for the the crucifixion and resurrection. Any holiness movement that is based around shouting at the world outside from the safety of a stain-glass fortress has at its core a deep misunderstanding of the message of Jesus.
If we are to continue to have a place in modern society our public energy must focus upon kindness and generosity, no matter the belief or behaviour of those we seek to show kindness and generosity to, and not upon attempts to control the morality of people who do not share our beliefs. We cannot cry foul when our behaviour and morality is challenged by the media, the law or by culture, when we have for years challenged the behaviour and morality of others. We must stop behaving as if we deserve a special place in society whilst challenging the same thing for other faiths and groups.
If Adam Curtis is correct, the ‘controlling, moralist voice’ that speaks out to the world will continue to be rejected as behavioural control is deemed the enemy. We must become a movement of kindness again, and work hard to lose the label of an angry moralist organisation that we have worked so hard to earn. For the louder we shout at people, the less they are going to listen in the world that Curtis’ has painted.
I believe there is a bright future for the church in the West. I believe that we are in a rapid process of reformation towards a new normality in the life of the Christian faith. I’m excited for how the church will thrive in the world that Adam Curtis paints. Much of the heritage of our faith places us in the right place to live well in this world but we must engage with reform and embrace change and move towards a more collaborative, kindness-centred people movement.