Connecting with Culture
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As Christians, we’re called to join in God’s mission to see shalom fill his world. He invites us to seek the peace and prosperity of the places we’re in, helping everyone and everything around us flourish. In other words, we all have a duty to work towards ‘the common good’.
But that’s a lot easier said than done. It can feel like our world is constantly fragmenting into factions, in our personal lives as well as on the national stage. How can we counter these divisions and truly work for the good of all, not just the people we agree with?
That’s the question explored in this blog series. In four articles, four authors will have a conversation, responding to each other’s work and ‘triple listening’ to wisdom from the word of God, the world, and one another. Together, they’ll give you ideas for how to live faithfully and distinctively – not as an embattled fringe, but as a ‘creative minority’ – right in the midst of the disagreements that plague everyday life.
The series accompanies our Wisdom Lab: The Common Good event, at which each of the authors will deliver a TED-style talk on their topic.
We’ve already listened to what’s going on, imagined what should be, and considered how to create a fruitful response. In the final article of this series, Hannah Rich, senior researcher at Theos and director of Christians on the Left, helps us communicate the good news of the gospel to people with very different perspectives.
The day of the event
So far, we have followed Sarah and her colleagues Jill and Ben as planned and organised their office event on faith and accountancy. They’ve listened, imagined, and created a way of engaging across difference within their workplace. They have laid much of the groundwork for a healthier conversation. Crucially, they have done this in a way that guarantees that their Muslim and secular counterparts, as well as those who aren’t quite sure how they’d identify themselves in terms of religion and belief, are able to articulate their own vision of the common good in the world of accountancy, as Jonathan Chaplin noted in his earlier piece.
Throughout it all, they’ve modelled something of this within their own group too. Both Ben – a ‘pluralist’ who had concerns about whether the event might offend those of other beliefs – and Jill – a ‘saturationist’ with a strong desire to defend the Christian perspective and gospel – are looking forward to the conversation. As Jenny Leith reminded us in her piece, ‘cultivating a posture of humility is at the heart of forming us into the kind of people who are able to seek the common good’. We’ve seen how Sarah and her colleagues have navigated the process so far with this godly humility, actively seeking other perspectives and respecting each other across difference.
Let’s turn to look at the day of the first event itself. For some of the colleagues attending, the fact that they feel comfortable to do so is testament to the humility and grace shown so far. Kate sits next to Sarah in the office and knows she is a Christian, but has never interacted with the Christian Fellowship before. She has a few negative preconceptions about Christianity, but is intrigued by the idea that faith might have anything to do with the nitty-gritty of their work as accountants.
Another colleague, Leila, is a practising Muslim who has never before heard her faith discussed or valued in her workplace and is impressed that this event is being held. Jack, meanwhile, is confident that faith isn’t his cup of tea, but is part of the Green Accountancy group and is interested to hear how the deeper values and principles behind their industry might better serve the common good of both people and planet.
Much of the success of this work now hangs on how the various views and visions of the common good are communicated. Kate, Leila, and Jack all bring different perspectives, with different expectations and fears which might be reinforced if the message is conveyed without the humility and grace they’ve been pleasantly surprised to recognise in the Christian Fellowship recently.
‘Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.’ (Colossians 4:6)
What might it look like for Sarah and her Christian colleagues to communicate their Christian faith well, in this marketplace of different ideas, so that all three take something away?
Lessons from politics
In answering this, I want to start by drawing on a perhaps unlikely source of inspiration: the world of political canvassing. In many ways, evangelism is not so dissimilar from political campaigning, or at least there are things to learn from it. (Hear me out here.) Politics is often painted as an aspect of our common life riven with division, anger, and questionable motives.
But I honestly believe the reality is that the vast majority of our politicians, activists and campaigners of all stripes are, in truth, driven by their own vision of the common good, however divergent those visions appear. After all, politics is about the polis – the life of a people learning to live together amidst difference. Christianity, then, is inherently ‘political’ in this essential sense, with the kingdom of God our answer to this question of how to live well together.
This might not be something you think is routinely on display in Westminster politics, but let’s zoom out from that epicentre for a minute. Local politics is happening all the time too. It looks like thousands of interactions between activists and voters on doorsteps; with local elections across the UK in just a few weeks’ time, perhaps you’ve even begun to engage in them. Those conversations aren’t a million miles away from some of what we might call ‘evangelistic’ conversations, similar to the sort that Sarah might hope to have in the course of today’s event.
Firstly, they start from the belief that what you’re offering is ultimately going to be good news for the person you’re speaking to. Fundamental to winning someone over in politics is demonstrating to the other person – be they a politician from a different party or a member of the public – that your vision can and will lead to mutual flourishing. It’s about telling the story of why your party exists, why it cares, and why this is a better story than the others around, why it works for the good of all in these divided times.
For individual candidates, it might also be about demonstrating how the bigger story of a party connects with their own personal story; how they came to find the party’s message convincing enough to stake their career on it. The words of 1 Peter 3:15 hold true here: we should always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks us to give the reason for the hope that we have, be that political or spiritual.
If you’re motivated enough to spend a rainy Saturday morning knocking doors, or even to stand for election, you’re already deeply invested in the political vision or ideology of your party. Similarly, Sarah, Jill, and Ben are all, in their own way, convinced of the truth of the gospel and its goodness not only for them, but for others, and consequently want to share it.
Taking it further, we might start from the position of assuming the same to be true of everyone else. This is trickier. If you are coming from contrary perspectives, it might be hard to see how the manifesto and policy platforms laid out by an opponent can truly lead to the flourishing of all, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t motivated by the sincere belief that they can do so.
Assuming bad faith in our neighbour doesn’t serve anyone, but might undermine the possibility of a healthy discussion, or the potential of reaching consensus.
Secondly, political campaigning often involves engaging with people who not only don’t share your vision of the world, but also can’t grasp how your vision could be for their good, or might be something they need. Take Jack, for example. He isn’t hostile to religion or Christianity as such; he simply doesn’t feel that strongly. He has never felt the need to explore religion, nor noticed something missing in his life. He also can’t quite fathom how his grandparents consistently vote for a political party that don’t seem to have improved their lives or their local community; can’t they see that there are better options?
In a not too dissimilar way, the evidence of a transformed life can point those around us to the truth of our faith.
Thirdly, I’d suggest that the balance between listening and communicating is critical; the ‘listening’ part didn’t stop with the first phase of this series. We might take inspiration from Francis Schaeffer’s quote, cited by Dave Benson, about the proportion of time we ought to spend listening versus propounding the truth. Schaeffer wrote that, ‘if I have only an hour with someone, I will spend the first 55 minutes asking questions and finding out what is troubling their heart and mind, and then in the last five minutes I will share something of the truth.’
Political campaigners know that the same is true of any good electoral interaction, albeit those conversations rarely last an hour. Fifty-five minutes (or the equivalent) of hearing a constituent’s concerns about streetlights, primary school places, and council tax earns you the right to share with them something of why your party – both locally and nationally – deserves their vote. Any time spent canvassing will quickly tell you that people’s concerns, and objections, to politics are often related to more specific local or even personal matters than big-picture policy.
The same is true when it comes to faith. For some people, the question of where God is, or isn’t, in their day-to-day life and interests might more quickly get to the heart of what challenges their faith, as opposed to big picture theology.
We might consider that ‘where was God during my terrible day at work?’ is the theological equivalent of ‘what will you do about bin collections?’ Both relate to bigger questions – the problem of evil, the policy of local government funding – but do so in a way that feels like it matters.
A key principle in all these conversations, both theological and political, is that they should not start by invalidating what someone else believes, or dismissing it as stupid. No political argument was ever won by convincing the other person that their previous voting decisions were foolish. Doing so is more likely to put them on the defensive. Far better to sway them with the good news of the better vision you are offering this time around.
A personal bugbear of mine is the slogan beloved by many on my own side of the political spectrum, who boast that they have ‘never kissed a Tory’. You can buy it on mugs or t-shirts and I really don’t like it. Maybe the mug is just a bit of fun. But the idea that a political opponent is so wrong and different that you should be proud of having never kissed them seems unhelpful to me.
Conversely, it is also on us – or on Sarah, in this case – to present the gospel in such a way that it cannot be written off as stupid. In terms of people’s perceptions of Christianity, and of faith more generally, there is value in shifting the dial from ‘stupid’ to ‘wrong’. That is to say, some of those most hostile to the idea of belief are quick to dismiss it primarily as stupid or unintelligent; Kate would be the first to admit she’s often jumped to this.
To engage with faith as an intellectually valid and robust position, albeit one you do not hold, requires a different tenor of debate. Kate is surprised by the heft and breadth of the economic and theological texts Sarah is able to quote from in her talk. She recognises some of the names of economists and theorists she studied in her own degree, who seem to have quietly brought their faith to bear on their economic thought. These are heavyweights, she thinks. If Kate goes away from this afternoon still agnostic about the existence of God, but less dismissive of the intellect of those who profess it, then the dial towards belief is gently moved, and that’s a good thing.
After the event
The successful event draws to a close. There were, as expected, some points of disagreement, but these were handled gently. The overall consensus was that, for the common good of the firm and the wider economy, they ought to hold similar forums regularly. Sarah, Ben, Jill, Kate, Leila, and Jack have all gone away with new perspectives on their work, as well as deeper insights into their own beliefs and values.
A week or so later, Sarah is keen to hear how her colleagues found the event, so she arranges to go for a one-to-one coffee (she’s buying) and a chat with a few of them. All of them mention how pleasantly surprised they were by the event’s tone and content.
Leila warmly talks about how great it was to find others in the company who share a deep religious faith and that they’re able to talk about their beliefs in such a respectful way. She wonders if they might set up an informal interfaith dialogue group, where those who are interested can continue to share articles and insights into how their own religion intersects with the world of accounting.
Over a flat white, Kate chats to Sarah about how thoughtful and intelligent the contributions were, and how refreshing that was compared to some of her ideas of what it means to have faith. She asks if Sarah can suggest some further reading on the topic of faith and the economy.
Jack, meanwhile, admits he was concerned that he might feel coerced, but found nothing of the sort. He’s able to be completely honest with Sarah that he’s still firmly agnostic – he can’t see that changing any time soon – but his resolute secularism has been challenged by the common ground between his environmental activist colleagues and Sarah’s Christian group.
In turn, they each ask Sarah why she wanted to run the event in the first place, leaving her the space to share something of her personal story and beliefs.
As she answers, she finds herself reflecting on this common good journey. A month ago, the thought of directly sharing her faith with any one of these colleagues, who she only knew as names and faces, would have felt quite daunting.
Now though, it comes naturally to her to tell them each the truth very simply, having put in the metaphorical 55 minutes of listening and getting to know their stories: that to her, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is the best imaginable story. She shares with Kate, who does the same job role as her, how her faith is what gives her work purpose even on the more stressful days when they both feel up against it. To Jack, it’s a story that compels people to protect the environment, and steward well God’s creation. For Leila, she talks about how believing in a God who is interested in every aspect of life lets her bring that faith into her everyday work, rather than leaving it at the door during her 9-5. Think about the people around you in your everyday life – what are their hopes and fears, and how might the gospel speak to them?
Senior Researcher, Theos