On Cultural Apologetics: A response to the critics of Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon

Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the royal wedding has had quite a response. The Twitterverse and Blogworld have been throbbing with a multitude of reactions, from the positive to the negative to the bemused to the surprised. My response here is to my brothers and sisters in Christ who have been critical of the sermon. I’m very grateful to friends who have sent me articles that are critical of the sermon (and the preacher…), as it has pushed me to articulate my gut feeling about it all. I’ll begin by summarising what are the main lines of critique:

  • Archbishop Justin Welby should not have invited such a divisive figure in the Anglican Communion to be the preacher at the Royal Wedding. The Anglican Communion has censured the United States Episcopal Church, and this invitation seems to be a bit of a slap in the face. Gavin Ashenden talks about this in part in this video here.
  • The ‘love’ which +Curry talks about lacked definition, and could mean anything the listener wanted it to mean. Take this, for example, written by David Robertson:

Everyone loved it. It was so post-modern that everyone could take their own meaning from it. Atheist, agnostic, or Christian – it didn’t matter. You could take that sermon ‘all you need is love’ and quote it in support of your own views.

Gavin Ashenden’s incisive review of the sermon noted that +Curry’s talk of love did not take in the whole picture of the Biblical framework:

So it isn’t enough to talk about ‘love’ as Michael Curry did. It’s a very poor word in English, because it means so many different and sometimes contradictory things. While falling in love with someone is an epic experience, it does not automatically lead to the road to heaven. In fact, it can even get in the way of loving Jesus and serving the Kingdom of Heaven.

And considering +Curry’s views on homosexuality, it could easily be pushed as an emphasis on same-sex relationships (which was probably in the background of the bishop’s thoughts). Ashenden noted that this was an unconditional love without repentance as a response, which goes against the Biblical understanding.

  • It promoted a social-gospel version of Christianity, which declared that if we just love one another enough, the world would be a better place. +Curry’s quotation of Teilhard de Chardin’s views that the harnessing of love would bring about a new age of humanity was aptly criticised by Ashenden:

Jesus taught the poor will always be with us. He taught that the politics of this world will not change. They will get sometime much worse, and sometimes only a little worse. He taught that his followers needed to tell about and invite people into the Kingdom of Heaven, not a non-existent political utopia.

Furthermore, Jesus’ sacrifice appears from the sermon to be exemplary, not representative, substitutional, or even a ‘Christus Victor’ model. It appears that for +Curry, the Cross means something because we can imitate that kind of sacrificial love.

There was much more that was said. Strangely enough, I agree with much of what these critics say. I agree that given the tense atmosphere of the Anglican Communion, for the Communion’s sake it wasn’t the best idea to invite the bishop. I agree that the love which the bishop talked about lacked definition and could mean whatever you wanted it to mean. And furthermore, I agree that the social gospel which the bishop promotes is utopianism which does not recognise the spiritually desperate state which humanity is in, which can only be solved by a Saviour whose Cross saves us because we are unable to follow his example.

I recognise these criticisms of the sermon as legitimate criticisms. There is a problematic underlying theology here, which I would, on any other occasion, try to tackle head-on.

But this time is not the time.

Let me give you a bit of context to why I feel this way. First let’s look at a few music videos on YouTube. In the music video to the song Real Love by Clean Bandit, we see many representations of love, both gay and straight. The video to Clean Bandit’s love song Symphony is a sympathetic story about a same-sex relationship. Another big music star, Macklemore, has written a song called Same Love, which is an anthem in favour of gay marriage. One of the biggest hits of 2014 was called Take Me to Church by Hozier. It was not, however, a song about faith, by any means. Instead, it was an anti-Catholic, pro-gay marriage song, with a video that showed a gay couple being horrendously hounded by violent homophobes. Hozier sings about the church experience he had concerning his homosexuality –

Every Sunday’s getting more bleak
A fresh poison each week
‘We were born sick, ‘ you heard them say it

– and responds with a vision of his own alternative (non-Christian) ‘church’ –

My church offers no absolutes
She tells me ‘worship in the bedroom’
The only heaven I’ll be sent to
Is when I’m alone with you
I was born sick, but I love it
Command me to be well
Amen, Amen, Amen

I point these videos out to you simply because of the numbers of people who are watching them. Real Love has had 79,881,05 views, Same Love has had 201,630,030 views, Take Me to Church has had 213,803,727 views, and Symphony has had a massive 693,412,007 views (all as of 4.15pm on 23/05/18). This, by any means, is a considerable number of people, even if you remember some of these are repeated viewings by the same individuals. Symphony has had more viewings than there are people living in some continents. This demonstrates that countless millions of people are receiving the message that to be in support of love means to be in support of erotic same-sex love. The message is that now rather than same-sex attraction being a distorted version of love, as was traditionally said, opposition to same-sex attraction is a distorted version of love. Take, for instance, the slogan of the gay marriage campaign in America: ‘Love Wins’. The message is thus implicitly this: if you are against gay marriage, you are against love. To refer to the philosopher Charles Taylor, the ‘social imaginary’ – or cultural assumptions made – of the modern West is that ordered love means accepting different kinds of sexualities. This means that traditional Christian understandings of love are already suspect and have an uphill battle to be seen a legitimate.

Into this context, let’s think a little bit about how the modern West is increasingly viewing Christianity. When I first told people that I was intending to become a priest, a customer of the company I worked for responded by asking (without any irony), ‘You’re not a kiddy fiddler are you?’ Her instinctive response was to associate priesthood with paedophilia. We forget how much the impact of the Roman Catholic child abuse scandal has been on people’s impression of Christianity in general. Just yesterday, the Archbishop of Sydney was imprisoned because of this. The association of priesthood – and ministry in general – with distorted love has therefore some empirical founding. Furthermore a distorted version of love is often ignored by Christians when it comes to politics. Let us not forget that the same Franklin Graham who criticised Bill Clinton for his adultery said that Donald Trump’s dalliance with Stormy Daniel’s was ‘nobody’s business’. Or that the vast majority of US Evangelicals supported a three-time adulterer for the Presidency. Or that 40% of Alabama Evangelicals were more likely to support candidate Roy Moore after the accusations of molesting a teenager. For many people, especially of the upcoming generation, this is simply hypocrisy.

Representation of Christianity in Hollywood and the media is generally negative (with a few exceptions aside). One of the most recent films to portray a church service was the film Kingsman, yet the congregation here was a violently racist, homophobic and deeply disturbing group of people. We as the audience are meant to rejoice when they massacre themselves. Of course, this is simply a Hollywood version of Westboro Baptist Church, but it has cultural credence because of the way that that church has managed to get so much media attention. Furthermore, the work of the New Atheists is seeping into the wider social imaginary: religion – any religion – is often seen as a harbinger of violence and ignorance. Don’t believe me? Just a few months ago, I was speaking to a family whose teenage boy wanted to get baptised. However, he was worried about becoming a Christian, because, he said, ‘I don’t want to hate gay people, I like science, and I don’t want to support the terrorists’. This young boy’s association of religion – even our ‘nice’, ‘friendly’, Church of England religion – was with homophobia and terrorism. In 2007, David Kinnaman wrote an excellent book called unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity… and Why it Matters, which warned the Evangelical world that it was going to lose the next generation unless it started changing its whole tone. Kinnaman’s research pointed out that people viewed Christians as hypocritical, dogmatic, homophobic, sheltered, overly political, and judgmental. Eleven years on, this impression has hardened.

I say all this because this context matters. Church of God, we have lost the cultural battle of who defines love. We have lost it in part because of how we have been perceived and how we have let ourselves be perceived. Despite all our talk of the love of God, Christians are just as likely to be perceived as people of hate. Despite all our talk of rightly ordered love, Christians are just as likely to be seen as people who cover-up or close their eyes to disordered love (especially when it comes to children).

Into this context comes a sermon which generally shook people, and was attractive to people who do not go to church. Yes, it was spoken by a man whose theology I have many issues with. Yes, it was probably unwise to invite him considering the context of the wider Anglican Communion. Yes, the definition of love was so undefined that virtually anyone could back it. But how many Christian preachers have had their sermon printed in the pages of The Sun newspaper, Britain’s leading tabloid, recently? And when I say, ‘recently’, I mean in the last thirty, forty years. Yes, it’s made that much of an impact. I certainly know that the sermon at the last Royal Wedding didn’t – as beautiful a meditation of God’s love as it was. In a culture which associates Christian notions of love with disorder, here we have people having a moment of recognition.

Rather than a surrender of Christian distinctives, I would argue that this is actually finding a common ground with non-Christians. Or, in other words, this is an example of 21st Century apologetics. Kevin Vanhoozer writes that ‘theology exists to make the faith comprehensible; apologetics to make it plausible.’[1] Apologetics is the art of getting people to think, ‘I can go along with that’, and thus opening a gate for them to explore the Christian faith with a more open and positive mindset. Currently, for many people Christianity is simply not plausible considering the social imaginary regarding homosexuality, and the disjunction between what Christians preach and what is seen in the media. +Curry’s sermon showed a man who is passionate about love, and what is more, deeply rooted that love in the Christian faith. He stated that the reason why love is so important is because God is love, that Jesus is the embodiment of that love, that love is sacrificial (as seen in the Cross), that love is wider than romantic love, that love heals, that love can change the world.[2] In doing so, he makes Christianity a plausible option to many a person on the street.

Many of the critics of the sermon say that people were more than likely confirmed in their own perceptions of love, feeling that they didn’t need Christianity to understand this, and therefore the sermon proves less effective. But this is to confuse apologetics with evangelism. Evangelism is the statement of the good news. It is a call to repentance, a turning to Christ. Evangelism is a very necessary part of bringing people to Jesus in a proper way. But, unless the Holy Spirit intervenes in a very dramatic way (as with my great-grandfather, for instance), usually the evangel is first made in some way plausible to people, so that they listen. This maybe through friendship with a Christian, or witnessing the life and good works of a Christian. This may be through a spiritual encounter of some sort. This may be through listening to careful arguments for the intellectual plausibility of the Christian faith (which helped convert C.S. Lewis to be the most dejected convert in Christendom). In each case, Christianity is made plausible through the finding of common ground. In each case, the person in some way thinks to themselves, ‘I could go along with that.’ Before the evangel can be heard, it usually has to be seen as plausible. Yet often we reduce apologetics to the intellectual environment alone. Yet making Christianity plausible is a wider road entirely. There are ethical apologetics, social apologetics, and cultural apologetics. +Curry’s sermon was an example of cultural apologetics, making Christianity culturally plausible. In a culture which increasingly associates religion with hate, yet has a high priority in promoting ‘love’ (however it is defined), demonstrating Christianity to be a religion of love is vital.

It is not usually the case that apologetics alone bring people into a relationship with Jesus. The evangel must always follow. This where the critics of +Curry’s sermon are especially wrong: they expect what is ultimately a form of cultural apologetics to produce converts. But this is to mix up categories. Only the evangel can do that. Only evangelistic preaching of the full gospel will bring people to the point of repentance. Only evangelistic preaching with bring people to encounter the Lord. But before that happens, the evangel must be made plausible. And apologetics in its various forms is the mode of doing that. I would argue that in 21st Century Western culture, +Curry’s sermon is an excellent example of how to do cultural apologetics. Just by the reaction to this sermon in the secular media we can see that people are hungering for it. Let’s satisfy their hunger, yet leave them wanting more. In doing so, we may just lead them to an encounter with the evangel itself with open ears, and open hearts.

[1] Kevin Vanhoozer, ‘Sapiential Apologetics: The Dramatic Demonstration of Gospel Truth’, in Vanhoozer, Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the church’s worship, witness and wisdom (London: IVP, 2016), p.233

[2] I’d also liked to point out that he stated he believed Jesus walked on water. This isn’t old-time miracle-denying liberalism. This is a different kettle of fish altogether!

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2 thoughts on “On Cultural Apologetics: A response to the critics of Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon

  1. God is love. But not a love based upon the modern day focus of the gratifying physical but a loved founded and grounded upon the holiness of God. Unless people find there is a worldly answer to holiness then all of curry’s gushy semantcs won’t save one soul from hell.

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    1. Isn’t that what I’m arguing here, though? The whole argument here is that Curry’s sermon was an act of apologetics which helps make Christianity plausible, so that people have an open frame of mind to listen to the evangel (which is the message that saves).

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