Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Gospel and Cultures, 2

In the last post I ended with the question, "What does it mean to define a relationship in terms of news?" This question followed the observation that for the earliest Christians, gospel was a mode of engagement with the world. It is significant that they chose the word "gospel" to define in primary ways their relationship with the world around them. What is it that Christians offer the world? News. Good news.

James Brownson, a New Testament scholar, was the one who started me thinking down this road. Brownson, in Speaking the Truth in Love, talks about the significance of choosing gospel, a fairly secular term, over other more typically religious words readily available for Christian use. Words like law, or instruction, or mystery, or truth. Christians use these words, but not in the same way that other religions use them, and certainly not with the broad significance of the word gospel. These words establish different types of relationships. They have different modes of relating and create different social realities. If this is the case, then it stands to reason that gospel would also form a different kind of cultural engagement.

Truth, for instance, tends to manage itself in certain ways. It tends to be argumentative (in a good sense). It is interested in nailing things down with precision. It seeks norms and justifications. The common mode of relating is teaching. Experts rule.

Or take mystery. Mystery is for the initiated. It is unveiled for the enlightened, and it typically requires some sort of secret process to decode. You have to get inside the walls to figure out what it is all about. (A modernist version of this might be scientology).

The category of news has some places of overlap, but is very different in others. News is public. While it typically is about something new, this new thing is for all, not just for the initiated. And its primary mode is witness, not teaching. It is concerned with the eventfulness of situations, not just the universal principles. News cares about truthfulness, but in terms of the authenticity of the source, less in terms related to certain indubitable ideas or notions.

News is related to events. Something happened or is happening or is going to happen. It is not about getting certain ideas in place in an argument. I like the way that Amos Wilder describes early Christian speech. "It is naïve, it is not studied; it is extempore and directed to the occasion, it is not calculated to serve some future hour. This utterance is dynamic, actual, immediate, reckless of posterity; not coded for catechists or repeaters" (Early Christian Rhetoric, 12-13). It is news.

This news is related to what God is doing in the world, and in particular what he is accomplishing in and through Jesus and the Spirit. For the NT writers, the advent of God in Jesus and the Spirit signals a turning of the ages. The old ordering of things is judged and found wanting; a new ordering rooted in God's future salvation is appearing. This appearing is always in a sense a new thing. The gospel is not simply that God did something in the past that matters to us today. The gospel is ongoing news of an emerging new creation. Jesus is risen and his reign established. The Spirit is active. This is always newsworthy in an ongoing way.

Staying in this mode (gospel) requires certain practices and perspectives. It requires certain aesthetic or journalistic instincts. It requires participation in the ongoing eventfulness of the gospel, which we will turn our attention to in future posts.

This is first order business for a faith that believes in an active God. This is not to say that there isn't need to nail down things propositionally from time to time, or unlock a few mysteries along the way, or clarify moral or ethical standards. But these are not the primary ways the first Christians sought to define their relationship with the culture as a whole. And that's a pretty big deal.


Brad said...

If only to state the obvious, this is potent stuff. You are naming for me in a way otherwise unarticulated what might be a legitimate definition for "missional." And if not a definition, at least a fleshing out and deepening.

I look forward to more!

qb said...

+1 to Brad's comment.

I suppose this is roughly what Wright has in mind when he speaks of the "narrative" mode of Scriptural authority rather than the other possible modes...is that your take on it? That is to say, the notion of "authority" is fluid and open-ended rather than highly constrained and exclusive.


Mark Love said...

Thanks Brad and qb. I'm certainly going to argue that a narrative mode is implicit in the category of gospel. How else would it remain news? So, if you have a moving notion of culture (Tanner and others) and a moving notion of gospel, then how do you think of theology?


Nate said...

Ok but my experience with news is that it always has a spin on it. Granted, my bias is that that when I hear "news" I think "politically motivated, world-view biased, MSNBC/FoxNews." I think this is not an uncommon feeling especially amongst my age group. News always has a catch to it. News can be unreliable and, at its worst, subversive propaganda meant solely to win support.
Now I understand that this is an extremely prejudiced view of "news" and maybe I am confusing it with "media?" But there is a sense in which "news" no matter what type, has the ability to be shaped (read: spun) and even warped for the purposes of the "witness."
Am I making sense? What are the pitfalls, especially in this media/news ravaged culture for Christian "news" that lie between gospel and its effectiveness?

Mark Love said...


You raise an important point. And I see the bias thing as cutting two ways. There is no human communication apart from perspective or framework, much of which we don't even acknowledge. It's a given that cannot be overcome completely. The Christian witness is from a perspective. This realization constrains our speech in certain ways, ways that ultimately I think, allow us to communicate more.

As an aside, that doesn't make things relative, it makes them specific. And specific things can be sharpened and clarified in relation to other specific things, even if there's no way ultimately to judge between them. And we aquire much more knowledge about our world this way than we do through abstract reasoning, or reasoning beforehand, or through empirical observation. To use the classic Greek terms, this is truth less situated in theoria (theory), and more situated in phronesis (practical reasoning or wisdom).

Back to your point. In my post I acknowledge that news trades on the reliability of the source, and part of that is dependent not just on haw factual the report is, but how it is communicated--the speech ethics, the ethos or mode of communication. And I am struck by how often, for instance, Paul makes appeals to his speech ethics. This isn't just news, it's good news. And part of that goodness is how it treats others. That's part of the reliability test, and also a part of its "effectiveness" (a decidedly difficult concept).

So, you are making sense and pointing to real problems. But these problems are not unique to news as a category. The really interesting question I think that you raise is how might Christian notions of news distinguish themselves in a world saturated with the new.

Nate said...

Ok that makes a lot more sense for me. So, in a lot of ways, this also plays into Paul's notion of imitation. Ethics and imitatio are part of the bigger picture of what makes the news "good." Epistemic "knowledge" aside, gospel is reliable because it proved reliable through the ethics of the witnesses. That places a great deal of emphasis on the witnesses doesn't it! Does this mean that part of the job of the witness is to help re-define or re-orient the definitions attached to such words like news?

Mark Love said...


I think that's another good question. I'll get at that I think through this notion of eventfulness. This does place a lot of emphasis on the witness on one way, but I'm hoping it places more of it on God. We'll see.