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What Douglas Murray gets right (and wrong) about the church


Some of the world’s most interesting intellectuals have tired of New Atheism. But can the church satisfy them? Paul Vander Klay blogs on The Big Conversation between Douglas Murray and NT Wright.

Imagine clicking on your podcast app or a Youtube thumbnail to hear Justin Brierley’s familiar voice say, “This week’s guest on Unbelievable? wants the church to regain its cultural authority and stop being a quivering mass of availability.”

You’d be forgiven for thinking this guest sits in Justin’s Christian chair, but no, this is Douglas Murray. Murray has recently joined Tom Holland and Jordan Peterson in Justin Brierley’s stable of not-ready-to-embrace-public-profession-of-faith guests who are passionate advocates for the revival of Christian authority in the public sphere. 

All three have become the “tok” to the “tik” of New Atheism’s thumbs down, demanding that the church be finished off in the Western world’s gladiatorial arena. Each have also recently been outspoken in their disgust of the church’s placating, simpering sycophancy in the face of Enlightenment social pressure.

Jordan Peterson, (who Justin was able to invite early on to his show in the psychologist’s status-rocket ride) has complained vigorously in two interviews with Bishop Robert Barron about the weakness of the church and its inability to inspire sacrificial responsibility among the young. In both cases Bishop Barron couldn’t have agreed fast enough, merely striking a placating pose in the other direction. 

 Tom Holland on an episode of Unbelievable? during the pandemic noted the Church of England performed as messenger for the National Health Service. Neglecting the Bible and its own history of plague engagement it defaulted to telling everyone to wash their hands, wear a mask, and stay home from church. Holland was hoping to see the church dramatically burst onto the pandemic stage as in ages past but instead acquiesced to being less essential than fast food or retail consumption. 

 Now Douglas Murray joins the fray by expressing his disappointment with the Church of England to one of it’s most renowned clergy, Bishop Tom Wright. 

 “I not only was brought up in but afterwards sought the church and it’s jewels and gems of the King James Bible, Book of Common Prayer, and much more. It’s been my experience, as it has been for many other people brought up in recent decades, that one has observed the church giving up its jewels and becoming something else.”

In the midst of the Madness of Crowds, Murray wants to hear the church speak with a power and authority it seems to have rejected. One might imagine “The voice of the Lord breaking the cedars” as is declared in Psalm 29. In comparison the voice of the church seems muffled by a COVID mask. 

The Church Triumphant?

 While I listen carefully to these conversations on Unbelievable? I watch their watchers even more carefully. 

 Some listeners who responded to my commentary on the video found Murray’s longing for strength in belief inspiring, and NT Wright’s response aunderwhelming. Murray, Holland and Peterson want to see the church march into battle with flags and song, while the church we actually witness looks like amateur music hour, a boring lecture and maybe someone you might talk to about your problems when you can’t afford a licensed therapist

Yes, the church is a perennial under-performer, predictably disappointing, seldom displaying the bombastic splash of her crucified master, yet she also plays a very clever game of subversive camouflage. 

The wistful longing of these three outsiders reminds me of a passage in CS Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.

 “One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like ‘the body of Christ’ and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father Below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.”

The Strange Way Of Jesus

While seeing this dual reality the church possesses, I don’t want us to fall into the trap of blunting the power of Murray’s criticism. Six out of the seven churches addressed in the early part of the book of Revelation were given withering critiques by the Spirit and I think some of that Spirit can be heard in the testimony of these critics as well.

Jesus himself regularly expressed vexation at his disciples who were always slow to understand and possessed little faith. All of this is true but let’s also give Bishop Barron and Bishop Wright their due. They did not respond with defensiveness but agreed with the critiques, attempting to offer some quiet but helpful contextualization.

 The zeal for justice of the prodigal son’s elder brother was tempered by the wise, patient, loving father. Churches have long had to figure out when to be loud, and when to be soft. When to be demanding and when to be patient. When to be sympathetic with our weaknesses and when to confront spiritual sloth and apathy. 

As a local church pastor, I know that figuring out the ‘when and the how’ is almost always the most difficult thing we do and these challenges scale up publicly when the media spotlight is upon us. The church gets it wrong regularly and must continue to grow in wisdom as we learn from our mistakes. 

 Yet the way of Jesus is strange, and the church bears that strangeness. It often looks like it’s losing, sometimes catastrophically – as in naked on a Roman cross. Then in Easter victory Jesus slips in on his cowering disciples to let them poke at scarred hands and nosh on a bit of fish. It was never his plan to curry favor with any side in the First Century Judean Culture War. He would not satisfy Herod’s bored hunger for spectacle or scare wife-warned Pilate by parading scarred hands in his private chambers shouting, “how do you like me NOW!”  Remember, it was the devil who recommended an angelic demonstration of public power beneath the temple’s pinnacle.

Whither The Church?

I wonder in what ways it is important to note that Peterson, Murray and Holland all live in highly secularized portions of the church’s historical domain. Here in the United States there’s plenty of examples of the wild and the spectacular on display in churches often highlighted in the media. Some parts of the American church LOVE to forefront their anti-secular counter-culture. Exhibit A: the strange world of Kenneth Copeland.

I don’t think this is exactly what Justin’s not-quite-professing trinity standing against four atheist horsemen have in mind.

Murray, Holland and Peterson cry out like prophets at the edge of the river, declaring that the axe is laid at the trunk of the tree:

Europe is about to die a strange death to a muscular Islamic religion, says Murray. Christianity-lite humanism won’t survive the death of its mythically religious vanguard, says Holland. We ignore the Bible at our peril, says Peterson. For all three of them Christendom has left us a glorious inheritance that we are squandering, and if we don’t shape up now things might get apocalyptic fast in a bad way.

It’s ironic that these three, who hesitate at the water, mimic what fundamentalists have been saying for over a hundred years now. The decline of the church’s authority will spell disaster. Whether it’s a hurricane, an economic recession, or now a pandemic, fundamentalist preachers have lined up to declare that Christendom has lost her special place in God’s providential plan because of faithlessness and iniquity and is therefore receiving justice for her sins by God’s hand. In the United States you can find such sentiments dating back to the Civil war and hear these themes even in Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address.

Either way, these prophets from outside the church (and who may one day step inside again?) want the church to stand up and be counted. But the story of resurrection is always preceded by death. The strange way of Jesus may not be include taking sides in the culture war. The battles are much bigger than that.

Historically such prophetic pronouncements of danger and doom within the church are cast in terms of a living, conscious, watching, acting God moving through history to bring judgment upon a sinfully rebellious world. These three prophets are odd in that regard. They are deeply skeptical that a personal God moves in such a way or even exists. For Peterson, Murray and Holland collapse will not come by “acts of God” but by losing our footing in the mysterious, communal way that religious belief possesses people in community and motivates them to sacrifice for their neighbor’s welfare and the common good. 

It’s not so much a cloud-riding God who descends with plagues to punish, but the mysterious invisible hand of lost religion that squanders a civilization’s accumulated social wealth. Is this simply just a secularized understanding of the mythological elements given vivid personality by un-deconstructed fundamentalists? Does it matter whether this is conscious condemnation by an angry deity or simply cultural collapse when the outcomes look the same?

Either way, these prophets from outside the church (and who may one day step inside again?) want the church to stand up and be counted. But the story of resurrection is always preceded by death. The strange way of Jesus may not be include taking sides in the culture war. The battles are much bigger than that.

In part 2 Paul Vander Klay examines the influence Peterson and others are having in bringing people to Christianity 

Paul Vander Klay is a YouTube vlogger and pastor in Sacramento California

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