Those who read Stephen MacAlpine’s book Being the Bad Guys will receive a tour de force through the history of Western philosophy. This approachable book explains how we got to the point we’re in now where Christians, the author contends, are the ‘Bad Guys’.
Christians have never really been the good guys, argues MacAlpine, but the key difference between 21st century Australia (or America or Britain) is that now Christians are not only seen as a bit backward or stupid, but as offensive, oppressive and toxic.
This plays out in the way our course-mates and colleagues perceive us as something more than old- fashioned, particularly in our unwillingness to side with and celebrate our society’s revolutionised sexual mores. The way the Western mind thinks has been altered so that, now, the best way to live a fulfilled life is to live one of genuine self-expression. Our worth as individuals and meaning in life flows from our ability to live out our identity, identities which are often self-fabricated somewhere in the inner being and conveniently out of view.
MacAlpine helpfully provides the broad philosophical brushstrokes of how we got to this point. He highlights the movement which has culminated to provide a ‘rival gospel’ which offers people ‘the kingdom without the King’.
He writes: ‘The ambition is to replicate the kingdom vision of the good life — a future world of human rights, dignity, freedom, love and equality — but all without Jesus at the centre’ (Page 19).
This movement towards a utopic existence of independence and self-expression has had added to it the catalyst of rapidly changing technology. We all now have easy access to a wealth of resources and devices which can enable us to live the life we choose. Technology and its prevalence in the modern world means that this individualism, the roots of which, the author points out, have been brooding for centuries, has finally and fully been enabled to bloom.
Christians therefore face a completely new mission environment. Our society is not just ‘non- Christian’ but, importantly, ‘post-Christian’.
The post-Christian society is one in which Christianity has been tried and dismissed. In our neighbours’ eyes, it is no longer fit for purpose and is a regressive obstacle to the progress of individualism.
One of the strengths of the book is to reveal just how prevalent this mindset is. MacAlpine shows that our friends and neighbours don’t need to have read or be convinced of the philosophy behind the movement to be affected, as we all have to some degree, by the intellectual changes which have taken place. We all think like this, MacAlpine argues, even if we don’t notice it ourselves.
This is the potential concern for the church and the challenge of the book. How are we going to live for Jesus and proclaim the gospel in a world that says we shouldn’t?
Part of the answer is in developing church communities which provide a physical rejoinder to the world’s ‘you-do-you’ self-expressionism. Church needs to be a place where the unifying characteristic of its members is Jesus. Church members need to be in churches for the long-haul. Church needs to be every day of the week. We need to be in each others lives, involved, caring, and loving firstly the community of believers but then loving our wider communities, our streets, schools, and workplaces. Our love for our post-christian society will flow from the ‘deep, thick communities’ of our churches (Page 99).
This then provides the environment in which the gospel can be preached and received. Churches need to make proclaiming the kingship of Jesus at the centre of their mission. It is only in knowing Jesus that he can shape the culture within our churches. Wider societal change can only happen when and if the church no longer yields to our society’s hostile culture. Culture changes begin at home, that is, the church, and it is the gospel alone which changes culture.
What is so helpful about the book is that by ‘church’ MacAlpine doesn’t just mean an hour every Sunday. Churches ought to be places, open to the world, but different to the world. He encourages, for example, the establishment of schools founded on a Christian ethos, which ought to be open to anyone to come and see the impact of the gospel in the lives of ordinary believers and how it radically counters the self-centred worship of the ego with worship of the servant King.
MacAlpine encourages us to be the ‘best bad guys’ we can be. Our lives and actions must display the gospel and therefore powerfully confound the expectations of a society which wants to believe we, and the King we follow, are the bad guys.
This is an important book for you and your church family. We can’t face our specific cultural challenges unprepared. This book goes a long way in helping us to think through how we might begin to understand the times and so build church communities which express the way the gospel revolutionises the culture of our self-obsessed nation.