Category: evangelicalism

New Labour and a warning to evangelicals

By , 1 May 2009 7:00 pm

At the start, let me say that this blog is not really about British politics; it is about something else far deeper. I actually wonder if it doesn’t touch on something of fundamental and rather worrying importance for the evangelical church. But let’s start with the politics.

One thing that has become apparent in Britain over the last week or so – although it has been looming for some time – is that what has long been called ‘New Labour’ is finished. The financial debacle, the massive rises in unemployment and various other scandals have so doomed the present administration that wherever you look on the storm-tossed ship that is the Labour government you can see people desperately running around looking for seaworthy lifeboats. Indeed so catastrophic is the pending electoral disaster that most of them seem reconciled never to play a part in politics again. A generation in the wilderness looms.

The background is worth repeating. As the Wikipedia article helpfully puts it, the traditional Labour Party ‘was in favour of socialist policies such as public ownership of key industries, government intervention in the economy, redistribution of wealth, increased rights for workers and trade unions and a belief in the welfare state as well as publicly funded healthcare and education’. After 20 years in which good old-fashioned Labour was so out of sympathy with the contemporary world that it was unelectable, Tony Blair and his colleagues (one is tempted these days to use word cronies) created a rebranded and updated version of the Labour Party: New Labour.

New Labour was a subtle creation. On the one hand it claimed complete continuity with the past. Traditional supporters were reassured that it was still Labour: at party conferences, the followers of Blair sung the same old songs, cheered the same slogans and assented to many of the old aspirations. Despite considerable misgivings, long-term Labour supporters were reassured that all that they had held dear was still present. Yet on the other hand New Labour now presented a friendlier face to the public. It was smoother, sleeker, more contemporary and, above all, more acceptable. Much of the old confrontational language about class struggle and social justice was no longer heard: the party was utterly remarketed. The floating voter was charmed and under the chameleon-like Tony, New Labour achieved a massive 179-seat majority in the 1997 general election . It has retained power until the present.

Yet now, as the wheels spectacularly spin off the wagon of the New Labour enterprise, the old Labour supporters are saying that they knew all along that this would happen. All their misgivings as to whether New Labour was actually Labour in any real sense have returned with a triumphant vengeance. It certainly now seems that, beneath all the words and new slogans, whatever the Blairite project was, it wasn’t really Labour at all. It was a charade, the survivors of old Labour say, and the fact that it has come to such a sticky end is utterly predictable.

Well, I have my reservations about both Old and New Labour and Old and New Conservatism too. In fact, I am increasingly thinking that the roots of our national problems lie too deep for politics to change. Nevertheless I think the account of New Labour – so clearly now in its final chapter – is worth us evangelicals thinking about.

Why? The answer is this. Those of us who are contemporary evangelicals claim that we are part of a great and honourable lineage going back through the Victorians as far as the Puritan reformers. We count men such as Bunyan, Wesley, Whitfield, Spurgeon and Lord Shaftesbury as our spiritual ancestors. We sing the same songs (well a few of them, at least). We pronounce the same mantras. We read the same Bible. We have the same creeds and we hate the same sins.

Yet just occasionally when I read some of the older literature, listen to some of the older songs or read biographies about some of those who we are proud to call our forefathers, I look around the contemporary evangelical scene and I do not find their like. Particularly in the areas of godly living and zeal for witness I find something of a mismatch between them and us. Is it possible, I wonder darkly, that while we wear their clothes and use their names, we are not indeed either them or of their party? When I point out such differences of language, outlook and emphasis I am speedily reassured that these are but minor changes of externals done in order for us to relate to a new clientele. The chorus of soothing voices says ‘Relax! Nothing fundamental has changed! The New Evangelicalism is just the Old Evangelicalism reclothed.’

And as I wonder whether that is indeed so I look at the tattered and beaten remnants of New Labour. And somehow, I am strangely afraid.

An odd parallel between Uniformitarianism and Evangelicalism

By , 6 February 2009 9:18 pm

Well it’s been an interesting and rather frustrating week. As many of you may be aware we have had an unusually cold winter in the UK and this week it really hit us. The problem was that the weather was rather unpredictable and, in fact, unsporting. So we had snow when we weren’t supposed to have it, and didn’t have it when we were. Because my college has a very large catchment area extending into the foothills of what we call mountains but Americans would probably dismiss as ‘lumps’, we have to be very careful about weather alerts. No one wants several hundred students camped overnight in a freezing college. The upshot was that the teaching week essentially fell into times when the students were either absent (or distracted) because of the expectation of snow, absent because of snow, or disinclined to work because other people were absent because of snow or the fear of it. Out of five working days, I feel I taught only about two properly. As a geography teacher remarked somewhat sourly ‘this would happen the very year they have put global warming on the syllabus’.

Anyway this week I thought I would share with you a curious coming together of something in geology and preaching. In Geology I was discussing the fundamental principle of uniformitarianism; the great rule that we interpret the past according to present-day processes. A key point of uniformitarianism is that it majors on steady and predominantly gentle processes. As an aside I made the point that this idea had really come to prominence in 19th-century Britain and that our society then had welcomed a concept that elevated slow steady change over drastic, traumatic upheaval. The memory of the French Revolution just across the water haunted 19th-century British culture, particularly the aristocracy. (Incidentally to spare some of you writing to me; I have no doubt that most of the time uniformitarianism is the correct view and no doubt whatsoever that the Earth is very old indeed.)

On the Sunday evening following I was preaching on Jesus as Prophet and in passing touching on the extent to which we were to be prophetic within the church. Now my understanding of prophecy is that it is primarily forth-telling more than fore-telling; speaking God’s Word to a particular situation in the present is probably more important than some word about the future. I then made the point that evangelicalism tends to be rather cosy and well mannered, an attitude which often prevents us from being as blunt and open about such matters as social wrongs as perhaps we ought to be. And feeling a vague sense of déjà vu, I realised that the formative years of British evangelicalism were exactly those of geological uniformitarianism. In other words, it was probably not just geologists who had decided to be nice and cuddle up to society but also evangelicals. What we have assumed to be an evangelical standard is probably not that at all, but a two-hundred-year-old cultural one.

It is probably a minor insight but it is possibly a helpful reminder that we need to be very careful to examine what we stand for. Perhaps more often than we realise, our values may be culturally rather than biblically determined.

Have a good week.

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