Bauckham is a bit of a genius when it comes to writing short books that have a big impact. His God Crucified changed the face of Christological studies, in about 70 pages. This one weighs in at 110 pages: my sort of book!
The subtitle, ‘Christian Witness in a Postmodern World’ gives a clearer sense of what the book is about. What place can Christian mission have in a world where truth itself (and therefore mission) itself is frowned upon?
Chapter 1: A Hermeneutic for the Kingdom of God.
That’s not a very friendly title for what is actually a ripper chapter. In fact it isn’t a good guide to the contents either.
1. Between McWorld and Jihad
September 11 2001, could be seen as the clash of ‘universalist cultures’ – those of Islam and of Global Capitalism. ‘Universalist’ means cultures that seek to impose themselves on the whole world in a way that crushes difference. Universalist cultures ‘threaten all things local, traditional and particular.’ Bauckham tells us his book is going to be about these issues – the local and particular, and the universal – as they relate to Christian mission.
Bauckham identifies two key concepts involved in the story of 9/11: metanarrative and globalisation. A metanarrative is a story about the meaning of reality as a whole, encompassing and integrates all its diversity. E.g. ‘progress’ and Marxism. The new metanarrative of the West is Globalism with its story of economic salvation.
Postmodernism suspects and rejects metanarratives as tools of domination and oppression. It promotes instead particularity, diversity and localism. One Jewish postmodernist, Sacks, pleads for an approach to religion which distinguishes it from God. God is universal, but all religions are particulars and should remain so. I.e. give up universalist dreams such as those of Islam.
So where does Christianity stand when confronted with McWorld and Jihad? Bauckham points out that “almost certainly Christianity exhibits more cultural diversity that any other religion, and that must say something about it.” But are God and religion are fundamentally different, one universal and one particular? RB points out that the idea that God is universal is itself particular to the Judeo-Christian tradition!
It is more accurate to say God is both universal and particular. ‘We find the universal God in his particularity as the God of Israel…and of Jesus’. Bauckham wants to examine how these two things – the particular and the universal – are related, ‘because it is in that relationship that the church’s universal mission belongs and has its meaning…Mission takes place on the way from the particularity of God’s action in the story of Jesus to the universal coming of God’s kingdom.’ And here we have the thesis of the whole book.
But can Christian mission be justified at all? Is it not just ‘a tidal wave of religious homogenisation sweeping away all the diversity of the world.’
That would have been a great place to finish the first chapter – one suspects the book has retained the structure of the lectures on which it is based. We will stop here and reflect.
Bauckham writes beautifully. His style is clear, concise and eloquent. 9/11 offers a compelling, if somewhat overused, way into the subject. He uses plenty of illustrations, making for easy reading.
He has introduced his key themes and terms: mission in the light of postmodern concerns about the universal and the particular, about metanarrative and globalisation. Each of these is explained clearly. He has raised his main issues cogently and compellingly.
If I have a criticism it would be that Bauckham undersells his product. The question he has raised here about the legitimacy of mission has not been a small one. In fact it has been massively powerful in the modern history of the church. Over the past 60 years this critique of universalist narratives (like the Christian one) has seeped into the bones of the churches and sapped their missionary zeal. It has come to seem arrogant and presumptuous to try to make ‘converts’ (i.e. disciples for Jesus). Church groups, under the influence of postmodern ideas, have lost confidence in the whole missionary endeavour, and often given it away. This has been a fundamental change in the outlook and action of Christians in the modern West. It would have been helpful for Bauckham to unpack this a bit, give some of this wider context, and explain what is at stake for the church, in the issues he is discussing. These things may have seemed obvious to Bauckham, but many of us don’t know even recent history or the history of ideas. Words like universalism, particularity and metanarrative can seem big and abstract and academic to readers unused to such vocabulary. They can mask the fact that Bauckham is actually dealing with a red-hot topic: Is mission an intrinsically violent movement?
I think the average reader just needs a little bit more reason to care about the themes of the book, before diving into Bible-land with RB. Brief is good, but at this key moment in his book I feel he’s been a bit too brief! This book is so good I’d like it to be more accessible at a ”thinking reader” level, not just an academic one.