Breaking Bad: What Christians can do about their public image

Christians used to be uncool. Now, they’re a threat to the future of society, observes Perth writer and pastor, Stephen McAlpine.

“So, how did we move from being when I was young, the lame guys who weren’t any trouble to anyone but you wouldn’t want to become a Christian because it’s lame, to Christianity is dangerous?” wonders McAlpine, who explores that major shift in his newly released book Being The Bad Guys.

As suggested by the title of his first book, McAlpine doesn’t just want to outline what happened to the public standing of Christians.

He wants to help Christians navigate an era when their orthodox or traditional beliefs and principles seem to instantly equate them with opposition to the perceived greater good.

So before we go back to what’s going on with Western democratic societies and Christianity – hint: the battle for the authentic self – McAlpine has a word of hope for us.

“I’m saying eschatological hope – the hope that God is bringing a kingdom to us – is key. For many Christians, they’ve lost the idea there is an eschatological framework and they are saying that we have to create this kingdom. And that’s part of the present narrative – ‘We’re here to build a kingdom.’

“No. Primarily, the Bible says Jesus will bring a kingdom to us.”

“We need to double down on discipling our congregations in the hope of the Scriptures.”

Dropping “eschatology” – the study of the final events of human history, crowned by God’s universal rule through Jesus – into polite conversation will make anyone sound like a text book. But McAlpine wants Christians to apply their understanding of the end times in ways which make a practical, lived-out difference right now,  during turbulent times when sex and gender debates, political affiliation, and freedom of religious expression are an ongoing minefield.

“Eschatology has fallen off the evangelical radar in recent years, and that means everyone – evangelical or otherwise – is now placing their hopes in this age and this age alone. It leads to a zero sum game.”

“… The Bible definitely says there is a cataclysmic event at the end of the age when God will put injustices right. Unless we have that hope, we will get angry or fearful [now], I reckon.”

Being the Bad Guys

For someone who doesn’t consider himself a thought leader, McAlpine’s done a great grassroots job of becoming known as one. During recent years, the former pastor at Perth’s Providence Church has made a national name for himself as a social commentator.

His blogs about the collision between culture and Christianity often go viral in evangelical circles, as he notes the changed place of evangelism and apologetics, as well as reviewing the significance of church and church-goers in society. No wonder he was snapped up as National Communicator with Third Space, a Christian multi-media and evangelism network across Australia.

His opinion pieces about the state of Christian play also stood out to UK publisher The Good Book Company, who approached McAlpine to transform his posts into published pages.

“There’s a hostility towards aspects of Christian frameworks and thinking.” – Stephen McAlpine

In a burst of welcomed candour, this first-time author doesn’t want us to get the wrong idea: “I’m not presenting anything new,” chuckles McAlpine with half seriousness about Being the Bad Guys. “If I had been, I would have been deeply suspicious. And so should you.”

“All I’m doing is trying to clear the ground for people to get a better look at what is going on – with the reactionary heart palpitations taken out of it.”

Being The Bad Guys presents McAlpine’s observations of “the secular age” and narrows down into why sex and gender issues are the hot-button topics which decide the side of history you are on.

Western democracies which used to claim Judeo-Christians roots have drifted from them in recent centuries, amd McAlpine sums up such progressive societies as wanting “the Kingdom without the King”. A perfect, divine God can be removed from the infrastructure of life but those in power can still retain “saints and sinners”, laws and positive goals for social betterment.

McAlpine cites rationalist philosopher Rene Descartes and the subsequent Age of Enlightenment in the 17th Century as a turning point in our society’s quest for the “centre of certainty”. He also spotted three significant events in popular thought, during the past 100 years, which affected where personal fulfilment is sought.

During the Space Race in the 1960s, McAlpine contends that truth of who we are was being sought “out there”. When the Berlin Wall in Germany came down in 1989 to end the Cold War, it was a signal to seek something true in our communities that could unite and uphold us. Since then, there’s been a post-millennial shift to seeking our own truth much closer to home.

“It’s gone from ‘out there’ to ‘across there’ to ‘in here’,” says McAlpine about the “search for authenticity” residing within each individual one of us. “We look in, not up.”

This highly individualistic “search for the authentic self”, as Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor describes it, earlier had been “ramped up” during the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. The linking of sex and gender as core to someone’s identity has developed into a dividing line that McAlpine believes can not be crossed.

“If you cross, it doesn’t matter what you say about anything else. Doesn’t matter how many social justice campaigns you are involved with or how generous you are – you’re a problem.”

“There’s a hostility towards aspects of Christian frameworks and thinking.”

An example McAlpine gives is statements Jesus made in Mark chapter 7 about what is found within us all. “Jesus says that what is coming out of your heart is inauthentic,” says McAlpine, referencing Jesus’s summary that “it is what comes out of a person that defiles them” (Mark 7:15).

“So, if it is authentic, it’s authentically bad. You need a transformed heart.

“The one organ we can’t take a surgeon’s knife to help us change who we are is our hearts. But I think the gospel can do that.”

McAlpine doesn’t want all the talk about identity and social tension to end at having a grip on how we got to this page in history. The final section of Being The Bad Guys offers strategies from Scripture about how Christians can respond well to not being seen as the good guys. Rather than react in anger or fear, McAlpine wants Christians to see rhat the Bible provides tools for God’s people who, let’s face it, have been under pressure to conform since Moses was a lad.

With Daniel 6 – “the Lion’s Den” – being a handy guide to navigating poor treatment in your workplace, and Haggai 1 revealing how you can maintain identity for God amid hostile neighbours, McAlpine’s third Scripture strategy comes from 1 Corinthians. This New Testament letter depicts what it can look like to establish a “new city” even while remaining in the old one.

“People are already coming to us with a gospel language of what the good life looks like and what human flourishing looks like.” – Stephen McAlpine

It’s an attractive model of Christian transformation that McAlpine urges believers to reclaim and own.

“We need to be a refuge for when the post-Christian culture starts to crumble,” says McAlpine, who wants followers of Jesus to be appealingly different to the sexual immorality or greed or unforgiveness that might be found in an “authentic self” community.

One way to stand out is to hold on to language, according to McAlpine. He believes that people who are not Christians share similar words but they can use language in a rubbery way where “it can mean anything”. As a result, it is robbed of ultimate meaning – even as these words themselves acknowledge an underlying truth.

“People are already coming to us with a gospel language of what the good life looks like and what human flourishing looks like.”

“We are saying, ‘We too are into human flourishing and the good life. But let me explain how that is different in its understanding.’”

McAlpine thinks it could be attractive to people that language has clarity and meaning. He stresses, though, that Christians not just use words but explain them: “A key that unlocks a door to deeper meaning.”

Part of Being The Bad Guys argues the future hope guaranteed by Christ’s life, death and resurrection adds up to the ultimate fulfilment of any identity issue that we can encounter. And those are words McAlpine wants us to stand by and live by.

“It’s always a battle for language and I think the church needs to recapture its language of worship, God and theology in the church context – and hold on to it. If we give up language, we give up much more than we save.”

As McAlpine talks of the hope that he thinks can be found in being the bad guys in society’s eyes, there is an underlying simplicity that’s hard to ignore. Is he just saying what Jesus said – spread the good news? That if we keep presenting the gospel message of salvation in Jesus’ name – in loving, clear and meaningful ways – people can continue to discover where true identity resides?

Yes. “Just keep living for, and loving Jesus, and the rest will follow,” McAlpine sums up – and implores.

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Being the Bad Guys

Stephen McAlpine

Available from Koorong

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