We are all yearning for good news these days: good news that our dismal economy has begun to bottom out, that once again we are creating new jobs; good news that Europe and America have begun to live within their means; good news that school reform is beginning to get real results, building lives, building new human capital; good news that the gap between the wealthy and the poor is reversing troubling trends.
Of course the flip side of this yearning for good news is that bad news continues to roll over us like a dampening fog. We desperately want to know when and how good news will shine through again.
But here is the point I want to make: Good news is the language Christians have used since their beginning some two thousand years ago. Good news is what Christians believe they have to offer to the world, not only to individuals, but to the societies in which they live. And so I find myself endlessly fascinated why some fierce cultural force in our day relentlessly insists on airbrushing out of sight the good news Christians might offer, good news that can turn the world in better directions. Christians feel their good news is dismissed, ridiculed, at times treated with hostility. What a puzzling cultural phenomenon. What a shame. What a loss.
Theologically, of course, for Christians, good news begins with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because this is an anchoring position Christians accept by faith, our culture wants to shuffle it off to the sidelines. That’s the stuff of our private lives, relevant to a few, but worthless for the whole. But we must remember that any position about ultimate matters, including the denial of God’s existence, so much in vogue in our day, is accepted by faith.
My question then is this: How can we open up the marketplace of ideas again so that Christians have a chance to present their good news as a viable option for a better world?
Thoughtful Christians know we live in a decidedly pluralist world. There are other ways of looking at a path to a better world. But why should this plurality of options force us into a kind of postmodern relativism, thereby debunking any claim for what is true and good and beautiful?
Christians recognize more than ever they must make their case in winsome and persuasive ways. The problem is that the marketplace of free flowing intellectual exchange gets clogged by a strange and powerful cultural resistance. Christians are not welcome in that marketplace of ideas. This really isn’t a free exchange of ideas about how to bring about good news for our troubled world.
What is this good news that Christians have to offer? We start with a radical notion of power. For early Christians, to quote the renowned New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, “truth and beauty were seen by most as reaching their climax in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.” Christians proposed the “reframing of power and policy that lay at the heart of the task of a wise society. . . .” “The message,” Wright says, “is that true greatness comes through sacrificial love, that true leadership consists in self-giving. . . .” What Christians have to offer is an “upside-down vision of human flourishing.” Imagine the impact of this kind of reframing of power for our day.
But there is more. With this new “reframing of power,” our lives simply look different. In his marvelous letter to the Colossians, the Apostle Paul encourages his followers to put on the garments of “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience. . . . Finally, to bind everything together and complete the whole, there must be love.” This describes the character formation to which Christians everywhere aspire, ardently self-critical when we fail, but nevertheless believing this is the path to human flourishing. When leaders are shaped in this kind of way, an upside-down kind of leadership, the world begins to look different, more kind, more patient, more life-giving.
One other note: The notion that Christians pursue or propose a kind of theocracy in these matters is ludicrous. Such theocracy has almost never been part of the Christian narrative. And Christians, drawing on the profound Jewish experience, know what it means to live in exile, to be exiled even in one’s own land. But that posture has never silenced Christians from working toward a better world for all of God’s children.
As the eminent sociologist James Davison Hunter says, “To be Christian is to be obliged to engage the world, pursuing God’s restorative purposes over all of life, individual and corporate, public and private.” While there is no intention, for most Christians, to rule the nation or to shut down genuine pluralism, Christians most assuredly want to share their good news, precisely because they believe it will make a difference. Christians believe their good news is a path to human flourishing.
And so I would caution us to be careful when we allow the voices of our current culture to drown out this good-news contribution for our society. To put it more positively, when Christians are at their best, they model and articulate a good news that can literally change things, moving lives and societies from arrogance and desperation and hopelessness to hope and compassion and forgiveness.
Maybe, as the bad news gets even worse, it’s time to allow this marginalized Christian notion of good news back into the marketplace of ideas as we think about how to reshape a society more life-giving.