His seventh chapter focuses on economic justice. A concern for the poor “is not a marginal part of Scripture. Something like 2,000 verses in the Bible refer to poverty” (p90). In his view, the key to the way the prophets in particular deal with issues of poverty and justice is that “what Scripture teaches us to reject, what it is very strongly against, is the idea that some people can get left behind.” (p91) On this basis he contrasts the closing of the coal mines in Britain and France: the former is, he says, much less biblically just.
For him unfettered capitalism can be characterised as the worship of Mammon, and a cancer in society. “We are suffering from an economic cancer, for what is cancer but growth in a part of an organism which takes no regard for the health of the whole? … As the economy is becoming more and more separate from the human concerns which are its base, the economy is becoming more and more distorted and damaging.” (p93) Possibly it is the analogy of cancer that causes him to illustrate this with the tobacco industry, maximising profits for shareholders involved active denial of and dislocation from the health problems for individuals and society.
He continues to work with the language of idolatry to critique culture. (I remain sceptical of the value of the metaphor shorn of any accompanying cultus.) He argues that the desire to control the earth’s fertility is an ongoing idolatry from the worship of Baal to the modification of crops industrialising growth and patenting nature. “The Christian calling is to learn how to garden: to live at peace with creation rather than seeking to exploit it.” (p101) A proper doctrine of creation means that “we are forbidden from extracting from the land the maximum amount that can be gained.” (p97).
He moves on in his next chapter to argue for a particular understanding of apocalyptic. First he follows MacIntyre, quoting at length his parallel between today and the ending of the Roman Empire, and the preservation of civilisation and faith through the monastic communities. “Many of those alive today will live through a collapse of our culture … It is our Christian duty to turn aside from shoring up the existing Imperium and concentrate on constructing local communities which can sustain civility and the intellectual and moral life through the collapse of our culture.” (p105)
Then he takes Tom Wright’s argument that biblical end-of-the-world language is a metaphor for drastic change and overwhelming social upheaval, rather than a literal expectation of a cosmic conflagration bringing the space-time universe to a premature heat-death. He rejects the popular “end of the world” narrative, influenced by a fundamentalist understanding of biblical apocalyptic. He believes this lies behind the readiness of people to tell or believe imminent doom stories which owe much, whether religious or secular to the same framework: God / nature will destroy a wicked world, but those who are righteous and / or prepared will be saved / will survive.
He sees this as badly and mistakenly dualistic between righteous and wicked, heaven and earth, now and the future, and believes that Jesus subverts this dualism. Jesus goes to sinners not the righteous; as God incarnate, he overcomes the split between heaven and earth; and his stories reveal a realised eschatology, living now as if the future is upon us. For Sam, in a vivid parable of driving a bus along a winding cliff road, realised eschatology means “ We have to pay very close attention to each moment in time because the judgement could be just around the corner.” (p110)
Christians are not apocalyticists: Christians preach the goodness of God and his benign love to humankind and creation. “We do not have to save the world, but we do have to live in the belief that it has been saved.” (p114). The church goes on doing the things that matter, nurturing wisdom, building communities to transmit it, knowing that the collapse of civilisation (which he sees as inevitable) is not the last word, but just a phase we’re going through.
Finally in a concluding chapter he takes the church to task for not doing what it’s supposed to. The church, he says, needs to confess its culpability in failing to teach the wisdom of Christ or share the vision of Christ which is true humanism. The “task of the religious teacher … is about changing the shape of the lived out faith in order that life itself is fruitful.” (p118) He sees a number of what he labels (again) as idolatries afflicting the church. The idolatry of control, attempting to protect the faith and the faithful by controlling them, appears to be a particularly Roman Catholic vice. This gets the blame for both the Great Schism and the Reformation, plus many a little split in many other denominations. Protestant churches (in particular) get it in the neck for the idolatry of private judgement: “especially in the United States, … ego and individual choice have been confused with the call of conscience. … I am going to club together with the like minded and we are going to have another church.” (pp120-1).
Then he turns to characterise some more traditional heresies or idolatries in the modern church: Donatism and the pure Church, Gnosticism and the turn from embodied living to the world of ideas, Docetism and the unlikeness of Christ. With these he also lumps dispensationalism – “ the very definition of a ‘doctrine of men’” (p123), and the rather vaguer turning of church into entertainment, and its harder-edged sibling the prosperity gospel. Both share the idea that God / church exists to do something for me. Then as mirror images of the reaction to modern scientism, he dismisses fundamentalism and liberalism, yoked together in symbiotic opposition, and to season this whole confection of heresies, he rejects the current obsession with sex and sexuality as the defining edge of the gospel.
Influenced by Hauerwas and others, he then holds up Amish and Mennonite examples of a counter-cultural practice of living the faith which is actually expected to make a difference to cultural structures. Describing the Amish as having “a healthy and ecologically balanced attitude to science and technology” (126) may not entirely convince those who see them as a rather quaint cultural anachronism that has failed to engage the modern world, far less critique it.
Running through this rollicking romp around the contemporary Church and the heresies which distress her, is a central conviction which revisits all his earlier arguments on real wisdom and the true social eucharistic body. He insists that “the practice, the actual living out of Christian faith, comes before proclamation … [it] … is what gives the words their weight” (129).
Again, I hope that is an accurate précis of an argument that sometimes feels a little breathless. I’m not at all sure how much of Sam’s analysis I accept, and I’m still pondering that. One of the problems is that it is a Western analysis. It would be hard to call the flourishing of the early Byzantine court and culture a Dark Ages following the sack of Rome. It would be equally hard to dismiss the way in which learning, preserved in significant ways by as much by Christian as Muslim (and in the early years more so) scribes, teachers and thinkers in the Caliphate, led to a flourishing of Arabic philosophy and science, with much greater continuity in classical civilisation than much early medieval Western thinking.
I am not myself persuaded by the collapsing civilisation model (and even less so by Wright’s idea that biblical apocalyptic is a metaphor for social, cultural and human upheaval). The model of Dark Ages, Middle Ages and then, according to taste and temporal location, Renaissance, Reformation or Enlightenment (all of which blend into feed a heady modern myth of superiority which Sam does a great deal to critique and undermine) does not satisfy me as a historical analysis. Good and bad are always intertwined, cultural trends are always waxing and waning. It is why, in the end, the Amish do not appeal to me as a model of counter-cultural community. The monasteries were not counter-cultural in the same way. They stand, it seems to me, much more in their culture even while offering some different models of living within it. That is why Charlemagne sends for Alcuin, in a way Obama wouldn’t send for an Amish advisor.
This is a book well-worth reading which has constantly provoked thought, even if sometimes in disagreement. I stand fully with Sam in the idea that we need to be thinking how church life needs to be in order to embody the practical wisdom of living eucharistically, of being stewards of a good but damaged creation God is saving. But in the end, perhaps I see the weeds and the wheat as much as an intellectual and cultural parable as a moral one, and I can’t quite bring myself, even as a metaphor for “a collapsing culture” to think in such dramatically apocalyptic imagery.