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malcolm chamberlain

musings about the emerging church, mission and contemporary culture...

God is at large, intimately involved in his world in ways that the church is maybe just waking up to!

the emperor of our imaginations...

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Alan Hirsch has posted a helpful (in its simplicity) description of Christendom, drawing on the work of Stuart Murray (read it 'here'). He also demonstrates how the paradigmatic shift of Christianity, from the margins to the centre of the institution, undermined the 'Jesus movement' that had previously been transforming the Roman world from the grassroots.

His quote from the Church Historian Rodney Stark is striking...

"Far too long, historians have accepted the claim that the conversion of the Emperor Constantine (ca. 285-337) caused the triumph of Christianity. To the contrary, he destroyed its most attractive and dynamic aspects, turning a high-intensity, grassroots movement into an arrogant institution controlled by an elite who often managed to be both brutal and lax."

Hirsch argues (and I happen to agree with him) that although Christendom has long since demised, the Church generally continues to operate with the Christendom mindset, or as he puts it, "Constantine is still the emperor of our imaginations".

For the Church to fully grasp and realise its missional calling, a similar but opposite paradigm shift is necessary to the one that took place under Constantine. Is this where the Emerging Church (in its best use of that term) is acting as a prophetic challenge to the institutional Church as it gets on with the business of seeing grass roots, culturally contextualised, communities of faith emerging? Is the 'Jesus movement', largely crippled for the last 1700 years through institutionalisation, finally being allowed to live again?

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posted by Malcolm Chamberlain, 10:04 AM

7 Comments:

Yes, in short!

But not just the 'emerging church' movement/ conversation. Other conversations in and out of church too.

And I think, despite the power of the phrase 'emperor of our imaginations' (which I really, really like), it would be wrong to think of the past 1700 years simply as a 'stall'.

Instead there's now, at the heart of power, a seed which can transform it from the inside as well as from the outside. So expect a voluntary 'step down' from the pedestals of power before there is a toppling, as the powerful begin to realise that there is a more fulfilling life in gentleness and nurture than in violence and wealth-acquisition.

commented by Blogger Steve Lancaster, 12:24 PM  

That is an undeniably resonant phrase. I am not sure that it is quite fair on Constantine the man but, as a historical symbol, it captures the frequent preference of prelates for power.

However, I would agree with Stephen that the last 1700 years shouldn't be simply written off; while there have been many self-made "top dogs" trying to masquerade in the lambs clothing, there have also been many of the poor, the dispossessed and those who have been willing to walk with them to sustain the true kingdom. Christis still king!

ps. when tomorrow's entry goes up on my blog, I will direct people back here to add comments. Don't expect too much of a rush though! ;-)

commented by Blogger Wulf, 2:50 PM  

Thanks Steve and Wulf for your comments...

of course, you're both right that we shouldn't simply write off the last 1,700 years, and I was trying to be deliberately provocative in my original post! However, I would still want to ask the question as to whether the Church's position of power that it gained in Christendom perverted or even undermined (I think I used the word 'crippled' in the original post) the 'Jesus movement'? It seems to me that Jesus upheld the possibility and necessity of an alternative to power when he submitted to the Roman soldiers in Gethsemane and scolded Peter for fighting back. Bullying people into the kingdom through force was and is never Jesus' way, and yet such a large proportion of Church history gives witness to this tactic being widely employed. Maybe it's only now, having emerged from the other side (so to speak) that we are returning to Jesus' core message by being prepared to hear the voices and stories of the 'poor and dispossessed' saints that Wulf mentioned.

commented by Blogger Malcolm Chamberlain, 3:56 PM  

So the ground is cleared, and space there for the powerful to let go of their power and step down into. Space too for the 'Jesus Movement' really to set to work building its kingdom of the dispossessed (and if you've not read Walter Wink yet, do so!)

I mentioned to you, Malcolm, that I was looking at ways the Spirited Exchanges model works beyond the christian/non-christian barrier. that is to say, there is a godliness simply in providing neutral space wherever there is a threshhold and people who cannot see how to cross it.

And here is just such a threshhold - between the powerful and the powerless. We all step into the arena together.

But more than that, you talk of 'the emperor of our imaginations', which suggests to me that whatever we do in the arena, the neutral space, is fired by our imaginations. You may know that this is the other theme that has been obsessing me - how our imagination works. Imagination is key to the philosophy of Deleuze (the book I find helpful is called 'Deleuze: a guide for the Perplexed' by Claire Colebrook, Continuum, 2006).

Deleuze's idea is that every interaction between objects can be described as an image - a visual one, an audio one, the impression of a touch and so on. And it is the way that we respond to these images that determines how we live our lives. A life spent creating the opportunity for more images is a positive life. A life closing down the opportunity for more images is a negative life. The former Deleuze equates with freedom, the latter with fascism.

Now here's the relevant bit.

You are suggesting that by putting Constantine on a pedestal in our imaginations, we have been elevating one image at the expense of many others. That sounds to me like Deleuze's negative 'way of life'. There is also a fascinating correspondence between the actual power of Rome (fascist?), and the permission we have given that power to reach into our imaginations and depose all alternatives. A Christianity expressing Deleuze's positive 'way of life' would therefore allow many power structures, and none, to exist in our imaginations, and it follows, find their expression in the real world too.

So, the key to the development of a postmodern church is the imagination working freely. In religious language this is to sanctify our imagination: maybe even to exorcise it and invite clean spirits in. But Deleuze doesn't say that the emperor image is wrong, only that allowing it to usurp other images is wrong. So a sanctified imagination will not taboo images of any kind (even taboos on taboos!).

In summary, sanctifying the imagination in this way could be the great work and gift of the church to the postmodern world. How's that for a call to metaphorical arms?

[NB. I didn't know where this comment would lead me when I started it. Its conclusion rings crystal clear to me, and scares me, because I think it is true. But I'm up for it, if you all are!]

commented by Blogger Steve Lancaster, 8:24 PM  

! And two last thoughts about sanctifying the imagination. Kind of warnings, or at least issues.

1. 'Sanctifying' is of course a loaded image, and should probably be deconstructed every time it is used, at least until its fuller meaning is appreciated.

2. The power of the image of an emperor to become an actual emperor in the way we think needs some careful consideration. I wonder if what we have here is something to do with fear and love. But I am reluctant to set these up as a dualism: either/or. I suspect what we are looking at is fear defined as a loving response to the inevitability of love. An image becomes 'sticky' and attracts other images - the emperor starts to 'rule', the servant to 'serve', in our imaginary world. Sensing perhaps our interior world is about to express itself externally, in ways we didn't expect, we feel two pulls: to hold back, and to allow this new worldview its full expression. But holding back is not bad, it is simply a recognition that we do not understand the full impact our actions could have - on everyone. This is loving concern, just as allowing a worldview to unfurl is loving concern.

commented by Blogger Steve Lancaster, 8:54 PM  

Hi, I surfed into your blog whilst googling 'Deleuze Christianity'. For why? Because I have a friend who is both a Christian, a recently evangelised one, and has a love for Deleuze or at least owns some of his books. I was looking for the tie in. From the comment in this blog I sense that the communality is in the shared willingness to engage in a metaphysics at all.

I read your original blog 'The Emporer of our imaginations' as well of course to make sense of the comment. It seems that the change you are observing or appreciating in Christianity with its marriage to the Roman Empire is the same fall from Grace that has driven each sucessive reformation. Isn't that at the heart of the early Franciscans, the Quakers, Methodists and so on and so on up to the contemporary revelation driven Church of England? Some place the 'fall from grace' at an earlier date at some Council or other - others blame Paul.

This makes me wonder a terrible truth about Christianity. Isn't it at its best when persecuted?

commented by Anonymous Tim, 9:06 PM  

Wow - this discussion has gone in directions that I never imagined when I made the original post, and it's all good stuff!

Steve - thanks for your comments. As always you're a couple of intellectual steps ahead of me and so I don't have anything worthy to add - what you've written is really helpful. I particularly like your comment - "the key to the development of a postmodern church is the imagination working freely." This resonates with me because I think it links with the importance of 'permission giving' - proactively allowing and inviting people to be creative and imaginative in their response to God. Maybe it's the restricting of imagination (in order to keep 'Christianity' defined and prescriptive) that is the negative legacy of Christendom.

Tim, thanks for your comments and welcome to this blog! You wrote, "This makes me wonder a terrible truth about Christianity. Isn't it at its best when persecuted" I think I would prefer to use the word 'marginalised' to 'persecuted', which includes the latter but extends beyond it. On the whole, I don't see the Church being persecuted in the West in the 21st century (despite what out 'martyr complex' might want to believe) but I do see it being marginalised, and I think that it's from this position of relative weakness and vulnerability that the deeply subversive 'Jesus movement' is able to capture people's imagination.

commented by Blogger Malcolm Chamberlain, 9:37 AM  

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