Aclassic sketch by the British comedy duo Mitchell and Webb sees a pair of Nazi SS officers in the grip of an existential crisis.
One says to the other: “Have you looked at our caps recently? … They’ve got skulls on them. Have you noticed that our caps have actually got little pictures of skulls on them?”
Realization dawns: “Hans … are we the baddies?”
Contemporary Western culture finds itself curiously split on the question of moral absolutes. On the one hand, in the golden age of prestige TV, we pride ourselves on the moral complexity of our stories: the flawed protagonist, the tortured hero, the sympathetic villain. Using the tools of psychology and sociology, we do our best to understand what has gone wrong for those who do wrong, and we accept (more or less) that we’re all damaged, striving people.
On the other hand, we seem to define more rigidly every day the boundaries of what’s acceptable, in the process cheerfully consigning larger and larger swaths of our fellow citizens to that no man’s land beyond the cultural pale.
Do we or do we not believe in goodies and baddies? How do we treat those we place in that second camp? And what happens when other people place us there?
In his short and very readable book Being the Bad Guys: How to Live for Jesus in a World That Says You Shouldn’t, Australian pastor and blogger Stephen McAlpine sails into the contested waters of Christian cultural engagement with admirable calmness. It’s a delicate moment for discussions of this kind. Christians across the political and ecclesial spectrum probably would agree that the relationship between the church and the wider culture is currently rocky, but they would also disagree, vigorously, about what exactly has gone wrong and what a constructive response looks like.
Good bad guys
For McAlpine, a good place to start is taking seriously accusations that Christians are the “bad guys.” Particularly in the wake of Christian involvement in the Capitol riots of January 6, and with revelation upon revelation of abuse by prominent church leaders, it is right for outside criticism to prompt soul-searching rather than defensiveness. Some hostility arises from our own failings; and humility is always in order for the Christian.
But from McAlpine’s read of an increasingly post-Christian culture, on some fronts there simply isn’t going to be an honorable way around being the baddie: “The fact is that often we are accused of doing wrong not because we are living too little like Jesus but because we are living too much like him.”
Being the Bad Guys takes seriously those flash points where a Christian ethic—especially Christian sexual ethics—comes into conflict with social orthodoxy. But it also suggests that if fear and outrage are the default response to encountering cultural opposition, then we’re doing it wrong:
So this book isn’t about how to stop being the bad guys; it’s about how to be the bad guys. It’s about how to be the best bad guy you can be—to refuse to be surprised, confused, despairing and mad about it, and to find a way to be calm, clear-sighted, confident and even joyful in it.
Being a good bad guy, McAlpine counsels us, is all about having Bible-shaped expectations. If we Christians are astonished and resentful when we experience pushback from the culture, we have forgotten the insistence of the entire New Testament that opposition—even hatred and persecution—are par for the course for followers of Jesus. If we find ourselves on the back foot, feeling besieged or helpless, we have lost sight of who we claim to serve. As McAlpine puts it:
If we are focused on Jesus, then we will not become self-entitled or embittered Christians who play the victim card and get angry when society pushes against us. We will instead be filled with joy. When we don’t join in the cheers when our cultural enemies lose a battle, or when we don’t shout angrily at them when they win a battle, it will only be because Jesus is our hope and joy—and he is our example of what it looks like to entrust yourself to the One who judges justly (1 Pet. 2:23).
Those who have trod this path before us include Daniel, the one for whom God is big and humans are therefore only human-sized, neither to be feared nor despised. Or Haggai, who took God’s people to task for their complacency, their reluctance to poke their heads above the parapet. Or Peter, the reformed culture warrior who went from cutting off the ear of an enemy to exhibiting and counseling joy as the fitting response to unjust suffering. Being the Bad Guys makes it abundantly clear that pressure, and the grace to be cheerful under it, is nothing new or strange for the people of God.
Antipathy and neediness
McAlpine’s proposed way forward has a lot to do with embracing a place “at the cultural margins,” and with forming communities that are “thick and rich” and “don’t get caught up in the increasingly toxic culture war.” Ideally, he observes, churches will offer programs of discipleship more effective and life-giving than the alternative religion of the day, the “individualistic narrative of the authentic self.”
At its best, Being the Bad Guys offers a grace-filled vision of what various “tactics” of Christian cultural engagement are actually for. At the end of the day, for the Christian, the reason to be alarmed at cultural tides pulling away from the shore of Judeo-Christian ethics is not because this leaves the church stranded, but because those ethics further the good of our neighbors. As McAlpine writes:
Our primary concern is—or ought to be—not that our personal lives will become harder, nor that our children will have to grow up in a hostile sexual setting, nor even that we might lose our jobs because of our faith. Rather, it is that the rapid rejection of this binary understanding of the world will both destroy and be used to destroy those who have been made in the image of God. It is a rejection of God himself. Human flourishing is at risk because of this rejection.
McAlpine’s analysis of our culture’s religion of authenticity and self-creation is frequently incisive and helpful, including how Christians too have been drawn into it. However, his decision to keep the spotlight trained throughout on issues around gender identity and sexual ethics won’t sit as well with some readers. He insists that “this book deals with sexuality a lot not because I am obsessed with it (an accusation often levelled at orthodox Christians) but because the culture is.”
Perhaps he’s right to place sexuality at the epicenter of the current clash between kingdom values and the world—I don’t know. But while concern for people wounded or confused by the various waves of the sexual revolution is clear in these pages, so too, at times, is a cynicism or dismissiveness towards those who embrace a progressive narrative around sex and gender, a posture that may well exacerbate this divide. Where such thorny and deeply personal questions are involved, jibes about the “hope of a new world that is all glitter and rainbows,” or how coming out in the public eye “hits the authenticity jackpot,” sit uneasily beside the more compassionate, inviting vision the book holds out.
Are we the baddies? Being the Bad Guys brings into focus not only the antipathy but also the neediness of our world; not only the call to stand firm in the face of opposition but also the call to actively and lovingly serve those around us; not only the rapidly shifting ground of cultural change but also the utterly secure future promised to those whose Lord is Jesus. In other words, it simply unpacks what it might look like, in 21st-century Western culture, to live such good lives that, though our neighbors accuse us of being the bad guys, our words and actions—and the grace to be found in our communities—tell a very different story.
Natasha Moore is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity in Sydney.
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