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Metavista, the Bible, Church and Mission in an Age of Imagination by Colin Greene and Martin Robinson

June 20, 2017

MVistaThe term “metavista” is used to capture the idea that we are both post-Christendom and post-postmodern, and thus have a new and intriguing world before us. By using the narrative of scripture, the church may now reimagine itself in its new missional surroundings.

This book is not easy to read though it does give an overview of philosophical trends.

The decline in churchgoing has been pinned on the period 1850-1950 but is really in the 1960s that it became mared.

Our values are best shown in election campaigns, where rival views are set out or what we hope for in the future. The invisible hand of capitalism versus Tom Paine’s ‘The Rights of Man’ are the key views of modernity. Islam is their bogey man in all of this.

Because the Bible is still a boot and most people go online rather than read books, the Bible is becoming  increasingly marginalised.

I can see how my local theological college, rather than training priests, trains ‘missional leaders; – it seems to follow the prescriptions of this book literally.

Much in the Bible is alien to our culture.

They use film to good effect in pointing up beliefs and aspirations in our culture.

They idolise the homophobic Oliver O’ Donovan.

They claim that Roman Catholics   ‘added’ the Apocrypha to he Bible – surely it’s the other way round – protestants tore it out.

It’s repetitive in places.

It’s annoying that there’s no index.


“The church is being called to reimagine itself, to find a way to articulate its central defining story among the ‘metavista’ refugees who no longer believe that the church ecumenical and catholic today is being sustained by a credible vision of the true, the good and the beautiful. Where are the contemporary prophets, artists and storytellers who can retell our defining story with vigor, passion and persuasiveness?”

The 1997 award-winning film The Apostle tells the remarkable story of itinerant evangelist and popular preacher Eulis “Sonny” Dewey. A truly inspirational and gripping performance by Robert Duvall captures the enigma of a gifted individual who has two sides to his character: one that embraces the raw passion and stirring rhetoric of a small-time Southern boy truly committed to a life of service and witness to his personal Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and the other that reveals a flawed and vulnerable human being who reacts with stunning violence to the reality of his wife’s adultery with an associate pastor. Sonny captures our imagination and our sympathy because his personal character and career are caught in the dialectical tension between captivity to a crime of passion and a ministry of freedom and emancipation to ordinary, poor, upstanding, Christian people.

The equally remarkable and imaginative story of modernity unfolds in a similar manner. At its center is the liberating heartbeat of a socio-political movement of emancipation for hardworking, down-to-earth, good people. In its soul, however, there is a rebellious energy that has easily turned emancipation into captivity, progress into idolatry, and the inherent worth of the individual into totalitarian ideology.

The vision of the end of time articulated in Revelation 7 and 21 does, in fact, welcome a plurality and diversity of races, nations and beliefs, and so is better able to express the hopes of the world as it actually is and hopefully will remain.

The story of postmodernity as a “matrix of meanings” trades on the phenomenal success and genuine originality of the movie blockbuster The Matrix, first released at Easter 1999. That same originality was not maintained in the two sequels that followed the original. Instead, the temptation to explore computer-generated cinematic special effects all but overwhelmed the intriguing philosophical, epistemological and theological components of the original story line.

The Matrix, with its elentlessly focussed trio, Neo, Morpheus and Trinity, happily Faxes philosophical conundrums and stunning special effects with the martial arts. Travelling along a philosophical trajectory that began with Plato, reappeared in the sixteenth century with bescartes, moved through Nietzsche to typically postmodern philosophers such as Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard, The Matrix spins out a great story that is carefully crafted to .undermine our unprepossessing faith in common sense reality. As Colin McGinn, Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University, New Jersey, notes: Philosophical purists may weep and gnash their teeth, but the fa is that movies are the most powerful cultural influence we hay today. Nor is there anything unintelligent about the way the make of the film handle the philosophy. It seems to have been ma expressly to explore the issues of how appearance relates to reali how knowledge is possible, and what we would lose if we entered permanent dream world — as well as how to dodge bullets, blow predatory machines and dress apocalyptically.

The Matrix also reinvents religion, updating the Messiah st for the twenty-first century. Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, is handsome, cool, yet charismatic Christ figure, unsure of himself  but gradually maturing into his divinity. He performs miracles, against and exorcises evil in the form of the sinister Agents, eventually wins the world back from the grip of the machines the illusory power of the computer-generated simulation, the -x. Morpheus is a strongly prophetic John the Baptist; Cypher ly a play on, and synonym for, Lucifer) is the treacherous ; and Trinity is the female personification of the Spirit who the end of the first film resurrects Neo from the dead. Again, as McGinn comments: This is the New Testament story for people raised on video games, Star Wars, and extreme fighting. Jesus Christ with cool shades and a beltful of guns. I am not saying this is a good way to recast the central characters of Christianity, but it’s hard to deny its cultural impact.6

In a postmodern world there is no denying the return of powerful narrative storytelling, but it is storytelling that unashamedly draws from a plethora of sources. In the process reality ceases to be what we have always believed everywhere at all times and becomes, instead, a culturally constructed pastiche or simulation of what we imagine the world could really be like and our precarious place in it.

The privileging of the aesthetic in contemporary culture goes hand in hand (as indeed The Matrix makes clear) with an anti-foundational stance in philosophy and cultural theory. It is, however, also closely linked with the expansion of consumerism that has been such a dominant feature of modern life since the latter part of the eighteenth century.

The Matrix also raises a more subtle epistemological conundrum: What, in fact, is the value of knowledge? What would be so wrong with living in a dream or fantasy world, as long as we remained blissfully ignorant of our existential dilemma? It was Nietzsche, after all, who remarked that there is no pre-ordained harmony between knowledge and happiness. Neither is it the case, as The Matrix postulates, that gaining access to knowledge will promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number! In fact, quite the reverse is the case. Cypher decides that living in the illusory world where a steak still tastes like a real steak is preferable to the unhappiness of continually having to risk his life heroically in the fight against the machines. In that sense he is archetypically postmodern, because in the end experience and good sensations – even those based on illusion – take priority over the search for truth and right knowledge.

Immanuel Kant took more or less the same route in his search for indubitable knowledge and epistemological certainty. He divided the world into nomena (things as they exist in themselves, which we cannot know) and phenomena (things as they appear to us and so form the basis of our experience of the world). He then further bolsters the epistemological security of the thinking, rational subject by defining the nature of the cognitive apparatus that enables us to make sense of the world around us. The human mind is apparently arrayed with a cognitive grid called the apriori categories of thought – concepts such as space, time and causation, for instance, that sort out the jumble of external stimuli that continually bombard our senses, so transforming our experience of the world into a coherent rational entity. In other words, it is the combination of a self-conscious individual self and a rational thinking ego that allows us to accurately represent the world as it is through clear and distinct ideas.

The first, as represented by Cypher, is the easiest to deal with and originates with the laid-back American pragmatism of Richard Rorty. Following Nietzsche, Rorty takes a long, hard look at the representational epistemology of modernity and concludes that it is simply an example of asking the wrong sort of questions and arriving at the wrong sort of answers! The notion that the concepts of the mind can actually mirror reality and so represent the world as it actually is, is simply that – an unsubstantiated notion or a metaphor which expressed the particular Enlightenment penchant for manipulating the world for our own purposes. It is but an example of epistemological hubris that provided the flourishing knowledge industry of Descartes, Kant and Hegel, and in Britain Hume and Locke, with the illusory assurance that they had provided indubitable foundations to our knowledge of ourselves and the world around us. In reality, as Neitzsche claimed, it simply reflects a particular society’s or culture’s will to power, the inherent desire of a particular group of people to succeed. If we think our thoughts and ideas actually represent the world as it really is then such apparent knowledge will inevitably help to bolster and advance that particular society’s best interest.

The first is the old, well-worn doctrine of human progress. The natural and human sciences, it is claimed, aid and abet the emancipatory forward march of civilisation. The more knowledge we gain about ourselves and the world around us the more progress we make in securing a good and decent future for the generations that follow.

The second is a more subtle philosophical story that originated with Hegel and the Romantics and sees the search for knowledge as a feature of the odyssey of the divine Spirit to lose itself and find itself in the other — “the other” being the whole history of humanity and our pursuit of knowledge in and for its own sake.

What postmodernity exemplifies is incredulity toward these particular metanarritives which renders science simply a series of pragmatic disciplines devoid of epistemological foundations and so based on the principle of performance.

This is, indeed, the world postulated in The Matrix, where science and technology have no emancipatory logic at all, but have led to a nightmare scenario of domination, control and ruthless loitation. The very machines created by humans in the pursuit freedom, progress and knowledge have wrested control of the ld out of their hands and imposed an erroneous representation day to day reality upon them. The only chance of liberation is accept this and engage in an agonistic, localized destabilizing the status quo. The real is, at the end of the day, a construct ich mirrors either our desires for control and domination or r deeper awareness that there may be some more egalitarian opian alternative.

Jean Baudrillard’s dystopia

The third philosophical alternative that lies behind The Matrix is one to which we have already referred. It is the dystopian vision offered by Jean Baudrillard’s ruminations on the destructive power of hyper-reality.

The Matrix postulates two complementary apocalyptic scenarios. The first is that the political economy of capitalism, aided and abetted by technology, led inexorably to the commodification of everything — including, of course, human beings, who are now no more that battery fuel for the machines. The second is that the machines achieve all this through a sophisticated cybernetic control system that simulates everyday reality.

The Matrix postulates only two forms of human community. The first is a simulation of the modern city, where the masses move through the daily routine of work, family and leisure totally unaware of their bondage to a sophisticated cybernectic system of control. The second is the chosen few who have been unplugged from the system and now search for a messiah who will break the power of the Matrix.

The politics of direct action

It should be no surprise to us that certain radical political groups who have simply given up on the normal processes of political representation and are committed, instead, to subversive and often violent forms of direct action, find some inspiration from The Matrix. This is, after all, the political situation The Matrix postulates. If the system is the enemy, then democracy is an illusion, and those engaged in it are hopelessly unaware of the ideological nature of political power. The alternative, as exhibited by those who systematically attack what they believe is the ideological power base represented by the G8 economic summit, is violent direct action.

The surname Anderson derives from the Greek root andr-, meaning “man,” and so has clear links, etymologically, with the Christological descriptor, Son of Man. After Neo gives Choi the illegal software (hidden, incidentally, in a copy of Baudrillard’s Simulation and Simulacra), Choi remarks, “Hallelujah, You’re my savior, man, my own personal Jesus Christ.”

Neo’s messianic vocation has clear echoes of the original story: a special calling, an intimate relationship with a Father figure, and his own particular virgin birth. When Neo takes the reality pill, he wakes up in a womb-like vat of liquid, where he is quickly unplugged from umbilical-cord-like cables and slides down a tube that is clearly representative of the birth canal. Neo later willingly sacrifices his life to save Morpheus and is raised to life again in Room 303 by Trinity’s kiss. After his restoration to new life he is arrayed with new powers that symbolize his full entry into the divine. Just as Jesus ascended in bodily form to heaven, so in the final scene Neo flies through the sky, which is also reminiscent of the Superman movies.

Intriguingly disguised biblical references are also part of the film’s appeal to Christians. The last remaining city is called Zion, synonymous in Judaism and Christianity with the heavenly Jerusalem. When Neo enters the Nebuchadnezzar for the first time, the camera rests on the model number of the ship: Mark III No. 11.

Mark 3:11 reads, “Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, ‘You are the Son of God!'”

The Wachowski brothers are clear about this: “It’s not just a Judaeo-Christian myth; it also plays into the search for the reincarnation of the Buddha.”  So Christian themes, the Taoist traditions and the oracles of Greek mythology all meld together to form a postmodern pastiche of religious possibilities equivalent in many ways to the postmodern preference for individualized spirituality over and against organized religion.

this “optimistic ideology” to which Berger refers. They are:

(1) A preference for a theologia gloria based on the modernity myths of power, prosperity, progress and success.

(2) An apparent blindness to the fact that at the heart of the Christian faith is a theologia crucis that embraces power­lessness, failure, godforsakenness, annulment and ambiguity rather than triumphalism.

A preference for the prosperity gospel or a narcissistic me­and-Jesus piety that is either totally devoid of any social justice or political relevance or is hopelessly accommodated to consumerist culture.

A simplistic bibliolatry, with a general distrust of theology and critical thinking.

A failure to recognize that the megachurch phenomenon has virtually nothing to do with the New Testament or the historical experience of the Hebrew people and is, in fact, often a cultural adaptation to the celebrity culture of the US.

A simplistic faith in the universal worth of liberal democracy which it is the duty of the US to export to the rest of the world.

1997 the British and Foreign Bible Society conducted some arch into the Bible reading practices of regular churchgoers all denominations in the UK. The results were both astonishing d, for many church leaders, deeply disturbing. The research covered that 18 percent of regular churchgoers (defined as ople who went to church at least twice a month) had never read anything in the Bible for themselves in their entire churchgoing life! Quite by accident the research also turned up another startling statistic: a further 14 percent of regular churchgoers had never read anything in the Bible themselves in that particular year. Those two figures added together meant that for 32 percent of regular churchgoers in the UK, at that time, the Bible was largely a closed book.

To put the issue baldly and somewhat simplistically: with the possible exception of the early Reformation period, the fact is that the Bible has never been central to the life and witness of the church during the whole Christendom project, which has obviously covered most of the time the church has been in existence.

The marriage of the church with temporal power —be it emperor, king, nation, state or empire — compromised the church’s primary relationship to the Scriptures as the fundamental source

The first 11 chapters of Genesis, which tell the story of the prehistory of the cosmos and humankind, take us through four interlocking themes. We construe these themes in the following fashion and will shortly explain why: Creation and Coven Election and Exile, Imaging and Idolatry, and Nations and Empire.

It is a recurring deficiency of many Protestant evangelical read’ of the biblical narrative that it can be told without the inclusion Israel at all! An over-individualistic concentration on the Fall a second story instead of an episode within the first story res in a stunted engagement with the biblical text which al inevitably leads to an interpretation that individual salvtion was the whole purpose of God’s creative act

Stout asks three fundamental questions:

Is it not possible to discern the workings of the Holy Spirit, and thus some reflections of God’s redemptive activity, in modern democratic aspirations?

Is there nothing in the political life of modern democracies, or in the lives of those who are struggling for just and decent arrangements within them, that a loving God would bless?

If the plentitude of God’s triune inner life shines forth in all creation, cannot theology discern some such light in democrat( political community?

If Milbank and his associates can answer yes to any of these questions, then their theology is a lot less radical and novel then they think and they have little theological justification for the wholesale refusal of the secular realm in political judgments. however, they answer no to such a set of questions, then, as Stout rightly contends:

[Millbank] has little to offer besides nostalgia, utopian fantasy, withdrawal into a strongly bounded enclave. In that event, he w owe his readers reasons for avoiding the conclusion that his theology has restricted divine sovereignty and inhibited charity toward non-Christian other.

MacIntyre’s influence led Hauerwas to intensify his argument that ultimately the church is itself a community of virtue and character that relies not on universal moral truths but on the redemptive efficacy of the biblical story and its fulfillment in Jesus Christ?’ This is the political space the church occupies and its task is to preach the gospel of the crucified Christ which provides an ethic for vicarious suffering (something which Oliver O’Donovan has also claimed modern liberalism cannot provider and at the same time live out in a community of character the ethics implied and detailed in the church’s narrative of redemption.

The movie The Mission makes the very same point in regard to the Jesuit missions to the South American Guarani Indians in the eighteenth century. The mission led by one Father Gabriel, helped by his acolyte and converted slave trader, Father Roderigo, is eventually ceded by the Spanish to Portuguese government forces who, aided and abetted by the very same slave traders, destroy the mission outposts. Father Gabriel, faced with this betrayal by his own religious superiors, chooses the way of pacifist self-sacrifice, while Father Roderigo trains the Indians in armed resistance. Both are killed, but the question – dramatically and deliberately framed through the action and musical overture of the film – poignant rests over the sad denouement of the film: Were both these m being obedient to the witness of the crucified Christ in refusing submission to and actively resisting unjustly propagated evil violence?

In short, many Europeans have ceased to connect with their religious institutions in any active sense, but they have not abandoned, so far, er their deep-seated religious aspirations or (in many cases) a laent sense of belonging.

W]omen, rather than cities or social class, emerge as the principal source of explanation for the patterns of religiosity that were observable in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries … [W] omen were the bulwark to popular support for organised Christianity between 1800 and 1963, and second it was they who broke their relationship to Christian piety in the 1960s and thereby caused secularisation.

The churches of the eighteenth century were not renewed by the transmission of the faith through families (continuity) the radical discontinuity of conversion.

Clearly there are a number of strands in this complex equation. The backdrop is a fairly widespread desire to escape a socially coercive and politically manipulative Christendom. This is not, in the first place, an anti-Christian theme. The various nonconformist churches (and later in Britain the Roman Catholic Church) we only too anxious to escape from the influence of an Anglican Church that had immense privileges in terms of political and public appointments and educational advancement.

One researcher has made the curious discovery that many of members of the Bloomsbury Set were the grandchildren of members of that earlier evangelical grouping, the Clapham Sect, which had done so much to establish the social significance Christianity in the early part of the nineteenth century.

It is, of course, possible to protest that since Christendom is the same as Christianity, the collapse of Christendom should mean the end of Christianity. The missiologist Werner Ustorf argues this case and in so doing hopes to help Christianity to be renewed with reference to the ways in which it is expressed in other parts of the world – vibrant churches but no Christendom. Others, such as Linda Woodhead, tend to opt for a weaker and rather vague future for Christianity as “spirituality.

Those of us who grew up in England in the 1930s and ’40s had little doubt what Modernity was, and we were clear about its merits. It was our good luck to be born into the modern world, rather than some earlier, benighted time. We were better fed, more comfortable, and healthier than our ancestors. Even more, we were free to think and say what we liked, and follow our ideas in any direction that youthful curiosity pointed us. For us, Modernity was unquestionably, a Good Thing; and we only hoped that, for the sake of the rest of humanity, the whole world would soon become as “modern” as us.’

The problem is hardly new. Even in the late nineteenth century there was an awareness in England that all was not well. That concern centered on the persistent absence of large sections of the working classes from church life. In the case of the nonconformists, even though their growth continued, it had fallen behind the growth of the wider population.”

Few thought hard about these issues, because the individual denominations still saw their numbers increasing.

The new vision was of the world, not the Church, as the place where God is to be found. Consequently “the mission and renew of the Church in our day depends on acceptance and affirmation of the secular world in place of traditional Christian tendency to reject it.” The most articulate exponent of the dominant mo was Hans Hoekenkijk whose address called us “to begin radic to desacralize the Church” and to recognize that “Christianity is secular movement — this is basic for an understanding of it.”

“Each day, it seems, thousands of Americans are going about their daily rounds — dropping off the kids at school, driving to the office, flying to a business meeting, shopping at the mall, trying to stay on their diets — and coming to the realization that something is missing. They are deciding that their work, their possessions, their diversions, their sheer busyness are not enough. They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives, something that will relieve a chronic loneliness or lift them above the exhausting, relentless toll of daily life.” (Barach Obama)

The extraordinary movie accomplishment Angels in America (2000) not only swept the board with 11 Emmys, but also managed creatively and ingeniously to tell four stories at the same time, linking them together by a dramatic plot situated in the homosexual community of the 1980s; a group of individuals endeavoring to grapple with the life-threatening phenomenon of HIV/AIDS. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name by Tony Kushner, this remarkable piece of narrative storytelling grips our attention and elicits our admiration by the remarkable depth of the various subplots that meld together to produce a multilayered narrative that leaves the viewer wondering at the end of the movie what exactly was it really all about!2 As one observant critic put it: This [production] isn’t about gays, it isn’t about AIDS, it isn’t about Jews and it isn’t about Mormons. Its theme is the necessity for people to change, the scariness of change, while most of us would prefer to just let things stay as they are.’

at a very deep level, most of these approaches to the growth of the church actually represent the very best of an old model. However hard they try to disguise it, each in its own way relies on attracting new members to an essentially passive, audience-oriented model of church. It is what Alan Hirsch calls the classic evangelistic-attractional model.  Obviously there is a percentage of the population that is attracted to such a model of church, but in improving the model one is primarily increasing the likelihood of that “market segment” attending one church rather than another. Of course there are always enough stories of conversion to convince leaders that they really are reaching beyond transfer growth, and while there may even be some notable exceptions to the general rule that transfer growth is the main factor in the growth of these churches, it is hard to argue that the overall situation of the church is being significantly transformed through the import of church growth programs.

Third, most of these models have the church, and not mission, as the main object of their activity. The idea is not to change the world but to grow the church. Of course it is possible to argue, some do, that a larger church will have a beneficial impact on t broader society, but in reality it is much more probable that the church will have been sidelined as just another consumer choice a private matter for consenting adults, but not something that possibly represent public truth.

The generation born in the West since 1945 is probably unique in the history of the world in the basic needs of life are guaranteed through the structures of welfare state. Shelter, food, clothing, heat and light – the essentials of life – are not really in question for those fortunate enough to in the West  The employees of the welfare state may on occasion make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes can be serious in general we do not have to worry about actual survival. The of discipline, of hard work, of taking responsibility for who we are and who we might become are more deeply counter-cultural now than probably at any other time in the history of the Western world.

One study of church leaders in the West revealed that a majority of clergy have no personal spiritual disciplines at al1.25 The whole body of Christ needs to take responsibility for the cultivation of strong spiritual lives amongst the people of God.


The intention of a discipleship process is that it should lead to action. But we should not wait until a moment of graduation or completion before we act. On the contrary, discipleship assumes an action-reflection model. We note in the New Testament that Jesus sends out the disciples long before they might be considered fully-fledged completers of the Jesus School of Discipleship Training. They are fully involved participants in the mission as part of their training.

Of course the discipleship process is never completed ­followers of Jesus we remain lifelong learners. But it is also case that there comes a time when as individuals we acc responsibility for the calling we have been given and begin experiment with a specific ministry to serve others.

entrepreneurs are not always team players. Actually producing healthy, functioning teams out of individuals who can often be difficult, high-order introverts – or extroverts – is a challenging exercise. Small wonder that congregations easily revert to the safe choice of a pastoral type to love and care for the flock, rather than embark on the white-knuckle, no-safety-belt ride that apostolic teams sometimes engender. Yet it is precisely in this somewhat dangerous environment that individuals who are currently outside the church find a challenge and then their calling and fulfillment.

The growth of Willow Creek has more to do with the creative leadership of Bill Hybels and the team he created than it does with the 7-step strategy that they subsequently formulated by thinking about what they were doing. Communicating the 7-step strategy does not, in fact, lead to the replication of other Willow Creek situations, especially outside of the US.

In a world of international terrorism generated by ideological interpretation and affiliation to competing religious narratives, modern ecumenism at the local level should include what has previously be referred to as “interfaith dialogue.” All religions are oriented towards competing truth claims and different foundational texts and often pastors and preachers are ill-equipped to enter into this kind of hermeneutical interchange. However, like all dialogue, it is based on friendship, mutual respect, trust and understanding, and openness to the radical challenge of other. In the present highly dangerous international situation such dialogue is even more necessary and should be oriented understanding one another’s holy Scriptures more thorough and working for peace, justice and mutual understanding in respective communities.

There is an interview with the author here

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