A Theology to reverse decline?: Mark Clavier on delight

On Consumer Culture, Identity, the Church and the Rhetorics of Delight

Mark Clavier

Bloomsbury, 2019

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This morning (Advent 3, 2018) I celebrated Mass and preached for 18 people. I was, almost certainly, the youngest person present. I am 53. The Mass was held in the Church Hall because the congregation cannot afford to heat the beautiful church. The church is in a large town.

The renewal of the church will come when we admit that we have a problem. When we say out loud what we already know. That we are in a period of significant decline and that many of the ways we have done church are dying or already dead. Not, I tend to think, so much the death of Christendom which passed away with Christian monarchies, but certainly the death of Victorian religion.

Renewal will come when, like the Jesuits on mission, we learn to speak the language of our culture. To understand it and be able to articulate it theologically. Mark Clavier’s book is a significant piece of work, I hope it is widely read, and that he will continue to work on this.

To most people I know the church is irrelevant. A quaint hang over from the past. A cultural heritage that they want to continue but don’t want to commit to. All our attempts in the church to communicate speak passed them. We are addressing, for the most part, questions they do not ask, needs they do not feel. We have not named the sin that abounds in a way they recognise. For Clavier that is because we are so immersed in the culture that we can’t recognise it. He names that sin: consumerism.

The only thing not to delight in about this book is the title. And even then that is only in case it puts anyone off reading it. Actually, the title locates the book as part of the Bloomsbury Reading Augustine series edited by Miles Hollingworth, in which all the titles seek to copy the ancient tradition of ‘On … ‘ but without the brevity that Augustine and his fellow ancient writers managed.

Title aside this is an important book. It addresses what are, I believe, the most important questions facing Christians:

  • The Missional Problem 
  • The Ecological Problem 
  • The Problem of Sin

Clavier demonstrates how these issues are inextricably linked and provides some possible avenues for development. American born he is a Canon at Brecon Cathedral, former theological College vice-Principal and parish priest. In On Consumer Culture he is working on themes already addressed by him in his previous publications on Consumerism and Delight.

Clavier’s work particularly interests me because as a Headteacher I chose Deus Pulchritudinis, God is beauty, as our school motto, and explicitly sought to harness Augustine’s theology of beauty in the work of school improvement. At the same time my interest in politics and economics is mainly about how we find a way out of our slavery to a neo-liberal system which is creating greater gaps between the rich and the poor than we have been seen before. I have been interested in, but ultimately rejected, the structural critique provided by a Marxist analysis of economics and am delighted (!) that Clavier offers a tantalising glimpse of something different, even if not a whole political programme for change.

Earlier this year I went to see the stage adaptation of Robert Harris’s Imperium. The wholly sympathetic if deeply compromised hero of the play is the Roman Orator and politician Cicero. Cicero is, famously, the inspiration for much of Augustine’s work. Clavier is clearly a great teacher, his account of Cicero and rhetoric is superb, as is his teaching of the theology of Augustine’s City of God.

“I’ll contend on the one hand”, says Clavier, “that consumerism doesn’t differ from any other bondage of the will to sin but on the other that it represents the most pervasive and destructive manifestation of human falseness the world has yet seen.” One of the strongest sections of the book, is the close reading, with Augustine, of Romans 7, exploring the process of conversion, reaching the point where “God delights us more than sin.”

It is ‘delight’ that, for Clavier, reading Augustine, is the key motif. The consumer society has enslaved us with delights and only delight in God will be strong enough to set us free. It is rhetoric, the Orator who will overcome with God’s persuasive power the persuasion of the advertisers and producers. “Suggestion, delight, and persuasion determine our salvation or damnation.”

Clavier critiques two Christian responses to the consumer society, fundamentalism, which posits that choice alone is the issue:

“Since the market is devising strategies for weighting our choices before we can even think to make them, simply restating the obligation of Christians to live differently has no real effect. The contest isn’t between choices but between the suggestions and delights that give rise to choices. In short, if Cicero and Augustine are right, then what’s really needed isn’t just a different choice, but, more fundamentally, a rival rhetoric powerful enough to persuade people to be something else than a consumer … Augustine envisioned just such a rhetoric that’s spoken into the world by an eloquent God.” (p.60)

He is equally scathing about other attempts to present the faith as one other ‘lifestyle choice’. “Either it accepts consumer culture and simply tries successfully to express its own rhetoric within it or it must find a way to challenge consumerism’s hold over individuals and society.” (p. 12 see also p.17).

If the church doesn’t get the rhetoric right it will be participating in the very consumer culture that is its enemy. I think that is what we see in so many of the initiatives and attempts to evangelise. They are just another form of re-branding a product to make it more palatable. They work with a number of people, they might grow particular congregations but all the data shows that overall they have very little significant effect. As Clavier puts it,  “I hope to make clear just how wrong-headed and self-defeating much of the work of the church has been since the emergence of consumer culture.” (p 119).

The answer is in identifying the mission of the church which is “fundamentally a mission of delight: to strive to be a formative community of rhetoric that can persuade and dispose Christians to pursue the love of God.” (p. 121)

Clavier suggests two solutions:

“First a re-ordering of the internal life of the church so that it inspires imaginations and habits that delight in God, creation, and our neighbours, and

secondly, a willingness to challenge not only the ugliness that is found in the world – both social and ecological – but also those forms of worldly delights that dehumanise others or degrade the environment.” (p.121)

The book is particularly strong on the ecological consequences of a consumer society, “The reality is that we can only inhabit our manufactured identities and pursue the desired fantasies of the market by also destroying the real world.” (p. 48) ” … it’s no accident that our society is marked by waste, fragmentation, ecological destruction, political instability, and growing inequalities; these are the inevitable characteristics of a community shaped by its primary love of personal freedom to choose facilitated by those whose primary love is profit.” (p. 115)

Perhaps the element of the book’s title that is weakest is the consideration of identity. I would have liked more from the author on this. He rightly identifies the danger of the constant influence by the market on personal identities but does not distinguish clearly how identity and desire relate to each other. Although there is a very strong connection made between being true to oneself when delighting in God:

“True delight communicates God, calling the delighted subject towards Him … to respond to that delight is therefore to be true to oneself, to derive pleasure from, commune with, and be sustained by our Creator.” (p.72)

This leads me to speculate on the difficulties many people report in their prayer lives, not experiencing the presence of God, having nothing to delight in, and yet not, it seems to me in some ‘dark night’ of spiritual depth.

Clavier gives short shrift to the ‘Benedict Option’ the closing of ranks into a tight interior looking community, “the only place for the church is in the forum, teaching, delighting, and persuading people to become citizen’s of God’s eternal city.” (p.141) Nor does he allow that the, sometimes helpful, idea of ‘world-views’ is sufficient, these “inform without delighting and teach without truly persuading.” (p. 94). Christians end up remaining “every bit as much the consumers they were before.”

The missional problem that we face, of which numerical decline is the symptom, is theological. That is not to say that I agree with those who bemoan strategies for growth or an alleged culture of managerialism in the church. Far from it. I hope the church gets much better at management and process, that will allow a proper critique of consumerism to make space for something more substantial so that the church can “tell its own story … rediscover its own eloquence: its own resources of persuasion and its sources of delight.” (p. 107) It is no accident that delight comes so often from simplicity. Although Augustine is often anachronistically caricatured as something of a Puritan, he is, as Clavier clearly shows motivated by right-ordering of delight. It is that delight in God, that experience of the divine presence, that we tend to think of as mystical, that will make the Gospel more persuasive than consumption. Better management, clearer processes actually open up rather than shut down that possibility. Reducing the stress of so many of our clergy will enable them to be channels of delight, ministers of the sheer pleasure of knowing God, “the goal of the church’s eloquence is ultimately to give way to silent adoration”.

The final sections of the book are a rhetorical delight. I hadn’t noticed before, the pun that Augustine uses when describing the christian teacher, the Orator in De Doctrina Christiana. Orator comes, Clavier points out, from the Latin verb to pray. The Orator “must become a man of prayer before becoming a man of words”, as Augustine puts it (4.15.52) Here, Clavier proposes three tasks for the Orator:

  • the diligent study of Scripture
  • to become a skilled Orator the skills of communication need to be practised and the audience needs to be known well
  • and most important of all the Orator must be a person of prayer, “attentive to the real needs of others”

This book is not the last word on the subject but it is very significant indeed. I hope it is widely read, taught and discussed. I am delighted that Clavier ends with the need for effective teaching:

“I can think of little that’s more urgent than for the church to undertake the formation of the baptised into the stories, practices, beliefs, and habits of the church. Too many Christians are aliens to their own Commonwealth, having long been failed by an institutional church that downplays the need for such teaching.” (p. 139)

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2 Comments

  1. I do hope we’ve got more to say to the world than that it is wrong. It seems to me that God might be at work in it.

    Might it be that the ‘world is bad, church is good’ trope is precisely what we need to be saved from?

    Like

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