Research Insight

Insights from the 2018 Lumen Research Institute Conference at Excelsia College

Christian Identity in the Public Arena

The conference papers as a whole consider what it means to be Christian in contemporary Australia. It appears that the public-private division is becoming more fluid and at the same time the public face of Australia is becoming more secular. There are global pressures that promote identities based on consumption. On the other hand, the postmodern breakdown of grand narratives – whether religious, national, or historical – undermines narratives of the self. As a result, it is hard for individuals to articulate a personal identity. Further, religious people are grappling with what it means to live out their religious identity, as an aspect or core component of personal identity, in the context of a very secular, globalized public arena.

Two papers featured here explore the theme of Identity, Church and Culture that considers the nature of Christian identity in terms of contemporary culture and evangelical commitments. The author of the first paper, Mark Stephens, is Director of Integrative Research and Scholarship at Excelsia College. The authors of the second paper are Jim Blumenstock, Dean and Associate Professor of Philosophical Theology at Asia Biblical Theological Seminary, headquartered in Chiang Mai, Thailand and Stuart Devenish, Director of Postgraduate Studies at Table College of Higher Education, in Adelaide South Australia.

  1. Evangelical identity in a secular age

The problem of evangelical identity in the context of perceived social and cultural crisis is the theme of Mark Stephens’ paper, Evangelical identity in a secular age: The use of the Bible in the rhetoric of crisis. Stephens uses the work of Charles Taylor to consider the nature of this secular age in which problems of evangelical identity and identity formation occur. He then considers Rod Dreher (The Benedict Option) who proposes a strategic retreat from culture so that the church can survive and spearhead renewal in the future. Stephens points out that Dreher uses minimal biblical references and arguments; instead, Dreher argues from church history but also couches material in apocalyptic language. From this observation, Stephens turns to the Apocalypse of John in order to propose an alternative biblical approach to life today.  His proposal is based on engagement rather than withdrawal, and forward focus rather than nostalgia for a presumed ‘golden age’ of Christianity.  In his conclusion he asserts the key need for love: “If we are going to creatively appropriate the Scriptures for the present age, the least we could do is to listen carefully to how crisis texts in Scripture are driven by love of God more than a love of the past, and a love of enemies more than love of safety.”

  1. Religious Identity through the eyes of the outsider

The second paper is Religious Identity through the eyes of the outsider: What Thai Buddhist converts to Christianity can teach us about religious identity in post-Christian Australia by Jim Blumenstock and Stuart Devenish. It reflects on extensive research into the construction of religious identity by Thai converts to Christianity. Using phenomenological analysis, the authors consider two elements of religious identity construction in detail. The first is ‘strangernesss’ or the convert’s experience of disequilibrium. Strangerness is described as follows: “To their fellow Thai Buddhists they had become outsiders to their own lifeworld; and to themselves their alternation had made the familiar world of their childhood socialisation ‘strange’.” The second element is the journey of ‘emplacement’ in a Christian homeworld that offered safe haven, restoration, and the promise of a hopeful future. These elements, assert Blumenstock and Devenish, are relevant to Christian identity in an Australian context because Australian culture is now post-Christian. Hence, Australian Christians must construct their religious identities as marginalised people seeking ‘emplacement’ in a Christian community. This identity construction within Christian community “enables them to draw their reason-for-being from the redemptive narrative as it is imagined in Scripture, without the necessity to ‘conform to the pattern of this world’ (Romans 12:2).”

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