Christian Today recently carried an interview with Ben Ryan, Head of Research at Christian think tank Theos. Ryan is author of How the West Was Lost: Decline of a Myth & the Search for New Stories.
It was an enlightening interview insofar as it set out what we can presumably take to be Theos’s views on some of the big questions of the day. It was also disappointing as it made clear the scale of Theos’s lack of ambition and how far the ecumenical think tank has strayed from a biblical vision.
Ryan starts off strongly by setting out the debilitating lack of direction and purpose that characterises Western society in the early years of the third millennium: ‘There’s an irony in the fact that having won the Cold War and the 20th century, people since the 90s have been asking: so if we won, is this it?’ After the failures of fascism and communism, he says, ‘people were not quite sure what it was they had won.’
He offers the European Union as an example of a grand project that began with a ‘phenomenal sense of its own moral mission’ but which over time became an ‘economic-technocratic thing’ about which people asked ‘what is it actually for?’
Ryan equates having ‘hope’ with supporting open borders.
He moves on to discuss Brexit, and opens with praise for the Leave campaign as the only side in the EU referendum to have a ‘real story.’ The praise is short-lived, however, as that story is soon dismissed as ‘reactionary and backwards looking.’
‘One of the big factors behind Brexit,’ he says, ‘is the inability of our leading politicians to be able to tell us what they really want to see.’ Yet having just said that Leavers did tell a ‘real story,’ it appears that, for Ryan, only Remainers number among our leading politicians.
The political bias continues as Ryan equates having ‘hope’ with supporting open borders. Hope-based campaigns, he says, are not just a matter of ‘put up walls and shut yourself away,’ but are ones which say, ‘we can aspire to some great new future.’ What about a great new future within secure borders, is that not allowed?
Ryan criticises recent progressive leaders, but only for not going far enough: ‘Even the most optimistic Obama supporter would question how much of his dreams were really followed through on,’ he says. The people who voted for Justin Trudeau are ‘now a bit disappointed,’ while ‘it looks like it’s going the same way with Macron in France.’
Leaders since Blair have spun a ‘good story and a good set of sound bytes,’ he thinks, but have failed to deliver the ‘thorough change we need to sustain that level of optimism’. But does Ryan not realise that progressives have been enjoying huge success in the past 30 years, driving through massive social changes?
Changes such as: anti-discrimination legislation that enforces LGBT orthodoxy across society; liberalising divorce laws and normalising alternative forms of family; introducing same-sex marriage and adoption; spreading diversity quotas for race and sex; weakening border restrictions; liberalising abortion, drugs and gambling laws; making moves towards euthanasia and assisted suicide; and so on.
Could it not be that levels of optimism among progressives cannot be sustained because the demands are endless and the results disappointing, rather than because change has not been delivered? But if progressives have not gone far enough for Ryan, conservative movements are positively ‘dangerous.’
‘Populist right wing movements,’ he says, (why were progressive leaders never ‘populist,’ or indeed ‘left wing’?) are ‘using and abusing Christian themes’ to ‘secure power’ for themselves while standing up for things which are ‘antithetical to a lot of what the West has traditionally stood for.’
Could it not be that levels of optimism among progressives cannot be sustained because the demands are endless?
No specifics are given, but we are assured that these movement aim for a form of ‘solidarity’ that is akin to the ‘fascism’ we saw in the 20th century, which ‘really means there is an “in” group and an “out” group and the way forward is to only support the “in” group, and only harass and destroy the “out” group.’
A very fair and balanced description of his intellectual opponents, I’m sure you’ll agree. No caricatures or straw men here.
And the church’s role with respect to these dangerous populist rightwing movements? To ‘call that out,’ ‘defend our values,’ and tell people not to ‘listen’ to rightwing populists.
Having denounced and silenced conservatives, Ryan then implausibly, and without a hint of irony or self-awareness, proposes that the church’s new role in society is to try to ‘hold together a conversation about what people’s sacred values are and how we get people to have a relationship with each other across differences.’ A conversation that presumably doesn’t include any of those dangerous rightwing populists we have all stopped listening to.
Ryan’s church isn’t just a neutral convenor, however. It is also a ‘leader in values, with something to offer.’ What values are these? The only thing he mentions in any detail is the ‘environmental issue.’ This, he suggests, is a ‘very powerful, compelling story in Christian language around the ideas of redemption and salvation.’ Unlike with the rightwing populists, however, this is not an insincere, dangerous co-option of Christian ideas, but an opportunity for authentic Christian engagement.
So there we have it: the Woke Gospel according to Theos, or at least their Head of Research. The church’s social role apparently reduced to a facilitator of discussion about ‘values’ which brings to the table an eco-gospel of environmental redemption and salvation.
What is missing from this picture? Just about everything. Where, we might ask, is a vision of the kingdom of God, swelling with new believers, and accompanied by social manifestations that see God’s ways honoured in human affairs? Where is a concern about the increasing restrictions on Christian freedom in our society to spread the Gospel and live according to Christian faith? Where is a worry about the collapse of marriage and the biblical family pattern? Where is a concern for the plight of the poor?
These things are linked, for it is the poor who suffer most from the loss of stability marriage brings. It is also the poor who suffer most from the opening up of borders and the large influxes of newcomers who add pressure to wages, jobs, housing, public services and infrastructure. It is the poor in less developed countries who suffer when there is an exodus of the young and enterprising to richer countries.
It is the poor who suffer most from the loss of stability marriage brings and from the opening of borders.
Are these things too much part of rightwing populism to be worth listening to for Ryan? Are they too dangerous for a seat at his table?
Theos has often seemed to me to be a think tank that suffers from having its hands tied by trying to be all things to all men, keeping both liberals and conservatives happy, or at least not complaining. That is surely why it has maintained a notable silence on anything to do with marriage, family and sexuality throughout the tumultuous changes of the past 13 years, neither resisting nor cheering the changes. It also primarily courts the attention of left-leaning media such as the BBC and the Guardian, and this has the inevitable impact on its output.
Ben Ryan’s views in this interview do seem to take things to a new level in partisan bias, however. No attempt is made to recognise the legitimate concerns of those of a more conservative frame of mind, who instead are only denounced and demonised. This is no way to build bridges with those one disagrees with.
I don’t know if Theos care very much what Bible-believing Christians make of their output. But if they do they may want to review what they choose to speak on and how they do so. Granted, not all Bible-believing Christians support Brexit or stricter border controls. But many do – not all biblical Christians are Remainers or open-border enthusiasts. Furthermore, a great many are concerned about the state of Gospel freedom in this country and about the decline in marriage and the traditional biblical family. Perhaps there is a voice Theos can find on this.
Ben Ryan ponders what the next ‘myth’ that ‘really motivates people’ in Western society will be. How about a vision of the kingdom of God and honouring God’s ways? Ryan’s view is that ‘that era is gone and we're not likely to see that again’. Maybe he is right. But even if he is, does it change what the Bible says, or what God thinks?
We do not have to win every argument or every battle in our culture, or even any of them. We are only called to be faithful. Perhaps Ryan needs to ask if the Western church’s unfaithfulness to the gospel is precisely how the West was lost.
(Dr Will Jones is a maths graduate with a PhD in political philosophy and author of Evangelical Social Theology: Past and Present [Grove, 2017]. He blogs at Faith and Politics)