Outlier?

Michael Metzger

Some find it difficult to explain what Clapham Institute does. That’s because our work doesn’t fit in most ministry categories. We’re an outlier. Or maybe we’re not.

Clapham Institute is not a faith and work ministry, although we work in these areas. We’re not a leadership ministry, even though we mentor young leaders. We’re not an evangelistic ministry, even though we see people come to Christ. We’re not an apologetic ministry, even though our work is an apologetic for the faith.

So what is Clapham? Some would say an outlier. “Outlier” originally appeared in English in the early 17th century. It was another word for “outsider.” Clapham operates outside the frames of reference that most Western Christians have for the gospel, as well as the times we live in. This is why it’s fair to say Clapham is an outlier.

But maybe we’re not. A point of view is simply a view from a point—your frame of reference. If your frame of reference is that Western Christianity aligns with the historic norm for the faith, then Western Christianity’s ministries will look like the norm. Clapham will look like an outlier. But what if it’s the other way around? What if Western Christianity is the outlier?

That’s not original. Look at the synonyms for outlier: aberration, outsider, individualist, heretic. Then look at how social scientists, believers in Jesus, describe Western Christianity.

Aberration: Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History and Co-Director of Program on Historical Studies of Religion at Baylor University. He calls Western Christianity an aberration, “not necessarily the norm within the Christian tradition, still less the authentic core.”[1]

Outsider: James Davison Hunter, LaBrosse-Levinson Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture and Social Theory at the University of Virginia says Western Christianity is an outsider. “We are—“spiritually speaking—exiles in a land of exile.”[2]

Individualist: In his influential mid-19th-century work Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville described an American as an “individualist.” Robert Bellah was a distinguished sociologist of religion at the University of California, Berkeley. He studied American cultures. Bellah’s research shows that most Western Christians, especially evangelicals, are individualists.[3]

Heretic: The term heretic originally described people who made their own decisions about faith. “In a pre-Enlightenment society, there are only a few heretics in the original sense of the word, that is to say, only a few people who make their own decisions about what to believe.”[4] But that was long ago and far away. Sociologist Peter L. Berger said Americans operate according to “the heretical imperative.”[5] By imperative, he said most Americans feel it is non-negotiable that they be free to choose for themselves what to believe, what church to attend, and so on. No wonder New York Times columnist Ross Douthat describes America as a “nation of heretics.”[6]

So who’s the actual outsider?

Depends on your point of view. A point of view is simply a view from a point. Clapham’s point of view comes from standing on the shoulders of giants, like Jenkins, Hunter, Bellah, and Dallas Willard. Or C. S. Lewis. He called himself a dinosaur, an outlier in the modern Western world. Lewis felt the modern West operated from an Enlightenment frame of reference. The result, he felt, was a post-Christian society (he said this in 1954). Lewis felt a post-Christian world required reframing the faith in images and language accessible to all.

That’s what Clapham Institute does. We recognize the post-Christian world, reframing the faith in images and language accessible to all. So, are we the outsider? Or is Western Christianity?

Depends on your point of view.

Check out the latest Clapham podcast here: https://claphaminstitute.podbean.com/

[1] Philip Jenkins, “Companions of Life: What Must We learn, and Unlearn?” Books and Culture, March/April 2007, Volume 13, No. 2, 18-20.

[2] James Davison Hunter, To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, (Oxford, 2010), 280.

[3] Robert Bellah et al. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (University of California, 1996).

[4] Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Eerdmans, 1989), 39-40.

[5] Peter L. Berger, The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation (Doubleday, 1980)

[6] Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 2012).

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5 thoughts on “Outlier?”

  1. Mike, if Paul had to correct Peter (Gal. 2), after Peter was charged with correcting Jerusalem (Acts 2), and if Paul and Peter were never done correcting various churches, then when has “the church” ever been “non-abberational” and “normative.” The hour it’s normative it’s really not because I’m there to muck it up. The church is only normative in daily repentance. It’s alive – and like the body it has to lose living cells all day long and grow new ones. You, and me (if I may say so) and every local church pastor and every lay-man and lay-woman ought to feel as if we’re individuals called to the body – what is ever going to make that individualism go away? As long as I walk with The Lord that individualistic calling should never go away. Imagine if it did? Then I’d be someone’s drone? May it never be. I think this kind of “critique” of “what’s wrong with the church” needs a new angle. There’s everything – and nothing – wrong with the church – until it calls itself at any stage “normative.” Normative is the last place I ever want to be.

  2. Mike Metzger

    Hi Dave T:

    I’m speaking of normative as Irenaeus (177-202 AD), the bishop of Lyons, France, described it. Normative is the “Tradition.” Here’s Irenaeus:

    “The Church, though scattered throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, having received the faith from the apostles and their disciples… guards this preaching and faith with care, as dwelling in but a single house, and similarly believes as if having but one soul and a single heart, and preaches, teaches, and hands on this faith with a unanimous voice, as if possessing only one mouth. For though languages differ throughout the world, the content of the Tradition is one and the same. The Churches established in Germany have no other faith or Tradition, nor do those of the Iberians, nor those of the Celts, nor those of the East, of Egypt, of Libya, nor those established at the center of the world… (the message of the Church) is true and solid, in which one and the same way of salvation appears throughout the whole world.”

    The Tradition includes “God is an infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” (Giordano Bruno, an Italian Dominican friar in the 16th century).

    C. S. Lewis quotes Giordano Bruno in “The Discarded Image.” Western Christianity is an outlier, in part, because it discarded the ancient image for God (a sphere) for a linear universe (God is “up there”). Western Christianity is an outlier, in part, because it discarded the ancient Tradition that Irenaeus referred to.

  3. Mike Metzger

    Dave T:

    … but that’s not all!

    Western Christianity is also an outlier, exile, because it discarded the ancient “four-chapter” gospel (creation-fall-redemption-consummation) for a “two-chapter” spirituality (fall-redemption).

    Western Christianity is also an outlier, exile, because it discarded the ancient anthropology (hands to heart to head) for an Enlightenment anthropology (head to heart to hands).

    Western Christianity is also an outlier, exile, because it discarded the ancient ecclesiology (sacramental) for an Enlightenment ecclesiology (three-point sermon as the centerpiece)

  4. Irenaeus’s description is best understood that Jesus is central and nothing else need look central about it. Either Irenaeus is blind – or he sees well. If he sees well, he sees Jesus as central – and surrounded by sinners – and nothing – NO thing at all – need be normative or copied or carried over or kept central other than Jesus is Lord and “I am not.” And how are you going to know if a body of Christ has Jesus as central? Because everyone there says “Ummm…we’re working on it.” If they say “Hey, relax, we’re normative,” like you say that Irenaeus says, then I’d say they need some time in prayer. I don’t get how your quoting Bruno makes anything you’re saying more precise or clear. Personally, I don’t see how Western Christianity has discarded the ancient tradition Irenaeus referred to. Frankly I think that’s not a judgment that you or I am entitled to make in any broad sweep. For as much as Paul was critical of a particular church in a particular behavior he was never sweeping in his criticism.

  5. Mike, as for your message at 8:43am, I know we’re not reading each other’s book length treatments – short-hand is necessary in blog commentary – but I think that you’re again dismissing The Holy Spirit’s virility amidst The Body as you long for something old – perhaps He is doing something new and you might need to appreciate that.

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