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The myth of the public square
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The myth of the public square

What exactly is the 'public square' and what should we do if we are excluded from it?

Dear Friends

This week’s edition features a piece from me about the strange and elusive phenomenon of the ‘public square’. What is it exactly? Should Christians be concerned that we are excluded from it? And what should we do if we are?

In the podcast version, you can hear me chat through a first draft of the piece, and then interact with Phillip about his feedback. Or you can read the final draft below.

Your brother

Tony


The myth of the public square

It’s a strange thing, this public square.

It’s something that apparently everyone wants to be in.

We get outraged when certain people are denied access to it, by being cancelled or deplatformed or algorithmically shadow banned.

We were hopeful that the internet would revolutionize it, but find ourselves disappointed by what online public conversation has turned out to be.

And we often lament the fact that we Christians aren’t out there more in this public square, speaking, persuading, and putting our view. We worry that we’re being excluded, or that perhaps we’re excluding ourselves by not being more vocal, winsome and culturally sensitive in saying our piece—in the public square.

I’m just not entirely convinced that the public square exists, or has ever existed—at least, not in the form that many people talk about.

Of course, it’s true that towns and cities have long had public plazas or open squares where the citizenry could mix and mingle and converse (more so in some countries than others). And it is also certainly true that, in the West at least, we are used to various ideas being spread or discussed among the general public through newspapers and electronic media.

But did any of this ever amount to the kind of ‘public square’ that people seem to lament and dream of—a free and open space, where any and every citizen (including we Christians) could set up their stall have their say; where we could all engage in unfettered discussion about important public questions without interference or control?

Well, hardly. Imagine standing up in almost any ‘public square’ in any country at any point in the past 2000 years, and saying something really heretical—say, expressing exactly what you thought of the government and its incompetence, or of the religious authorities and their doctrine, or of the mendacity and corruption of leading businessmen. I wonder how long your access to the public square would last. The ability to communicate openly to the public has always been controlled, either by governments or by those who have amassed the resources to dominate that space.

Even in the era of mass 20th century culture, where large swathes of the many-headed would watch the same TV shows or read one of three or four major newspapers, there wasn’t really a public square that the citizenry had access to—that is, a single space where all ideas could be openly heard and debated. The public square, such as it was, was manufactured and controlled by a very small number of powerful media operators (owners, editors, producers, journalists), whose interests were closely aligned with the corporate advertisers who paid them, the ideologies that animated them, or the government who licensed them.

Perhaps the reason that Western Christians today lament their lack of access to or influence within the ‘public square’ is that once, within our race memory, we were among the powerful who had a real level of influence in those spaces. Our ideas were more mainstream and acceptable among those who controlled the machinery of public discussion. The ‘churches’ were seen to be significant players in the society, whose approval or disapproval had to be reckoned with.

Not anymore.

Nevertheless, the point is that the public square has never been and never will be a truly open and free public forum, in which everyone deserves to be heard and will be heard. Insofar as there is such a thing as the ‘public square’, access to it will always be limited. Only certain ideas will be allowed to flourish. And all this will be controlled by the powerful.

Then again, I suppose there have been some historical public spaces in which a degree of free expression was allowed—in which almost anyone could stand on his soapbox and put his view. It was called Speaker’s Corner. The original and famous one was in London’s Hyde Park. It was where all the radicals and contrarians and crazies who could never get a run in the mainstream ‘public square’ went to spout their opinions, to the amusement, fascination and derision of the crowds who milled about.

Which is what the internet really is, I suppose.

It’s a strange amalgam of massive corporately-owned ‘public square’ conversations that are as open and free as those kinds of platforms have always been (which is to say not much at all)—and there’s Speaker’s Corner, in which the constant chatter of a million opinions, most of them nuts, constantly seeks the attention of a distracted crowd.

It’s not unlike Athens in the time of Paul, when you think about it. There was a marketplace where you could stand on your soapbox and have your say, as Paul did, preaching “Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18). And there was the Areopagus, the powerful invitation-only assembly of the philosophers, who called Paul before them to explain himself and his strange new teaching.

The fascinating thing is that Paul’s message was the same in both spaces. When he gets to the Areopagus, he doesn’t craft a winsome message designed to ensure his ongoing access to the platform. He critiques the stupidity of their ignorance and idolatry, and calls on them to repent before God, in light of the resurrection of Jesus, the Lord and Judge of the world. It’s the same message he proclaims in public and in private; in the marketplace, in the synagogues, in the lecture hall of Tyrannus, and in all his letters to the churches. He has the same message everywhere and to everyone:

I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 20:20-21).

In the Areopagus, his proclamation of the resurrected Jesus as judge of the world didn’t go down all that well. He was laughed off, although some wanted to hear more.

This is the pattern throughout Acts, in fact. The apostles look for opportunities to speak wherever they can. They proclaim Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord. Before long they are kicked out or persecuted or otherwise deplatformed, but in the process some respond and are saved. This is gospel ministry.

And it presents a dilemma for Christians today who want to maintain a voice in the so-called ‘public square’. The only way to keep your place and have your voice in these large-scale media spaces is to speak about what those who control the spaces allow you to speak about. You need to follow the agenda they set, and address the questions they pose, and to stick to the acceptable forms of speech and discourse—to remain within the rapidly shifting Overton Window, as it is called. You can take on the questions they are interested in, and chip in your Christian angle. You can express your view, within certain limits. You can attempt to appear like a normal and reasonable person.

But the one statement you can’t make is the open statement of the truth. You can’t critique the folly and blindness of their entire nonsensical position; you can’t declare that the only true answer is Jesus Christ the crucified and risen Lord; you can’t call on them to repent and put their faith in him. That is, you can’t actually speak the truth, unless you are prepared not to be asked back.

And so we find ourselves crafting a form of ‘public square’ Christianity that never clearly, truthfully and openly proclaims Christianity, while presumably reserving the clear, unreserved proclamation of Jesus as Lord for some other safer private space.

I perfectly understand this impulse. I have as much an aversion to being laughed at, excluded, deplatformed and otherwise persecuted as the next coward. I would much prefer to be deemed worthy of inclusion in the conversation, by those who make such judgements. It’s just that doing so forces me to accept the power and rules of those who control the ‘public square’.

The liberating news is that the Christian needs no-one’s permission to speak. As Martin Luther was fond of saying, a Christian is the free lord of all. We are nobody’s slave, except the Lord Jesus Christ’s, and because we serve in his kingdom, there is no earthly power that we bow to. But for precisely the same reason, we are the slaves of all, giving up our lives for the sake of others, preaching the gospel even though it costs us everything.

There is no-one who can stop us speaking, nor do we have any excuse not to speak. Warn us to keep quiet, and we will go on our way rejoicing, and pray for boldness to keep preaching. Toss us out of synagogues, and we will go down the street to the lecture hall of Tryannus. Throw us in gaol, and we will evangelize the guards.

The God who is lord of all the world’s squares and spaces will keep opening doors for his word, as he did in the first century and has been doing ever since. Our job (as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 4:1-6) is simply to keep engaging in the open and straightforward proclamation of the truth, declaring to all that in the face of Jesus Christ we see the glory and rule and salvation of God.

This proclamation will be the sweet smell of salvation to some. It will stink of death to others, because it will expose their folly, hypocrisy and sin, and call on them to do what they desperately don’t want to do—put their faith in God and submit to him.

If Christians get an opportunity to speak in a public forum of any kind, and do so clearly and faithfully, we will usually be kicked out of that space before too long. The owners and controllers of the space will make sure of it.

Like the apostles we should go on your way rejoicing, and start immediately readying ourselves in prayer for the next opportunity to speak the truth.


PS

I didn’t canvas this angle above, but Phillip pointed out in our conversation that this problem can also infect our preaching in church, which itself is a form of public proclamation. We can become apologetic and defensive in our pulpits, and modify our message so that it will be less offensive to the voice in our heads (or in the heads of our congregation)—the voice that is insinuated there by the dominant narratives of our culture, and keeps telling us that the Christian message is primitive or dangerous.


It was in the middle of writing this week’s piece that I heard news that The Gospel Coalition in the US had announced the launch of The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics.

At one level the phrase ‘cultural apologetics’ fills me with foreboding, as does the stated aim of helping Christians “show unbelievers the truth, goodness, and beauty of the gospel as the only hope that fulfills our deepest longings”. Is this going to be one of those ‘apologetics’ institutes that seeks to re-express the gospel in a form more in tune with the dominant narratives of the ‘culture’? (See my discussion of this trend in ‘Seven types of apologetics’.) I earnestly hope not, but let’s wait and see what they actually come up with.

The other emotion, though, was amusement. Within about five seconds of the Center announcing its launch, and the 24 eminent Fellows who will lead it, someone was complaining that the list of Fellows was too white and too male (of the 24, five are women, and seven are people of colour).

At least this gives the Center its first culturally apologetic challenge. How will it even begin to commend the gospel in a culturally connected way when it is so patently out of step with the identity politics before which everyone in our culture must genuflect—that is, if they want to speak unmolested in the public square?

I wish the Center well, but I fear it may be entering a losing and pointless battle.


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Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.
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