Q: Why do you think so few American Christians observe Advent beyond maybe opening a calendar with chocolates?
A: This runs into the question of why we celebrate Christmas so massively but not so much at Easter. You can take Christmas out of the New Testament, and you lose Matthew [chapters] 1-2 and Luke [chapters] 1-2. But if you take Easter out, the whole Bible collapses like a house of cards with no resurrection. Easter demands a serious realignment in how we think, whereas Christmas can be a midwinter holiday.
Christmas has always teetered on the edge of not really meaning that much, so Advent, which is this period before Christmas, means even less so for many people. Many Christians are finding the pragmatic Protestantism they grew up in is lacking. I encourage people to take seriously the year as a God-given reality with seasons to help us to tune into something about the goodness of creation.
Q: President Trump has said we need to take the term “Merry Christmas” back instead of saying “Happy Holidays.” Why do you think the “war on Christmas” is less prevalent in the U.K.?
A: From time to time, city councils around the U.K. make a great song and dance about wanting to be inclusive, not for Jews or Muslims but for secularists. And they routinely get mocked in the press and on the radio. Happily, we don’t need [Prime Minister] Boris Johnson to tell us that we should take “happy Christmas” back because it’s never been gone. But we never had a Thomas Jefferson try to make church and state separate.
Q: How do you compare Brexit and Trump, and how British Christians understand American evangelical support for Trump?
A: The same sort of movement propelled both events. With Brexit, we did not see the white evangelical support Trump had. The churches are probably divided. They’re probably mostly Remainers [who wanted Britain to remain in the European Union].
In Britain, the word “evangelical” doesn’t mean what it means in America. If you say evangelicals are like the white working-class communities who voted for Brexit because they felt they were unheard, people understand. It’s like, finally, somebody gave them a chance to say, ‘Hang on, what about us?’ Neither America nor Britain has figured out how actually what we call religion and what we call politics might work together.
Q: Trump has given more visibility to leaders in the prosperity gospel movement, which teaches that God blesses believers with wealth and health. How do you interpret New Testament verses on material wealth those teachers use?
A: Jesus said, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort."
With the whole Enlightenment project, Western Europe and America separated Christianity from politics, elevated themselves philosophically and created a Western paradise. Now you have your Mexican wall, and we in Europe have immigrants risking their lives because they see our fortress in Europe. The prosperity gospel is the personalization of what the West has been implicitly telling itself for the last 200 years.
With a Faustian myth, you make this pact with the Devil, and you can have all the power and prestige and everything you want on one condition: You must not love. We’re going to be powerful and enjoy all the fruits of that. The church could come back and say, there is this thing called love, and it is central.
This is a wake-up call to churches worldwide to get together, to think together, to pray together, to say we need to speak the truth to the power. It just won’t do to shore up our prosperity at the cost of the rest of humanity.
Q: Environmental issues have been in the forefront. Many American evangelicals believe Earth is merely material, so we don’t need to have radical policies on the environment. How does your teaching on hope shape how you see climate change?
A: When I was teaching at a church in Montreal in 1982, they said they were being told by Americans that, to consider the environment was worldly, because God was going to have a big rapture moment and was going to destroy all of them anyway. Since then, I’ve watched that sentiment grow.
My book “Surprised by Hope” was basically an exposition of the biblical eschatology of God’s promise of new heavens and a new Earth. Many American evangelicals would say they believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus because that’s become a shibboleth of right-wing Christianity.
How can we not be part of God’s right purpose for the world? God offers salvation. But God recruits followers of Jesus to be part of that anticipated eschatology. I do worry about this for my own grandchildren, because my generation has let them down.
Q: How does your emphasis on hope shape how you understand Brexit?
A: Brexit is a classic postmodern project. Europe is a modernist project from the postwar 1940s where we’re in one big family with the same currency and the same foreign policy. Now it’s become postmodern identity politics. What does it mean for the church to hold up a better narrative? That’s what we need to do, rather than looking for the utopia or a hero.
Q: At 71, who or what continues to shape you?
A: I’ve had very good mentors. Through them I learned the disciplines of prayer, of serious Bible study. That’s been the backbone of my life since I was about 12. Somebody told me I should read the Bible every day, and I’ve never seen any reason to stop. And there are the disciplines of the church, including weekly Eucharist. These are steady things like having a regular meal every day whether you feel hungry or not, they’re probably going to be good for you anyway.
Q: What makes you most hopeful about modern Christianity right now?
A: When the world is in serious pain, you will find Christians acting out the Sermon on the Mount. That’s why the gospel spread in the first place, with ordinary Christians doing the ordinary Christian things. It transforms society [and] is much more than any number of appointments to the Supreme Court.