We are all inhabitants of our world and our culture. We are all—myself included—taking a huge number of things for granted without ever giving them a second thought, rarely realising that the world could perhaps be quite different from the way it is.
What would the world look like if money worked entirely differently? What would a modern society look like without nation states? What would need to change to abolish poverty or provide truly equal opportunity? We simply don’t know.
Most of us are distrustful of even asking those questions, and with good reason. The answers we tend to come up with are often riddled with gross defects. Anarchism turns violent or vulnerable. Communism turns toxic. The Islamic State is harsh and sterile. Attempting to answer these questions usually lead us to grief.
Combined with that, we suffer from what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery“: the tendency to think that because we are at a historical peak in terms of scientific development and wealth, we’re a pinnacle in every single way; and moreover, that history is ever going to move forward. Both of these ideas are dangerous nonsense.
Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes.C.S. Lewis
Imagining a truly different world is surprisingly hard. Without even realising it we almost always think in terms of the things we know, but then a bit different. A bit better, maybe.
Imagination falling short
Take this example by a 1949 Russian illustrator trying to imagine what the city of the future would look like. We see an enormous flying boat that can carry cars as well as passengers. We are the proletariat benefiting from the massive infrastructure and industry that would flourish under the hammer and sickle. In his view, the future was going to be the best that communism had to offer, but then bigger and better.
For comparison, this is what a British illustrator from the same era made of the future. Eventually, everybody would buy one of those newfangled helicopters to commute to work or go shopping. But isn’t it interesting that the illustrator did not seem to expect much change in gender roles or the way we dress? Those low walls on the roof would not win any health and safety prizes, either.
The recipe is once again similar. Take the optimism of the postwar economic recovery and the ideal of mass production and make it bigger and better.
And no one does big better than our American friends. A futuristic city with tall, brightly lit towers; so far, so realistic. A road that emits light, making street lighting superfluous: not a bad stab. But also an awkward-looking steering wheel; a 1950s radio that doesn’t look very digital ready; and a somewhat random oscilloscope-like instrument that sits where the car management and navigation systems are supposed to go.
On one hand, the future in these illustrations is vastly over-sold with unlimited resources, few conflicts and helicopters for everyone.
On the other, it is also being vastly under-sold. There is no hint of satellite navigation or digital radio. No inkling of the internet or of the deep social change of the last 65 years. No air pollution, Soviet collapse, or Chinese ascent. There is hardly any branding. There are no Islamic extremists using Twitter for their worldwide recruitment needs.
So what’s the relevance of this to the kingdom of God?
Jesus and the kingdom
Picture yourself in the scene above for a moment. Jesus is teaching on the hillside, possibly speaking about the kingdom of God. What did those people sitting there make of him? Were they stirred up? Disturbed? Excited? Alarmed? Offended? Enchanted? Or simply puzzled?
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’Mark 1:14-15
It is almost impossible to put yourself in the shoes of the people sitting there, inhabitants of a very different time and place. You might just about be able to put your modern self there among the crowd on the hillside and try to hear the words afresh that Jesus spoke, and repent.
And he said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’Mark 4:30-32
The more I study Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom, the more I realise my complete failure of imagination.
They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the road?’ But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.Mark 9:33-35
The worst thing we could possibly do to it—the thing I so often do—is imagine the kingdom the way the illustrators imagined the future. I take our present world. I enlarge the things that I think God loves. I shrink the things that I think he hates. And there you have it: kingdom life.
Except it isn’t. Not even close.
I’m over-selling the kingdom, because there is no way you or I can live like this. But more than that, I’m fundamentally under-selling it.
If there is one thing that jumps out at you from Jesus’ kingdom teachings, it is how utterly alien it is to the way our society works. Alien to all the patterns of the culture we inhabit, to the power we exercise, to the ways grained into us that we never question. I suspect it always was so. What does a civilisation where the first are last, and the last are first, even look like? You can’t get there by extrapolating, either from the twenty-first century or from the first. When we enter the kingdom, we step through a door into something entirely different; our old and tired manners are meaningless and we are like little children, discovering a whole new world.
From now on, I’m refusing to domesticate the kingdom.
And I realise that I’m helpless to imagine it, let alone enter. God help me. Holy Spirit, come.