Archive Book Reviews Brian Auten

God’s Agents: Biblical Publicity in Contemporary England


In his newly-released book, God’s Agents: Biblical Publicity in Contemporary England, Matthew Engelke offers “an ethnography of publicity,” (230) in which he examines how the British and Foreign Bible Society (hereafter Bible Society) – and most pointedly the Society’s Bible Advocacy Team –tried to “make the Bible heard” in British mass-cultural and political spheres in the mid-to-late 2000s.   A reader in anthropology at London School of Economics and Political Science, Engelke’s previous subject was an apostolic sect in Zimbabwe whose adherents viewed Scripture as interfering with an unmediated, personal relationship with God.  Now, opening his field notebook and pointing his ethnographic lens at the work of the Bible Society in England in the waning years of New Labour, Engelke documents how the activities of the Bible Advocacy Team “counteract[ed] the idea that religion ought to be, or even must be, a private affair, ‘disconnected’ from the wider world.” (xiv)

God’s Agents can be roughly divided into three sections.  Engelke’s introduction is, for the most part, a single-chapter discussion of the Bible Advocacy Team’s personnel and their theological reliance on N.T. Wright and an assortment of emergent, missional and spiritual formation writers.  Next, over the first two chapters, Engelke explores what he considers the Society’s attempt to promote religious “ambience” and relevance by highlighting three of its recent programs  – Christmas decorations at an outdoor shopping complex; replicable small-group Bible discussions held in coffee shops and pubs (what Ray Oldenberg labels “Great Good Places” or “third places”); and a campaign in Manchester combining local, church-sponsored events with a medium-sized media purchase and an internet-based contest tie-in.  For TCI readers, Engelke’s third section will probably garner the greatest attention.  Engelke’s final four chapters are devoted to the interplay between Biblical publicity, public reasoning and Christendom, examined in light of (1) the Society’s hiring of a Parliamentary Officer; (2) the Officer’s liaison with individual, believing MPs and the parachurch organization, Christians in Parliament (CIP); and (3) the Society’s subsequent establishment and funding of Theos – a think tank explicitly modeled on the Hayekian (and Thatcherite) Institute for Economic Affairs, but with the aim of “doing God” in the public policy realm.

Why Bible Advocacy?  The Secular Settlement

Engelke’s initial scene-setter is Labour spinmeister and politico Alastair Campbell’s 2003 outburst during a Vanity Fair interview with Prime Minister Tony Blair.  When Blair was thrown a faith-related question, Campbell all too quickly interjected his now-infamous, “We don’t do God.”  As related by Engelke, for the Bible Society Campbell’s statement was just one representative sample – albeit a big, public one – of a “certain brand of the secular settlement,” which, in a “rather pugnacious” way, connects the Enlightenment’s branding of religion as irrational and unreasonable with liberal political theory’s  willingness to blame religion for all manner of societal violence and bloodshed. (xviii)  Hence, when it comes to this present “secular settlement,” any long-lasting and stable (to use the now-popular phrase) social cohesion and all acceptable forms of public reason must originate from – indeed can only originate from – the privatization of one’s religious beliefs.  As Engelke summarizes this view, “[t]hat which is public ought to be illuminated by the light of day and nothing else, certainly not the light of the candle of which Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Luke.” (xxii)

Enter the Bible Society’s push for what it has called “Bible advocacy,” a concept Engelke connects to the Society’s historical set of theological-philosophical distinctives.  Established in 1804 as an independent, multi-denominational and multi-confessional (but dominantly Anglican) group of “private believers in a public body,” (3) the Society has valued over its history a choice to publish and distribute Bibles “without [any particular denominational or confessional] note or comment.” (3)  In its earliest decades, this decision – combined with what were viewed as overly-Catholic-friendly overtures –led in the mid-1820s to the separation of the Society’s branches in Scotland and Northern Ireland and, as Engelke relates, even restricted public praying during Society meetings until well into the 1850s.  Fast forward 200 years (moving most rapidly over the last 20-30), England and Wales are pluralist, significantly less Biblically-literate, and religiously-privatized polities, and the Society – still holding strong to a ‘mere’ Christianity approach – has moved from straight Bible distribution into reports, online study guides, videos and assorted religious education (RE) materials which are meant to (a) engage with “the Culture,” (defined as involving four primary “drivers” – media, art, politics and education) (b) combat what the Society sees as general public apathy about religious discourse and (c) “[reshape the reigning] plausibility structures.” (31)

Theological Underpinnings

Engelke insists the Bible Advocacy Team’s theological heart beats in time with N.T. Wright (who was the Society’s president during Engelke’s research) and he shows how the team’s executive leadership often turned to Wright’s five-act drama analogy/model (see New Testament and the People of God, or NTPG, 140-143).  In this model, Wright outlines how, in Scripture, God provides the first four acts of redemptive history in the Old Testament, the beginning of the fifth and final act in the New Testament, and a sense of the story’s telos.  In contrast therefore to a so-called reductionist gospel centered solely on personal salvation and “going-to-heaven-when-you-die,” the remaining part of the final act is characterized by Christians who, as both individuals and gathered communities, freely and publicly stage and improvise the rest of the drama, “manifest[ing],” as Engelke’s puts it, “signs of [God’s] Kingdom in the worlds [they] occupy.” (22)  Added to this model is a set of Wrightian worldview questions – one in particular (“What time is it?”) which Wright added post-NTPG to spotlight the importance of inaugurated eschatology, a term Engelke unfortunately leaves out of his discussion altogether.  In fact, rather than focusing on Jane Guyer’s anthropology-of-time comparison of how monetarists and fundamentalist Christians conceptualize the near- and far-futures, a deeper explication of inaugurated eschatology and perhaps an outline of Wright’s argument in his popularly-written Surprised by Hope would have made it much easier for Engelke’s readers to understand how the Bible Advocacy Team’s view of time and public action is supposed to differ from evangelicalism’s traditional centering of the “now” – the pre-Parousia, near-future – on “privatized” soteriology (a centering which, Engelke insists, lends itself to the secular settlement).

Engelke’s theological section is unfortunately weaker than I had anticipated or hoped.  Wright gets the lion’s share of attention, and yet the book’s index lists but a single work, and one of his lay-oriented New Testament commentaries at that.  Leslie Newbigin’s influence receives the briefest of mentions, and the “spiritual formation” writers like Dallas Willard get short shrift.  Moreover, while there is certainly overlap between the emergent and missional schools of thought, Engelke over-conflates the two.  All of this reflects what appears to be too heavy a reliance for theological descriptions on both fellow anthropologists (e.g. James Bielo, Susan Harding and Guyer) and people summarizing Wright’s work (Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen’s The Drama of Scripture).  Indeed, to be perhaps overly personal, this is one point about which I found myself torn.  For example, I was absolutely heartened to see Engelke’s use of Harding’s material on American evangelicalism and the emerging church.  As a friend and as my former anthropology professor at UC Santa Cruz, I trust her scholarship in this area.  Yet, at the same time, I was puzzled by Engelke’s omission of Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger, two evangelical scholars whose introductory text on the emerging church might have helped readers better navigate the movement’s theological and sociological waters.  Gibbs – who for purposes of full disclosure is my father-in-law – was himself with the Bible Society during its move to Swindon in the early 1980s.  After moving to Fuller Seminary, he published on church growth and emerging/missional church issues (e.g. ChurchNext and, co-authored with Bolger, Emerging Churches), and continued to partner with the Society and Christian Research, the UK demographics and polling firm eventually purchased by the Society in 2007.

Advocating the Bible to “the Culture” through Public Art and Media Campaigns

In his first two chapters, Engelke introduces his readers to a number of Society programs that were aimed at moving the general public to a more favorable view of Christianity and the Bible.  One program involved Society-organized, Christmas holiday decorations at an outdoor shopping center in Swindon.  Over the course of 2006, the Society’s arts officer, Luke Walton, liaised with Swindon Borough Council, local service providers, schools, businesses and interfaith organizations.  The hope, as Engelke relates it, was to impact the UK public that more and more defines itself as “spiritual but not religious.” (38-39)   To do this, the Society recommended the flying of manga-sytle angel kites.  For the Society, angels were of course natural pointers to the Annunciation of the Shepherds and other Biblical visitations, and, as a bonus for the Society’s interfaith partners, angels were more easily-agreed-upon “spiritual” characters.  The kites, Engelke explains, helped constitute a form of “ambient faith,” a concept suggesting the creation of public, religious-content-filled background noise. (40-42)

By the end of Engelke’s story, however, the reader is left with serious questions about whether such ambience had (or could ever have) any discernible Christian theological content.  Of all of the parties involved, Swindon Borough Council plays well the part of the secular, unrepentant Grinch or Scrooge.  It pushed (unsuccessfully) for the adjective “mythic” to be used as part of the program’s overall theme.  It nixed a nativity scene, and finally under its pressure, the Society “McFerrinized” any hints in its promotional media – small they already were – of evangelizo vobis gaudium magnum into a riff of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”  Compared with such overly risk-averse, local civil servants digging in their collective heels over what might best be called quasi-Christianized prayer flags, Engelke’s description of lyfe, the Society’s answer to the more-explicitly-evangelistic, “third place” conversational curricula like the Alpha Course and Christianity Explored, portrays what might be considered a successful (and, given that it still continues, a more durable) crafting of theologically-pregnant ambience.

For the Society’s third “Campaign to Culture,” which took place in Greater Manchester in 2007, it did everything one does for a new product release.  It hired ad/branding consultants, sent one of its own north to Manchester to organize “flagship” events with local churches, and plotted a medium-sized media buy (including, among other things, bus signs, billboards, and beer mats for pubs).  Engelke describes the road bumps, including perennial regional tensions (north-south divide) and a last-minute switch-up of ad experts because the Society was fearful over traditional evangelical reaction to the mock-ups, which over-emphasized the Bible’s allegedly underappreciated “sauciness” (read sex) to snag the audience’s attention. (78-79)

The final approach – a combination of local events (e.g. big band nights, an amateur film competition) and the media buy, which with new consultant blood had morphed into a mystery game, based on tabloid-style Bible story headlines and complete with a monetary prize for a designated charity – still fell flat.  Engelke ran focus groups to give the Society some immediate feedback, and what he discovered was rampant skepticism among the target audience of 18-35 year olds, intensifying in negative ways as the respondent moved closer in age to the borderlands of Generation X.  Everyone in the focus groups needed prompting to identify the ads, few recognized their Biblical content, and those who took the time to respond to online questionnaires all self-identified as Christians.  The contest and prize were even viewed suspiciously, a possible scam for the unwary.  Engelke concludes, in ethnographic cant, that the media buy was “a series of semiotic misfires and misapprehensions” (96), but what is missing from this explanation is an assessment as to whether it is even possible any longer, given an overly-saturated media environment, to “make the Bible [be] heard” in this fashion.

Kingdom or Christendom?  Secularism, Public Reason, and Biblical Publicity in and around Parliament

Engelke’s discussion of the Bible Society’s Bible advocacy work in the political sphere, including its establishment and limited funding of the public policy think tank, Theos, is certain to generate heightened interest among TCI’s readers.  The bulk of God’s Agents really is an extended look at a four-part, mutually-sustaining Christian parachurch ecosystem active in and around Parliament and policy circles.  This ecosystem is comprised of: (a) the Society itself, represented by its Parliamentary Officer; (b) an active set of evangelical MPs from across the UK political spectrum; (c) the organization Christians in Parliament (CIP), formerly called Parliamentary Christian Fellowship, or PCF, which brings together participants from the various party-specific Christian groups – Conservative Christian Fellowship, Liberal Democrat Christian Forum and very-recently-rebranded Christians on the Left (formerly Christian Socialist Movement); and finally, (d) Theos.

According to Engelke, one impetus for the Society’s creation of a parliamentary officer is located in the family background of the Society’s CEO, James Catford.  Between 1982 and 1993, Catford’s father, Sir Robin Catford, served as Secretary of Appointments for the Prime Minister – a civil service position that identifies and advises on possible Crown appointments, including the most senior levels of the Church of England.  In the same advisory vein, the Society’s Bible Advocacy Team hired Dave Landrum to be, in effect, a parachurch staff worker on the Parliamentary Estate so that MPs and their respective staffs could be “equip[ped] and encourage[d]” to “make the Bible heard in their work.” (98)   In addition to this, there was also a perceived need by a coterie of Christian MPs – a number of whom rode in on the New Labour wave of 1997 –  to expand what one might call the ‘catchment area’ of the existing Parliamentary Christian Fellowship (PCF).  Up to then, PCF, as it was characterized to Engelke, was a “very high-church Church of England, very Lords-dominated, very highbrow [as well as] old and dusty [organization]” (108), so Landrum, a lower-church charismatic, worked with MPs to make PCF more evangelical-friendly, subsequently rechristening it as Christians in Parliament (CIP). (As a side note, Landrum’s church background is intriguing when one reads in Catford’s father’s obituary how his own comparatively lower-church evangelicalism provoked tensions with the Church of England hierarchy.)

Engelke’s description of the day-to-day work of the Society’s Parliamentary Officer is unsurprising.  It is fairly standard parachurch worker fare – organizing events (including evening talks), brokering meetings for outside Christian groups, liaison and strategizing with other non-governmental organizations (including Theos), and holding formal and informal meetings with MPs and their staffs so that they can “[be] resourced to think Christianly if they so [wished].” (109)  Instead, TCI readers will find that the meatier part of Engelke’s narrative and analysis about the Society’s parliamentary officer, which carries over into his discussion of Theos, involves Christianity’s relationship to the “secular settlement,” the contrast between the Kingdom of God and Christendom, the acceptability of religious actors in public debate, and the ways in which reason and persuasion might be marshaled to counter enthusiasm in the public square.

While tricky to differentiate between Landrum’s personal perspective, Engelke’s analysis of Landrum’s views, and the Society’s strategic, perhaps even philosophical, vision for the parliamentary officer position, Engelke expends great effort outlining how Landrum’s favoring of Kingdom over Christendom leads to a conceptualization of secularism as a “statecraft principle” (106)  – a privileging that “ensure[s] human freedom.” (106)  Citing the introduction of Hugh McLeod’s The Decline of Christendom in Western Europe, Engelke summarizes Christendom as a “syncopation of politics, law and belief” (103) where secular and religious rule is woven tightly together with ostensibly-Christian legal codes, but for Landrum, Christendom also encapsulates the “plac[ement] of God on one side of the [political] aisle” (116-117), political coercion, the threat of theocracy and a resulting plague of nominalism.  The Kingdom, on the other hand, is not, in Landrum’s view, coterminous with the church or any other “historically constituted institutions.” (105)  It isn’t tied to a specific political party. Instead, combining Wright with one of Landrum’s favorite theologians, George Eldon Ladd, the Kingdom is both “now and not yet,” in-breaking from a “secret or hidden [form]” to work itself out, through individuals and groups, in an explicitly non-coercive manner (105).  And, in light of how this picture of the Kingdom operates vice Christendom, secularism can be baptized.  God’s kingdom – particularly in light of common grace (although Landrum doesn’t use that term specifically, choosing instead to talk about how “all good things come from God”) (106) – actually “respects and demands pluralism” (106) and, in Engelke’s telling, secularism-as-statecraft therefore becomes “a [non-coercive] tool that born-again Christians can use to help set the political conditions of possibility for the liberation that comes with [a] personal relationship with Jesus.” (107)

In conjunction with the hiring of a parliamentary officer, Catford was the driving force behind the Bible Society’s establishment of a think tank, which eventually debuted in late 2006 as Theos.  As Engelke describes, Theos is quite different from the rest of the Society’s portfolio in that it was set up, and it still maintains, a unique relationship with its parent entity.  Theos doesn’t overtly advertise its Society origins and even though the Society pays a sizable portion of its annual budget, Theos is able to pursue outside funding streams, including grants, to pay for its projects.  This semi-independence is helpful when it comes to situations in which Theos argues publicly for a position that the Society, for various reasons, finds it cannot support.  To take Theos’ helm, Catford quickly recruited Paul Woolley from Conservative Christian Fellowship, and Woolley then snagged Nick Spencer, a researcher who had worked for the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.  Eventually the second of the “two Pauls,” Paul Bickey, a St. Andrews divinity graduate and former senior policy officer with Christian Action Research and Education (CARE), was brought on, but with respect to its launching and first report, Doing God, Engelke’s story about Theos really centers on Woolley and Spencer’s shared political-theological vision.

Earlier in God’s Agents, when discussing the campaign in Manchester, Engelke talks about the two-fold aspect of the Society’s outreach – outward and inward (or, as it is described, church-facing).   One may use the same framework for understanding Woolley and Spencer’s treatment of the “secular settlement” and Christians as public reasoners.  First, they offer the external critique.  Secularism per se is not the problem, but its hijacking by those, under the false banner of “neutral” liberal humanism, who assert the only proper, and socially cohesive, mode of public reason is a `hard` Rawlsian one – one in which “comprehensive doctrines” (like faith claims) are posited as non-universally shared, are considered non-publicly accessible, and, at the end of the Rawlsian chain, cannot therefore serve as a legitimate basis for political argumentation.  Such logic, Woolley and Spencer insist, in no way constitutes “neutrality;” but unveils the extent to which “secular reason [is] an ideologically-loaded position.” (142)   In their church-facing salvo, Woolley and Spencer argue that when they consider operating in the public square, Christians will often err in two ways.  They posit their own “God-claims” as unassailable and above any reasoned critique, or else they call retreat and abdicate the field altogether.

For Woolley, Spencer and for Theos’ research work taken as a whole, the overall desire is two-fold.  Those in the liberal humanist, ‘hard’ Rawlsian camp need to be reminded that the secular arena is not a neutral one, and that public reason, if it is to avert outbreaks of what Engelke highlights as “dignitary harm,” (143) requires discursive mutuality.  Those within the Christian fold need to stop considering reason and secularism as the enemy.  “The secular,” Theos’ inaugural report declares, “was Christianity’s gift to the world, denoting a public space in which authorities could be respected, but could legitimately be challenged and could never accord to themselves absolute or ultimate significance.” (146) — in short, Christianity has given the world “a politics of differentiation” (146) between that which is rightfully Caesar’s and what is rightfully God’s.  Hence, alongside Landrum’s secularism-as-statecraft, the folks at Theos “operated with the understanding that Jesus was, in way, a secularist.” (146)   Again, this is a reiteration of baptized secularism – one in which reason and (as Engelke references later in his narrative) persuasion serve as the “proper counterpoint[s]” to what has infected both liberal humanism and Christian ‘fundamentalism’ in the public sphere – uncritical enthusiasm. (140; 159)  In his latter chapters, Engelke explains how the subject matter of Theos’ initial research reports highlights this dual desire – the introduction to the think tank’s political theology (though Engelke omitted Jonathan Chaplain’s 2008 Talking God); an evaluation of the role of bishops in the House of Lords; a comparative look at patriotism and Christian neighbor-ethics as generators and sustainers of British civil society; an analysis of National Health Service cuts in chaplaincy services; and, its biggest endeavor, a “rescue” of Charles Darwin from young-earth creationists, intelligence design theorists and the New Atheist crowd.

Engelke’s work leaves one desiring more historical and/or political science (versus ethnographic) oriented studies of his anthropological subject.  A more detailed history is warranted, as Society has continued to increase its efforts at public political education (e.g. three excellent primers on Christianity and the British political parties).  Engelke provides enough grist here for probably three or more books in other specialist fields.  One can quickly draw up a preliminary list — (1) an analysis of the roles and influence of Cold War and post-Cold War Christian parachurch-but-partisan institutions in policy-making in Parliament; (2) a deeper examination of successful (and non-successful) policy work by Christian MPs, for instance, one finds limited discussions about overt Catholic and Protestant influence in the Department of Work and Pensions; (3) a larger evaluation of the political theologies of the emergent , missional (and neo-Anabaptist) movements; and, intriguingly the subject matter of a more recent Theos report, (4) a look at whether UK has a “religious right” and, if it does, what it means for British politics.  While God’s Agents has sobering (though Engelke doesn’t posit them that way) conclusions for those looking to see successful Biblical advocacy and publicity in the mass-cultural realms, the book thoroughly whets the appetites of those deeply interested in political theology and the place of reason in its public outworking.

By Brian Auten

Brian J. Auten currently serves as an intelligence analyst with the United States government and is an adjunct professor in the Department of Government at Patrick Henry College. He is the author of Carter’s Conversion: The Hardening of American Defense Policy (University of Missouri Press, 2008). All non-attributed views, opinions and conclusions in the review are those of the author and not the US government, or any entity within the US intelligence community.