Michael Frost is the Founding Director of the Centre for Evangelism and Global Mission (CEGM) at Morling College in Sydney, Australia. He is the author of numerous books, and a leading missional thinker. His most recent book is Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture.
I had the opportunity to work with Mike at the CEGM during my time as the Director for the School of Apologetics there, and appreciate him taking the time to be interviewed about Exiles.
Below you'll find part one of this two part interview.
Smulo: Mike, can you tell us how you’re using the term ‘exile’ in your latest book?
Frost: I’m suggesting, as Walter Brueggeman does, that the experience of Christians in the West in a post-Christian era is similar culturally to that of the exilic Jewish community in Babylon. That is, the cultural landscape has changed underneath us. We didn’t go anywhere, but it’s as if we woke up one day and the ground had slipped from beneath us and we found ourselves in a new ‘country’ – post-Christian and postmodern. Now the Jewish exiles believed their tenure in Babylon was the result of their disobedience, that God had given them over to their enemies because of their sinfulness. But I’m not suggesting that is what’s happening to the Western church. All of the punishment due us has been poured out on Christ. We operate in an era of grace, so I’m not suggesting that we are in the current predicament because of our disobedience. But culturally, we are in the same boat as the exiles. We have to work out how to live out a robust, faithful following of Jesus in a world that doesn’t encourage such a thing. Theologically, we also need to do the work forced upon the original exiles. We have to rediscover our God on foreign soil where our ‘temples’ and our ‘city walls’ no longer offer the comfort they once did. Frankly, I think all this is a good thing. Just as Israel learned things about God they could never have learned while safe in Jerusalem, the church today should see this as a moment in history pregnant with possibilities of new birth and fresh insight.
Smulo: In Exiles, you refer to the need for “dangerous criticism” and give examples of Jewish exiles such as Daniel, Esther, and Joseph. You seem to be saying that we need to voice political critique against entrenched power. It seems that Christian political involvement has, more often than not, ended tragically. What does dangerous criticism look like in practice?
Frost: It transcends party politics for a start. Our political critique should be applied to both sides of the political spectrum. We cannot put our trust in the Republicans or the Democrats to be our champions. That’s the stark realization of the exile. He or she has to come to terms that, being in Babylon, we cannot hope that ‘Babylonian’ political structures will be all we expect or want them to be. The project to defend the poor, to care for the environment, to fashion an equitable, peaceable, stable society cannot be entirely fulfilled by any secular structure. That’s not to say we stop voting and opt out of the political process. Far from it. I think we need to be all the more involved, but we cannot make our preferred political party an idol. It is a flawed invention of humankind. The struggle for American Christians, who have become so wedded to the GOP, will be to cope with the inevitable decline in its popularity. The old saying goes, “He who marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widow in the next.” Note how central Daniel becomes to the Babylonian political structure, but it never limits him from practicing a scathing critique of that system.
Smulo: As you mentioned, Jesus wasn’t afraid to share his meals with people who would earn him negative press. Who are the people we need to share our table with today, and what does sharing our table look like today?
Frost: Well, technically, it wasn’t Jesus sharing his meal with others, but allowing them to share their food with him. He was very often the recipient of hospitality, not necessarily the host. That’s an important point, because receiving hospitality requires greater humility than hosting it. Jesus was prepared to share a table with ‘sinners’ such as tax collectors and prostitutes and his presence at their tables sparks off remarkable reactions. When he eats at Zacchaeus’ home, Zacchaeus, a tax collector, pledges to pay back those he’d ripped off over the years. Where did that come from? Luke’s Gospel says nothing about Jesus teaching about greed or demanding that Zacchaeus repay anyone. It is as if Jesus’ humility in accepting Zacchaeus’ hospitality generates repentance and transformation almost spontaneously. What does that look like today? It means that we, the followers of Jesus, need to humble ourselves enough to accept the generosity of others, to eat what they eat, and drink what they drink and bring a blessing on that household (which is exactly what Jesus tells his followers to do in Luke 10). As Christians we have to stop always thinking that ‘sinners’ have to come to our tables and eat on our terms.
Smulo: In Exiles you have an engaging discussion of Third Places with examples of what they look like in different places in America and Australia. Can you explain what Third Places are for those who aren’t familiar with this term, and how they might be relevant to Christians?
Frost: The term ‘third place’ comes from Ray Oldenburg’s book, The Great, Good Place, which is a sociological analysis of the cultural landscape of the US. Oldenburg contends that Americans orient their lives around three broad ‘places’ in their worlds. The first place is the home or neighborhood. The second place is the workplace. And the third place is that public space where we interact with others at a significant level over core issues. He explains that in the past the bowling alley or the pool hall, the beauty parlor and the mothers’ group, have been traditional third places. In fact, the sub-title of his book is “Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and other Hangouts at the Heart of Community”. It’s his contention that such third places are disappearing across America and that American culture is the poorer for it. Taking Oldenburg’s ideas, missional thinkers are now routinely talking about Third Place Mission – that is, the commitment by Christians to spend significant time in coffee houses, bars, sporting teams, and other affinity groups in order to be ‘salt and light’ to our community. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If fewer and fewer people are coming to church services to explore faith issues, and we know that we need to go to them, where else would we go, but to third places where meaningful interaction is expected and appreciated? The big problem for us is that for most Christians church is their third place and Oldenburg suggests that none of us have time for four meaningful places in our lives. To create space for followers of Jesus to infiltrate our communities by entering into third places, we need to completely recalibrate how we see church and mission operating.