Interrogating the Metaphor ‘Woke’ and its Social Justice Context vis-à-vis God: Some Reference to Johnny Mac and Oliver O’Donovan

There has been lots of talk lately about being “woke”; mostly in a derisive sense. Johnny Mac&company have been going after the so called social justice warriors; particularly as that has penetrated the halls of places like The Gospel Coalition, and other evangelical hubs (at least according to the MacArthur gurus). Is there a reason to be suspicious about the impact that social justice thinking might be having on the evangelical psyche? Yes, I think so; particularly because of the social component that underwrites the social in the ‘justice.’ So in this sense I might actually have some sort of non-gleeful sentiment towards the Macite concern; but then things quickly slide away as far as critique. I mean being woke is actually a biblical metaphor, and it is important that Christians be awake in regard to the inroads that social constructs have into the shaping of how the Gospel is received and thus presented.

I am of the mind that the Gospel does indeed have capaciousness all its own; as such, I believe it needs to be shown the shrift that Christians ought to give it as their birthright into the Kingdom. In other words, the Gospel has depth, and it has depth, in particular, in the sense that it alone can penetrate the outer wall of stone around the human heart and bring life where there is only death. This is the sort of awakeness Christians should be emphasizing. The Kingdom has its own set of spectacles that open the eyes to an in-breaking reality of freshness and liveliness that the society has no means to construct. If the Gospel is sui generis, if the Gospel has no analogy grounded in the socio-cultural imagination, then we must rely upon the Gospel alone to awaken the Christian mind to the Christian res (reality) who is indeed God enfleshed in the humanity of Jesus Christ.

Oliver O’Dononvan offers some interesting thinking with reference to the metaphor of woke. Let’s read along with him, and then close with some further reflection and comment.

Theology has a further task over and above that of conceptual ordering, which takes it beyond the scope of philosophy. A theological justification for the metaphor of waking will show how it leads moral experience back to its source in God’s purposes. It will account for experience in the light of what is told us of its causes and ends; it will situate it in the narrative of a God who, having made us agents, now redeems and perfects us. Theology has a special interest in the renewing of human agency. It has to tell of conversion, and of how our occasional moments of moral wakefulness may lead into and awakening that will be complete and final; “Awake, sleeper, arise from the dead, and Christ shall shine upon you!” (Eph. 5:14). [1]

And further as O’Donovan gets into the eschatological character of what being ‘awake’ looks like for the Revelator:

These synoptic uses lie behind two calls to wakefulness in the Apocalypse (Rev. 3:2-3; 16:15), both on the lips of the risen Jesus and both referring directly to the parables from the synoptic apocalypse. Here the two parables have been conflated: the thief who will come in the night and the Lord who will return in the night are now one and the same, and are, in fact, Jesus himself, who says, “I will come as a thief!” Also from the synoptic context are the words about not knowing the time. The blending of these synoptic elements gives new force to the metaphor. Ignorance of the moment and thief-like suddenness of the Lord’s return are, for John, not merely the universal conditions within which faithfulness must be exercised; they are God’s judgment on unfaithfulness. It is the unwakeful servant who will encounter the Lord as a thief and who will not know the moment of his coming. A new illustrative feature develops this thought: one who stays awake will have clean clothes ready to meet his master (3:4) and will not be caught in an indecent state (16:15).

And so the command to wake is addressed in the New Testament chiefly to the church, which ought to be able to count, if any agent could, on being awake already. It sets the church in a moment of crisis, put on the spot, by relating the achieved past to the future of Christ’s coming and to the immediate future of attention and action. Wakefulness is anything but a settled state, something we may presume on, as we can usually presume we are awake as we go about our business. It brings us sharply back to the task in hand, the deed to be performed, the life to be lived. Waking is thrust on us. We do not consider it, attempt it and then perhaps achieve it; we are claimed for it, seized by it. That is why it is not just one metaphor among many for moral experience, but stands guard over the birth of renewed moral responsibility.[2]

Being awake is being made alive by the in-breaking reality of the Gospel. As O’Donovan emphasizes, being awake is an eschatological reality calling us back and forward to the reality of God. In this reality we are undone over and again by our own brokenness and then revived again by our new found awakeness in the Gospel. Of all people Christians are not only awake to the reality of God, but ought to thus live as those awoken in Christ over and again; afresh and anew.

The Macites are reacting to the whence of being ‘woke’ as it is a social construct non-derived from the contextual reality of God’s Holy Triune life. In that sense I think Mac and the Macites are onto something. But it is just at their observation that things start to come undone; they have a faulty understanding of God in important ways (we will have to get into those at another time). But insofar as woke is being appealed to by the mainstream of evangelical Christians this needs to be critiqued. Unless a robust account and development of what it means to be woke is appealed to in these circles what will be left is an empty hull of starting premises that received their genesis from anyone else but Theology Proper. In other words, as O’Donovan has alerted us to, to be woke, for the Christian, is indeed a Christian reality. Non-Christians cannot be awake by definition; thus they have nothing to offer a broken defunct world-situation. Non-Christians and the premises of their lives therein, are indeed what has brought about the social maladies wokeness is intended to bring remedy to. If the Gospel is sui generis then outwith the Spirit inhabiting someone’s mind and heart how can anyone claim to be ‘awake?’

What counts as being woke in the profane social constructs cannot actually be woke to anything except the incurved self; the self-possessed self. This is why the Gospel is so important; it is the only reality that can actually wake anyone up, and provide the sort of power and reality that people need to counter the forces of darkness that have plunged the world into the mess it is in. Being awake for the world, for the ‘society’ is something they have no resource to provide; just as the universe itself does not have the self-resource to explain its own origination, likewise, the profane ununited person to Christ has no resource to awaken itself to what is genuinely holy and straight (rather than crooked). The power of God is not a social construct; the power of God is the Gospel. The Gospel has the power to penetrate fallen hearts (Christian or non-Christian — one of O’Donovan’s points), and to bring to rights the wrongs of the world; even as the eschaton continuously breaks in upon the world in the face of Christ (the glory of God) by the Holy Spirit’s paracletic work.

[1] Oliver O’Donovan, Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013), 7.

[2] Ibid., 9.

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