Our culture is no longer banded together by shared beliefs; it’s drawn together by shared spectacles. Like Halloween costumes designed to match the most popular movies, we seek our self-identity inside the cultural spectacles we share together.
Becoming Aware of Our Biases
In their excellent book Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien share the importance of recognizing the lens through which see the world:
We speak as insiders, and this has its own challenges. We speak as white, Western males. In fact, we always speak as white. Western males. Everything either of us has ever written has come from the perspective of middle-class, white males with a traditionally Western education. There’s really nothing we can do about that except be aware of and honest about it. That said, we write as white.
Western males who have been chastened to read the Bible through the eyes of our non-Western sisters and brothers in the Lord. For example, I (Randy) remember grading my first multiple choice exam in Indonesia. I was surprised by how many students left answers unmarked. So I asked the first student when handing back exams, “Why didn’t you select an answer on question number three?”
The student looked up and said, “I didn’t know the answer. “You should have at least guessed,” I replied. He looked at me, appalled. “What if I accidentally guessed the correct answer? I would be implying that I knew the answer when I didn’t. That would be lying!”
Taken from Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien Copyright (c) 2012 by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Bowing Down to Progress
We are taught, often by the tone of voice of the media and the politicians rather than by explicit argument, to bow down before…progress. It is unstoppable. Who wants to be left behind, to be behind the times, to be yesterday’s people? The colloquial phrase “That’s so last-year” has become the ultimate putdown: “progress” (by which we often simply mean a variation in fashion) has become the single most important measuring rod in society and culture.
The Birth (or Re-Emergence) of Evangelical Social Action
In 1947, budding theologian Carl F. H. Henry wrote a short book titled The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. In it he surveys the American fundamentalist movement’s engagement with the most important social issues of the day. Henry does not so much attack the fundamentalists for their social ethic as for their lack of one. Within their ranks, he finds little or no contribution to politics, economics, race and labor relations, intellectual life, or the arts. He paints a picture of fundamentalists with their backs turned to the world as they devotedly dissect the minutiae of obscure prophecy, taking pride in their total disconnect from a society destined to perdition.
Such a characterization might not seem an unusual interpretation of fundamentalism for a theologian trained at liberal institutions like Boston University and Harvard, as Henry was. But what makes Uneasy Conscience stand out is that Henry was himself a fundamentalist, intent on provoking his compatriots to apply the insights of conservative biblical theology to their contemporary context. Skeptical that fundamentalism’s old guard could rise from its slumber, he placed his hope in a younger generation who called themselves evangelicals—a group he hoped could reinvigorate the social consciousness of conservative American Protestantism.
Sixty years later, after the dawn of the twenty-first century, the largest privately funded global relief and development organization in the world is evangelical, and hundreds of smaller organizations funnel more than $2 billion overseas to meet the needs of the poor. For more than a decade one of the most famous evangelical megachurch pastors in America has been attempting the complete socioeconomic restructuring of a small African nation.
Evangelicals are zealously campaigning against child slavery and sex trafficking. Bringing their voices to formerly complacent churches and also to the broader public through social media and traditional television and newspaper outlets. Furthermore, thousands of neighborhood renewal ministries have enlisted millions of American evangelicals in Christian community development of various kinds. In just two generations, evangelicals have “moved from almost complete silence on the subject of justice to a remarkable verbosity.”
Can Americans Teach Others about Religion?
Even more germane to the concerns of this book, it is important to remember how the American concern for enumerating Christian work can look to non-Americans. Kanzo Uchimura (1861-1930) was a Japanese Christian evangelist and Bible teacher who as a young man studied in the United States and thereafter made many visits to North America. Toward the end of his life in 1926 he wrote at some length about his impressions of Christianity in the United States:
Americans are great people; there is no doubt about that. They are great in building cities and railroads…. Americans have a wonderful genius for improving breeds of horses, cattle, sheep and swine…. Americans too are great inventors…. Needless to say, they are great in money…
Americans are great in all these things and much else; but not in Religion…. Americans must count religion in order to see or show its value….To them big churches are successful churches….To win the greatest number of converts with the least expense is their constant endeavour. Statistics is their way of showing success or failure in their religion as in their commerce and politics. Numbers, numbers, oh, how they value numbers!
To Uchimura, the American churches did their work under the guidance of American cultural imperatives. Uchimura elsewhere had many positive things to say about American religious life, but he was struck by how much the norms of an acquisitive, market-driven and aggressively statistical culture had shaped the perspective of the churches.
Taken from The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith by Mark A. Noll Copyright (c) 2009 by Mark A. Noll. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
The Cycle of Upheaval
Every five hundred years, give or take a decade or two, Western culture, along with those parts of the world that have been colonized or colonialized by it, goes through a time of enormous upheaval, a time in which essentially every part of it is reconfigured.1 From the perspective of the twenty-first century, and thus from our own place in Western history, it is fairly easy for us to see that pattern writ large over the last two millennia.
Phyllis Tickle, Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters, Baker Books, 2012.
Not Taking Jesus Seriously Enough
Following Jesus has never been easy, but some believe it’s becoming even more difficult as Western cultures become increasingly post-Christian. Today, fewer people identify as “Christian,” fewer attend church with any regularity, and the fastest growing religious group in the United States is the so-called Nones—those with no religious affiliation. Along with these demographic changes, fewer people see the Bible as a source for moral or spiritual wisdom, and popular attitudes toward traditional Christian sexual ethics now reside somewhere between indifference and hostility. As a result, some Christians who once felt welcomed and accepted by the culture now feel pushed to the edges of the public square.
It’s natural to interpret this marginalization as a kind of cultural punishment, the natural outcome of holding on to beliefs and values the society would prefer to abandon. This has led some Christians to cry “Persecution!” and assume the posture of victims, and no doubt there are real cases of unjust hostility toward followers of Jesus. In response to this social banishment, these embattled believers sometimes assemble into political platoons to fight the culture war with the goal of retaking the land for Jesus.
This interpretation of the current cultural landscape assumes Christians are marginalized because we take Jesus too seriously. This view says if we’d just relax, hold our faith more loosely, and let popular values override biblical ones then we’d find more acceptance in the culture. But what if we have it backwards? What if the underlying malady afflicting Christians today isn’t that we take Jesus too seriously, but that we’ve failed to take Him seriously enough? What if much of the culture’s judgment of Christians isn’t the result of obeying Jesus, but the result of Christians ignoring Him?
My Grievance with Contemporary Culture
My grievance with contemporary society is with its decrepitude. There are few towering pleasures to allure me, almost no beauty to bewitch me, nothing erotic to arouse me, no intellectual circles or positions to challenge or provoke me, no burgeoning philosophies or theologies and no new art to catch my attention or engage my mind, no arousing political, social, or religious movements to stimulate or excite me.
There are no free men to lead me. No saints to inspire me. No sinners sinful enough to either impress me or share my plight. No one human enough to validate the “going” lifestyle. It is hard to linger in that dull world without being dulled. I stake the future on the few humble and hearty lovers who seek God passionately in the marvelous, messy world of redeemed and related realities that lie in front of our noses.
Negative Attitudes About Christians
I’ve asked strangers and casual acquaintances, “Why do Christians stir up such negative feelings?” Some bring up past atrocities, such as the widespread belief that the church executed eight or nine million witches (a figure that serious historians believe is exaggerated by 99 percent). I’ve heard complaints about strict Protestant or Catholic schools and tales of clergy intolerance—didn’t John Lennon get kicked out of his boyhood church for laughing at an inappropriate time?
Others repeat stories similar to that of Steve Jobs, who left church when the pastor had no answer for his questions about God and the starving children of Africa. The comedian Cathy Ladman expresses a common view: “All religions are the same: religion is basically guilt with different holidays.” Neighborhoods that once welcomed churches now file lawsuits against them, not just because of traffic and parking issues but because “We don’t want a church in our community!”
Animosity goes public when a prominent sports figure talks freely about faith. A few years ago NFL quarterback Tim Tebow and NBA guard Jeremy Lin attracted praise from Christians who appreciated their clean lifestyles and their willingness to discuss their beliefs. At the same time sports-talk radio, websites, blogs, and late-night comedians mercilessly mocked the two.
A People Distracted by Distraction
From drugs and alcohol to TV and workaholism, we are increasingly a society that fulfills T.S. Eliot’s description of a people “distracted by distraction.” There is hardly a public menace we can name that is not in some caused by one or another of the million ways in which our society teaches and enables us to abstract and distract ourselves—to escape in one way or another from the concrete presence of the here and now.
A Post-Christian America?
The United States is undergoing a marked change in its attitude toward religion, and Christians here face new challenges. When a blogger named Marc Yoder wrote about “10 Surprising Reasons Our Kids Leave Church,” based on interviews in Texas (a comparatively religious state) his post went viral. Instead of a hundred or so hits, his website got more than half a million. “There’s no easy way to say this,” wrote Yoder, in words that struck a nerve: “The American Evangelical church has lost, is losing and will almost certainly continue to lose our youth.”
If we don’t adapt we will end up talking to ourselves in ever-dwindling numbers. What lies behind the downward trend? I got some insight from a friend of mine in Chicago who once worked on the staff of Willow Creek Community Church, one of the nation’s largest churches. Daniel Hill took a side job as a barista at a local Starbucks where, he now realizes, his pastoral education truly began.
One of his customer said, when the conversation turned to religion, “When Christians talk to you, they act as if you are a robot. They have an agenda to promote, and if you don’t agree with them, they’re done with you.” Often Hill heard an anythinggoes attitude: “I don’t personally follow Christianity, but I figure whatever makes you happy, do it.” As one person told him, “Look, we all know that ‘God’ is out there at some level, but no one has a right to tell another person what ‘God’ looks like for them.
Each person is free to express that however they want, but they should keep their opinions to themselves.” During his time at the coffee shop Hill heard two distinct approaches to the faith. “Pre-Christians” seemed open and receptive when the topic of religion came up. They had no real hostility and could imagine themselves connecting with a church someday. In contrast, “post-Christians” harbored bad feelings.
Some carried memories of past wounds: a church split, a domineering parent, a youth director or priest guilty of sexual abuse, a nasty divorce which the church handled clumsily. Others had simply absorbed the media’s negative stereotypes of rabid fundamentalists and scandal-prone television evangelists. Listening to Hill’s stories, I thought back to C. S. Lewis’s analogy of communicating faith in secular Britain.
It’s the difference between courting a divorcée and a virgin, Lewis told a friend in a letter. A divorcée won’t easily fall for sweet nothings from a suitor—she’s heard them all before—and has a basic distrust of romance. In modern America, Hill estimates, around three-quarters of young “outsiders” qualify as post-Christian, the divorcées of faith.
And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it.
But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and [unintelligible — sounds like “displayal”]. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.
David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College Commencement Speech: This is Water.