Evangelicalism’s Lost World

“Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic.”

 

An Evangelical reader passes on a recent edition of The Masculinist, an monthly e-mail newsletter about “the intersection of Christianity and masculinity,” written by Aaron Renn. I can’t find a place to link to the article, so I’ll quote it. The reader told me that I should take a look at it, because it might explain the cool reception The Benedict Option has had in some Evangelical circles.

The essay leading the newsletter (#13) is one of the most insightful things I’ve read in a long time. I’m going to quote it at length, but let me say at the front end that it’s so good that I immediately subscribed to The Masculinist, and I strongly suggest that you do too. Renn is a conservative Presbyterian who is concerned about the decline of a sense of manhood within Christianity (and in society), and the failure of the churches to respond to the crisis.

Renn begins this essay by critiquing Sen. Ben Sasse’s book The Vanishing American Adult, which focuses on twentysomethings who fail to launch into adult life. Renn says the book is “very good in many ways,” but addresses only the top 20 percent of American households — the kind of people whose kids are going to have a much easier time launching than all the rest. Renn:

Sasse does not forthrightly address any of the serious problems facing America’s youth with any proposed solutions that might get him into the slightest bit of hot water.  (He did give family breakdown a mention, but did nothing with it). The kids growing up in white working class communities with rampant family breakdown, unstable employment, drugs, etc. have much bigger problems in life than learning how to travel well. Drug addicted parents are injecting babies with opioids to make them stop crying (true story). There’s one woman I know personally who had four kids by three different fathers, two of whom were brothers. And who went though a significant stretch to drug addiction where she was completely out of the picture while her kids where raised by grandparents. Those kids face serious problems. (Two of them have already had out of wedlock children of their own, one of them already with multiple partners).  Similarly, a black teenager in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood faces much bigger problems than his summer reading list.

Sasse, despite all of his pretention to moral superiority, despite his constant anti-Trump preening, despite all of his Evangelical faith, despite being a US senator, is unwilling to stand up in the public square and say unpopular things to confront the serious problems in America, ones not amenable to uncontroversial feel-good solutions like “consume less.”

In this curious blend of moral posturing and play it safe proclamations, Sasse is very representative of what’s probably the dominant strain of Evangelical thinking today. So it’s worth exploring what that is – and why it exists.

Renn goes on to talk about “the Three Worlds”:

Ben Sasse is a conservative exemplar of what I term “neutral world” Christianity. In my framework, there are three worlds we’ve seen in my lifetime related to the status of Christianity and traditional Christian norms in society.

1 Positive World (Pre-1994). To be seen as a religious person and one who exemplifies traditional Christian norms is a social positive. Christianity is a status enhancer. In some cases failure to embrace those norms hurt you.
2 Neutral World (1994-2014). Christianity is seen as a socially neutral attribute.  It no longer had dominant status in society, but to be seen as a religious person is not a knock either. It’s more like a personal affectation or hobby. Traditional norms of behavior retain residual force.
3 Negative World (2014-). In this world, being a Christian is a social negative, especially in high status positions. Christianity in many ways as seen as undermining the social good. Traditional norms are expressly repudiated.

To illustrate the differences, consider these three incidents:

1 Positive World: In 1987 the Miami Herald reported that Sen. Gary Hart had been having an affair, and cavorting with the woman in question on his yacht. He was forced to drop out of the presidential race as a result.
2 Neutral World:  In 1998 the Drudge Report broke the story that Bill Clinton had been having an affair with intern Monica Lewinksy, including sex acts in the Oval Office. Bill Clinton was badly damaged by the scandal but survived it as the Democratic Party rallied around him and public decided his private behavior was not relevant to the job.
3 Negative World: In 2016 Donald Trump, a many whose entire persona (sexual antics, excess consumption, boastfulness, etc.) is antithetical to traditional Christianity, is elected president. The Access Hollywood tape, for example, had no effect on voter decisions about him.

Even for those who hate Christianity, the rise of Trump, something only possible in a post-Christian world, should give them pause to consider.

Renn then discusses the church’s “strategic response” to these worlds.

When we lived in Positive World, we saw emerge the Religious Right, the Positive World paradigm, which was “highly combative and oppositional vs. emerging secular culture.” We also saw the emergence of the “seeker-sensitive” megachurch movement. Its success depended on a basic friendliness to Christianity in the broader culture.

The church that emerged out of Neutral World are the “urban church” types. Renn:

The neutral world church is very different in a number of ways. It has traditionally been much more apolitical (though many of its practitioners lean left). It’s also much more heavily urban and global city focused. It tries to avoid highlighting areas where Christianity is in conflict with the world. Instead of being antagonistic towards the culture, it is explicitly positive towards culture. In fact, you could sum up much of the model under the heading “cultural engagement.” They want to meet the culture on its own terms, and reach people as participants in a pluralistic public square. They want to be in the mainstream media, not just Christian media or their own platforms. Many of their ministries have been backed by big money donors.  These are many of the people who denounced Trump to no effect during the election. In effect, they represent a version of Christianity taking its cues from the secular elite consensus.

Renn says that with the exception of “some Southern Baptists and some older white guys,” the Evangelical leadership today is Neutral World. Tim Keller is the No. 1 example of a successful Neutral World pastor. His success at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City “powerfully validated the Neutral World model.” Renn:

He explicitly validated the pursuit of success at the highest echelons of American art, media, finance, etc., believing that Christianity had something to offer in those fields at all levels. He believes these secular fields, while suffering from fallenness like all human institutions, are fundamentally positive contributions to humanity and that Christianity should participate and engage with them rather than fighting against them or denouncing them.

Here’s the problem, according to Renn: Since around 2014, we have shifted from Neutral World to Negative World — but a lot of Evangelicals still think we’re living in Neutral World, or wish we were. Renn:

When the world switched from positive to neutral, the cultural engagement strategy was readily developed. With the switch from neutral to negative, the church needs a new strategy. However, one does not appear to be forthcoming. The lack of negative world ideas is remarkable not just for the fact that it has not occurred, but that it has received so little attention.

There is only serious engagement with the negative world out there I know of, Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option.”  Dreher is an admixture of positive (political movement conservatism), neutral (Crunchy Cons), and negative (Benedict Option) worlds. He even physically moved from backwoods to Louisiana to New York City then back again. He’s also Eastern Orthodox, not Protestant.  He’s all over the map in many ways, and as a result the Benedict Option is critically flawed in my view. However, at least it’s addressing reality.

Interestingly, neutral world Evangelicals seem to have largely rejected the Benedict Option, and therein lies an important tale.

What is that tale? Renn says that in 2014, he reckoned that “as soon as being known as a Christian would incur a material social penalty, which I anticipated happening soon, there would be a mass abandonment of the faith by the megachurch crowd, etc.”

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