Distinctly Christian

(Ryan Mayo, Programming Director at the Oread Center, is responsible for the opinions in this essay)

GK Chesterton once described the novel Robinson Crusoe as a wild romance of prudence and limits. In the book, Crusoe has been shipwrecked and left adrift before finally reaching an isolated island. Curiously, Chesterton concludes that the most significant passage in Defoe’s entire story is a list.

This list is an inventory of all of the items Crusoe managed to retrieve from the sinking ship, and Chesterton declares it to be “the greatest of poems.” His gladdest thoughts were of an axe, book, compass, coat, and rope – with the realization that they could have been destroyed in the wreck but weren’t. Unfortunately, his most troubling thoughts were of the wonderful items that had been ruined or lost. Several times Crusoe weeps at losing pictures, matches, blankets, and other objects of utility or sentimentality.

So Crusoe endures until rescue, simultaneously giddy with his found inventory and sober-minded about his lost items. For Christians, Crusoe’s state is ours also. We are tasked with making sense of the loss, forging ahead with what survives, and considering the rescue.  For Crusoe, the rescue was a future hope rooted only in his wishes. For us, the rescue has already been initiated, and yet much of its effects are still anticipated and not felt.

Like Crusoe, there is tension between what has been lost, what has survived, and what we wish for. This is plainly obvious in theological terms, but it’s also true in social terms. To say that the American 20th century has been turbulent for its Christians is understated. The swiftness with which Christianity has lost its influence within culture is remarkable. It is not surprising that many of the current Christian voices on culture are lamenting its drift and yearning for yesteryear (whether the golden age in mind is 1925 or 325 or 1525). However, as we reminisce, it would be wise to steer ourselves away from ditches – both the ditch of a whitewashed past and also the ditch of misplaced cultural hope. Our Christian legacy far outshines a cultural legacy of Christian ethics, for only one is eternal.

What Is Lost

There is a feeling among American Christians that this descent from cultural influence needs to be reversed. After all, the aged among us often reminisce about days when the social fabric was not so coarse for Christian sensibilities. With the broadest brush strokes, they are right. The institution of marriage was more properly-esteemed, and those who dissented were more likely to ignore it rather than to crusade against its historical boundaries. Shame and stigma properly stood watch over harmful behaviors, and only the fringes of culture celebrated kink and taboo. And the family was more likely to be the centerpiece of life and labor. This is the general tale of social decline for the twentieth-century Christian in America, as told by its elders. Now, the ethical branch that we sit upon has been sawed off one compromise at a time, and we are tumbling toward ruin, so we are warned. What is needed is a return. The morality of our grandfathers must be restored in government, art, television, and whatever other measures of cultural slippage we prefer to use.

Now, much of this is true and tragic. A decidedly Christian ethic was more closely correlated with societal standards in the past, even if it was probably achieved less frequently than we now imagine. And, in a real and meaningful sense, we should grieve the moral shifts of the last century. As George Lindbeck observed, American Christianity is now in an “awkwardly intermediate stage of having once been culturally established but not yet clearly disestablished.” On the other hand, these shifts are often overstated. The “golden era” of the 1920s or the 1950s in which Christendom, employment, public morality, and G.D.P. all combined to forge a more perfect society, has been repeatedly shown to be historical whitewashing.

Even if we grant the argument that it is profoundly worse in this decade for Christians, there are two monstrous difficulties with the quest to restore the lost Christian moral influence: it probably won’t work and it sidesteps the central thrust of the Christian church.

First, the desire to have all spheres of society reflect the righteousness of Christ, even those spheres occupied by non-Christians, certainly meshes with the Biblical imperatives to let our light shine so that others will praise God. But cultural capital is a fickle goal, and efforts to reclaim a privileged position in societal influence are far more difficult in practice than in theory.

Recently a provocative book by James Davidson Hunter, titled To Change the World, explained that the real agent of cultural change isn’t numbers, but rather influence. Consider that, in 2010, less than 20% of Americans claimed to be Secularist or Atheist, and more than 80% held a “providentialist” (i.e. a sovereign intention) view of origins, and yet Darwinism and secular humanism rule public opinion. If the data is to be trusted, then we can conclude that cultural conclusions are not always based on cultural majorities. By contrast, Hunter points to the massive cultural presence of the relatively tiny percentage of Jewish (4%) and LGBT (2-4%, depending on the researcher) populations. How is it possible that such a small portion of America can shift the cultural landscape in the midst of such a large, resistant mass? Hunter offers two conclusions. First, Christians in America aren’t “Christian” enough (and haven’t been for some time) to recognize and repel harmful ideas. Second, the traditional methods of culture change for Christians (one-on-one evangelism, values politics, and establishing parallel religious institutions) have failed miserably during the last two generations. Culture, he concludes, is changed only through networks of elites in privileged positions, and American Christians are often absent from these posts. Thus, if reversing cultural tides is our goal, then we must emulate the methods that work, rather than repeating failing efforts.

The second difficulty with the “culture change” quest (and a compelling reason to ignore the previous paragraph) is that this is not the mission of the church. A culture that more closely reflects a Christian ethic is a wonderful byproduct of the work of the church, but it is an ill-advised and unstable goal. Even a quick glance at history should reveal that the church is often the most visibly resolute during the times in which it was most disdained. Likewise, even cultures with a high respect for the Scripture’s moral boundaries often featured grievous moral decay. Here we could contrast the rigid expectations of Victorian culture with its private failures – celebrated in secret while maintaining a whitewashed veneer.

We must be honest about the limits of Christians, both collectively and individually, sowing salt into culture. As Graham Ward observes in Cities of God, the wheat and the tares are inextricably bound together until God initiates the final separation, and we should be humble about our ability to identify either stalk with accuracy. The gospel contains the power to melt and to harden, and we’re not likely to be told the outcome beforehand. Noah and Jeremiah shone their light and preached to the lost, and yet their efforts were fruitless by our measurements – they failed to change either culture or a single heart. Paul, by contrast, enjoyed frequent success by almost any measure. That he maintained chains of letters with regional churches that previously did not exist is proof that the early missionary efforts produced extraordinary change. Our call as Christians is to follow Christ into His labor and accept His results, whether those results are local or global, invisible or plain, tedious or easy, “desirable” or not.

So, while we yearn like Crusoe for what is lost, we cannot live perpetually in this posture. What has persisted is far greater.

What We Have

Put simply, we have Christ, His church, and a distinctly Christian set of orientations, identities, and tasks through which we live in this world. These are resilient and persistent through all cultural, political, military, and economic shifts. Having Christ, we have the foretaste of our resurrection and the seal of our hope. Having the church, we have His prized bride, and the gates of Hell will not prevail. And being distinctly Christian, we have the fragrance of the gospel, which cannot be removed.

Consider how distinct the Christian is in our context. Our presuppositions about origins create distinction. By insisting that the universe and man were intentional creations, we are insisting that the Creator lays claim to their direction. Our ethics create distinction, as we are simultaneously charged with arrogance for having a moral standard by which to judge our neighbors and charged with irrationalism for basing that standard on God. Our hope creates distinction, as we can measure all human attempts at progress and weigh them against God’s boundaries for flourishing – all while insisting that full redemption is delayed but coming soon. Our redemption creates distinction, as we realize that only a benevolent divinity can cure our rebellion. And our liturgies create distinction, for by them we are shaped as worshippers and through them we resist the counter-liturgies of the world.

Stanley Hauerwas uses even stronger language in his warnings. He cautions that any attempt to remain established as a cultural agent in American society involves understanding Christianity only as a system of beliefs and propositions (i.e. a particular worldview). But then it is immediately “trivialized,” for a “set of beliefs cannot participate [in] the grand drama of God’s salvation…; only a community does that.” Further, responsibility for the world, he suggests, does not mean trying to make a culture function on its own terms. A recovery is necessary, but in Hauerwas’ eyes these are recoveries of “the locality of Christian salvation called the church” and the “one thing that the church truly has for the world: witness.” Thus, he argues that the salvation offered by Christ is a “political alternative that the world cannot know apart from the existence of a concrete people.” Perhaps most clearly, he concludes that “the church must serve the world on her own terms. We must be faithful in our own way, even if the world understands faithfulness as disloyalty.”

If this is true, then the very desire to regain our lost cultural capital may function like a self-inflicted wound on the mission of God’s people.

What We Wish For

What do Christians wish for in America? It may be sensible to quit writing here, as the “Christian” umbrella is currently far too wide and diverse to draw out uniform answers. But it’s also reasonable to think that this one would too often rise to the surface: we want to regain cultural relevance, influence, and respect. Both in media and policy studies, for example, the usual reaction to Christian presuppositions is amusement (at best) or ridicule (at worst). In this respect, it would be an achievement to see a positive portrayal of a Christian pastor in a well-received television show or a non-satirical mention in the barbershop or the town hall of the benefits of abstinence from sex outside marriage.

And yet, in our wishing for cultural embrace, we tend to forfeit our distinctions. If we can get the world to like us, we think, then we can build on top of that foundation. Once they see that we’re likeable, just as they are, we can change the world. Thoughts like these have launched a thousand well-intentioned ships, as churches seek to parlay with culture through shared loves. Perhaps by attracting them with our community programs, they will stay. But an art gallery or an AA meeting is not Christ crucified, and a soup kitchen is not the table of our Lord. It is our distinctions from the world, not our common ground, that stir lasting attraction to Jesus Christ, and we often imagine any common ground to be thicker than it truly is. Or, to put it another way, upon our regeneration, we become irreversibly fragrant with the gospel of Jesus Christ. To each other, this is a pure and attractive smell, but the world may smell only death on us. Paul is right to wonder why we think we can make the smell of death attractive![1] And how did we come to a place where the shared loves between Christians and non-Christians are such a prize?

In forfeiting the “publicness” of our distinctions from the world, we have quickened the loss of the same cultural capital we crave. In our strategic embrace of culture, we have often let go of our peculiar first love, and now we have less to say about Her. Whether out of fear of rejection or the simple excitement of being liked, we may need to admit now that these efforts have produced little ecclesiastical fruit. And perhaps only rejection will stir us again. Yes, we are excited when the Queen of Sheba wants to tour our wonders, but how will we respond when King Herod demands an inspection?

So pray. Pray for a contented, long-suffering congregation that will not rise and fall with cultural feelings toward the church. Pray that your life reeks with the smell of Christ crucified and the hope of an already-initiated kingdom. Pray that your seasons of joy and suffering will be marked by a distinctly Christ-haunted response. And pray that a watching world responds with repentance.

[1] 2nd Corinthians chapter 2

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