A Brave New World supplants the illusion of Christian America
We now know what we have long suspected: America is not and never was “a Christian nation.” We may have put “In God we trust” on our coins and “one nation under God” into our pledge during the red scare, but those were merely the vestigial organs of an America of church attenders familiar with the scriptural imagery of Western civilization. But Western civilization is quickly fading away, swept under the rug of social change in a brave new world of neoliberalism and its deity, the self-identified eros.
Harbor no illusions, neoliberalism is a puritanical and absolutist form of progressivism. It is characterized by “tolerance” – the buzzword of an orthodoxy of the unfettered self. We are watching its fruit as our culture, unmoored from classical ideas of truth, beauty, and dignity, descends into hedonism. Regardless of the rhetoric, in neoliberalism truth is not actually relative. Truth may be a social construct, but it is absolute, and, as in all puritanical schemes, difference of opinion is not “tolerated.”
Perhaps nowhere is neoliberalism on clearer display than in the triennial meeting of my Episcopal Church. For us, the “movement of the Holy Spirit” is determined by popular vote. To oppose the winds of change then is nothing less than to oppose God. The neoliberal “Spirit,” is a “spirit” of triumphalist glory, a big-brother who squashes dissent quickly and quietly. In the deliberations of our bishops yesterday, a small and quiet conservative minority wished to read a statement indicating their disagreement with the redefinition of marriage. They were cut off on parliamentary grounds. Neoliberal tolerance can tolerate no dissent. The vitriol, social shaming, and gloating on my Facebook after the Obergefell ruling stands in stark contrast with the rhetoric of pluralism and classical liberalism we hear so much about. Our delegates heard from a Sunday school teacher shacking up with her boyfriend who has no interest in marriage, then passed a resolution to “continue work studying the growing contemporary reality…that is redefining what many mean by ‘family’ or ‘household.'” This explicitly includes, “those who choose to remain single; unmarried persons in intimate relationships; couples who cohabitate; couples who desire a blessing, etc).” It implicitly includes “listening” to another type of emerging family structure – polyamorous families. I report this, not to be shocking, but because our church takes its establishment roots quite seriously and is generally a reflection of where progressive culture desires to go next. And, as you will have noticed, for culture crusaders addicted to the fight, there is always a next fight…
Time magazine this week posted an article by Mark Oppenheimer arguing for the elimination of church’s tax exempt status. It is spreading through social media like wildfire. The new elite smells blood: it is the last weak pulse of traditional America. Somehow they have forgotten that orphanages, hospitals, universities, literacy, and abolition were all ideas given to the world by that enemy of humanity – Christian thought.
Somehow lost in both the sophomoric euphoria and the licking of wounds is the fact that political solutions simply do not work. We are forty years into our legislative solutions to our race issues, yet those issues are still present. And in this mess Christians are still forgiving and angry nuts are still burning down our places of worship.
How should the church respond to culture shift?
We could keep financing losing political battles. We could keep encouraging ugly rhetoric. We could fight to keep our tax exempt status’ and tax deduction for charitable giving. We could keep trying to support political parties for whom nearly half of my state has disengaged and reregistered as “independent.” We could do what many have chosen to do this week and simply remain silent. We could flip-flop on 2000 years of unbroken Christian tradition and the clear meaning of the words of scripture.
…we could go back to what the church was good at. Remember, when we were eleven scared dudes hiding out in an upper room? That group had a unique methodology unused since the faith embraced power in the fourth century…
Lessons from the first Christians
First, they gathered in remarkable unity across ethnic, cultural, and social barriers in formational, seeker-insensitive worship services – This may surprise many of my evangelical friends, but there are eucharistic pointers in every NT author. The story of God is taught and formed with remarkable clarity in the format of Word and Sacrament present in Acts and given to us as ancient practice by Justin Martyr in 150 CE. We must form Christians. This is more than sermonizing. It involves enacting and imprinting the story of God on human hearts.
Second, from their deep formation, the ancient Christians moved missionally in service and proclamation into the world. They loved, gave, and proclaimed Jesus’ to the least, last, and lost.
Third, they were annoyingly clear about the exclusive claims of Jesus in a pluralistic world. This made them the target of recurring persecution. A persecution which they generally embraced.
Fourth, they were not worried about their “rights.” They worried about the world’s lostness. We can stop worrying about being persecuted and start embracing and supporting Christians who are actually being persecuted. Embrace the loss of status and prestige! Let us join our African American brothers and sisters in turning the other cheek, blessing those who persecute us, and forgiving the offender.
Fifth, they modeled internal civil discourse (Acts 15). In our churches we can teach the “faith once delivered.” But we can teach it as truths we are being conformed to, rather than using the faith as a bludgeon to beat non-Christians into an eternally irrelevant social-conformity.
Fortuitously, these are exactly the lessons we learn from many of the fastest growing millennial-heavy churches. Millennial-heavy churches (churches with hundreds of millennial generation attenders) tend to be liturgical and artful, with deep biblically-based sermons. They are high on diversity and community. They fearlessly preach on difficult topics with a “hard on me, soft on you” hermeneutic. They actively engage in social action. They tend not to engage in political action. They even seem to have a significant number of young lgbt attendees who respect their authenticity. Or, as one millennial said when she left her mega-church that is moving to gimmicks to drive attendance, “I want to go where the Christianity is what is on display.”
So, church, do not change the “deposit of faith” to make it more “relevant” to the culture. There has never been a time that has not failed to be a losing proposition. There is a reason that the fellowships that change least account for the most of us – Catholicism and Orthodoxy continue to account for 2/3 of the world’s Christians.
The Christian faith is neither the moral improvement program that many conservatives wish for it to be, nor the affirmation of desires that many progressives seem to want to make it. The Christian faith is nothing less than a radical reorienting of the human experiment to a new master. To quote, Abraham Kuyper, “There is not one one square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Jesus Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘mine.'”
Or, as our spiritual forebearers said, “Jesus is Lord.”
So let us stop trying to remake a secular society in our own image. Let us instead worry about God’s priorities: “The redemption of the world through our Lord, Jesus Christ.” (BCP, 101)
We have work to do. Politics is not that work.
*Brave New World photo labelled for reuse.
***I should say that I support full protection under the law for lgbt relationships, not because it is the government’s business what adults choose to do, gay or straight, but because adults have children, and children need the protection under the law afforded by the cultural values of monogamy and fidelity. I also see a big difference between what a pluralistic government protects and what the church, as recipients of scriptures and the tradition of the apostles, defines as marriage.