My new essay on Ralph Waldo Emerson:
A brief reflection of mine to a friend wondering if pastors could be friends with those in their congregation. My answer is “yes,” but my advice for all Christians is to choose wisely. Here is my brief reflection:
You may know that Augustine wrote more about friendship than anyone else in the ancient period so his perspective adds light to our discussion. Cicero, whose writings Augustine loved, also wrote on friendship. Cicero’s work is just a little before Christ so the two give nice bookends to the ancient world’s perspective on friendship. Cicero said you can’t be friends with tyrants or sycophants. Yes, I know there are loads of those in the churches! And with the laxity on choosing elders there are plenty of them on elder boards. But the perversion of a good thing does not eliminate the need for the good thing.
Scholars are rarely prophets and prophets are rarely scholars. I was reminded of this in reading the much debated, The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher.
Rod Dreher, journalist and outspoken Christian, is decidedly on the prophetic side of the scholar-prophet spectrum. This, however, does not mean that he is incapable of helping us better understand the far-reaching and practical ramifications of something as arcane as nominalism.
We must say right out of the blocks that Dreher’s book is not a jeremiad screed to head for the hills. Rather, Dreher advocates for “exile in place.” The preposition is key. We are to cultivate faithfulness with other like-minded folks not simply to hunker down in our religious enclaves. We should form these counter-cultural communities to strengthen our capacity to engage, not escape, our world. This is a clarion call by a gifted writer to let the church be the church.
I have my disagreements with some of Dreher’s analysis and antidotes. With respect to the former, Dreher is insufficiently aware of what the Protestant Reformers meant by sola Scriptura. As Keith Mathison memorably puts it, sola Scpritura does not mean solo Scriptura. Among other things, leaning on the thesis in Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation made for a potted history. Dreher would have been greatly helped if he had availed himself of the work of either Mathison or D.H. Williams, especially his Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: a Primer for Suspicious Protestants.
As to antidotes, I don’t share Dreher’s sweeping denunciation of public schools. For the record, our two sons attended Christian schools, had a few years of homeschooling, and went to public high schools. All three have their strengths and weaknesses. Sure, public schools can be a mess. I saw incompetent teachers and weak administrators, but I also saw bogus rules, unprincipled administrators and mean teachers at the Christian school. My experience, it needs to be noted, was both as a parent and a part-time teacher.
Dreher is rightly concerned about the corrosive effects of “moralistic, therapeutic, Deism.” I share his concerns. I also share Dreher’s conviction that “losing political power might just be the thing that saves the church’s soul.” As many have said, the church seems the most vital (and prophetic) when it works from the margins of power. Notwithstanding its shortcomings, Dreher’s book is a good reminder of that reality.
Many American Evangelicals mistake the American variety of Anglicanism for either the British variety, or worse still, the liberal Episcopalian church. The Anglican Church North America (ACNA) is decidedly under the authority of Scripture and quite clear about the work of Christ on the cross.
I now gladly attend an Anglican church, but I am not Anglican. There are four major reasons I give to those wondering why we shifted from low church evangelicalism to the Anglican church: an intentional theology of the body (and the physical world), a conscious tie to the whole church throughout its history and in the world today, truly keeping primary doctrines primary which translates to giving much space to differ over a variety of non primary doctrines, and a protection against personality cults emerging with respect to the ministers. Much could be said about those things and perhaps later I will offer more details…
Church I see on a regular basis has a large marquee with the following:
No Rules, Just Jesus!
Here is my review of an important new book. Keep in mind that those who interact with me in the comment thread come from all kinds of backgrounds.
Dones are those who still believe in Jesus, but are finished with church. Here is one perspective followed by my own reflection on why Dones exist and are growing:
From my forthcoming review of Peter Leithart’s The End of Protestantism
There are many wise insights throughout this book.
Leithart also does a terrific job illuminating little known histories. These out of the way reflections should give pause to all conscientious readers. We are listening to a man who loves the church and knows its history. One example is so illuminating and cogent that I wish all Christians would have it put on their refrigerators. It details the despair many had during and shortly after the catastrophic WWI. Predictions about the world’s end were common. Too many Christians lacking a proper historic sense failed to appreciate that God could still be up to great things with His church which in fact ended up being the case. Here Leithart reminds us of the explosive growth of the gospel that has occurred throughout the world during the twentieth century. For the many Christians who are saying that “Hillary will forever change our country” I would recommend the wise counsel of Leithart.
My interview with author and Aussie pastor, Mark Sayers:
Moore: You’ve been addressing some of these themes in previous books, so what led you to write a full-throated account?
Sayers: I was driven by a conviction that something radical was changing culturally, and that the Church was struggling to not just catch up but articulate this shift. For decades now the Church has relied on the strategy of cultural relevance to engage Western culture. The premise of this strategy was based on two great assumptions. First, that Western culture had entered a kind of post-Christian phase, and second that the best way to engage this post-Christian phase was through employing strategies and tactics learned on the mission field with pre-Christian cultures.
This was the strategy that ultimately created the contemporary church movement. I am not suggesting that the strategy of cultural relevance has not been fruitful nor that we should abandon it. The strategy of cultural relevance works well in pre-Christian or traditional cultures where the gospel can be communicated into and built around local symbols, stories, traditions, conventions and structures. However, the mood behind the post-Christian culture of the West ultimately seeks to deconstruct and contest all symbols, stories, traditions, conventions and structures. How do you apply a strategy of cultural relevance in a Western context which liquifies culture? Missiology emerged as a way of engaging non-Western traditional cultures without colonizing them. In our post-traditional West, the danger is that when the church engages the cultural solely with the strategy of cultural relevance, too often the church is colonized by the post-Christian mood. I am suggesting that alongside the strategy of relevance we need a strategy of resilience. Not retreat, but cultural engagement with robust resilience.
Moore: In an early section titled “The Soft Power of Post-Christianity” my marginal note reads: “Well put and insightful. We get dulled, duped, and diverted by the panoply of options that indirectly say Christianity is irrelevant.” Describe a bit of the allure and toxic nature of our current cultural moment.
Sayers: Post-Christianity is ultimately the project of the West to move beyond Christianity, whilst feasting upon its fruit. Thus it constantly offers us options and off ramps, in which we seemingly have what we enjoy about faith, but without the sacrifices and commitments. It does not demand that we become apostates rather that we reshape our faith to suit the contours of the day, and in the process offers us the promise of tangible freedoms and pleasures for doing so. It does not challenge our faith head on in a kind of apologetics debate; rather it uses soft power, offering a continual background hum of options and incentives which eat away at our commitments. We are offered the mirage that we can have community without commitment, faith without discipleship, the kingdom without the King. To steal and misquote Eliot’s line, our faith doesn’t disappear with a bang but with a whimper.
Moore: Much of modern culture seems rather benign. We all benefit from breakthroughs in technology, medicine and so much more. It seems a bit ungrateful to level harsh criticisms (something you don’t do) against a culture that produced such benefits. How can the church be winsome in its critique without losing fidelity to the biblical story?
Sayers: Its key that we remember that human culture reflects human nature, thus it mirrors the reality that we are both created and loved, yet also fallen. It is also important to remember that culture is not a monolith, but contains all kinds of spheres, such as media, law, art, and politics. In a globalized world, locations also still matters. So we need nuanced, wise and discerning cultural critique. Scripture shows us that such wisdom and discernment flows from a close abiding with Christ.
Moore: The following is a generality, but does, I believe, depict a big problem. In America, older evangelicals can be faulted with tethering the gospel to certain political agendas that have little or nothing to do with the gospel. Younger evangelicals have reacted in the opposite direction with a disinclination to say much about certain issues that the gospel does address. Do you have a similar challenge in Australia?
Sayers: Traditionally evangelicalism is more politically diverse in Australia than in the US. Having said that, with the rise of the Internet, increasingly Australian evangelicals and even some elements of the media, confuse our relatively small local evangelicalism with American political conservatism. So we also have had understandable move away from some of the compromises with right wing politics, but sometimes the reaction slides into an equally concerning compromise with left wing politics.
This is all happening at a time, where across the Western world we are seeing the rise of a harder left and a harder right. This comes as a shock for since the fall of the Berlin Wall, with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair moving politics into the center, it seemed that such ideology had had its day. Yet ideology is back. What I find fascinating though is behind this move to further edges of the right and left is a common thread. Both espouse a kind of anti-institutional impulse which seeks to remove the restraints on the individual will. Both seek to either return to an idealized past or a utopian future through the hand of a kind of a benevolent, paternal entity be it government, tech companies, or the global financial market. Both end up ignoring, or bypassing the mediating institutions such as family, neighborhood, community organizations or church. Thus, creating the contemporary, atomized, and commitment phobic self, dizzy with choice. There is a significant and growing missional opportunity here for the church to inhabit and rehabilitate this ignored space.
Moore: You write about “creative minorities.” In what ways can the church better remember both words of that description?
Sayers: Writers from Arnold Toynbee to Malcolm Gladwell have shown the way that creativity emerges so often from the margins. This is true in politics, culture, art and religion. The marginal position, isolating one from the mainstream, enables one to view the mainstream from the outside. To in a sense be a part, but also to stand apart and see the idols flaws, and myths of the mainstream culture. To be invited to be a healing presence with good news that directly addresses those idols, flaws and myths. However, as the story of both Israel, and Christ shows us, the margins at best are not comfortable and at worse harm and hurt. To be a true creative minority, the church must truly understand that we will always be mocked, persecuted, and marginalized, and yet we must meet such a response with love and faithfulness. Such a posture provides a fruitful creative tension.
Moore: What are a few goals you would like your readers to walk away with from having read Disappearing Church?
Sayers: There is no going back. We will most likely live the entirety of our lives in an increasingly diverse, contested, globalized, and divided world. As William Davidow and Moises Naim have shown, this world will also be a fragile one. Thus such a moment will be served by a church that is relevant by being resilient. With change and chaos as the norm, a nostalgic desire to return to halcyon days is deeply tempting. Instead of wanting to return to the past, we must learn from the past. Two thousand years of Church history have shown us that again and again, even as large portions of the Church compromise with the spirit of the day. Creative minorities, who engaged new landscapes with creativity alongside biblical orthodoxy and faithfulness, flourish, bring good news and live as ambassadors of the kingdom. This can and will again happen in our day. If in some tiny way Disappearing Church can contribute to that renaissance I will be deeply grateful to Him.
HT: Tim Taylor