Strangers in a Strange Land: Christianity and Contemporary Culture
There is nothing much new under the sun, as Solomon reminded us some 3000 years ago. And for much of the last 2000 years Christians have been wrestling with how they should relate to the surrounding culture. Differing views have been held, and the discussion continues today.
There are many hundreds of volumes on this complex topic that have been penned just in the past 60-70 years. I know, because I have hundreds of these volumes on my shelves. Christians will take different positions on what relationship Christians should have with culture, how we are to understand church and state relations, and so on.
One famous assessment of the options was the very influential 1951 volume by the Protestant theologian and ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture. In it he examined five major ways believers over the centuries have interacted with culture. These include “Christ against Culture” and “Christ the Transformer of Culture”.
One evangelical reappraisal of that work is D. A. Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited (Eerdmans, 2008). See my review of this book here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2008/07/26/a-review-of-christ-and-culture-revisited-by-da-carson/
Another very important volume in this ongoing discussion was the 1984 volume The Naked Public Square by Richard John Neuhaus. The Lutheran thinker (who later converted to Catholicism) offered us some crucial analysis of church-state relations, and how religion and democracy coexist in America.
Obviously dozens of other critical works on these topics could be mentioned here, but let me bring the conversation up to more recent times. Four very new books on religion and culture all explore the theme of Christians – and Christianity – in a post-Christian culture.
All are written by American Christians and look at American culture, but their thoughts are applicable to much of the West. The four books I will examine here are:
-R. R. Reno, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society. Regnery, 2016.
-Charles Chaput, Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World. Henry Holt, 2017.
-Anthony Esolen, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. Regnery, 2017.
-Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Sentinel, 2017.
Reno, Chaput and Esolen are all Catholics, while Dreher is Eastern Orthodox, but formerly a Catholic. All four authors are conservatives who care greatly about what they find happening, and they seek to help believers find their way in these increasingly dark times.
All four books see the West in a state of moral, cultural and spiritual decay, and well on the road to being post-Christian, if not anti-Christian. All the volumes look at the usual indicators of cultural and social decay and decline, be it the ongoing and worsening sexual revolution, the battle over life, or the war on marriage and family.
The first three are roughly similar in many respects, including the call to continue to be salt and light in a very needy culture, and to continue doing the work of the Kingdom. Let me very briefly look at each three. In Reno’s closing chapters he reminds us that we are not unlike the early church in being outcasts and outsiders.
The early church did not fit in to the surrounding culture and neither do we. He urges us to take our faith seriously, not withdrawing and retreating but to act as “the soul of the world”. We need to renew our Christian communities while on mission in the world around us.
He writes, “We have a duty as Catholics to study and understand the world around us. We have a duty not just to penetrate and engage it, but to convert it to Jesus Christ. . . . God calls us to set the world on fire with his Word. But he calls us first to love him.”
Chaput, as his title indicates, takes his cue from the series of lectures T. S. Eliot gave in 1939, The Idea of a Christian Society. He reminds us that his book was drafted during the dark times of the rise of the Nazis, and the Communist control of Russia.
How should the West face these threats? Eliot asked whether the future of the West would be a Christian one or a pagan one. Today we are in a similar sort of place, and the West does look to be on its last legs. With the rise of militant secularism and militant Islam, a weakened, self-doubting West seems to have its back against the ropes.
As to the possibility of a Christian society, he is both pessimistic and optimistic: “America feels less Christian today than ever before. . . . Christendom is no more. . . . Yet the end of Christendom has not meant the end of Christianity.” He continues:
Christ’s lordship makes a difference in the world, which is why we rightly engage in the public square. But his kingdom is not of this world. Moral truths are at stake, but not our souls. . . . Let’s avoid a false purism. It would be political Pharisaism to refuse to pollute oneself with the realities of public life in a fallen world. . . . Along with the synagogue, the church is the only surviving institution from antiquity. . . . Over the long haul, religious faith has proved itself the most powerful and enduring force in history. Let’s be realistic about the great challenges we face. But let’s also be realistic in our realism. There will probably be no United States of America in one thousand years. But there will be synagogues and churches. The future is God’s.
Esolen also sees our civilisation in tatters, and asks what we should do about it. He encourages us to engage and rebuild on various fronts: we must restore truth, we must redeem education, we must challenge the sexual revolution, and so on. A big mess requires a big amount of restoration work.
While offering us meaty chapters on how these various jobs can be carried out, he too realises that at the end of the day, if we simply seek to rescue culture, we will fail. Our hope does not lie in this world. “We are pilgrims. We must remember that at all times. We are on the way.”
He reminds us of the wise words of Lewis that if we aim for earth alone we will lose it, but if we aim for heaven, we will get that, and earth as well. Jesus of course said the same when he told us to seek first his Kingdom. Says Esolen, “The Christian loves the world best by keeping it in its proper and subordinate place.”
The last book on my list has certainly gotten the most attention, and has been discussed and debated countless times now. It is the most pessimistic of the four in terms of Christian cultural engagement. Dreher basically says the game is over – the culture wars have been lost and it is time to head to the hills.
He believes our culture is now so toxic that Christians cannot remain in it, but must move out, and follow the pattern of the sixth century monk St. Benedict and set up monastic orders, or Christian communities. He says a church weakened and emaciated by a hostile culture will have nothing to offer it, so it is now time for retreat, renewal, and regrouping.
He does not say we must stay there forever, but he does not say how long we should remain absent either: a year, ten years, a hundred? But once renewed and reinvigorated, God’s people can go back into the world and seek to have an impact.
It is not my intent to deal with Dreher much further here, as his book has already been debated nearly to death. But let me just mention a few points. I and other culture warriors will of course be somewhat troubled by his pessimistic and basically retreatist stance. A few quotes:
“Today we can see that we’ve lost on every front.”
“The public square has been lost.”
“Nobody but the most deluded of the old-school Religious Right believes that this cultural revolution can be turned back. The wave cannot be stopped, only ridden. With a few exceptions, conservative Christian political activists are as ineffective as White Russian exiles, drinking tea from samovars in their Paris drawing rooms, plotting the restoration of the Monarchy. One wishes them well but knows deep down that they are not the future.”
Them’s fightin’ words! Of course Dreher is a conservative and he does say there is a place to fight the culture wars. But he says things are now so bad that a strategic retreat is the order of the day. On the issue of education for example he makes things quite clear: pull your kids out of public education and either home school them or start classical Christian schools.
Yes and no would be my response to his whole thesis. Yes we are in a very bad way, and yes so too is the Western church. Yes a weak and anaemic church will do no good to challenge our militant secular culture. Yes we need to revive the church and establish Christian outposts along the way.
But I have all along said that there is a place for engaging in battle as well. While I know full well that at the end of the day only widespread repentance and revival will save the American church, and then perhaps America. I am not advising complete surrender just yet.
Many folks advised Wilberforce to pull out and give up as well. Thankfully he ignored their advice. And when we look at the American scene, yes things are extremely dark, but there are some glimmers of hope. The abortion wars for example are one such case of numerous victories being won along the way.
One recent article which is also quite gloomy about the US agrees that at least on the abortion front things are looking better:
According to Gallup, support for abortion has only changed 1% since 2001, with 43% of Americans saying that the procedure is morally acceptable. This can be attributed to the massive educational efforts of the pro-life movement and the relentless exposure of abortion as a violent act of physical destruction by everyone from undercover reporters such as David Daleiden to street activists holding abortion victim photos. The abortion rate has been consistently falling, and it is heartening to see what activists can do when they truly set to work to change the culture.
He goes on to say that “On every moral issue, social conservatives are losing ground”. But at least he sees one ray of hope. Dreher does not seem to see any. And since he often makes use of The Lord of the Rings Shire imagery in his book, one can remind him that the Shire was only saved when Frodo and his friends left the comforts and safety of the reclusive Shire and went on a mission, on a battle, to fight for it.
But all these issues, as mentioned, have been debated and discussed for centuries now. These four new books offer more food for thought. Yes, our ultimate hope is only in the Lord, and in getting on our knees before him and crying out for his mercy.
Yes times are very dark right now, but there have been other dark times. Thus we need to have some perspective here, and we need to learn from history. And we need to resist the temptation to fall into utter despair, but place our trust in God.
I happen to think that many of the things we have been fighting for are still worth the effort. Yes we are losing often, but we do have some wins as well. I simply reflect on the culture wars here in Australia. While so many other Western nations have fallen on things like homosexual marriage and legalised euthanasia, we have managed to hold the line so far.
And this has required plenty of hard work and plenty of prayer. I will keep doing both. Others may feel it is time to throw in the towel and head for the hills. That is up to them. I for one will stay and fight some more – at least until I am certain that I am called to do otherwise.
9 Replies to “Strangers in a Strange Land: Christianity and Contemporary Culture”
Another who writes with hope on this theme is John Lennox in ‘Against the Flow’ – a wonderful study of the the book of Daniel in which Lennox compares the situation of Daniel and his friends in Babylon with that of Christians today. He points out that ‘they (Daniel and his friends) maintained a high-profile public witness in a pluralistic society that became increasingly antagonistic to their faith.’ As Daniel confronted the culture of Babylon as a stranger in a strange land, Lennox encourages us to do the same.
Lennox continues in his introductory notes to illustrate the similarity of today’s culture with that of ancient Babylon, and urges Christians today to follow their example –‘Strong currents of pluralism and secularism in contemporary Western society, reinforced by a paralysing political correctness, increasingly push expression of faith in God to the margins, confining it if possible to the private sphere. It is becoming less and less the done thing to mention God in public, let alone to confess to believing in anything exclusive and absolute, such as the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as Son of God and Savior. Society tolerates the practice of the Christian faith in private devotions and in church services, but it increasingly deprecates public witness. To the relativist and secularist, public witness to faith in God smacks too much of proselytising and fundamentalist extremism. They therefore regard it more and more as a threat to social stability and human freedom.
‘The story of Daniel and his friends is a clarion call to our generation to be courageous; not to lose our nerve and allow the expression of our faith to be diluted and squeezed out of the public space and thus rendered spineless and ineffective. Their story will also tell us that this objective is not likely to be achieved without cost.
‘If Daniel and his three friends were with us today I have no doubt that they would be in the vanguard of the public debate…in this book we shall try to learn something about what it was that gave that ancient foursome the strength and conviction to be prepared, often at great risk, to swim against the flow in their society and give unequivocal, courageous public expression to what they believed. This will surely strengthen our resolve, not only to put our heads above the parapet, but also to make sure in advance that our minds and hearts are prepared-that our helmets are securely on-so that we do not get blown away in the first salvo.’
Thanks Kerry. Yes that is another good book on these issues.
God is still in control even though the world does not believe this fact, Jesus is King and is brining his Kingdom in, we don’t know this by looking at the world around us eventhough there is plenty of evidence in nature for us to know that we have an awesome Creator the sustainer of life. It is a sad state of affairs when we look at the church and do not see much faith or hope in Christ to redeem us from this pit that we have dug ourselves into, but at least the Christian church today has been reformed enough in their thinking that Christ is the one who converts us to his way of thinking by God’s grace, mercy and love, our job is to just plant the seeds our Father will feed and nourish them by his every word, Jesus is the gardener who tends the crops as it were.
The Gospel of the Kingdom is the truth of God’s Word and it is only by believing in Christ’s life, death and Ressurection to new life, eternally that we can be counted among God’s redeemed people or taste and see that God is the God who loves us, for God loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 It is by grace we have been saved through faith– and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2:8-10
It’s true though that whatever becomes our focus will not succeed, but Christ is our head and we, the church are his body that can only function properly when Christ is the Lord over all as we plainly see that a church with an inward focus implodes, God is no longer glorified only the people seek to glorify each other plus themselves, the main reason for our worship disappears because church becomes a social club looking after themselves instead of the Christ’s great commission which ought to be the church’s no.1 goal as Scripture and songs we use in worship repeatedly state, it is true as God’s Word tells us that when we are obedient to God’s mission in life all other trivial matters look after themselves in a well functioning Christian community where God is honored and adored the way he calls us to because we are called to put off our old selves…be renewed…to live out our calling to make our calling and election sure…we are called and sanctified by the blood of the lamb, there are many more evidences of our being called in God’s Word the Holy Bible.
There’s no doubting that we need to get back to the truth of God’s Word to us forgiven sinners, Christians for we have been redeemed by Christ and the church has already been reformed 500 years ago, society still needs to be redeemed by Christ, Jesus answered, ”I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” John 14:6-7
The WAY thewaydiscipleship.com is a great new discipleship program designed especially for Australians, written by RTC faculty together with Colin Marshall and Tony Payne using ”The Vine Project”, matthiasmedia, Marty Foord and Kevin Harney utilising his book Organic Outreach, For Ordinary People–Sharing Good News Naturally, John Piper’s ”Desiring God”, Thomas Chalmers ”The Expulsive Power of a New Affection, Kyle Strobel ”Formed for the Glory of God” and The WAY is a very affordable resource that our church for one can I’ll afford to take advantage of launched last week!
We need helps like this rather than trying to make the world cooperate with the church since us Christians are called out of this world like you say in your fine piece Bill, aha I’m certain you will agreed Bill
I seriously doubt you will be called to do otherwise.
I loved the line in the series a ‘Band of Brothers’ where America’s First Airborne was going in to replace some troops needing a rest. The First Airborne were warned that they were about to be surrounded. The Major replied “We’re Airborne, we are supposed to be surrounded”.
Christians were once of this world, born into it and part of it. At conversion we weren’t parachuted into the world like the First Airborne but were instantly transformed from death to life, from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God’s dear Son, from sons of Satan to adopted sons of our heavenly Father. We instantly became aliens to this world, enemies of the kingdom of darkness and had to quickly learn how to adapt to our new life. Peter says we are strangers and pilgrims in the world.
Yet God did not call His Church to be just a place of refuge from the world’s attacks but indeed to take on the world and spread the good news and expand His kingdom on earth as it were. So in reality being surrounded by the enemy is a natural situation for Christians and now we use the tactics of spiritual warfare to bring about God’s will on earth praise God.
Great stuff Keith.
Amish-Mennonite prisoner of conscience, Kenneth Miller challenges us to go beyond St Benedict to the radical manifesto our Lord Jesus gave us in the Sermon on the Mount [http://millercase.org/home/updates/123-the-sermon-on-the-mount-option.html and http://millercase.org/home/updates/124-the-sermon-on-the-mount-option,-continuted.html ].
The Anabaptist story is both one of separation from the world’s kingdoms and of service and evangelism to the people this world places at risk.
Ps 23:5 “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” NIV
There is no Benedictine type of withdrawal here.
Part of the war is our confidence that God does his work in us and for us, even in the full view of our enemies.
They have to deal with the view.
It is a witness to them.
On the larger scale; compare Eph 3:10
Rod Dreher or Tokyo Rose. Tokyo Rose or Rod Dreher. Glad YHWH did not say to Jeremiah, Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, and others mentioned in Hebrews 11 or the Hebrew Christians under intense persecution…’it’s gone too far AND thus hide, retreat, disengage, fake, then some day when you are renewed, reemerge victorious.’ Tokyo Rose might have said such if WW2 Japan thought it would work. Surrender now and after the war, reemerge (unspoken subtext follows…) and be executed. It is one thing when the establishment media, establishment courts, establishment higher education, elitist entertainment all strum up the monotonous defeatist tune. It is another thing to BELIEVE it, turn it up, and promote it.