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: 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.