One of the saddest consequences of the culture war is that it has managed to make people boring. The culture war has made us predictable, even if individual people are anything but. The libertarian online troll is in real life a curious person who asks the right question at the right time. A pastor whose only online life is announcing everyone else’s failures is approachable, and even gentle, in person. The progressive-sounding contrarian turns out to be one of the most gifted defenders of creedal orthodoxy.
People are surprising.
Ideologies are not.
And when people become ideologues, they become as predictable as their ideology.
Regrettably, the culture wars that we have spent much of the past 35 years waging have tended to force people toward becoming ideologues. Conservative writers who were once interesting have become boring and tedious as their #OwnTheLibs mentality takes hold of their mind. Genuinely smart left wing writers lose all sense of proportion when it comes to talking carefully about religious conservatives.
Both strands allow a progressive narrative around liberation and oppression to define the agenda of the culture war. For the left, that narrative drives them toward an ever broadening conception of emancipation which, to date, encompasses transgenderism and, increasingly, plural marriage. Where this expansive definition of repression and the consequent desire to rebel against unchosen identity will end is unclear to me. That it will create greater social isolation as each of us becomes more and more lost in our individual self-made stories seems unquestionable.
But on the right, this narrative has manifested in an increasing reluctance to set their own intellectual agenda. Instead, they opt to score points with the consumers of right-wing media by attempting to conserve whatever it is the progressives are today trying to emancipate. Thus the culture war traps us in an endless cycle of tedious and pointless debate, as the left advances an agenda detached from any sort of positively defined telos and the right simply defines its agenda as “maintaining whatever status quo symbol is under attack this week.” The possibilities of creativity, of expressing an idea independent of the culture war script, or of showing the world a still better way are all closed off from the start.
Conservative Evangelicals and the Culture War
We can see this problem on both sides of this divide within evangelicalism. The conservatives are often far too happy to use a photo negative of the progressive agenda to define their own strategy while the progressive contingent is often too willing to co-opt left-wing rhetoric. Both moves are mistakes. The right aligns themselves with a party that is prone to ever greater displays of cruelty while the left is implicitly committing themselves to rhetoric that is embedded in a broader story that is deeply hostile to Christianity. When this happens, we lose the fundamentally Christian nature of our moral critique, which is to say we cease to speak primarily as Christians.
As Matt noted yesterday, there is an important sense in which the popular-level evangelical theology of marriage in recent years has degraded down to essentially affirming the modern understanding of sex as an essential human need and simply slapping on biblical prooftexts that say “and the fulfillment of these sexual needs must be limited to marriage.” Thus our easy acquiescence to contraception, IVF, surrogacy, and a host of other evils that are just as much the result of the sexual revolution as the evils we comfortably condemn in public. The conservative understanding of marriage essentially becomes a mere negation of the progressive understanding, which is buttressed by prooftexts. But as a more foundationally Christian approach to sexuality and marriage it fails in profound and alarming ways. This isn’t surprising. Indeed, it has to fail in this way: It is using the bankrupt grammar of the culture wars to make a point about creation’s order. Of course it fails.
A similar problem persists in how we treat the broader questions of “complementarianism.” Classically understood, the Christian teachings on gender and sexuality are true because they explain something that is more foundationally true of creation itself–Paul appeals to creation multiple times in his writings on these questions. The argument in Corinthians, in particular, concerns what is “fitting.” We deduce what is fitting by using our eyes to look at nature and then using our minds to reason about it.
But because evangelicals refuse to engage in a comprehensively Christian moral reflection that uses natural revelation and reason as appropriate, we aren’t even able to begin thinking in these terms. Instead, we must essentially assume the standard progressive framing of the issue–why can men do certain things that women cannot?–and then slap together a response based on knitting together a loose bundle of positivistic proof texts which, unsurprisingly, end up radically under-selling the Christian doctrine. Such a treatment raises a number of unanswerable questions–could Beth Moore be the president of the SBC?–and our attempts to respond to them end up looking arbitrary and unprincipled. (That is because they are.)
Progressive Evangelicals and the Culture War
But the progressives in evangelicalism are not immune to this problem either. Consider a corporate prayer that was used in a pre-assembly meeting on Tuesday night at the PCA’s General Assembly last week.
Here is the prayer:
Leader: O Lord, have mercy.
People: O Christ, have mercy.
Leader: O Lord, have mercy and hear your people.
People: Hear us, good Lord.
Leader: We grieve the disunity of your church. We grieve that many women in our congregations feel unvalued and unwanted, unheard and uncared for. We grieve that we have acted as though being male was more valuable than being female, that we have communicated that only men were wanted in service and care, that only male voices could be and should be heard, that only men were valued. We grieve not loving our mothers and sisters in Christ well.
People: Hear us, good Lord.
Leader: We grieve that the poor, the blue collar, the working class, and the middle class find our churches uninviting and unwelcoming. We grieve that we have played favorites, seeking to reach the wealthy and powerful with the Gospel while avoiding those who could not advance our influence. We grieve that our status symbols—cars, clothes, vacations, schools—have kept people away from the very place where we declare that he who was rich became poor for our sakes so that we might be rich in him.
People: Hear us, good Lord.
Leader: We grieve that black and brown people have found our churches to be overwhelming and unsympathetic places, more loyal to ‘whiteness’ than to the red blood of Jesus shed on the Cross. We grieve that our loyalties to politicians who play on racial fears have been stronger than our loyalties to our black and broth brothers and sisters in Christ. We grieve that we have wittingly and unwittingly erected once again the very wall of hostility that Christ’s cross had torn down. We grieve that those who have spoken the Gospel truth on our racial unity-in-diversity have been shouted down as ‘cultural Marxists’ or ‘social justice warriors’ rather than celebrate as servants of the Gospel.
People: Hear us, good Lord.
Let’s begin with the good here: There is an obvious desire to correct past errors related to how women are treated in the church, how the poor and marginalized are considered (or, rather, “not considered”) as part of evangelism and outreach, and how many churches in the PCA have been a vocal or silent supporter of racist norms in the US. These things are all real problems that have existed in PCA congregations and it is not wrong to remark upon them or to include them in a corporate repentance of sin.
The trouble is in the execution: As we already noted, our inheritance as children of the culture warriors is that we often end up defaulting to the (extremely limited) vocabulary given us by the culture war. The culture war, however, thrives on a sort of dualism that mutes much of the ambiguity and complexities in people and institutions. Thus we throw out the mainstream media entirely or dismiss an entirely class of Americans as “deplorable” and “irredeemable.”
Such thinking is, however, sub-Christian because human beings are always a mixture of virtue and vice, able to access the good thanks to both God’s common grace and, in some cases, saving grace and yet always also subject to the curse of sin. So we cannot use the easy dualism that comes naturally to both sides of the culture war divide, but must instead develop a way of speaking about morality and people and institutions that accommodates these complexities. To be sure, this recognition does not require moral equivocation or some sort of both-sidesism. There are cases where one group bears a disproportionate weight of a community’s sin.
Yet the biblical movement here is instructive. Consider the words of the prophet Isaiah: All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way. A friend explained it by saying that, “all we… his own,” is the sequence: Together in sin, individuated by particular sins. It is not wrong to include confession of particular sins in a public prayer of confession. But the biblical pattern is to encompass both aspects of sin–the universal ways in which all of God’s people sin through favoritism or pride or indifference, which are the root sins in play in this litany, and the unique ways in which those sins manifest in individual people and small groups. This, then, allows us to rightly identify the problem with the prayer: It repents of foregrounding white men to the exclusion of others by, in a mixed assembly, narrowly repenting of the sins of bourgeois white men.
The situation is reminiscent of something that happened earlier this spring. In a staff meeting after the firing of Kevin Williamson, Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg told his staff he would die for Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates rightly noted that that was about the whitest thing Goldberg could possibly say—a white male being confronted with the way in which he contributed to the marginalizing of minority voices responds with a declaration that ends up making him, again, the center of the narrative, the hero of the story. ‘Look at that white man’s sacrificial love for that poor, defenseless black man.’ It deprived Coates of agency by fabricating a scenario that allowed Goldberg to be the hero. Something similar is happening in this prayer.
Moreover, there is something presumptuous about the prayer, even manipulative: Many of the people present in the room may genuinely not be guilty of the things it lays out. We used similar litanies at a church I formerly attended and a friend once observed to me after the service that she couldn’t participate in the prayer of confession in good conscience because it would have required her to confess to sins she truly believed she was not guilty of. But, of course, she did not feel comfortable saying this to the people who wrote and led the prayer for the simple reason that their response would be to psychoanalyze her and explain how she really was guilty of the sins being confessed, which circles back to the point about presumptiveness and manipulation. The language of the prayer makes good-faith critical dissent impossible.
All that being said, the response I have seen to this prayer from many conservatives in the PCA has been similarly unhelpful and similarly predictable: the prayer is mocked and the issues it raises are dismissed entirely. And so the culture war carries on—the “progressives” adopting the rhetoric and posture of the left with the conservatives automatically criticizing it without apparently even taking the time to understand the issue it is meant to address.
This is precisely the problem. It is abundantly clear to any fair-minded observer that the issues being raised in the prayer are real enough. There are PCA churches where women are effectively silenced. There are PCA churches where the socially marginalized are neglected as outreach is focused exclusively on the urban bourgeois. And there most certainly are PCA churches that have supported racist cultural norms and practices. Some of these churches have even issued public apologies for doing so!
Christian Fidelity and Indifference to the Culture Wars
So… what is to be done?
We need a comprehensively Christian vocabulary of moral denunciation that both reckons with real forms of evil and does not lazily adopt the moral intuitions taught to us over three decades of culture war. This brings me to the title of this post: “The Lord’s Work in the Lord’s Way.” The phrase is taken from Francis Schaeffer who, if I recall correctly, took it from Hudson Taylor, the great missionary to China who founded the missions organization that Edith Schaeffer’s parents served with. It is not enough, Schaeffer said, for us to accomplish the things that Scripture calls us to accomplish. We must accomplish them using methods that also agree with the teachings of Scripture.
Schaeffer expanded on what that means in The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century when he said that Christians must recover the concept of co-belligerence as a way of understanding their social identity. In one of many prescient passages in the book, Schaeffer wrote that,
My observation of many young pastors and others is this: suddenly they are confronted by some two camps and they are told, “Choose, choose, choose.” By God’s grace they must say, “I will not choose between these two. I stand alone with God, the God has spoken in the Scripture, the God who is the infinite-personal God, and neither of your two sides is standing there. So if I seem to be saying the same thing at some one point, understand that I am a cobelligerent at this particular place, but I am not an ally.
Schaeffer continues with an excerpt that anticipates our contemporary divide:
The danger is that the older evangelical with his middle-class orientation will forget this distinction and become an ally of an establishment elite, and at the same time his son or daughter will forget the distinction and become an ally of some “leftish” elite. We must say what the Bible says when it causes us to seem to be saying what others are saying, such as “Justice!” or “Stop the meaningless bombings!” But we must never forget that this is only a passing cobelligerency and not an alliance.
So what would a better moral vocabulary look like for Christians? That is still an open question, I think, but I have three proposals.
First, we would do well to consider the essays of dissident writers like Christopher Lasch, Wendell Berry, and Richard Sennett. Though all three are very different writers, all of them have a moral critique that cuts across the right-left divide that defines American politics. In particular, I would recommend Lasch’s Haven in a Heartless World, Berry’s Standing by Words, and Sennett’s Corrosion of Character. One could also do worse than carefully considering Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed.
None of these authors or books are perfect, of course. Each is human and so subject to the limitations that come with humanity as well as the hindrances to moral thought created by the fall. That said, each of these writers has dedicated themselves to the serious work of thinking carefully about the world and asking questions of it without regard for status or career—a virtue that evangelicals would do well to learn from and to recover for themselves.
All four writers are capable of giving us moral concepts and vocabulary that mostly agree with Christian moral teaching, while also having something substantive and critical to say to both right and left. Berry rightly highlights how the industrial economy has distorted the home and the place of men, women, and children within it. Deneen, meanwhile, does a good job of explaining how statism and individualism are not enemies, but actually complementary forces that mutually strengthen each other. These kind of critiques reckon with the full moral catastrophe of our moment, rather than simply cherry picking whatever offenses the left is aggrieved by today and that the right is dismissing.
Similarly, a close reading of some of the major documents of Catholic social teaching would not hurt. The average evangelical engaged in these conversations would do well to read documents like Quadragesimo Anno and Pacem in Terris. The former is a helpful reflection on political economy and the dangers posed by both directionless capitalism and totalitarian socialism. The latter is a rich reflection on “peace on earth,” which is the English rendering of the title, and also considers the right ordering of the relationship between people and states and between rival states. Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ would also be helpful in some ways.
Certainly, we should engage these documents as Protestants and need not fear disagreeing with them. But, again, we should read them closely and learn what we can from them. They are examples of thinking in public about society, politics, and ethics in ways that are, first and foremost, Christian and thus are equally prone to offending both right- and left-wing political sensibilities.
Amongst Protestant writers, we would do well to read Oliver O’Donovan’s Begotten or Made as well as writers like Gilbert Meilaender or, obviously, older writers in our tradition, many of whom would have much to say to us today if only we would listen.
At risk of self-promotion, Davenant Press is currently selling Peter Martyr Vermigli’s commentary on the Nichomachean Ethics for $15. In it, you’ll find how an early reformer thought about one of the foundational books on ethics in western history. Attending to the sources of our movement would help free us from the particular sins of our moment–a point Lewis made in his essay on the reading of old books.
This list of people to reorient us is shorter than I would like. Indeed, they are nearly all only one or two steps removed from the evangelical context. If these are the voices that currently critique the liberal order from within the heart of the liberal order (Vermigli excepted), what might the American suburban church learn from being more seriously attentive to the voices of the African, Asian, and Latin American Christians to whom Christ seems pleased to entrust Christianity in this new century? They outnumber us already. They might as well begin at least to take their rightful places in our reading lists. Here we might begin with the work of the Ugandan Catholic Emmanuel Katongole, the late Ghanaian Presbyterian (and former student of the missiologist Andrew Walls) Kwame Bediako, and the martyred El Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero. But this is only a cursory skimming of the brothers and sisters we might turn to for guidance.
Finally and most obviously, we should turn to the Scriptures as our model for speaking about ethics and morality, rather than adopting scripts and rhetoric handed down to us by the culture war. Scripture never leaves us to our own devices, content and complacent in our identity. It always calls us further up and further in, always confronts us with the ways in which we fail to realize the holiness to which we are called. So we must return to Scripture and we must return to it with the expectation that it will disturb and unsettle us, that the life it calls us to is not more comfortable than the lives held up as the standard by either side of the culture war, but actually far more demanding–and yet it is precisely in such difficulty that we find the source of life and goodness, Christ himself.
So, to return to the litany cited above, if we wish to confess a failure to love, as is plainly the intent in the first stanza of the prayer, Christian communities might confess an unconcerned or unloving spirit toward women in the church, but then expand the confession to address the root sin, which seems to me to be either indifference or the fear of man. Moreover, the litany could be written in a way that makes the confession accessible to the entire room. Here, unsurprisingly, the example of older confessional prayers is instructive. Consider the prayer of confession used in the Book of Common Prayer, for example:
ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind In Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.
Or if we wish to confess the sin of favoritism, as is plainly the intent of the second section, we might use the language of James and confess giving the place of honor to the wealthy, giving our attention chiefly to them, and then treating the poor as an afterthought. Again, there is no lack of reason to repent of that if you consider much of American evangelicalism. And, again, the prayer could be expanded in ways that accommodate everyone in the room.
Finally, if we wish to confess the sin of racism, as is clearly the intent in the third part, we might begin by repenting of hating our brother, of being divisive in the church, of treating cultural preferences as required norms. All of these professions would put us on sounder biblical footing than much of the language used in the prayer without watering down the rhetorical force of the confession.
We need a cheerful indifference to both sides of the culture war. The conservatives have spent the last several years disgracing themselves and making abundantly clear exactly how strong a hold the idol of political power has in their hearts. They have demonstrated a willingness to ignore blatant racism and hatred of women, if only it will improve their odds of having the President’s ear.
Yet progressives continue to demonstrate a horrifying disregard for the unborn and a commitment to self-creation that can only end in alienation and loneliness. Indeed, we are already seeing the early signs of this social breakdown in the US, if only we would have eyes to see the rising loneliness and anxiety that defines our nation.
In “The Dry Salvages,” T. S. Eliot captures the sensibility that evangelicals should aspire to perfectly:
Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and the farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.
Such a movement is not easy, of course. It condemns both a romanticizing nostalgia for the past which really does ignore the sins being repented of in the litany, and it condemns a kind of contentless hope that progress alone will bring our salvation.
The Christian hope is neither of these things. It is grounded in both a looking back toward the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and an anticipation of a glorious future at his return. And so as we consider the future of American evangelicalism we must say, “not fare well, but fare forward, voyagers.”
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