Cross posted at Notes from a Small Place.
It started with a quote posted on Peter Leithart’s blog. If memory serves, it came from the pen of Collin Farrar in an essay on the apologetics of C.S. Lewis. Apologetics, Farrar argued, do not create conviction. In that sense, they are not essential to the Christian faith, for it is conviction and the repentance which attends it that form the heart of our confession. But that is not enough, Farrar continued. While apologetics does not create conviction, it can create an atmosphere in which conviction is more plausible and natural. Proving John Piper’s aphorism that books don’t change people, sentences do, that quote of Farrar’s has been buzzing around in my brain for the past month.
It was buzzing in my brain a few days ago as I took a few visiting friends to see the St. Paul Cathedral. (If you’re ever passing through the area, call me and we’ll go visit. I look for any excuse to go there. I’m completely serious. E-mail me and I’ll give you my number. Really.) We spent 30 minutes walking through the building, taking in the awesome (in the most proper sense of the word) spectacle and noting the remarkable precision and intentionality of the art. You see lots of churches with banners that read “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord,” but when you’re in a cathedral with the same words carved around the base of the dome it carries more weight. As we left the building we heard the ringing of church bells calling the neighborhood to the church for the Adoration of the Eucharist. And as we walked down the hill I couldn’t help thinking of Farrar’s words and longing for a revitalized Christendom. (The cathedral is built on the tallest hill in St. Paul, meaning it rises well above the state capitol building located a few blocks away. I’ve always liked that. Now if only someone would explain the symbolism to our politicians.)
I grew up fundamentalist. Like many who grew up in that strict tradition, I’ve struggled to piece together a faith that could alternatively agree with and challenge my conscience. I still remember reading Brian McLaren’s The Last Word and the Word After That as a confused high-school senior and being struck by the fact that one could be Christian without sacrificing your heart and mind on an altar to a God I Can’t Understand. I never stopped liking Jesus, but there was a time when I hated the church. And looking back on it now, I think Farrar’s quote captures much of the problem in that single paragraph.
As noted before, the heart of the Christian faith is repentance. As Luther writes, the Christian life consists of frequent repentance for our many short-comings and the continued collapsing upon the grace offered us in the Gospel. My church growing up was crystal clear on that point, on a conceptual level at least. (Although functionally they had no understanding of the connection between the Gospel and sanctification, but I digress.) But a great part of the Christian tradition is not concerned with repentance so much as it is with creating a climate in which repentance is plausible and natural. This is where my childhood church – and I suspect much of American evangelicalism – has fallen short.
The church is called to be a people set apart, “called out ones” as my pastors back in Lincoln like to say. This does not mean that we ought to be actively antagonistic to the outside culture. Indeed, if we truly understand the heart of our own counter-culture we’ll see that the sort of name-calling and hypocritical judgments of fundamentalism have no part in a robust and healthy Christendom.
What it does mean is that we ought to offer a healthy and viable alternative to the larger pop culture surrounding us – and this is where the evangelicalism of my youth so frequently erred. As Andy Crouch has noted, we sought to acknowledge culture rather than responsibly create culture. So you get a 1950s style fundamentalist congregation like my parents’ church, closed off to the outside world like musk ox, with a healthy dose of Hal Lindsey inspired end times paranoia mixed in. Or you get a congregation like the megachurch that helped to rescue my faith during my senior year of high-school, filled with Jesus-loving people but completely and perhaps irrevocably captured by an entertainment-driven culture of big screens, big sounds, and big shows.
In both these contexts, a sincere attempt was made to build a community around the Gospel, but the community’s values were grounded just as much in a secular sub-culture of one sort or another as they were in the Gospel. The key lesson being that you cannot have an acultural Christian community. If you don’t overtly press toward one, one will be given you. And most likely, it will be the sort of bland, mishmash consumerist culture of 21st century America.
Indeed, the churches of my youth even understood this point in a well-intentioned but wrongheaded way. They did try to create a unique Christian culture, but it was simply a baptized (or perhaps “bastardized”) consumerism. As a result, the entire relationship of Christians to culture became swallowed up in a cloud of ambiguity, uncertainty, and confusion.
Contra this baptized consumerism, I propose – with countless others, some of whom write for Mere O – a reinvigorated Christendom in which the church stands at the center of the Christian life and the rest of our lives flow outward from that central focus.