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.

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Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy and author of "In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World." He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

8 Comments

  1. Baptized Consumerism – An Argument for Christendom | Mere Orthodoxy http://bit.ly/9CEQIw #Jesus #christ #god

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  2. I think I get the premise, but I’m having a difficult time seeing the tangibles of application (either in right or wrong examples).

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  3. Casey – Thanks for commenting! I have two different thoughts regarding your question.

    First, I think the difficulty in seeing tangibles may simply indicate how muddled we are in thinking about culture. We lack the resources to give good examples simply because there haven’t been that many. But that’s probably too cynical and self-glorifying on my part, so I’m rather skeptical of that response.

    Second, and I think more helpfully, I think the reason it’s difficult to give specific examples is that much of the time such living goes unnoticed because the people living that way are doing what Paul says in Romans 12: They’re living at peace with others as much as they possibly can. For what it’s worth, though, I think James Hunter’s “To Change the World” gives a helpful push in the right direction.

    Hunter breaks culture down into three areas, which he borrows from Aristotle: The true, the good, and the beautiful. He then breaks those three groupings down into three sub-groups, low, middle, and high culture. What Hunter wants to see us pursue is faithful presence in each of those nine spheres. So for a long time there has been a vibrant Christian presence in low culture in all three areas (these are the classic kind of Christian ghetto ventures – Christian book stores, health clubs, etc.). And that’s fine, we need people in those spheres. (Though I’d prefer them to just work in regular stores, but whatever…)

    What we lack is Christian presence in the other six realms. In high culture in the world of the beautiful – the arts and humanities – where are the Christian voices? In early modern Europe you would point to someone like Bach, a Christian writing remarkable music that is truly beautiful in the most stunning and exquisite way imaginable. But where is a Christian doing comparable work in that sphere today?

    Thankfully, I think we do have some good examples. Hunter is one, actually. He’s a sociologist at the University of Virginia. Or consider Mark Noll at Notre Dame. Or Philip Jenkins at Penn State. There are some very positive signs. But it’s still just a beginning, we have a lot of room for growth in this area of relating to culture.

    All that said, I think Hunter’s idea of “faithful presence” is really key. I’d like to see more people working with that idea because I think it could become really important in the years to come.

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  4. I’m adding Hunter’s book to my list…I was disappointed Justin Taylor didn’t continue to review it chatper by chapter on his blog.

    I’m still struggling with this…but I understand the desire and need to have true Christian represenatatives at all levels of culture.

    But what is the reason for the assumed deficit at levels of “high culture”? It sounds like its because you think we (evangelicals) didn’t value those positions and roles in culture? How much is it that in a culture with a growing influence of secularism marginilizes people of faith? I know its not an either/or situation.

    To one extreme I suppose you say fundies decided to leave and combat culture rather than participate. At the other end “liberals” compromised faith so much as to not really represent Christ in the culture. The middle ground is to be the best teachers/artists/philosophers/scientists/journalists we can be within the culture without compromising our faith in the process? Engage and challenge the culture, but don’t ignore or constantly fight it?

    It seems to me that there will inevitbaly conflict with the culture and rejection by it, though, if we are truly faithful.

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  5. Good read. RT @BrkingChristian: Baptized Consumerism – An Argument for Christendom http://bit.ly/aWJbSD via http://topicfire.com/Christian

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  6. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by frank friedl, Evangelical. Evangelical said: Baptized Consumerism – An Argument for Christendom | Mere Orthodoxy http://bit.ly/9CEQIw #Jesus #christ #god […]

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  7. chrisblackstone June 4, 2015 at 12:20 pm

    Funnily enough, just today I read an article that talks about why this is happening. Turns out, it’s mites

    http://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2015/06/03/honey-bee-mite-smell/28448139/

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