Christian concerns with the culture go all the way back, dating beyond the legacies of Justin Martyr and Augustine to the earliest generations of Christians. But even here, in the first centuries, negotiations with culture were not straightforward: for every adoption of the language of Roman jurisprudence in the first several centuries, there was a monastic withdrawal to the desert, for every Geneva, a Schleitheim Confession. Some elements of culture, and thus some approaches to public engagement with the world beyond the church, were more appropriate than others, and on the conversation went, with the shifting cultural sands of the Roman empire making for an ongoing need for discerning how best to make the City of God known among the city of the pagans.
Best known among the modern inheritors of this conversation is H. Richard Niebuhr, professor of Christian Ethics at Yale Divinity Schoool, with his Christ and Culture in 1951. Since Niebuhr’s classic work, there has been an evolving conversation about Christianity and culture, especially in times of major crisis. But the issue, as Niebuhr himself knew well, goes back to the very origins of Christianity. In fact, what is a stake in Christianity-and-culture conversations is more and less than what it seems. Less, because often Christians who talk about “culture” seem to assume they know what it is, and what Christianity is. The result is simply a form of practical theology, or Christian telling other Christians how to think about, and live in, the world.
All very nice, if one is a Christian sympathetic to the author and their argument. But nothing revolutionary. But the Christianity-and-culture conversations are much more than what they seem, because these conversations are really about this question: what actually is Christianity and what should its normative relation to its neighbors be like? And the assumption, whether understood or not, is that we cannot actually answer that question without seriously trying to describe the surrounding environment, or “culture.” Understood in this way, then, even the most trivial contribution to “Christianity and culture” conversations should be understood for what it really is: an attempt to define both the meaning of the world, and the meaning of the Christian religion, in a moment of patent unclarity and uncertainty. If things were clear and certain, why would we need these conversations?
One helpful way to view this sometimes perplexing history comes from a metaphor of Augustine of Hippo’s. Found in his guide on reading the Scriptures, De Doctrina Christiana, it compares the art of reading to the process of purging gold from impurities. The Egyptians had, Augustine says, used gold for the worship of the idols, and when Israel left its captivity, it took Egypt’s gold with it (cf. Exodus 12:35-36). This gold, once the means of idolatry, was in the end used to adorn the temple of God. By analogy, there were no concepts, thought worlds, or material objects which could not — in principle — be melted down and reclaimed by the church for the worship of God. The world is God’s, and all that is in it, and therefore the Christian is free to make use of these found goods as made by God and meant for repurposing for God’s service.
But this metaphor, while offering a valuable guide to the rationale of cultural engagements — in literature, philosophy, economics, and other disciplines — still leaves an open question with respect to which elements of culture the church ought to engage, and what the goal of such engagement is. James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World, now 10 years old, serves as a helpful reminder. His catalogue of the distinct approaches to Christian cultural engagement as “defensive against / relevant to / purity from,” though typologically overstated, makes clear the tensions and disagreements that have perennially divided American churches.
In a flurry of recent books, the sense that “something is wrong” comes to the forefront, and continues this trajectory. But a new element has appeared: not only is “something wrong” with the culture (however variously defined and engaged); there is something wrong with the church as well. The harbingers for this second position are variously identified — the Obergefell decision, the increase of openly racist rhetoric from national figures, economic inequity, cultural determination by pop culture — the list is long for those elements of common parlance which have now become part of Christian practice. To return to the earlier point, Christianity and its surrounding world cannot be so easily separated, and so, to address one occasions the need to address the other. Since 2016, a flood of works on the “present cultural moment” has poured forth from publishers, offering account after account not only of what has gone wrong with Christendom, but of what should be done about it, politically and socially.
If, as these books suggest, Christianity’s relationship with political and cultural life is not merely difficult, but in fact diseased, then, as with many diseases, one of the symptoms is disintegration. The long-standing alliances between evangelicals and Catholics pioneered in the 1980s and 1990s by Richard John Neuhaus and Charles Colson have been strained; as Robert Jones has detailed in his 2016 The End of White Christian America, Christian influence over cultural and voting patterns is in decline and will continue to be in the future. With the demise of consensus, the analyses and responses are blowing out into multiple directions, reflecting the fragmentation that has been so characteristic of the American church in recent decades.
Those works most capable of addressing the question of “engaging the culture” have resisted the temptation to frame the question of the “present cultural moment” in terms of Donald Trump’s election. For questions of cultural engagement and the church’s role in the world did not begin in November of 2016. The best of the authors considered below understand that the old stasis of Christian influence over American culture is permanently in the rear-view mirror; the transition from one age to the next has long been in the making.
Books considered in this essay have followed three criteria: 1) books published since 2016, but set against the broader history just sketched and thus not simply “anti-Trump” books; 2) books that address the question of Christian life vis-à-vis public participation in American society; and 3) books that are self-consciously written from a Catholic, Orthodox, or Evangelical perspective. Any number of additional works could be added here, but in order to have a snapshot of the conversation, these titles will suffice.
What Has Gone Wrong?
Of this literature, three books stand out in their diagnosis that if Christianity is to have a future cultural witness, it must deal with the ways in which Christianity’s past cultural engagements haunt the present: the works of Rod Dreher, R.R. Reno, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Put in the most stark terms, Dreher sees no way in which Christian participation in society can proceed under the old arrangement, and accordingly he advises Christians to shore up their center, while Wilson-Hartgrove takes at face value that the church and world are interwoven, such that what befalls the church befalls the world, and vice versa; better to address the two together. Reno’s criticism, shared by Dreher, is that American culture — the churches included — has become decadent, such that right and left share a common presumption toward libertine freedom, though where Dreher commends withdrawal, Reno suggests welcoming the storm of populism as a strong medicine which will sweep away the old regime, a storm which has brought on a dangerous wave that the church can perhaps capitalize on.
Rod Dreher, senior editor at The American Conservative, is by far the most discussed author of this group, with his The Benedict Option first appearing in 2017. Dreher’s work casts a vision of Christian life in society that is less interested in steering the cultural ship than it is in fashioning a life raft to get away from the shipwreck of political and cultural liberalism. He replaces the old paradigm of “capturing the vote” with a vision of culture-building. Instead of creating a network of political influencers, Dreher opts for building a new world in the shell of the old, instructing Christians to establish classical schools, raise up families, and establish networks for Christian entrepreneurs.
The watershed moment for this approach, pointed to more than once in the book, was the Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage. Since the 14th century, Dreher writes, the agrarian, integral Christian existence that enabled faithful Christian presence has been overrun by the instrumentalist vision of the Enlightenment, leaving us with a world that can only think in terms of liberty for liberty’s sake, rather than anything resembling a common good. There were many warning signs of this coming collapse, but it is Obergefell that was the tipping point, the breach of the cultural hull that signaled the need for orthodox Christians to seek shelter. Against caricatures of his argument, this is not withdrawal for withdrawal’s sake, but rather withdrawal in order to shore up the core of Christian faithfulness: the church and the family.
But here, the declension narrative needs some scrutiny, particularly as how society declines is related to the kinds of proposals needed to prepare for the future. Dreher takes central aim at the decline of sexual mores, but curiously, takes little issue with some features of modernity, such as free market capitalism. For example, his proposal that what Christians need is not to abandon the free market, but to create parallel networks within it, to prepare for poverty and marginalization, situates the future of Christian work within the existing frame of the free market, encouraging entrepreneurial ventures and prudential engagements in opposing encroachments upon Christian values at work. To be clear, I am less interested in sorting out the validity of Dreher’s concerns than in asking why it is Obergefell that rises to the level of crisis. Dreher’s approach of shifting toward the formation of families and trusting less toward the machinery of GOP vote-counting for the purposes of cultural witness is a welcome move. And for centuries, the family took pride of place in the Christian imagination of “cultural engagement:” raising children and being a good neighbor are indeed more central to the Christian vision of life in the world than electioneering. But the repeated invocation of the Supreme Court case, alongside silence about other, more long-standing canaries in the cultural coal mine — such as deepening economic inequity — is worth noting, insofar as it helps us to see that not all diagnoses of the present are the same.
That Dreher chooses to locate sexuality as the rallying point becomes clear as we consider the second book, by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, author of Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion, and associate minister at the historically black St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church. For Wilson-Hartgrove, it is not Obergefell that is indicative of the crisis in American culture or the American church, but race. In his narration of recent history, Wilson-Hartgrove is less interested than Dreher (or Reno, as we will see) with how “the West” broadly came to be a place of decreased Christian influence than in how the U.S. in particular came to this moment under the influence of he names “slaveholder religion.” For him, racial blindness is the toxic substrate of American evangelicalism. When racism emerges in its most virulent forms, though white Christians may rise to condemn it, they will keep on ignoring the more subtle and pervasive ways in which racism influences systems and laws. Long before the sexual revolution to which Dreher points, racism corrupted the ground in which American Christianity grew.
It is not, I think, that Dreher would disagree that racism is a problem for American Christians, though Dreher’s recent analysis of the Black Lives Matter movement shows he would differ with Wilson-Hartgrove on exactly how. The question, rather, in light of Wilson-Hartgrove’s book, is why racism is not the leading indicator of cultural and moral decline. For Wilson-Hartgrove’s story of cultural crisis rests upon a more plausible villain than Dreher’s, emphasizing racial habits and attitudes that have become second-nature for American Christianity, instead of, as Dreher does, staking the story on the influence of Enlightenment philosophers. Though the specific forms of American racism were made possible by the very Enlightenment philosophers whom Dreher has in his sights, if the key issue is how the culture has been shaped, habits of behavior are more decisive than the originating intellectual figures or their ostensible metaphysical mistakes.
Wilson-Hartgrove, in his analysis of the present crisis both in American culture and in American Christianity, points squarely to the unexamined racism latent in America’s founding and in America’s white churches. This racism, allowed to fester, produced a way of seeing what is possible, both within society and within the church, that makes moving past it impossible, for we will only ever act as if racial strife and prejudice are an ironclad law of church and state. What white Christians should do is renounce their racism and learn how to be led by Christians of color, for the sake of both the cause of Christ and America’s soul.
This is not to say that one must choose between addressing racism or addressing sexuality. But the divergent choice of historic villains produces corresponding differences in proposed tactics. For Dreher in focusing on sexual morality, identifies an area in which Christians have historically differed from their neighbors, and thus offers a vision for recovering a formative church from the ashes of American culture along an axis that has historically marked Christians as distinct. Wilson-Hartgrove, by contrast, in identifying race as the key culprit, names an issue on which Christians have historically been no better than their neighbors; in this way, addressing racism will aid in recovering an American church and America itself.
This is an important difference to note at the outset, for as we move forward, the divide over the question, “who is Christian participation in society for?” will help us to see what is at stake in these arguments. This is no small question, but one which frequently goes unexamined, if only because sorting out the answer means creating a ranking within which some goods serve others. For Dreher, Christians can only be there for their neighbors if they save the church first, necessitating a withdrawal to do internal work long neglected. But precisely on this point, Wilson-Hartgrove sees no need to withdraw, for it is only in mission to the world that the church will find its renewal.
R.R. Reno, editor of the magazine First Things, and author of Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism and the Future of the West, enters into the genealogical discussion at this point. Reno sees the fate of Christianity and the culture as intertwined as Wilson-Hartgrove, but locates the issues more akin to Dreher. In Reno’s estimation, the current fragmentation of American life is one to which American Christianity has contributed wholesale. By emphasizing freedom as the hallmark of civilization in the wake of the Second World War, Western theologians, economists, and politicians made it nearly inevitable that American society would be fragmented. Caught up in Reno’s genealogy of Western decline are all major institutions — both theological and political — that substituted freedom of identity for the natural shared life that constitutes all societies.
This criticism is not unique to Reno, echoing other authors articulating a new conservative nationalism, but Reno’s is distinct in describing a renewal of moral norms in the West as part of the Christian vocation. The “strong gods” of populism, revolting against half a century of political liberalism, are in his words “quite simply the objects of our shared loves,” a phrase brimming with Augustinian verve. Reno’s criticism, shared by Dreher, is that American culture — the churches included — has become decadent, such that right and left share a common presumption toward libertine freedom, though where Dreher commends withdrawal, Reno suggests welcoming the storm of populism that is here as a storm which will do away with the political vanities of the last century, and open up a space to recover the language of shared cultural loves. It is only then, Reno thinks, that the West might be saved.
All three, however divergent their other points, are joined together in a sense that the past is not truly behind us but haunts the present. And for that reason, the past must be exorcised if a better future is to emerge, for the church (Dreher) and for America (Reno and Wilson-Hartgrove). In their analyses of our present by means of the past, they trade on the assumption that what we do next must begin by excavating what has come before. But too often the past is constructed as a kind of inevitability engine, churning out what we already know to be the case. If I think the present is characterized by too much openness, it must be because the past knew better than us; if I think that the present is drenched in sexual laxity, it must mean that the past surpassed us in chastity. The decline, long in arrival, must be preceded by some better age from which we have descended. In this, Reno and Dreher part ways from Wilson-Hartgrove, the former two looking backward to a better age that for Wilson-Hartgrove never was. One could possibly name this as the temptation of nostalgia, but more accurately, this group of books builds on the assumption that the future beyond the present crisis of Christian influence on the culture must begin by reckoning with the past, and being contiguous with the best version of it.
While this continuity is desirable for any number of reasons — being a people in part means having something in common with those who were here before us — Wilson-Hartgrove pushes Reno and Dreher to a deeper accountability regarding what may be retrieved from that past. By pointing toward the ways in which American Christianity is intertwined with racism, Wilson-Hartgrove illuminates the limits of Reno and Dreher’s genealogies: if we do not adequately hear that past, can we use it to understand the present? What we assume about the future shape of action is in some way predicated upon our surety about the past and present, and that the future must follow from it.
Where are We Now?
Three other books enter the fray here, written by David Dark, Jake Meador, and Alan Noble. For these authors, what is past is past, or at least too far gone for us to untangle.
Jake Meador, author of In Search of the Common Good, operates on the thesis that rather than loving small things faithfully, and tending to the ground beneath our feet, we have tried to do large things poorly, and without proper guides. If “Christian morality . . . is simply human morality,” as he puts it, then we can diagnose social failures by their lack of coherence with distinctly Christian norms. To do so would not entail a return to so-called “fusionism,” but by observing the widespread abandonment of the common grain of church and society: the natural law. Declining birth rates, increasing social isolation, the loss of good work, and rank consumerism surround us in no small part because church and world have abandoned the law of creation which undergirds our very being, tempting us to live in the idea of the real rather than in the hard, practiced world of actual communities.
Meador shares with Reno this presupposition about natural law, though inflected in a Reformed key. But unlike Reno, Meador is more interested in the local, concrete effects of our cultural dissolution than in the intellectual genealogy that precipitated it. In Meador’s book, philosopher Charles Taylor’s work becomes a valuable diagnostic for deciphering the present moment. Part of our inability to see local communities is that we no longer see ourselves as interconnected; in Taylor’s parlance, we are “buffered selves” who relate to one another accidentally but have no relationships with others that might be intrinsically binding on us.
Meador’s analysis, unlike others in this review, is particularly attuned to the role economics has played in cultural decline, disincentivizing birth rates and facilitating gentrification and the loss of a stable middle class. The lack of attention to local culture goes hand-in-hand here with a lack of awareness of the financial role of culture deracination, in ways that both Reno and Dreher miss: it is hard to understand, for example, why mass migration is appealing for so many (Reno) or why classical Christian education is not a viable option for many Christians (Dreher) if one neglects the economic component. Calling for a localist return to a common culture, à la Wendell Berry, Meador sees faithfulness less in terms of a large-scale program than in terms of tactical engagements in local life, guided by restoring transcendent values to neighborhood life.
Where Meador offers a broad diagnostic encompassing myriad ways in which the local has been degraded by a loss of the natural law, in Disruptive Witness Alan Noble turns his gaze to a more singular indicator for the buffered self: our inability to pay attention. Noble, Associate Professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University and co-founder and editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, writes that we live in a “distracted age,” one characterized both by shallow relationships that require no depth of engagement and by frenetic mental patterns that keep us from seeing contradictions in our own thinking. We are living, in short, in an age absent of introspection.
The result: Christians can no longer conceive of the gospel informing society because the “gospel is cognitively costly;” American culture and American Christianity simultaneously exist as reactionary entities in the sense that, once slow thinking and freedom from distraction become exceptions to the rule, Christians can only ever operate in “the shallows” rather than in any depth. Noble therefore encourages habits that foster slowness of thought, charity of response, and sustained focus in church, society, and personal life. By recovering slowness, intention, and an aesthetic perspective that refuses to play the game of branding ourselves — a process that only makes our lives more ephemeral — Noble argues we can cohesively offer a vision of a different world than the one of distraction.
Like Meador, Noble sees our crisis as characterized by loving shallow and ephemeral goods in lieu of the “fullness” available to ordinary, common life. Christians in particular have lost the capacity for seeing the world in front of them and loving it slowly and carefully. As with Meador, Noble sees the way forward not by loving what is in front of us in more materialist ways — that would be but to repeat the error of our age — but by loving what is before us in a way that opens it up to the God who made it and presents it to us, as gift. Attention to the local and proximate yields a recovery of transcendence that calls us to “a telos beyond ourselves and our immediate entertainment.”
For some authors, attending to the local springs from a failure of large-scale strategy, but that is neither Noble nor Meador. Their proposals, albeit in different ways, engage the local for the simple reason that it is through the local and the proximate that any vision of the large-scale can emerge: we only cultivate goods in common or attention to the transcendent in this way and in this place. In calling us to live in this slow, attentive way, whether by refusing the pragmatism of marketing (Noble) or by cultivating local relations and local labor (Meador), both offer the small and the unhurried in place of the big and the speedy, without spurning critical attention to those macro-level factors that influence and degrade the local.
Both authors appeal to “transcendence” in order to reinvest the local with meaning, attentiveness to here requiring being open to that which is beyond the here-ness of the material world. By “transcendence,” I take both authors to be saying that the way forward for revitalizing local life is to recognize the role that natural law and divine providence play in the mundane portions of our lives, and letting the presence of God reinvigorate our daily practices. But there is a different kind of “transcendence” which is lacking here in the analysis: the ways in which the local is already conditioned by that which is beyond them in a material sense: how local economies are degraded by global economies, for example, or how small opportunities to pay attention are already outpaced by the millions of dollars spent by transnational companies precisely to prevent our paying too close attention to anything at all. The impulse to live locally is praiseworthy, but it must be married to an account of the way in which localities are constantly being positioned by macro-forces all too often invisible to us until they have already done their work. If we are always focused on what is in front of you — say, a pond — and thus forever downstream of the powerful, you won’t be prepared when the pond dries up: by the time you notice and get angry, it’s already beyond repair.
David Dark’s book presents one possible augmentation of the localist approach, albeit one with its own liabilities. Dark, Assistant Professor of Theology at Belmont University and author of several books on theology and culture, contends that it is only by paying attention to the national narratives that we can attend to the local. As we saw with the genealogical arguments of Wilson-Hartgrove, Dreher, and Reno, reconstructed histories may or may not yield practical proposals on the ground, but they have the benefit of orienting us beyond our immediate field of vision. The church, Dark argues, is embedded within the fabric of America’s project (in echoes of Wilson-Hartgrove and Reno’s disparate visions), and is thus called into a war that goes beyond doctrinal disputes: the war for the soul of our life together. In contrast to Reno, however, for whom the church can only retrieve America by embracing the tonic of the strong gods of nationalism, Dark points us to the Beloved Community of Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, Dorothy Day, and Fannie Lou Hamer.
America is in crisis for Dark in no small part because the church has forgotten that it is not for itself, but for its neighbors; a vision encapsulated by the Beloved Community. Dark takes this term from King to signify the Kingdom of God, seen in its integrative, humble infiltration of American culture. “Beloved Community . . . is also interested in control, but not the kind that humiliates people, shuts down dissent or tries to force feed a realization,” he writes. Dark thus agrees with Noble and Meador’s more particularist vision in this way: America and the church are in trouble because we have the wrong vision of the good life. For Dark, though, this vision is national and integrative, the wild weed of the kingdom of God popping up beyond the fields of the church. Where Meador and Noble emphasize the distinctive nature of church culture, Dark’s vision is profligate: the language of the church offers America an opportunity for nothing less than an exorcism; a language that the church cultivates but does not own. America has become spiritually sick: selling, buying, and consuming more than it listens, weeps, or waits, it needs the language of the church to see and to name its sin.
Most indicative of Dark’s unruly vision of how Christians help to repair their world are the sources he draws on to make his case. Whereas in Noble and Meador, the philosophical hero is Charles Taylor — a philosopher for whom the transcendent provides the basis for understanding the local and particular — the exemplars of Dark are those of America’s common heritage: Baldwin, King, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Toni Morrison. In part this is because Dark thinks the church so decadent that it needs prophets from beyond its fold to help it to hear. More to the point, he highlights this very different group of heroes because the church needs to hear prophets who live in the mixed composition of church and world: authors whose worlds were haunted by Scripture but never felt at home in the church. These prophets have been calling out of America’s decay, in the songs of Sonic Youth and R.E.M., in the novels of Thomas Pynchon and William Faulkner, and the church echoes them in the words of Hosea, Amos, and Jeremiah.
A number of things divide Meador and Noble from Dark, but the theological point evoked by Dark is this: if Christians confess that their relationship to the world has become toxic — that Christians are as distracted and as inattentive to the common good as their non-Christian neighbors — then it may be the case that Christians must be led out by exemplars they do not choose. Put differently, relearning how to engage with their neighbors may not be a matter of choosing diagnostic measures, but instead of letting those who have been in the wilderness be the guides out. If the common good becomes common in the sense of shared, then localist attention is strengthened by seeing the larger field, albeit through borrowed vision. By recognizing the ways in which the language of Beloved Community is not the singular property of Christians, Dark proposes that Christians need to hear articulations of the common good by their counterparts living beyond the church’s walls.
Given the shared nature of the Beloved Community, the local work of Noble and Meador may discover that the common good is also a national project, and that the small spadework of paying loving attention is already being performed by unexpected practitioners. Both Noble and Meador, through close readings of social theorists and novelists, draw inspiration from beyond the Christian fold for their projects, but that is different than letting them be the leaders of the project. For Dark, such is the risk of a common good that is truly common; it is only through following those beyond one’s particular community or methodological fold that attentive engagements in the proximate and the neighborly can find leverage in broader systems without abandoning the local.
In particular, Dark points to a key feature of the discourse which an astute reader of this essay may notice already: the homogeneity of the writers themselves. In selecting the works for this review, attending strictly to works which offer a cultural diagnosis of Christianity and its relation to culture, the authors are white and overwhelmingly male. This is not a reason, I think, to dismiss these writers who rightly point to practices and habits which are needed in an increasingly brittle world, so much as an opportunity to ask why it is that institutions, publishing houses, and indeed churches themselves exist to produce predominantly one kind of prophet.
The absence of women and persons of color writing big scale diagnoses of Christianity and culture is a glaring feature, and one which turns us back to the arguments about the past made by Reno, Dreher, and Wilson-Hartgrove. The omission of writers who are not white and male will lead to a limited palette upon which to paint both the present and the future, for the way one remembers the past shapes the way one can see the present and the future. When Meador, Noble, and Dark rightly direct our attention to the local as the place for renewing culture, we must remember that cities are pluriform in their memories and thus in their projections: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is the home of both the beloved John Ames and the anonymous black church which burns down and is hardly mentioned again. We can only have new present vision insofar as we have new memories of the past.
Where Do We Go?
If Christians are numerically and culturally in decline, then with respect to cultural influence, the way forward will be one of tactics, not strategy: advocating particular issues here, making inroads there. If the goal is no longer to shift the direction of the culture, then attention can be refocused on the internal life of the church — letting “the church be the church,” as more than one theologian has put it. By turning to tactics, regarding both the church’s character and its participation in society, a new and more modest way can be put forward. Accordingly, proposals in the following group of books are more interested in shoring up the body of believers and letting whatever influence that yields emerge as a byproduct.
The work of Lee Camp, Professor of Theology and Ethics at Lipscomb University, is exemplary in this mode. His book is constructed in fifteen propositions in which Camp calls for uncoupling the church’s vocation from the American project. With chapters like “The United States Is Not the Hope of the World,” Camp repositions the church away from a chaplaincy role and argues instead for the church to reclaim its modest place as witness to the hope of creation. In both substance and rhetoric, Camp is similar to John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, but unlike either, he is more interested in recovering a politically humble theology rooted in a close exegesis of the Bible.
Central to his propositions is that failure is certainly an option for the church, at least with respect to cultural influence; faithfulness and success are not necessarily companions. His aphoristic chapters are less a meditation on what the church should be doing so much as a reorientation to the character and mission of the church, at least according to the New Testament. Stripped of cultural reference points, Camp’s book speaks to American Christians on grounds he expects them to recognize and be formed by.
Camp’s approach is to narrate the church’s existence by a reading of Scripture, whereas Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson’s book looks to a different cultural vehicle for inspiration. In How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World, Joustra (Associate Professor of Politics and International Studies at Redeemer University) and Wilkinson (Film Critic and Culture Reporter at Vox and Professor of English at King’s College) find a point of contact in the apocalyptic visions of recent popular film and television. From a biblical perspective, the crisis regarding Christian participation in the world is no surprise, for various authors — from Daniel to Ezekiel to John the Revelator — offer wisdom for how to navigate troubled times in which one world is passing away and a new and uncertain one is emerging. The book’s insight is that our society’s art sees the crisis, too. Its popularity suggests a cultural hunger for diagnosing and responding to it. With aid from such cultural texts as Battlestar Galactica, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and Parks and Recreation, Joustra and Wilkinson offer a way forward for Christians that fully embraces the disorientation of the present moment.
Their work treads similar ground to Noble and Meador’s, with similar assistance from Charles Taylor, while using cultural artifacts to help illuminate how to navigate a cultural collapse in the making. Whether it is Battlestar Galactica helping us to see the value of the self, for example, or Breaking Bad illuminating the limits of the self-made would-be hero, popular culture provides windows into the kinds of practices that Christians need in order to endure the increasing fragmentation of American life. In opposition to Dreher’s “Benedict Option,” which emphasizes withdrawal for the sake of faithfulness, Joustra and Wilkinson contend that Christians are intertwined with society in inextricable ways, and thus endorse the “Daniel Option”: faithful life in common with neighbors and enemies, the friendly and the hostile alike.
Joustra and Wilkinson’s book parallels Noble’s in one other way: constructing a mode of witness not in culture, but through and as culture. They pose multiple modes of encounter with popular art, not for the sake of illuminating theological principles, but to perform cultural analysis and navigation. They pay attention to passages from Scripture that orient a theological vision, but in contrast to Camp, the bulk of time is devoted to the cultural texts that are already shared by believer and non-believer, as sites of contesting and performing theological truths. In discussing The Walking Dead, for example, their emphasis is not so much on the show illustrating our world as it being our world and inviting the viewer to live differently. Here the “Daniel Option” comes into clear view: with society no longer interested in the things of Scripture, a new avenue of witness is required, one that has always been with us — popular aesthetic artifacts.
In this way, Camp, and Joustra and Wilkinson hew closer to David Dark’s work: there can be no final separation of the Christian community from the culture surrounding it. To return to the opening comments, apart from the monastic witness of the early desert fathers and mothers, Christians are offered few instances of what it means to be Christian independent of cultural tides. But even the monastic picture is not uncomplicated in this sense: Basil the Great of the 4th century famously set up his community in the heart of Caserea; the Franciscans dwelled among the poor; the more recent Order of the Missionaries of Charity lived immersed among the dying of Calcutta. These pictures are not simply acts of charity, but an acknowledgment that Christianity’s confessions are inseparable from their public enactments. This is not to say that all goods are public or shared with all members of a place: for the earliest Christians, to read the Scriptures with auditors present was one thing, but to surrender the Scriptures to the authorities was entirely different. But there is only, in the recent words of Pope Francis, a shared home, which means that it is good and right for Christians to discuss Christian things amongst themselves, but that the material conditions of Christian living — economic, pop cultural, educational — are shared goods and open to contestation.
If there is an author who emphasizes the contested nature of this arrangement more than Dreher or Reno, it is perhaps Anthony Esolen. If we picture this orderly sequence of authors and books as a kind of round table, it is at this point that Anthony Esolen not only pushes away from the table, but flips the whole thing over. Writer-in-residence at Magdalen College and author of Out of the Ashes, Esolen does not limit his criticisms to the internal life of the church; he treats the church as an inextricable instrument in the American orchestra, one that must be re-tuned for the cacophony to cease. Like Reno and Dark, Esolen believes the grand civilizational orchestra has gone flat. In a series of polemical essays, Esolen addresses a wide range of failing spheres of American life, from church architecture to public education to gender roles to youth sports. Esolen sees everywhere a dessicated church and a decadent culture. In response to what he sees as the abandonment of teachings such as natural law and traditional sexual morality, he does not advocate abandoning American culture entirely, but — like Dreher — pulling back in order to relearn the ways of an earlier generation.
In contrast to Joustra and Wilkinson, Esolen’s work is unapologetically contrarian and unabashedly dismissive of most current cultural trends; it is fair to say that Esolen will not be using Battlestar Galactica as a tactical tool to explore the modern malaise of authenticity. To be fair, he has no axes to grind against the modern as such, except when he sees it as operating in denial of a certain kind of natural law metaphysic. As such, his response to the present cultural crisis is to point toward medieval and mid-20th century examples of what in his view constitute cultural sanity. But mixed in with the sensible suggestions are a bevy of rhetorical excesses against his opponents too many to name. Esolen’s rhetorical approach is not merely for the sake of being inflammatory, but indicative of a more pugilistic posture in the face of cultural decline. Whereas Camp, on the one hand, and Wilkinson and Joustra, on the other, take a more winsome or subversive approach to cultural engagement, Esolen sees little need to create a bridge to the new culture.
The overarching argument evoked by Esolen’s suggestions of retrieving specifically mid-century forms of culture often appears arbitrary, if only because he wants to retrieve elements of a pre-Vatican II world which come separate from the world which made them intelligible. Boys need rough and tumble games, he asserts; pastors ministering in an increasingly post-Christian world are called to ask for attempting to navigate disinterest and ennui with new initiatives to attract families — they should instead be reviving medieval notions of beauty. But the aesthetic which Esolen lauds here hides a deeper question underlying all the texts under review in this group: how to envision moving through a difficult cultural crossroads amid a culture largely uninterested in listening to Christian answers. If demographic trends of religious participation hold, it may very well be the case that appeals for the Christian faith rooted in shared viewing habits will be of little value. This does not mean, however, that the answer is to retrieve medieval aesthetics instead of thinking with respect to broader questions of Christian witness, such as how best to use the church building, or how the pastor is to be a public minister; Esolen’s book is frequently dismissive of the actual challenges pastors face in favor of of idealized solutions. But Esolen opens up the question of Christianity’s relationship to culture by rightly clarifying that the future of Christian witness is likely to be smaller and more modest, calling into question more recent modes of rapprochement.
The Question of Cultural Engagement
In sum, the works here present three ways out of the present. The first is that of building up the congregation, and letting the assumptions of cultural steerage go by the wayside. Two in particular — Noble and Camp — see this as the heart of Christian attention that always needed recovering. The second is the way of cultural recovery through a renewal of Christian community, seen in Esolen and Dreher, and in Reno, albeit in a nationalist key. The third way is that of tactical engagement, knowing that the future is uncertain and striving for faithfulness anyway, as seen in Joustra and Wilkinson, Wilson-Hartgrove, Meador, and Dark. In this mode, you still tend gardens, cultivate Beloved Community, uproot the racism pervasive as weeds, but know not if this attention to the neighborhood will work, or even if there will be the kinds of neighborhoods or neighbors in the future who will recognize this labor for what it is, a sign and an instrument of the grace of God.
All of these approaches are born as acts of hope, not despair, trusting that Christian existence in the world — doing the work of ministry, witness, and “faithful presence” — will continue, while knowing (or at least conceding) that the future will not be a replica of the past. The degree to which cultural engagement on the part of America Christians can happen, and happen well, will in no small way depend on whether what is hoped for is linked to successes of the past (real or nominal), or whether they will be willing to lose some of the past — either as a matter of penitence (Wilson-Hartgrove) or of necessity (Dreher) — in order to be faithful in and to the future.
There is finally no unified theory of Christian participation in the culture here. Whatever goods obtained in the past were not primarily a result of human striving or cultural power, but a gift of divine providence. This means not only that Christians flourished, when they did, for reasons far beyond their control. It means also that, though Christian cultural engagement — shorn of many of the presumptions of the past — will inevitably operate in different guises and with different tools, it will continue. If a crisis runs deeply enough, and the fissures profound enough, then it may be that the old ways are beyond retrieval, and that attempting to retrieve them absent the ability to implement them — cohesively, comprehensively, and across the fissures of a culture — is to introduce them as one more fractious fashion choice. Noble’s warning that, in a superficial age, everything becomes a lifestyle option is apt here: Christian community becomes Christian Community.™
I have pointed to the ways in which these proposals overlap and diverge, because in the end, what Christians share with their desire to be present in the world is greater than what divides them. The future belongs not to the strategy, but to the tactic, insofar as the future is one in which — at least in the United States — promises to be smaller, more modest, and more in line with the country’s first two hundred years than the last fifty years: on this, even the more reactionary proposals agree. But the tactical riches on display here are manifold, pressing against one another and pulling against one another in ways both agonistic and complementary. If providence brought into view some goods in the past, it is likely that these riches will cohere again in ways we cannot yet see. It is my hope that the future will come in a shape which will allow for the setting aside of past assumptions, not out of resentment, but out of joy that new voices have come into view unrepresented by this current collection, voices who see the past differently and are welcoming a different, more modest future, but one no less faithful.
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Works under discussion:
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2018)
R.R. Reno, Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism and the Future of the West (New York: Regnery Publishing, 2019)
Jake Meador, In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2019)
Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2018)
Lee C. Camp, Scandalous Witness: A Little Political Manifesto for Christians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020).
David Dark, The Possibility of America: How the Gospel Can Mend our God-Blessed, God-Forsaken Land (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2019)
Anthony Esolen, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (New York: Regnery Publishing, 2017)
Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson, How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016)
Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel Books, 2017)
Thank you for this! As someone who is definitely on the Dreher, Esolen, kind of Charles Taylor (his descriptions not his prescriptions) side, it was interesting to hear about some writers with different perspectives that I didn’t know previously. Alan Noble’s book particularly is one I think I will be picking up.
Interesting contribution. I write as an ex-evangelical who enjoyed Hunter’s book but who finds recent declinist narratives to be unhelpful. In fact, reading Dreher’s books and blog posts typically makes me less sympathetic to the position he’s advocating. I read Reno with less frequency, but I’d say the same of him.
Both Dreher and Reno make the mistaken assumption that the only acceptable Christian approach to the culture is that of domination and privilege. Moreover, the central tenets their version of “orthodox” Christian belief seems to center around maintaining social hierarchies based on gender, race, and sexual orientation. When Dreher complains about the decline of Christianity in the culture, the evidence is typically evidence having a tighter nexus to the declining social privilege of being a straight man of European descent. In my view, the declining role of Christianity is strongly tied to the shift in focus within Christian institutions from promoting the teachings of Jesus and the apostles to promoting traditional Western social hierarchies instead.
In that sense, I don’t see that I have much in common with the declinists. In fact, I’m quite happy to see an erosion of cultural institutions that have historically justified and perpetuated white supremacy, patriarchy, and homophobia. And that happiness is rooted in my Christian belief. So, I don’t see where I have much in common with so-called Christians whose “gospel” is principally a gospel of justifying and perpetuating social hierarchies based on gender, race, and sexual orientation. I see such so-called Christians as false prophets.
I will add that I am rather sympathetic to the localism that Meador discusses. Part of our fracturing relates to the fact of geographic sorting based on a shift away from an economy centered around brick and mortar and towards one based on intangible assets. This is especially the case where the winners in this shift have largely gathered together in fairly socially homogeneous communities.
I think we also need to consider the fact that so much conservative media functions as a kind of outrage porn. It also tends to inculcate a kind of learned helplessness, where people just blame elites and immigrants instead of looking for practical ways to improve their lot. Substance abuse is rampant throughout the white working class.
Where do you draw the distinction between preserving social hierarchies (I agree- unnecessary, maybe bad) and preserving orthodox teaching on matters like human sexuality and the family (necessary)? Or do you not draw those distinctions?
I’m not sure that the line is always clear. After all, the content of “orthodox teaching” often shifts to align itself with and to lend support to popular social movements. As Carl Trueman notes in his recent book (although not as clearly as I’d like), much of what the church has passed off as “orthodox teaching” on sexuality reflects a significant importation of Rousseau and Freud. In fact, the “family values” theology, which is central to white evangelical identity, is nothing but a thinly Christianized remake of mid-century Freudian social theory.
So, at the outset, we have to recognize that those who claim the mantle of orthodoxy often overstate the content of that orthodoxy and have their own self-serving political, social, and economic reasons for establishing such claims.
I had to come back to this over several days. Great job weaving together and analyzing the separate works.
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