“My wish is that this book might help Christians rediscover that their most important social task is nothing less than to be a community capable of hearing the story of God we find in the scripture and living in a manner that is faithful to that story.”
—Stanley Hauerwas (A Community of Character)
In a recent Mere Fidelity episode, Dr. Carl Trueman discussed his newest book on the rise of the modern self and the contemporary culture of expressive individualism. Towards the end of the podcast, when asked what Christians should do going forward, he made a remarkable and almost Hauerwasian move. He appealed to the sense of community that the church needs to establish in order to recover its presence as a cultural force in the increasingly post-Christian society. It is important to note that he did not give a clear definition of the kind of community he had in mind.
The LGBTQ+ movement, Dr. Trueman said, has gained such influence precisely because it was first and foremost a strong and supportive community. He suggested that the church needs to do the same — become a strong community in order to have an evangelistic influence in the world. If we need an evangelical basis for it, there is undoubtedly a substantial one — Jesus said that the world would know that we are his disciples if we love one another.
This is a significant change of tone. Gone is the appeal to a moral and spiritual regeneration of individuals to bring about social change. In his response, there is a notable absence of the need to go back to the biblical basics to spur the individual pursuit of holiness, let alone the call to take up social and political action.
The question is, can the pursuit of personal piety be a solution for expressive individualism? It seems Dr. Trueman intuitively knows that it can not. Oftentimes, it is hard to tell the difference between the two. Besides, trying to deal with expressive individualism through individual piety is unlikely to produce the desired result. It will only reinforce the individualistic trend. We cannot rely on the same approaches anymore.
Therefore, Dr. Trueman’s suggestion to become a strong community is the right move. Community is better suited to deal with the issue of expressive individualism. As noted above, the pursuit of individual piety and expressive individualism are often two sides of the same coin. A strong community, on the other hand, seeks the good that can be shared with others and places meaning outside of individual self. Therefore, in rebuilding its community, the American church can counter the prevailing individualistic narratives with a genuine, meaningful, and ordered lifestyle.
Communities formed around compelling narratives and mutual recognition of its members produce a potent force that shapes cultures for better or worse. And not only that, “community is communication,” to borrow Oliver O’Donovan’s words. Or, to put it differently, communities communicate with the inside and the outside world. They convey shared values and interpretations of the world, which is why they can be so successful in shaping society. That was the case with early Christianity and its breathtaking conquest of the Roman world, and it is the case with our cultural moment in a dramatic reversal of fortunes.
The LGBTQ+ movement was successful because strong and supportive communities are, by nature, authoritative — they influence the culture around them by projecting its popular authority. However, should the influence be the goal and community simply the means to an end? What is the goal of regaining such influence? This is where Hauerwas and Trueman’s similarity ends, for Hauerwas flatly rejects any notion of utility to help us get to the desired place of influence.
We argue that the political task of Christians is to be the church rather than to transform the world. (emphasis is mine)
Christian social ethics can only be done from the perspective of those who do not seek to control national or world history, but who are content to live “out of control.”
The church needs to become a genuine community not to regain influence, but because this is the only way it can be a witness of the redeeming power of God to this world:
The world needs the church, not to help the world run more smoothly or to make the world a better and safer place for Christians to live. Rather, the world needs the church because, without the church, the world does not know who it is. The only way for the world to know that it is being redeemed is for the church to point to the Redeemer by being a redeemed people. (emphasis is mine)
Still, Dr. Trueman’s overall assessments of the state of American Christianity are very much Hauerwasian in tone and sentiment. Decrying the fact that modern Christians are helplessly individualistic in their lives and religious practices or suggesting that the church needs to focus on being a loving community in the midst of culture wars might as well have come from Hauerwas’s Resident Aliens or A Community of Character. Perhaps, Stanley Hauerwas was right all along, and evangelicals are only now catching up to his message — the message he has been drumming since the days of Moral Majority.
It is hard to overestimate the urgency of the question before us: What should Christians do going forward? Dr. Carl Trueman’s call for a strong Christian community as a way forward can be viewed as a major shift from doing church to being a church. The church can no longer simply appeal to individual Christians to make certain personal choices. It can no longer exert authority to shape our society by making proclamations, asserting its moral authority in words only, or pulling levers of political power. In fact, the more the church tries to do that in the current atmosphere of distrust, the less influence it exerts. Both Hauerwas and Trueman seem to agree that the best way forward for Chriatians is rather unglamourous, which is to reclaim people’s trust by becoming a genuine Christian community that lives according to the gospel it finds in the scripture.
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