Matthew, I really appreciate and resonate with your thoughtful response to my piece. I think your point about seeking respectability is true, and I would take it one step further. Since I wrote the piece for Christianity Today, I’ve reflected on how some younger evangelicals (and I’m including myself in this, which might be pushing the boundary of ‘younger’—let’s say late gen-x or early millenials), whose theological identities were formed in reaction to fundamentalism and the culture wars, believe that if Christians aren’t respected, then we are doing something wrong.
There is a deep sense of shame that accompanies rejection, not just because it hurts that others don’t think well of us but because we hold a latent assumption that we have a responsibility to make the gospel presentable, or, at least, a bit more palatable and that the failure to do so is just that—a failure. In other words, it isn’t simply human pride and vanity that drives our desire to be respectable (although that’s certainly part of it, as I address in the essay). We grew up in a movement that stressed seeker-sensitivity and relevance such that we almost feel a theological mandate to be respectable. If ‘seekers’ ultimately reject the church and the gospel, we wonder if we were, therefore, seeker insensitive or irrelevant. Were we not thoughtful or kind or interesting or cool or committed to social justice enough?
And of course, we aren’t thoughtful or kind or interesting or committed to social justice enough. That’s true. We are a community in need of grace.
When Christians are unloving or obnoxious or contemptuous or greedy or, certainly, criminal or predatory, it harms the church and our mission. Failure and sin in the church is grievous and can have dire consequences. Throughout Scripture—perhaps nowhere as pointed as Paul’s rebuke to Peter in Galatians 2 or the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians—it’s clear that the church must take both moral and theological failure very seriously. We are to be “a city on a hill,” a unique people marked by love.
But the reality is that even if we could “be the church” in the fullness of how God intends, we may still very well be rejected. We must seek to be a holy people who work for justice and walk by grace, but we do that as a response to God’s justice and grace, not as the means of “getting it right” so that unbelievers will respond in a particular way. In the perennial, breathless announcements about the death of the church and the hand wringing about millennials leaving the church, there can be an assumption that the church’s success depends on us and that if the church shrinks, it is necessarily an indictment of our theology or practice. We can begin to believe that if we, as a Christian community, just ‘got it right’ (whatever your particular idea of ‘getting it right’ is) that unbelievers would want to join our number, or at least, think we’re likable and sane.
I am part of the generation that came of age reading Relevant magazine and Blue Like Jazz, exploring the emergent church movement, and celebrating indie Christian bands that rejected the label of ‘Christian band’ and played at bars or trendy cafes. (I remember—with a bit of nostalgic embarrassment—the sense of hope I had when I first heard Jars of Clay on mainstream radio in high school). We got cool tattoos. We began edgy ministries. We made good art. All of this, for the most part, is good or, at least, not bad—I’m very thankful for and deeply shaped by the renewed evangelical impulse to holistically embrace social justice, creation care, and culture making. But somewhere along the way as a college student sipping coffee from a mug larger than my face while listening to Over the Rhine, I picked up a latent belief that it was incumbent upon the church to make the gospel appealing. And all of this left me unprepared to know how to respond to real rejection due to orthodox Christian belief.
In reality, the gospel—and the church itself—is appealing because salvation is a miracle of grace. Jesus, mysteriously, is what makes the church appealing. As Flannery O’Connor says (and I quote far too often), “I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the church endurable is that it is the body of Christ and that on this we are fed.”
And, here, in the mystery of Christ’s love for and provision for the church, we find roots for your idea that “what evangelicals, young and old, most desperately need is a political manifestation of joy.” In early drafts of my Christianity Today piece, I had real trouble knowing how to wrap the piece up. I didn’t want to be overly triumphalistic, but the reality, the unavoidable, enduring conclusion that I kept bumping into as I thought about that year was simply: “ I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have trouble. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
Like you, I’ve been struck by the profound need for and protest of joy. I wonder what would it mean for Christians to be marked by joy. It seems like the true opposite of the culture wars—and the best response—is not to simply be more progressive or even more moderate, but to be able to walk into the midst of the culture’s bar fight and be subversively and humbly joyful and hopeful, able to love vulnerably and faithfully whether or not we’re rejected.
I don’t mean to prescribe a kind of happy-clappy Christian naiveté. I don’t in any way want to tell believers going through rejection that they have to be happy about it—that year at Vanderbilt was one of sadness, anger, disappointment, confusion, and weariness (amidst a lot of beauty as well), and we need to be honest about those very real, very human emotions both with God and with each other. But I think of CS Lewis’s description of the Narnians’ holy, joyful indifference in enemy territory from A Horse and His Boy: “Instead of being grave and mysterious…they walked with a swing and let their arms and shoulders free, and chatted and laughed. One was whistling. You could see that they were ready to be friends with anyone who was friendly and didn’t give a fig for anyone who wasn’t.”
Our cultural conversation (whichever political ‘side’ one falls on) is generally marked by anger, grasping, contempt and a general grumpiness about the state of things and, especially, about one’s enemies. But instead of Christians responding to rejection with outrage and belligerence, on one hand, or a kind of tiresome, over apologetic groveling about the sad state of the church on the other, this Narnian kind of joy allows us to extend generosity to those who oppose us because we aren’t overly desperate for approval. We are a well-nourished people, able to persevere in joy because we feed on Christ as a church and, therefore, able to offer real nourishment to others.
Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and works with InterVarsity at the University of Texas–Austin. For more, see TishHarrisonWarren.com.