In his piece on the Thorburn affair in Australia, Simon Kennedy offered an important and, to my knowledge, mostly new contribution to the entire negative world discourse. Though he mentioned the idea of “winsomeness” being the problem, he also proposed a better, more precise term: conciliatory. While the difference between being winsome and being conciliatory may not be immediately apparent, it actually should inform our understanding of our moment in a fairly significant way.
Part of the difficulty before us is that evangelicals tend to be fairly bad at cultural criticism mostly because we tend to interpret culture purely in terms of how it affects us — which leaves us largely blind or unaware of other influential cultural dynamics that should inform our analysis.
In the conventional way I see this story told by conservative reformed types, “winsomeness” was a viable strategy in the neutral world, where being a Christian is neither a net good or net bad for your public profile, but it leaves us flatfooted and ineffective in a negative world, where being a Christian is a net loss for your public life.
In some sense, this is self evident enough. But as is often the case the action is in the details — and part of the challenge here is that once you dig into the details, the picture is far more complex. The neutral world wasn’t always all that neutral if you were in a major city, Tim Keller isn’t much of a neutral world figure, and if the problem is “winsomeness” does that in some sense mean that the problem is the Christian command toward gentleness? (Some will say so — it is not that difficult to find folks engaged in the Christian Nationalist conversation who seem to have a very nebulous or even hostile relationship to the Sermon on the Mount).
What Kennedy’s piece did, though I’m not sure anyone caught it last week, is suggest a new lens for interpreting the problem, which is that of being conciliar. But to unpack the significance of that, we should first broaden our cultural critique to encompass more than just our society’s posture toward Christianity.
What marked the neutral world was a general material abundance in society, a loosening of moral norms, and a social ethic that centered on things like tolerance, “live and let live,” “judge not,” and so on. (Rusty Reno’s idea of “non-judgmentalism” is helpful here). It was the open society and the post-cold war society. The pax Americana helped to secure a season of wealth expansion and relative stability that was unparalleled in human history.
Now how does Christian belief intersect with such a world? It’s an abundant world full of opportunity and pleasure. So there was a constant opportunity for new pleasures and experiences and, to many of those opportunities, Christian moral teaching would say “no.” So Christianity often came off as a bit of a moral scold, a killjoy. The problem was that Christianity was seen as being too moral in a society that didn’t have much use for strict moral norms. People living in the open society might recognize that Christian moral teachings about sex, for example, really were good, in some sense. It was just that they weren’t all that fun and, after all, what harm was there in letting loose a little? How bad was it actually to be a little bad? Goodness meant Ned Flanders. And who wants to be Ned Flanders?
You can see this reflected in some of the 1990s era movies and TV shows, particularly in how they treat sex. Something like American Pie is a quintessential movie for that era — reveling in a raw hedonism, the dissolution of moral norms simply because they’re not fun, and a certain indifference to the idea of being good. It’s not that the universe of American Pie doesn’t have any idea of what “good” is; it’s just that being good is kinda boring and lame and not all that important, really. American Pie and a number of other 1990s era comedies could never get made today for precisely these reasons.
How were Christians seen in such a world? Well, the open society could tolerate them, sure, but they’re not much fun. They’re judgmental and legalistic. You can’t really be yourself if you’re with a Christian because they’re holier-than-thou and would be scandalized if you actually did the things you like doing. Overcoming those perceptions and objections was the foremost evangelistic and apologetic problem for an open society world.
And that is precisely the objection many Christians in the open society tried to overcome. You might try to remind everyone that, hey, Christians like sex too. #Actually, Christians have better sex! Thus you’ll get the sexual arms race that was evangelical publishing from the 1990s to the early 2010s.
You’ll also try to show the world that Christians can be normal suburban dwelling careerist consumers just like everyone else, and that church can be relatable, accessible, and comfortable — the kind of place where you can have a pleasant experience, sip on your latte, and not feel judged or unwelcome. In short, these Christians will see being conciliar, non-judgmental, and relevant as being the sine qua non of a missionary encounter with the open society.
It is perhaps worth noting that if you’re looking for the boomer Christian leader who most fully and successfully resisted all these trends while still being remarkably effective as an evangelist, that boomer Christian leader’s name is… Tim Keller. But with the exceptions of people like Keller and a few others, the general center of gravity in boomer evangelicalism was with figures like Bill Hybels, who exemplified the conciliar, relevant approach described above. If the approach had carried over into the next generation, the poster child for it would actually have been Mark Driscoll, who did for punk rockers in Seattle what Hybels did for careerist suburbanites in Chicago.
However, in the years since 2008, the world has changed fairly dramatically: Everything from the economic crises, #MeToo, our ongoing racial reckoning, to the radical turn toward LGBT+ affirmation have all represented various sorts of moralizing trends in culture. Non-judgmentalism is over. “Live and let live,” is done. No one wants to be “tolerant” of error. We’ve exchanged the hedonistic culture of the open society for the moralistic culture of our new closed society.
What does this moralism consist of? The central idea is that each of us possesses within ourselves a kind of true, authentic, idealized version of who we are, “the best version of yourself.” Life’s central purpose is to discern what that authentic self is and then learn to bring that authentic self out into the world.
So society becomes about choice maximalization and the dissolution of limits because creating more options for people means creating more opportunities for authentic selves to be defined and expressed. Additionally, our technology is designed for choice maximization, and professional life takes on new importance as one of the chief venues through which we can express our authentic self. Meanwhile, social norms, communities, and individuals who are resistant to this will first be reproved and corrected, so they can become educated and accepting of the new order. Should their reeducation fail, they will then be ostracized and shamed.
It’s hard to fully appreciate how radically this changes the landscape for Christian evangelism and discipleship. In a hedonistic world, hostility to Christianity there was mostly centered around Christians being a moral buzzkill. But in our new moralistic world, it’s not simply that Christianity is boring or not fun, but that Christianity is actively harmful because it suggests that there are some types of authentic selves that are actually bad and should not be privately accepted or publicly expressed.
Here is where the pastoral and evangelistic question is so tricky, though. One way of reading this moment is to do what many folks are doing, which is to suggest that Christians concerned with being kind, gentle, nuanced, and so on won’t make it because they’re gonna get overrun by the negative world. The flip side of this is that the Christians who will make it are going to be aggressive, confrontational, and resistant to nuance because nuance is a sign of weakness. To thrive in negative world, it is essential to project a sense of muscle, power, and strength.
Virtually all of that is wrong. Here’s why: The practical task we give everyone in contemporary western society is to define their own sense of meaning, purpose, and existence apart from any unchosen given identities or limitations, all of which are categorically dismissed as oppressive and unjust. Have you actually considered what an impossible, heavy burden that is?
Every person is given the task of effectively inventing their own identity without recourse to religion, family, geography, or anything else they didn’t choose. They are given technological tools to aid in this, particularly camera-equipped smartphones and social media networks that allow them to experiment, refine, and establish online identities. However, should they take a wrong step online, thousands or millions of strangers on the internet will loudly shame them, try to get them fired, and so on.
It’s a wretchedly difficult thing to ask anyone to do, let alone to ask everyone to do. Your neighbors, the people you work with, sit next to at coffeeshops, pass by on the street, bump into on the bus… every one of them is living with this burden.
But now ask yourself: What helps anxious people? Does anger help? More time on Twitter? Performative masculinity? Undermining spiritual authority and church life? Will politics fix it? No, no, no, no, and no.
The answer to our anxious age, then, will not be found with vibes, culture war, publicly undermining and shaming church leaders, or more generalized social media posturing and bravado — all of which are the modus operandi of the dissident right. These postures will simply shape people who, in their own ways, exemplify the anxiety, jittery energy, and reactivity that is already dominant in our world.
It will make for Christians who are anxious and increasingly unconcerned with the core matters of the faith while being obsessed with politics. We should again return to this excerpt from McVicar’s biography of Rushdoony in which a former member of a theonomist community describes what the people were like:
They talk constantly of the Law, humanism, the coming collapse of all economies, governments, etc., but never of love of God for a sinful people. The fruits of the Spirit are not evident in them, nor has a single soul been won to the Lord by their ministry. What happened is that some, coming out of other error or bad experience, are banding together in semi-secret hatred of all established orders.
That is the world many, though not all, on the conservative reformed right are rushing toward right now.
Such Christians will be evangelistically impotent, and their approach to discipleship will be built on fear, shame, and behavior modification, none of which leads to transformed hearts, which is what Jesus is after. Moreover, based on the track record of such ingrown churches that struggle to evangelize and disciple, the children who grow up in such churches will be more likely to dechurch as young adults.
All of these things will be unsustainable because they do not build strong, resilient communities. Rather, they create brittle, low-trust communities full of exhausted, reactive, burned out people. In other words, they create people who, politics aside, are pretty hard to tell apart from the rest of the world.
To borrow from Voeglein,
No one is obliged to take part in the spiritual crisis of a society; on the contrary, everyone is obliged to avoid this folly and live his life in order.
Communities marked by a constant presence on Twitter, a frantic rushing about to keep up with trends and build one’s status, and a great deal of posturing and preening online are simply taking part in our society’s current spiritual crisis. In this particular respect, it makes almost no difference if the person doing this is right wing or left wing; they’re all enacting the liturgies of anxiety, self-creation, and performance that define our era. As one friend put it to me recently, “It’s not possible to help people in the spiritual crisis of a society if you too are in the spiritual crisis of the society.”
Here’s the reality: What is facing the church right now — and, indeed, what is facing the world right now — is not actually anomalous. Sure, it might feel weird to us, children of wealth and comfort that we are, but a world of scarcity, political uncertainty, and religious difficulty for Christians is a fairly normal world when one considers the global history of Christian faith.
To take one example from the church’s past, figures like Luther and Bucer and Melanchthon and Calvin and Bullinger lived daily under the threat of the sword. If one political event went the wrong way, one battle was lost, it could mean their death. Indeed, many of these figures spent stretches of their life in exile. Bucer died in exile. And throughout church history we see this fairly often. Athanasius spent many of his years as bishop away from his seat because of political strife and persecution. Cyprian of Carthage was martyred, as was Polycarp. Rome was burning as Augustine lay on his deathbed. Even during the somewhat more stable years between mass Christianization and the chaos of the early modern era, it was rare for churches to experience the relative stability that the (white) American church has enjoyed for decades without interruption.
What sustained the church through these eras? It mostly wasn’t realpolitik. Sure, Bucer could negotiate as well as anyone, the Reformers made excuses for Phillip of Hesse, Frederick the Wise protected Luther, and so on. I’m not saying we should be quietist or wholly disengaged from politics. Where we have political power, we can and should use that power to advance the good as understood by Christianity. This is, after all, precisely what Paul did through the use of his own sort of unique political power: Roman citizenship. If we can protect religious liberty, we should (and we mostly are). If we can help to protect families and children through the law, we should.
But if this kind of political work becomes central to our strategy for sustaining and growing Christian community or, worse still, if it simply becomes our strategy, it will swallow the more important things to which Christians are called, beginning with the communion of the saints gathered around Word and Sacrament and the call to love neighbor.
What will primarily sustain the church in this moment is plain to any student of church history, for it is what has always sustained the church: the grace of God offered to us through the preaching of the Word and the Sacraments, which equip us to live lives of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. What sustained the church then was a quiet confidence in the providence of God, a patient resilience amidst suffering, and a humble reliance on God to give what is needed, in life and death. If we would lean upon those resources, they could sustain us today as well.
Call it, as Mark Sayers does, “a non-anxious presence.” What it is is a conscience choice to resist the postures of fear, rage, and anxiety that dominate in our moment. It is a choice to log off TikTok, Instagram, and the damned bird site (meant literally), stop undermining pastors, and resist the alarmism and panic of the day. We do this not because things aren’t really that bad (they really are!) but because God still sits on his throne, God still reigns, and his plan is perfect and will be revealed to us in due course. In the meantime, the best things for us are Word, Sacrament, and Prayer.
What God is calling his people to right now is patience and faith in him. And if we are patient and trust him, if we will not grow weary in doing good, we can be freed from the characteristic anxiety of our era. God’s world is seeded for renewal, as Sayers never stops reminding us. Crisis precedes renewal! There is much good work before us, if only we would be the kind of people capable of doing it.
If our churches were reliably and consistently communities filled with non-anxious people devoted to lives of quiet piety and service of neighbor, it would do more for the advance of the Gospel in our nation than any amount of short-term political wins ever could. Crisis precedes renewal. But if God is to use us to promote that renewal, we need to be devoted first of all to him, not to building our own platform, achieving higher status culturally, or pursuing superior political power.
The call, in short, is to be the quiet Christians, the people marked by devotion to neighbor, a humble spirit, and a strength that equips us to take courageous stances without the need to remind everyone on Twitter of how courageous we are being or to complain on Twitter about how no one is noticing how courageous we’re being.
Get off Twitter. Touch grass. Start with that.
But then continue to still better things: Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks.
As Hannah Coulter said, we might not be altogether capable of so much. But those are the right instructions.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. 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 The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).