One point that deserves special mention with the ongoing conversation about “respectable” Christianity concerns the plausibility of “orthodoxy” in the minds of many of our non-Christian neighbors. One of the unique challenges facing Christianity in the coming years is that the very notion of religious orthodoxy doesn’t really make sense to many contemporary Americans.
We understand the idea of orthodoxy in some spheres, particularly in politics. Most Americans would find it quite odd if, for example, a gun-loving libertarian wanted to run for the Senate as a Democrat. We recognize that in politics certain beliefs tend to belong to certain groups. So if you favor a single payer healthcare system, that’s fine, but you probably should hang out with the Democrats rather than the Republicans. But we generally don’t have a similar understanding of this when it comes to religious identity.
Part of the issue, no doubt, is that many strands of American Christianity have defined themselves more in terms of methods and techniques for doing ministry rather than well-defined theological creeds. As a result, many Christian young people have grown up in the church without developing a robust understanding of Christian theology or why we do the things we do.
A related issue is the problem of how many churches have tended to fall back on business jargon as a way of talking about church life, which merely makes explicit the sense that Christian faith isn’t really about articles of belief so much as it is about achieving certain results for yourself and your community. This is one of the troubling under-currents to the ongoing Mark Driscoll saga, for instance, as Doug Wilson wisely noted in his post on the issue last week.
Ultimately though this goes back to the moralistic, therapeutic deism point that Rod Dreher has written about so regularly on his blog: The way most Americans, and particularly younger Americans, think about religion is less about articles of faith or community membership and is much more about obtaining some sort of therapeutic, individualistic benefit for oneself. Though there is a dogma implicit in this approach–and we really should be pointing that out at every opportunity–it’s not something most of our peers will notice. For them, religion is something that some people practice in order to gain various social and personal benefits, but those benefits can be found through means other than religion just as well. So the idea of some sort of religious orthodoxy, the idea that there are certain things one is required to believe as an adherent of a given religion, is fundamentally incoherent for most of our neighbors.
Regarding the respectability question, then, the church is in a really difficult position: We can do everything we can think of to appear normal, fun, respectable, etc. but the fundamental claim made by our faith is utterly incoherent (and threatening) to most of our neighbors. The result is that, as Warren learned, you can do everything you can think of to build relationships and trust with people but the moment that the faith one practices comes into conflict with the surrounding cultural norms of post-Christian America all the work of that relationship building tends to evaporate. (This isn’t always the case, to be sure, but from my experience it does seem to be the majority of cases.)
There are two main points to make in light of this fact:
First, none of this is to say that going out of our way to be different is in itself a virtue or that we should be obnoxious about our Christian beliefs. We can and ought to be normal members of society, as much as is possible while being faithful Christians. Paul told the church at Rome living under the rule of Claudius to do their best to live at peace with their neighbors. If Paul could command Christians in their situation to do that it isn’t odd to think he’d exhort contemporary American Christians in a similar way. So going beyond the dictates of scripture in an attempt to emphasize our difference from the world is not necessarily the best way forward. Christian women, in other words, don’t need to run around with doilies on their heads, nor do the men need to grow beards like the Amish. If we try to develop an approach to being different from the world without a robust understanding of Christian liberty we’re going to run into trouble.
Second, in most cases the only way that the Christian gospel will appear plausible to our neighbors in the years to come will be to the extent that we can ground this alternative vision of reality in alternative forms of community. When I was a student at L’Abri my tutor liked to say that the challenge L’Abri presented to its non-Christian students was showing them an attractive community existing as a consequence of the Gospel while they tried to decide what they thought of the Gospel. So they had this entire way of life being lived out in front of them that they enjoyed and admired, all of which was a result of Christian faith–and it was within that space that they were then studying the claims of the Christian faith.
What this will require from us, then, is a very careful engagement with modernity that enables us to reject fairly significant parts of it without lapsing into a kind of instinctive anti-modernism that can sometimes mark the conversation amongst so-called Benedict Option Christians. We need to be cultivating places, ways of life, and spiritual disciplines that mark us out as being different, but in ways more substantial than simple rejection of all things contemporary. The goal isn’t to be anti-modern, after all, but rather to be Christian.