At a recent book launch in Melbourne, one of Australia’s leading Christian scholars, Sarah Irving-Stonebraker, astutely observed that Richard Niebuhr’s models of Christ and culture, a framework which has wielded great influence for decades, is now outdated. Irving-Stonebraker further stated that Christianity is no longer the dominant, hegemonic force that undergirds our society.
Christianity no longer frames public speech. We all know this. We’re all talking about it. This is why Jake Meador, Tim Keller, Kirsten Sanders, and I have all been weighing in on the question of how Christians should speak in public, given the new cultural climate.
One of the things lacking in this otherwise constructive dialogue is a set of categories for understanding (a) different kinds of Christian speech and (b) different kinds of Christian callings when it comes to public speech. The former is a complex ethical question that requires serious attention going forward from our theological ethicists. I won’t deal with it at length here. Instead, I will address the question of different callings and roles in relation to public speech.
I want to offer a framework that can undergird pastoral and strategic approaches to how Christians should speak in public. Crucially for the conversation here at Mere Orthodoxy, I want to get beyond method and move us towards broader strategic questions about Christian public engagement for a world that is less hospitable to conciliatory rhetorical tactics. Many of the answers being offered up, including Keller’s, assume Niebuhr’s cultural analysis as a backdrop. This starts us off on the wrong foot.
Pluralism and Public Speech
If Irving-Stonebraker is right, and Niebuhr’s framework of Christ and culture is outdated and Christianity is no longer an undergirding force that can support Christian contributions to public discourse, there is an urgent need to reframe our approach. Keller is wise to turn to thinkers like Lesslie Newbigin and Stefan Paas to help frame our post-Christian moment.
However, it struck me that Keller’s solution, his advice for those like the unfortunate Guy Mason, was not actually post-Christian at all. It was advice on rhetorical tactics that missed the looming strategic problem. Western Christendom has finally waned, as Keller acknowledges through his references to Paas. But his rhetorical advice, whilst useful, wise, and potentially effective, seems to be missing the point that Irving-Stonebraker made about our post-Niebuhrian moment.
Keller never mentioned Niebuhr. But my sense is that Niebuhr underlies his advice for public speech, whether he realizes it or not. Keller’s advice was sage for a world where the Public Christian still has a credible voice. It may be fit if we consider Niebuhr’s “Christ against culture” model, or perhaps the “Christ as Transformer of culture” model, to be of continuing relevance. The problem the church must now face is that these models are outdated.
The western pluralistic culture, which D. A. Carson analyzed in his 1996 book The Gagging of God, still leant on Christianity. Carson rightly identified that western Christianity was facing down a challenge in pluralism, even if it was a challenge of its own making. At an intellectual level, pluralism created the possibility of hostility to Christianity.
However, at a cultural level Christianity was a neutral choice in a world that offered a buffet of religious, ideological and philosophical options. At the same time, Christianity undergirded the plural structure of society. Western pluralism was a fundamentally Christian pluralism and Christianity could still confront it from a position of cultural dominance. Niebuhr was still relevant for Carson in 1996. Christ could be against the pluralistic culture. Christianity could confront the challenge of religious pluralism head on from a strong position.
However, Carson’s was one of the last works in a dying age. The confrontation of pluralism was one of the main tasks of public Christianity across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The eminent example of Abraham Kuyper illustrates the point. His rhetorical claims centered on “the Revolution” and the impact of unbelief on society. However, in reality Kuyper’s political project, which began in the late 1870s, was that of finding a place for Christianity at the table of pluralistic liberal democracy. Kuyperian politics was an attempt to frame social and religious pluralism in a Christian way.
What began with Kuyper ended, in a way, with Carson. The culture remained pluralistic as long as it remained neutral towards Christianity. But that age is past. No more neutrality. No more pluralism. No more Niebuhr. We are dealing with something new. Therefore, appeals to our pluralistic society, along the lines that Keller suggests, won’t work anymore. Muslims might provide temporary cover for what our culture sees as bigotry, but they will eventually come for them as well.
We will inevitably dispute how we understand the moving target that is this cultural moment. Surely, though, we can agree on one thing: our world has changed. AD 2022 is very different to AD 2002. Whether we ought to frame this change as a shift to “Negative World” along the lines of Aaron Renn, or post-Christian, or a secular age, or Stephen McAlpine’s “sexular age,” things are decidedly different from what they were.
We need to work out how to speak, how to witness to the kingdom of God (to use Sanders’ phrase). Keller takes us some of the way, as does Sanders. But rather than dabbling in rhetorical tactics, we need to think strategically.
Two Christianities: A Proposed Framework
In my analysis of Guy Mason’s public engagement, I hinted at a distinction between two kinds of Christianity. On the one hand, I suggested that Mason may have been trying to be “pastoral” in his approach to the televised interview where David Koch took him to task. Despite this, I asserted that “Mason was acting as a ‘Public Christian,’ whether he intended to or not.”
This distinction was further worked out in a discussion I had with a good friend who is just finishing his preparation for pastoral ministry. He pointed out that most of the cultural analysis that goes on at venues like Mere Orthodoxy, including my own article, is actually of little relevance to the average person in the pew.
Events like the Thorburn saga are important on a certain level, but not on the level of the Christian parishioner. In an everyday sense, their work, their discipleship, their ministry, and their outreach are rarely impacted. Most Christians do not speak in public like Mason did. Most Christians are not applying to be the CEO of an elite professional sporting franchise like Andrew Thorburn. Most Christians are not running for public office.
For the purposes of this conversation about public speech, I propose that there are two kinds of Christianity. The first is “Parish Christianity,” which entails what happens on the Lord’s Day in corporate worship, Bible studies, family discipleship, mercy ministry, youth group, and so forth. This is the everyday Christianity, where normal Christians, including ministers of the word and sacrament, get on with life and ministry in God’s world.
The second type is “Public Christianity.” This is what Mason was doing in his television interview. It is what I am doing writing this article. It is what evangelists are doing when they are preaching on the street. It is what Tim Keller does when he is interviewed on a New York radio station.
This distinction is similar to Kuyper’s “institutional-organic” schema, in which the church spread out in society is distinct from the church gathered on the Lord’s Day. However, Kuyper’s point is ecclesiological; he is describing the church in its different forms and functions. The distinction I am making is not ecclesiological; rather it is ethical. I am framing a particular kind of Christian action, in this case public speech. The frameworks of Public and Parish Christianity will, hopefully, help us think strategically about this ethical problem.
Public Christianity is Christians acting in public as Christians, speaking into the public sphere as Christians. The plumber who is a Christian is not doing public Christianity. Neither is the teacher who is a Christian, even one at a Christian school. I would argue that the plumber, the teacher, and even the minister, are almost always doing parish Christianity. Yes, their actions can be seen by others, and their witness might be public at select times. But generally, their Christianity is not public, at least not in the sense that Mason’s was when he was on television.
There are definite gray areas here. Kevin Vanhoozer rightly notes that the ministerial vocation is “public” in ways much broader than how I have defined it here. Public worship on the Lord’s Day is a space in which Parish and Public Christianity cross over. However, we are interested in public speech here. The Bible has specific advice for speech during public worship – the proclamation of the word is regulated by the word, as is the worship of His people.
But is the speech of the Public Christian regulated in the same fashion? Naturally it is. However, I think the schematic of Public and Parish Christianity might help us parse some of the questions about public engagement that we are now grappling with. Winsomeness has been done away with, according to some. Niceness is off the table, according to others. Still others, like David French, push back and suggest that people are trying to remove the imperative to be kind in public speech.
There is disagreement here on the question of method. I think this is, in part, because we need to account for different kinds of Christian speech. The Apostle James’s warnings about the tongue are general, applying to all speech. So, too, is the Apostle Paul’s advice in Colossians 4:5–6. However, it applies only to an extent when we are referring to Public Christianity.
In Colossians 4, Paul is addressing the church (as is James). The context for Paul’s letter is what I’m calling Parish Christianity. This limits the application, particularly when it comes to a context such as our own, where Public Christianity will always be abrasive. Seasoned with salt? Of course. But the results of salty speech will not be received with the same grace we are obliged to show.
This qualification about passages like Colossians 4 can help us refine our method. Colossians 4 does not offer Christians a method for public speech because it is not about Public Christianity. It is directed to Christians who are trying to live out what Paul elsewhere describes (in 1 Timothy) as peaceful, quiet, and godly lives. Paul is providing ethical advice to Christians in the parish context. The advice is generally applicable to be sure. It covers all Christian utterances. But it is not the only thing regulating Christian public utterances.
If we turn to the scriptures for texts which could regulate how we carry ourselves as Public Christians, we might look to Moses and Aaron before Pharoah in Exodus 7, Jeremiah’s proclamation in Jeremiah 26, Jonah preaching to the Ninevites in Jonah 3, John the Baptist’s confrontation with Herod the Tetrarch in Matthew 14, and Paul before the Areopagus in Acts 17.
These are just some examples. One thing that binds these texts together is they are descriptive rather than prescriptive. Further, they are all different. Moses and Aaron argue forcefully for the rights of the Israelites to worship as they have been called to before the King. John publicly condemns Herod’s sexual immorality, which seems a narrow and quite abrasive method of public speech! Paul notoriously spends lots of time not talking about Jesus, and just as he gets to the gospel, he is stood down.
These are examples of Public Christianity. They offer us models. However, they do not offer us rules. We need prudence in order to navigate this new world, and we need it very badly if we are to be Public Christians in a world where we are pariahs. The Bible offers us models but very little specific guidance, in contrast to Parish Christianity which has a number of passages that directly apply.
How, then, should we speak?
In light of this framework, I think Christians ought to rethink their public engagement. Public Christianity is, in my view, a space where very few people should play. Some are called to it. Billy Graham could appear on national television and preach the gospel to millions. Tim Keller can appear on ABC News and in the New York Times and offer a credible, indeed winsome, version of Public Christianity. Australian figures like Greg Sheridan and Martyn Iles fit this mold, as do English clergymen Giles Fraser and Calvin Robinson.
For most of the remainder of Christians, we need to take a step back. Public Christianity is now a dangerous, challenging space. I recommend something like Jake Meador did in his article: get off Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever your social media drug is. And touch grass. The categories are not neat. Sometimes a person is thrust unexpectedly into a role as a Public Christian, and every believer participates in one way or another in Parish Christianity.
Yet I would contend that such categories can help us move towards a constructive framework for Christians and public speech. Our Facebook posts are Public Christianity, whether we like it or not. So are our tweets. Are we ready to do what Guy Mason tried to do? Mason had been on national television numerous times before his interview with David Koch, and he still wasn’t ready.
Most of us won’t be. That’s because most of us are Parish Christians, not Public Christians. Pastors might need to disciple their people along these lines. Read the times, and get them out of harm’s way.
What does this new framework of the Two Christianities mean for public speech? It means that Wood, Keller, Sanders, and Meador can all be correct in different cases in terms of rhetorical tactics. Where we need to find agreement is our reading of Christianity’s place in public discourse. Richard Niebuhr no longer helps us because we’re no longer talking about a pluralistic-but-Christian society. And because of that, Keller’s advice is useful and sage, but of only limited value.
We need to face reality as it is, not as it was. Public Christianity is no longer a safe space for most Christians. Public speech requires a new level of robustness, preparedness, and awareness that we are not in favor and will no longer get a fair hearing. This necessitates something closer to what James Wood suggests in his winsomeness critique, and what I suggest in my critique of conciliatory approaches to public witness. We need to be prepared to be perceived as abrasive.
Instead of avoiding this reality with rhetoric about Colossians 4 and salty speech, Christians ought to embrace the possibilities and inevitabilities of the moment. Mason was poleaxed on national television as a Public Christian. He had an opportunity to do what Peter says in 1 Peter 3:15, to defend the reason that he and his church hold to the Christian hope. Did he “suffer for doing good” (3:17)? I think he did.
Our Lord warned us that this time would come. It will go and it will come again. It ought to be expected, and therefore should become our modus operandi. “Before all of this they will lay hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness.” (Luke 21:12–13)
Public Christianity is Paul standing before Festus. It is John preaching to Herod. It is Jesus standing silently before the mob. It is Guy Mason on national television. It is the Public Christian’s opportunity to bear witness before kings and governors, before elites, before journalists, and before academics. I am not talking about being nice versus being effective. Public Christians can do both. However, more often than not, being a Public Christian in our Negative World will mean being seen as not nice.
Aiming to keep our seat at the increasingly intolerant liberal table through accommodation, through conciliatory engagement, will result in both not being understood and in being seen as abrasive. There is also an imminent danger that it can result in compromise. In a post-Christian, post-Niebuhr, post-pluralist world, Public Christianity is not nice. Nevertheless, Public Christianity is our opportunity to bear witness before kings.