October 18, 2017

Thriving in the Embattlement: Should Christians Be “Countercultural”?

EndIsNear3

And here I signal my last worry about the way the rhetoric of “countercultural” has functioned within the evangelical world. By drawing our energy out of the opposition to the world—by thriving in the embattlement—we tend to foreclose the possibility that we could win, finally and decisively, the very cultural struggle we are waging. By enshrining its status as a cultural minority, the ‘countercultural’ approach contributes to the conditions which ensure nothing changes. The culture war is self-perpetuating (and the one sound it cannot fathom is genuine laughter at its pretenses).

• Matthew Lee Anderson

• • •

Today I’ll share a few thoughts on two good posts recently read. The first, by Matthew Lee Anderson at Mere Orthodoxy, is called, “Writing as though History Happened: On Being Countercultural Christians.” A second piece, noted by Anderson, is Laura Turner’s, “The Problem with Being Countercultural” at RNS. Hers is a response to David Platt’s book (with its Puritan-like title), Counter Culture: A Compassionate Call to Counter Culture in a World of Poverty, Same-Sex Marriage, Racism, Sex Slavery, Immigration, Abortion, Persecution, Orphans and Pornography. I encourage you to go and read both posts; they are well worth your time.

Anderson places this call for Christians to be “countercultural” squarely within the history of evangelicalism’s persecution complex. He quotes Christian Smith to set it up: “American evangelicalism . . . is strong not because it is shielded against, but because it is—-or at least perceives itself to be — embattled with forces that seem to oppose or threaten it.” Voices expressing concerns about the troubles that are coming (and already here) for conservative Christians in America are getting louder by the day, it seems. In some places, like my own state of Indiana for example, rhetoric is intensifying every day regarding a “religious freedom” bill that is being considered. As Anderson observes, “. . . the fearful evangelical leader shouting about decline still pervades our media world.”

Now Matthew Lee Anderson is a conservative voice out there in the Christian blogosphere, but even he recognizes the limits of this decline narrative and the “cry wolf” consequences evangelicals face because they keep warning of disaster that never seems to come.

And here is the unfortunate effect: by overreacting against various non-offenses and impotently shouting about real shifts in the world that they had no real power to prevent ruined the rhetoric of ruination and decline for the rest of us. Having played the same song so often, evangelical writers—like me—invariably have a credibility gap with anyone who isn’t already convinced. Young conservative evangelicals have been placed into a relatively tricky conundrum: the misuse of narratives of decline have left us without a potentially helpful tool to overcome and resist the naivety of our peers about the social transformations afoot. But carrying on as usual gives such rallying cries the atmosphere of a winnowing, so that anyone who demures is de facto on the outside. And therein lies a path where the declinist narrative becomes its own self-fulfilling prophecy: embattled and thriving, until it’s only we happy few who exist to die.

Good for MLA. He rightly points out that an emphasis on being “countercultural” keeps us from focusing on our own sins and weaknesses, inherited and self-created.

The End Is Near 2He also spoils the party by correctly observing that defining ourselves as “countercultural” “frames the church-world relationship exclusively in terms of negation” when what ought to be most characteristic of the Church is what we affirm. We are to be about integrity not distinctiveness, says Anderson. And integrity requires that we affirm and praise the good in the world around us, not just with tacked on, begrudging, theologically-qualified faint praise, but with genuine appreciation for God’s common grace and the imago Dei that so often shines through our neighbors. Our “yes” should be the most fundamental thing about us. Why, he asks, are we so cheerless? Where is our sense of humor? “In this case, we may have to be good pagans before we can be good Christians: eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow they’re gonna come for your tax breaks.”

Paul famously said: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). Commentators consistently make the point that these qualities are not specifically “Christian” but represent ideals of virtue in the Greco-Roman world. The apostle was no doomsayer. He could simultaneously critique his culture’s idolatry and immorality and at the same time affirm and praise the good that was everywhere apparent. He didn’t preach with a scowl and warn Christians to fight for their rights because the world was out to get them. Though realistic about (real) persecution, he also promoted love of neighbor as the true fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:8-10) and urged believers to extend grace toward those outside the Church (Colossians 4:5-6). Letting one’s light shine does not equal cursing the darkness (real or imagined).

As Matthew Lee Anderson says, the real and ultimate Christian word for the world, the one that should be heard first and loudest and most consistently is: “All will be well.”

Laura Turner adds a couple of important reminders to this. First, she notes how Christian preachers today have turned Paul’s exhortation of Romans 12 — “do not be conformed to the world” — into a call to be “countercultural,” when the two are not necessarily the same.

Furthermore, “countercultural” ends up being defined in certain specific ways and exemplified by people who do certain extraordinary things. Though she doesn’t reference it, this reminds me of all the discussions we’ve had here on contemporary calls to be “radical” — and Platt wrote a book with that very title. What happened to just being a Christian? Attached adjectives should be banished.

Second, she also points us toward the positive rather than the negative of “countercultural.” In her piece, she reminds us that Jesus said his followers would be known by their love, not by how loud they shout doom.

Third, Turner critiques a piece by Rod Dreher at First Things in which he advocates outright separation as the only way we can keep ourselves and our children “safe” from the culture around us. This is wall-building when we should be learning how to build better bridges, she writes. Even worse, within the walls we build, there are the constant temptations of parochialism, group-think, and exclusion of others (and worse) who don’t look or think exactly as we do that have plagued humankind throughout history.

Matthew Lee Anderson and Laura Turner both advise us to lighten up a little and live — live the faith and hope and love that is our birthright. Get out of that smelly bunker and breathe the fresh air. No one is saying don’t take serious issues lightly. Just remember whose Kingdom it is and stop acting like you’re God’s “American sniper.”

All shall be well,
and all shall be well
and all manner of thing shall be well.

• Julian of Norwich

Comments

  1. Faulty O-Ring says:

    comment deleted. Offensive.

  2. “. . . the fearful evangelical leader shouting about decline still pervades our media world.”

    Perhaps combat it by measuring the decline and seeing if it is real. One idea – find Focus on the Family’s speculative “letter from a Christian in 2012” (2016?) that they put out shortly before the 2008 election and see how accurately reality matches its predictions.

    • “Perhaps combat it by measuring the decline and seeing if it is real”

      Isn’t checking to see if any claim is real a good idea?

      Global poverty? WAY DOWN [within the last 30 years the percentage of people living in extreme poverty has decreased by more than half]
      Violent Crime? WAY DOWN.
      Teen Pregnancy? Down. [-10%]
      Abortion? Down. [-8%]
      Cancer Survival Rates? WAY UP.
      Automobile crash survival? Up

      Disaster! the sky is clearing falling. The funny thing about these some of these trend lines – they make it pretty clear that things were substantively worst at the [albeit vague] point in time when, whoever these Chicken Littles are, are claiming it was better.

      I am optimistic on this score – the disaster narrative is burning out. Particularly among the younger generation – they just don’t dance to that fiddle; so the louder and more stridently the fiddler tries to play – all the better.

      • These are all wonderful and encouraging signs about human life on planet earth, and I am happy to see them.

        I am Catholic, so I don’t feel as if I ‘have a dog in this fight’ as evangelicals (some, not all, of course) yell and protest against the state of the world….perhaps because it is clear to me that those who follow Christ have been out of step with the ‘real world’ and its values for two millennia.

        What does concern me is how difficult it is for people, especially young adults, to hear the call of God and understand the loving principals and underpinnings of all of the rules that seem so quaintly out-of-step in 2015. God is either ignored as a fairy tale for children and idiots, or He is acknowledged as a relic from less ‘enlightened’ times in history. The fact that this is HIS world, He made us, and has given us direction on living our short lives here on the planet for our own GOOD is not a word that many hear, and even fewer accept. To use a hot button example, the Lord directs us to express our sexuality either in a one man-one woman permanent covenant NOT to send cold rain on our fun, but because He made us and knows how we are meant to function properly. THIS gets reframed as hate, judgment, and an anachronism.

        Clearly the world is not now, nor has it ever been, a Christian eutopia….it is, truly, just a waystation on our way to immortal life. The biggest issue is that the world is SOOOO busy and noisy that the small, still Voice doesn’t stand too much of a chance reaching anyone except the already focused choir………..

        • EDIIT: “either in a one man-one women permanent covenant *OR in CELIBACY…..*”

        • Pattie, in fairness, the way people hear of Christian morals is not usually framed in the way you put it there. I won’t place the blame on any one tradition – in our day to day practical theology very few of us do it well, and those who do aren’t the ones broadcast widely by media.

          I am blessed to have friends in a broad religious spectrum, friends that I can speak frankly with on any topic. When they ask me questions about my christianity and I express things the way you did in your comment, they say things like, “I have never heard that before.” This isn’t just my pagan friends either, but those raised in various christian traditions.

          When you dumb down the message of Christianity to, “Don’t do these things/do those other things so you don’t go to Hell,” you get good sound bites but a terrible theology of sin. When you won’t even admit the possibility of the need in our lives of following Christ’s commandments, you get a terrible theology of sin as well.

          When you really present (and live) the path you described, that is very attractive to young people. It does not play well in sound bites, though, so it is not the prevailing narrative.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            When you dumb down the message of Christianity to, “Don’t do these things/do those other things so you don’t go to Hell,” you get good sound bites but a terrible theology of sin.

            You get a Fire Insurance scheme and/or “Forget the other lifeboats, I’m Aboard!”

            Fear of Punishment alone makes a poor motivator. Ever heard of the pre-Civil War black term “jus’ gettin’ by”? It meant doing just enough to avoid the overseer’s whip and nothing more. (And I’m not even touching on the corollary of God becoming just the One Holding The Biggest Whip.)

          • I’m reading through Tullian’s Jonah book at the moment, and I honestly hate it, despite being a fan of Tullian.

            The idea that keeps getting expressed in the book is “God says to love him or he’ll kill you/send you to hell.”

            I can’t agree with that anymore. That just breeds Law. Live as if God does exist…so just follow his laws and you’ll be ok? No.

            Love God, or else.

            Else what?

            He’ll kill you.

          • Christiane says:

            combine the ‘I’m saved’ (assurance theology) with “you’re a sinner and you are on your way to a devil’s hell” (Phariseeism ad nauseum) and throw in a little bit of FOX News world view, and you may get a people who are more likely to sin in what they do NOT do in the way of engaging the world’s pain in the Name of Christ (“but that’s called ‘works’ and ‘filthy rags in the sight of God'”)

            and ” no worries about fading numbers of membership, as we now have the opportunity to call ourselves ‘a prophetic remnant’ ”

            one does wonder if the darkness of this way of thinking doesn’t sometimes seem oppressive to those inside its capsule
            ?

          • Christiane: “one does wonder if the darkness of this way of thinking doesn’t sometimes seem oppressive to those inside its capsule”

            One wonders this from the outside. From personal experience – inside it has a potent appeal. There is a dark part of you that relishes it; it provides a certainty, which however grim, is at least certain. And when things do go terribly you get to say “see, I told you so”. From inside you can look out through those darkly tinted windows and sing about people being “on the outside looking bored”.

            Once outside you realize it is a sunny day and those people who looked bored are laughing.

          • Stuart B,

            “I can’t agree with that anymore. That just breeds Law. Live as if God does exist…so just follow his laws and you’ll be ok? No.
            Love God, or else.
            Else what?
            He’ll kill you.”

            Say hello to my pal Cognitive Dissonance.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            I can’t agree with that anymore. That just breeds Law. Live as if God does exist…so just follow his laws and you’ll be ok? No.

            Love God, or else.

            Else what?

            He’ll kill you.

            Remember the last four words of Orwell’s 1984, after 6079 Smith W has been broken to the System in Room 101?

            “HE LOVED BIG BROTHER.”

        • What does concern me is how difficult it is for people, especially young adults, to hear the call of God and understand the loving principals and underpinnings of all of the rules that seem so quaintly out-of-step in 2015.

          Mostly because we are starting to see the assumptions and sleight of hand in statements similar to this. We are told these are things of God, and then we learn they really aren’t, they were made up, often entirely, for much different contexts and worlds. So then the question naturally becomes, what did God really say. And often, the ones who first interpreted God for us, don’t like the conclusions we come to.

          No offense intended to you, at all.

        • To use a hot button example, the Lord directs us to express our sexuality either in a one man-one woman permanent covenant NOT to send cold rain on our fun, but because He made us and knows how we are meant to function properly.

          But did He really. That’s the question. If it can be shown that He didn’t really direct us that way, that some religious leaders cobbled together ideas in order to preserve a status quo (or, Idk, start a whole new church when they wanted a divorce), then why should we ever accept anything “GOD” supposedly says?

          Bad theology often arises from bad interpretations of Scripture. The more historical you view things like the first few chapters of Genesis, the more bad theology you will come up with. “Bad” to me and others, yes, but not bad to you. But you judge things based on their fruit.

        • “What does concern me is how difficult it is for people, especially young adults, to hear the call of God”

          Is it? This message is easy to find, for anyone interested.

          “and understand the loving principals and underpinnings of all of the rules that seem so quaintly out-of-step in 2015.”

          Have you seen the motif in the chamber of the Supreme Court? These principals are enshrined all around us.

          “God is either ignored as a fairy tale for children and idiots,”

          By whom? I am sorry, but I do not recognize this description of the world around me. Sure there is a loud smug jerk here and there, but most people are respectful even if they are not observant.

          I attended a public community college, I did not hide my beliefs, I carried a Bible, and not once was I confronted or accosted by anyone. The most “persecution” was a comment of “hey, reading your instruction manual” and that said in a warm joking way.

          “and has given us direction on living our short lives here on the planet for our own GOOD is not a word that many hear, and even fewer accept.”

          I believe that is a message people hear – A LOT. They don’t accept it, because it is just another guy telling them what to do.

          “To use a hot button example, the Lord directs us to express our sexuality”

          Always this.

          “either in a one man-one woman permanent covenant NOT to send cold rain on our fun, but because He made us and knows how we are meant to function properly. THIS gets re-framed as hate, judgement, and an anachronism.”

          How often does it sound like Hate and Judgement? [and I say this as from a very conservative/orthodox position on sexual edits]

          And why this issue? Why is SEX always related to ‘standing apart’? I ask as a boring straight middle-aged middle-class married white guy – how often do issues of Sexuality come up? Really, I would like someone to explain the predominance of this issue to me. Because I know the answer is almost zero; it doesn’t come up. Nobody is enquiring as to my sexual ethics. They just don’t care. If I am faithful to my wife, or not, how would they know? I meet people – 99.44% of the time I have no idea if they are asexual, gay, straight, or one-of-those-other-letters. They are neighbours, coworkers, customers, people on the bus or train… their sexuality is completely remote from me. Is there someone for whom this issue comes up on a weekly or even daily basis? Really? Comes up without THEM raising the issue somehow? And the person who brings up sexuality/gender/whatever-I-am-supposed-to-call-it during the meeting, in line to get coffee, waiting for the train – that person is *weird*, everyone runs away from them, and everyone should.

          • Because God forbid we let people do what they want and what we ourselves can’t do.

            We’ll be the judgement they deserve.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            And why this issue? Why is SEX always related to ‘standing apart’? I ask as a boring straight middle-aged middle-class married white guy – how often do issues of Sexuality come up? Really, I would like someone to explain the predominance of this issue to me.

            Because Christians are just as messed-up/obsessed sexually as everyone else, just in a different direction.

        • The world is NOT “JUST a waystation on our way to immortal life.”

          Bad theology. Roman Catholic or otherwise. The RC theologians I read do not say that.

      • Yes, nearly all major trends are in the right direction. I often say that teen pregnancy rates have come down a lot since I was in high school in the 1980s — though this assertion does absolutely nothing for my personal reputation.

        The reduction in global poverty, in particular, is astounding, and something to always remember when discussion turns to the 1%ers.

        Beyond the continuous level-setting of the media, threby ensuring that violent crime will ALWAYS make up xx% of the newscast, maybe one good reason for the staying power of the Declinest narrative is that these trends are *not* so true of certain sub-segments of society. For instance, divorce rates, which you didn’t mention, are also WAY down — at least among those with college educations, where it’s practically back to 1950s levels. At the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, however, family life is quite disordered for 101 different economic and cultural reasons.

        But even there in the trailer park, is it getting WORSE? I don’t know.

        • “teen pregnancy rates have come down a lot since I was in high school in the 1980s”

          I was in high-school in the 80s; those were bleak days.

          “Beyond the continuous level-setting of the media, threby ensuring that violent crime will ALWAYS make up xx% of the newscast”

          Yep.

          “maybe one good reason for the staying power of the Declinest narrative is that these trends are *not* so true of certain sub-segments of society.”

          Certainly. And I do not advocate an Ascending Narrative; I just want to debunk the Descending Narratives. These narratives get in the way of talking about Reality, with all its related nuance and complexity.

          Forget being Counter-Cultural, just be Informed.

          “For instance, divorce rates, which you didn’t mention, are also WAY down”

          Yes, I did not mention divorce rates on purpose, those numbers are harder to understand. And the rate of marriage has fallen considerably – thus won’t divorce rates fall at least partly due to that? That marriage rates have fallen may be a good or bad trend depending on perspective. Lack of marriage may create familial instability, or it could just be reseting to a normal rate after being unusually high for several decades [prior to WWII something like ~20% of people never married].

          “At the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, however, family life is quite disordered for 101 different economic and cultural reasons.”

          Agree. And the narratives really gum up productive conversations about those reasons.

          “But even there in the trailer park, is it getting WORSE? I don’t know”

          It would be very hard to say. The lower one’s economic position the more vulnerable one is to very local economic conditions, the higher one’s economic position the more insulated. So that data is likely to be all over the map [literally] and from there the big curves can seem completely unrelated. Again – the narratives are counter-productive.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Certainly. And I do not advocate an Ascending Narrative; I just want to debunk the Descending Narratives. These narratives get in the way of talking about Reality, with all its related nuance and complexity.

            You just want a REALISTIC and ACCURATE Narrative.

          • “You just want a REALISTIC and ACCURATE Narrative.”

            No, I don’t But we’ve been over this before. I do not believe a narrative is necessary. Humans are better than that.

        • Reduction of Global poverty rates isn’t in any way widespread, it is largely due to China, which is a very big country and makes the global situation look better than it is.

        • …and yet I get blowback when suggesting the world is getting back, snide remarks about postmillennialism dying in the 20th century, blah blah, blah blah

        • Reminder that a Christian rock star from Ireland has been instrumental in reducing and eliminating global debt. All motivated from a love for Christ and the Scriptures.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        I am optimistic on this score – the disaster narrative is burning out. Particularly among the younger generation – they just don’t dance to that fiddle; so the louder and more stridently the fiddler tries to play – all the better.

        When running around in circles screaming doesn’t work, RUN FASTER AND SCREAM LOUDER!

        “And stop screaming. Nobody likes a religion with people screaming.”
        — the original Internet Monk

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Disaster! the sky is clearing falling. The funny thing about these some of these trend lines – they make it pretty clear that things were substantively worst at the [albeit vague] point in time when, whoever these Chicken Littles are, are claiming it was better.

        But at that [albeit vague] point in time (AKA The Nifty Fifties) EVERYONE WENT TO CHURCH!!!!!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      One idea – find Focus on the Family’s speculative “letter from a Christian in 2012? (2016?) that they put out shortly before the 2008 election and see how accurately reality matches its predictions.

      You mean this one?
      The Persecution Dystopia where The Obama and The Homosexuals win?
      http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/riffs-110708-patrol-magazines-commentary-on-the-family-research-councils-scare-tactics
      (As I said in the comments, it’s pretty lame even for the didactic “Warning from The Future” sub-genre. Hits every talking point of Christianese fear.)

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        My first semi-pro publication was in an anthology of Catholic-themed SF. Even though the editor had taken pains to select as wide a variety of sub-genres as possible (mine was hard-edged space-opera), the predominant sub-genre background was still Near-Future Persecution Dystopia.

  3. I’m not so much concerned about “No”, and being counter cultural as I am about agreeing, and being friends WITH the culture. And we SHOULD be distinct from the culture around us, else what exactly would we have that the culture would want?

    In society today being “counter cultural” is a badge of honor because it means tweaking the nose of “The Man”, standing apart from the herd and going your own way. But the Christian must NOT abandon patterns of behavior exhibited by other believers for two thousand years just for the sake of being accepted by the prevailing culture, with the unspoken hope that what they believe will be taken seriously. THAT’S not even being “missional”, that is being COMPROMISED!

    Following Christ and living a Jesus shaped spirituality will necessarily be at odds with the relativistic surrounding culture, a life that accentuates what the culture cannot provide: peace with God.

    • I think Laura Turner puts her finger on the problem I have with what you say, Oscar. Not saying this is true of you personally, but I know it is prevalent throughout Christian circles.

      Standing “against” the predominant culture is easy if you don’t know anyone in the predominant culture. Waving protest signs is easy if you’re part of a group that chooses to picket rather than engage. If you’re preaching to a bunch of people who think the same way you do, you don’t get any awards for reinforcing what they already believe. That’s not bravery; that’s an echo chamber.

      • CM, my point is not so much a defense of counter cultural-ism, or a condemnation of it. My point is that if we really are serious about living a Jesus shaped spirituality then we would have no need to worry about being counter cultural, nor would we have to be concerned about blending in to the predominant society. We would naturally stand APART from BOTH of these groups, not in opposition but, rather in COMPARISON to them. We wouldn’t have to shout nor would we have to condemn. We would be a city on a hill, a light in the darkness.

        Groupthink is a BAD thing, no matter which viewpoint one chooses. Jesus died for individuals who would, collectively become the Bride, He did not die for an organization to which people would be admitted if they conformed to some set of beliefs.

        • I am in agreement with Oscar (I think) on this one: there appear to be two extremes on this one, both harmful: 1) exclude yourself and sequester yourself away from the world in such a way that there is no real relationship and Christ honoring friendship/influence. FWIW: I did NOT read Mr. Dreher to be advocating this in his article. And 2) become friendly with the culture in such a way that you can’t be real salt and light, you wink-wink and nudge-nudge when real life morality and lifestyle decisions mean decisions have to be made that move us nearer to , or farther from the source of life, GOD Himself.

          Two extremes , both to be avoided. I like your comments , Oscar: the wrong kind of friendship with the world is enmity to GOD…… or so I’ve heard.

        • We would naturally stand APART from BOTH of these groups, not in opposition but, rather in COMPARISON to them. We wouldn’t have to shout nor would we have to condemn. We would be a city on a hill, a light in the darkness.

          Separate these ideas from isolationalism, and what are you left with?

          A person who donates time and money to charity is apart and compared to those who don’t.

          A person who pushes for a fewer hour work week so employees can spend time with family is apart and compared to those who don’t.

          A man who argues for debt cancellation is apart and compared from those who don’t.

          etc

    • “. But the Christian must NOT abandon patterns of behavior exhibited by other believers for two thousand years just for the sake of being accepted by the prevailing culture”

      Such as?

      “I’m not so much concerned about “No”, and being counter cultural as I am about agreeing, and being friends WITH the culture”

      Is being a Friend such a terrible thing?

      • Finn, when you are indistinguishable from society as a whole then , yeah, it IS a bad thing. Did Jesus stand apart from society? Indeed He DID, but it is the reason WHY He did, the same reason WE should as well.

        Personal holiness and piety, generosity of spirit (AND wallet!) are a couple of those qualities that Christians have exhibited over the centuries. Jesus qualities. And if you choose to focus on the BAD things that Christians have done then you are not asking yourself what, exactly, IS a Christian, and what should he/she look like. Chances are good that the malefactors may CLAIM to be Christian, but at the judgement discover the real truth. It is not OUR job to remove the tares from the wheat, but it IS our job, our INDIVIDUAL job, to be sure that we are not a tare.

        • I’m hear you Oscar. But it’s not so simple to me.

          Because when I compare myself to my non-Christian friends… I am no different; they are generous with their time, their love and their money, they are quiet caring people with humble intelligent opinions on ethics and faith, they eat, drink, and have fun and try their hardest to be “good people” by their own standards. That is why they are my friends!

          So yes, I worry that I do not look “different” enough from my non-Christian friends. It makes me feel like I am not a good-enough Christian. The narrative about needing to be “counter-culture” makes me feel lacking, because my culture is their culture.

          And I could do more! I could devote more of my money and time to soup kitchens and shelters, I could quit my job and become a missionary, I could be a full-time foster parent. But I am weak, and I do not live up to the ideals I set for myself.

          At the end of the day, I am the me-that-I-am, not the me-that-I-could-be. And I am not so different from the culture around me. So I tell myself the goal is not to be different. The goal is to be as loving as I can be, to my family and friends. My hope is that it will be enough. I worry I am not different enough, and I worry that I am not good enough. I worry that I am not a Christian, but merely a tare. And I hope that in Christ, in time, even the tares can be made new.

          • Love your comment, kerokline. And this really resonates with me:

            “I worry that I am not a Christian, but merely a tare. And I hope that in Christ, in time, even the tares can be made new.”

            Sometimes I worry that I’m a tare, yes.

            And upon reflection, sometimes I think other Christians – THOSE Christians, the fundamental, clueless ones – are tares.

            Lord have mercy on me.

          • Because when I compare myself to my non-Christian friends… I am no different; they are generous with their time, their love and their money, they are quiet caring people with humble intelligent opinions on ethics and faith, they eat, drink, and have fun and try their hardest to be “good people” by their own standards.

            Idea: maybe this is a good thing. Maybe this means that the Kingdom is coming more and more.

            Why should we look at being any more different?

        • Christiane says:

          seems to me that Our Lord received criticism for engaging with many different kinds of people all across the spectrum of His world . . . so apparently in those days, people did not associate with those they considered inferior . . . so He goes and eats with sinners and his followers don’t get it . . .

          even day, many of His followers still don’t get it . . . something sad about that, I think

        • society as a whole

          Oscar, I guess I’m not sure what you mean by this, or “the culture.” (Though I certainly did spend a lot of time in churches where the latter was a catch-phrase.) It seems to me that “society as a whole” is not the same thing as “the things in our society that I believe are wrong” (no matter who believes things are wrong, or what they believe is wrong).

          I am not certain that I understand this view of “society as a whole” as some kind of enemy, or as something that’s totally opposed to religion of any kind, or… Do you see what I’m getting at? Our society, on the whole, is far preferable to that of most places – we could be hugely impoverished, with only a tiny fraction of the population have much of any money at all, or we could be living under a military dictatorship, or in an incredibly repressive society, like that of N. Korea. But the fact is, we’re not, and there is so much more (imo) to our than whatever you, or I, or anyone else perceives as its bad or immoral or unjust elements. That there are such things is indisputable, but somehow I find it hard to accept that the people who make up “society at large” are awful, unethical, unfair, immoral, and unjust.

          • sorry, “society as a whole” was supposed to be in a blockquote above. Forgot the correct tag form for this platform.

          • “somehow I find it hard to accept that the people who make up “society at large” are awful, unethical, unfair, immoral, and unjust.”

            +1

            For two reasons (a) it is illogical, things work far to well for all those people to be so awful (b) I’ve met them, most of them seem normal to me.

      • This meme needs to die.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        “. But the Christian must NOT abandon patterns of behavior exhibited by other believers for two thousand years just for the sake of being accepted by the prevailing culture”

        Such as?

        Our BIBLICAL Stand against HOMOSEXUALITY and EVOLUTION?

    • Another problem with the conception of a Christian “counter-cultural” outlook is that it’s ultimately counterfeit. They’re both transitory – the culture and the counter-culture – and are things as John puts it that we “should love not.” Whatever the kingdom is about, it doesn’t take its cues from the world.

      After all, even Jesus affirmed that his kingdom was not of this world – of the sort that Pilate both served and of the sorts that he suppressed in the name of power – because otherwise his followers would fight. Pilate at least recognized – and accepted the notion of – what Jesus was saying concerning himself and his community of faith and was prepared to release him until the religious leadership threatened him with the culturally-based power he was himself used to wielding unless he moved the execution of Jesus forward.

    • In society today being “counter cultural” is a badge of honor

      No it doesn’t. It just means you like your granola free-range and toasted.

      • “In society today being “counter cultural” is a badge of honor” -> “No it doesn’t.”

        +1

  4. -> “This is wall-building when we should be learning how to build better bridges…”

    My pastor just gave a sermon on this very thing! Good stuff in this article, CM. Thanks.

  5. This reminds me of Bonhoeffer’s words in Letters and Papers from Prison, in part of which he talks about Christians being at the center of life and world, not at the periphery, and affirming life and the vitality of the world rather than hanging our hopes on death and limitation. I think it’s a good point to emphasize; if all we see in Jesus Christ is how he negates and judges the world, we have nothing positive to give. Jesus is redeemer, but he is Lord first; it’s easy to forget that when we primarily occupy positions of opposition.

    • This means that the world is not merely a platform for evangelism, valued only for the opportunities it presents to make converts, and judged whenever it frustrates those efforts. The world is to be celebrated and affirmedaffirmed for its own sake as a creation of God. Conversely, and ironically, this allows us to truly and freely mourn with the world when it mourns, without ignominiously exploiting every tragedy merely as an opportunity to evangelize.

      • This.

      • And not only celebrate it but also to point out its broken-ness and the solution for its restoration.

        • Jazziscoolithink says:

          Or point out the brokenness in yourself is maybe a better way to go. How very easy it is to point at the brokenness of the world. How difficult it is, at times, to really see it in myself.

        • Oscar, Are you saying it’s impossible to celebrate and affirm the non-Christian world without also pointing a finger? Why does every positive always have to be accompanied by a negative? Did God create the world so that he would have something to wag a chiding finger at?

  6. “American evangelicalism . . . is strong not because it is shielded against, but because it is—-or at least perceives itself to be — embattled with forces that seem to oppose or threaten it.” Voices expressing concerns about the troubles that are coming (and already here) for conservative Christians in America are getting louder by the day, it seems.

    And how many times are those foes self-generated, and/or the bugaboos of middle-class culture?

    When I hear calls to be “counter-cultural”, I hear them as calls to examine our blind spots, and work to correct them. American evangelicals are not blind to what they perceive as the overt sins of the wider culture (often having to do with sex). Their/our own sins, however, always get a pass…

    • “American evangelicals are not blind to … sins of the wider culture… Their/our own sins, however, always get a pass…”

      Beyond this perhaps it is not necessary to speak of the world, or “wider culture”, or even one’s own culture, in terms of “sin”? The name-the-evils parades get old, and eventually people leave to go do something else [and after awhile one begins to wonder about the people who stay]. This is not denying the reality of Sin, but Sin is a rather specific concept, not to mention a conversation killer. And how many burdens do people bear, how many things to people suffer from, which just aren’t Sin? At least not in any overt way, the merely the echos of histortic sin. If I can do something to improve someone’s life do I really need to be able to blame someone for the condition I am improving? Who cares! Just make it better.

      • Well, THAT could be another facet of Evangelical culture that needs countering. 😉 We appoint to ourselves the right to call out everyone and everything about how sinful they are – but we tend to forget that the people Jesus came down hardest on for their sins, were the folks who called out everyone else for their sins and had no appreciation of their own.

  7. He’s giving us the fundamentalist’s and secularists definition of “counterculture”.

    The Christ centered Christian is countercultural not because he/she rants about sin and how to get the individual and the culture back where it belongs. But we are countercultural because we trust in God’s Word that there is no fixing us or this world (even though we do all we can to make ourselves better neighbors and the world a better place in which to live).

    There is an end game in this thing called his-story. And we proclaim this into a lost and dying world.

    That’s how we are countercultural.

    • Thank you Steve! That is what I tried to say when I said we need to “stand apart” from society and culture. “Counter” means “against”, “in opposition to” and as Christians that is NOT what we should be focusing on.

      • The devil is in the definitions. See also no true scotsman.

        Separate out the isolationalism and bunker mentality. Banish the ideas of creating a new Zion, Illinois, or Christian book store chains, or Christian music labels, or Christian restaurants.

        How then are we to “stand apart” from society and culture.

        Should any single person look at another person and *know* that person is a believer or not, simply by appearance? Or does it come out of their actions?

        • This one has been asked and answered……by

          “See these Christians and how they love one another!!”

          or

          “…and they will know we are Christians by our Love”

          Now, the hard part: what does this look and feel like???

  8. “As Matthew Lee Anderson says, the real and ultimate Christian word for the world, the one that should be heard first and loudest and most consistently is: “All will be well.”

    “All shall be well
    And all shall be well
    And all manner of thing shall be well”

    God I love these words. Wouldn’t it be nice if this was part of a typical Christian catechism? Part of a statement of belief?

    Question: “Do you believe that all shall be well? That all manner of things shall be well?”
    Answer: “Well, I do….kind of. I mean, it’s complicated. And the Bible says lots of stuff. Certainly not ALL will be well. What about justice?”
    Reply: “Wrong”

    The fact is, in my experience at least, there is no sense in which the vast majority of Christians actually believe these words – nor does mainstream Christian theology affirm it. At best, all shall be well FOR “US” (we chosen few), for those who are IN. Or the words “all” and “well” become so nuanced as to be meaningless. And that, IMO, is the backdrop for the subject matter of this and the referenced posts. The culture wars, the focus on negation rather than affirmation, the emphasis on being countercultural and on distinctives, the piece from Rod Dreher suggesting outright separation, etc. – they’re all born out of fear of punishment for ourselves, our loved ones, our neighbors. They’re the natural result of the underlying belief system – they’re not an anomaly. Of course distinctiveness is necessary at times, but a distinctiveness born out of suffering (when needed) love and “walking as Christ walked” in the hope that all shall indeed be well would look much different than fearful separatism. I’m talking to myself here too – this is the culture that I was raised in.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      At best, all shall be well FOR “US” (we chosen few), for those who are IN. Or the words “all” and “well” become so nuanced as to be meaningless.

      Only for the Inner Ring with the Speshul Occult Gnosis.

    • Mike H, Yes. Few Christians actually believe that ALL will be well; I’m more and more inclined to want to identify myself as one of those few. I have such a strong hankering to go sit the the Quakers, and I would, if my personal life wasn’t so mixed up with church stuff; the Quakers seem to trust that all indeed will be well. That’s why they’re willing to take them time to just sit together in silence, and listen to each other, and for God.

      • YES, sitting, waiting, listening, being present in the moment doesn’t make much sense unless all shall be well. There’s too much at stake.

    • Hi MIKE H.

      that saying you like by Julian of Norwich ?
      actually, it IS a part of the Vatican Catechism . . . take a look:

      313 “We know that in everything God works for good for those who love him.”180 The constant witness of the saints confirms this truth:

      St. Catherine of Siena said to “those who are scandalized and rebel against what happens to them”: “Everything comes from love, all is ordained for the salvation of man, God does nothing without this goal in mind.”181
      St. Thomas More, shortly before his martyrdom, consoled his daughter: “Nothing can come but that that God wills. and I make me very sure that whatsoever that be, seem it never so bad in sight, it shall indeed be the best.”182
      Dame Julian of Norwich: “Here I was taught by the grace of God that I should steadfastly keep me in the faith… and that at the same time I should take my stand on and earnestly believe in what our Lord shewed in this time – that ‘all manner (of) thing shall be well.'”183

      http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P19.HTM

      and likely you will find that it is a treasured part of the teaching of the Anglican communion also, as well as of many other mainline Christian Churches with ties to the great literary tradition of the Church catholic

      • Thanks Christiane! The quote as shown there is a bit different than the one I’m familiar with.

        Now the question, is it true and trustworthy, or pious rhetoric? I’m accustomed to seeing many qualifications for the “all”.

        • Christiane says:

          Hi MIKE,

          that saying you like so much is from St. Julian of Norwich, a Catholic ‘mystic’, who was speaking from a ‘private revelation’. In my Church we may accept these ‘private’ revelations or not, in accordance with our consciences, which may seem strange.

          So when you ask is the saying ‘true and trustworthy’ or ‘pious rhetoric’, I must consider how best to respond to your question.
          I can refer you to the sacred Scripture quotation given in the Catechism, this:
          ” We know that in everything God works for good for those who love Him.” (from Romans 8:28)

          or I can share my own understanding, which comes from this prayer:
          ‘Jesus, I trust in You.”
          It is within that prayer, that I find my own meaning for ‘all shall be well’.

          A story:
          I agonized over my husband’s decision to be cremated and buried at sea by the USNavy, and then I came across this in the Book of Revelation Chapter 20:13 “And the sea gave up the dead which were in it . . . ”
          So I thought, if Our Lord, the Giver of Life, can call the dead to life with such power that even the sea will obey Him, then my husband’s manner of burial should no longer cause me to be fearful. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time the sea obeyed His command.

          I hope that my response will encourage you to remain open to the sacred words of Our Lord so that through the difficulties and worries of your own sojourning, you will come to find in Him your own understanding of ‘and all shall be well’

          Now, I do not know your faith tradition, but in my Church we have a saying, this:
          “”To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.” (Thomas Aquinas, 13th Century)

          • Christiane,

            Apologies – meant that to be more a rhetorical question than one aimed at you. Thanks for your thoughts.

            I’m fairly familiar with the quote by Julian of Norwich. It may have been attached to the Romans verse in this particular case, but it could just have easily been attached to other verses. And while I don’t want to force the Romans verse to answer questions that it isn’t addressing, I do think that it highlights the challenge that I was originally alluding to.

            This promise that “all things” work together is for those who “love God”. This “all things”, the “all shall be well”, is for a select group – a group defined different ways by different groups. Relevant to this catechism even, there certainly was (still is?) a less ecumenical time when Catholics believed that those outside of Catholicism wouldn’t qualify as those who “love God”. And the same could be said for other traditions because what it means to “love God” is not something that’s universally agreed upon or self-evident. “All shall be well” IF ______ (fill in the blank) and the conditions kick in. If I heard a message to the world that “all shall be well” in Christ, it wouldn’t seem like a different emphasis – it would seem like an all together different message than what I’m used to hearing (when I read the fine print). Could such a message come from a double predestination Calvinist? The vast majority of Christians believe that all will be very, very not well for SOME when all is said and done. Not looking to stir anything up – this just is what it is and I no longer pretend that it’s not the case. And I only bring it up at all because I think it provides the context by which I understand the separatism, the need to be countercultural, the focus on what we are not and what we negate. It’s a natural outgrowth.

          • For me, a lot of it boils down to how my thinking about “faith” has changed. When I was first presented with “faith” it was presented as fire insurance. Beliefs that I needed to have (or at least profess to have) to get an angry God off my back – or to get God to sort of “change his mind” about me. If I have “faith”, then God won’t send me to hell! I eventually realized that this makes no sense – it puts the self at the center of the universe. It’s not “faith in the strength of my own faith” that matters or “unwavering faith in my own love for God” that impresses God so much that he’s legally obligated to do something for me. Truth be told I’m in BIG trouble if those are the criteria. It’s faith in God himself – God’s goodness, love, willingness and ability to make all things well. I might have a mustard seed of that on my better days.

            Thomas Merton articulated this better than I ever could:

            “The theology of the devil is really not theology but magic. “Faith” in this theology is really not the acceptance of a God Who reveals Himself as mercy. It is a psychological, subjective “force” which applies a kind of violence to reality in order to change it according to one’s own whims. Faith is a kind of supereffective wishing: a mastery that comes from a special, mysteriously dynamic will power that is generated by “profound convictions.” By virtue of this wonderful energy one can exert a persuasive force even on God Himself and bend His will to one’s own will. By this astounding new dynamic soul force of faith (which any quack can develop in you for an appropriate remuneration) you can turn God into a means to your own ends. We become civilized medicine men, and God becomes our servant. Though He is terrible in His own right, He respects our sorcery, He allows Himself to be tamed by it……

            We have faith. But there is a subtle dialectic in all this, too. We hear that faith does everything. So we close our eyes and strain a bit, to generate some “soul force.” We believe. We believe. Nothing happens. We close our eyes again, and generate some more soul force. The devil likes us to generate soul force. He helps us to generate plenty of it. We are just gushing with soul force. But nothing happens. So we go on with this until we become disgusted with the whole business. We get tired of “generating soul force.” We get tired of this “faith” that does not do anything to change reality. It does not take away our anxieties, our conflicts, it leaves us a prey to uncertainty. It does not lift all responsibilities off our shoulders. Its magic is not so effective after all. It does not thoroughly convince us that God is satisfied with us, or even that we are satisfied with ourselves (though in this, it is true, some people’s faith is often quite effective). Having become disgusted with faith, and therefore with God, we are now ready for the Totalitarian Mass Movement that will pick us up on the rebound and make us happy with war, with the persecution of “inferior races” or of enemy classes, or generally speaking, with actively punishing someone who is different from ourselves.”

          • Hi MIKE,
            I appreciate your response, and I do understand your concern over ‘all shall be well’ being applied only to select group(s) . . .

            but ‘love’ in the sense of ‘the love of God’ may actually be far more inclusive than many Christian people acknowledge for who is going to be ‘well’ in the end
            . . . there are two considerations:

            first, these passages in sacred Scripture, which you won’t find fundamentalists quoting:
            ” God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. ”
            (from 1 John 4:16) and this:
            ” . . . love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.”
            (from 1 John 4:7)

            secondly, this from Catholic teaching:
            “. . . that “God in ways known to himself can lead those inculpably ignorant of the Gospel” to the faith necessary for salvation (AG 7). Certainly, the condition “inculpably ignorant” cannot be verified nor weighed by human evaluation, but must be left to the divine judgment alone. For this reason, the Council states in the Constitution Gaudium et Spes that in the heart of every man of good will, “Grace works in an unseen way…. The Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery”

            or, as the hymn proclaims:
            “No race or creed can love exclude, if honored be God’s name;
            Our family embraces all whose Father is the same.”

  9. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    The culture war is self-perpetuating (and the one sound it cannot fathom is genuine laughter at its pretenses).

    Because there can be no humor in Fundamentalism. Only the never-ending, constant, unsmiling concentration on The Cause. Whether that Cause is Christian, Islamic, Marxist-Leninist, Objectivist, Sexual, or Global Warming.

    • Marcus Johnson says:

      Maybe if we tried combining causes, we could find the humor. How about Christian Sexual Fundamentalism? Islamic Global Warming Fundamentalism? Objectivist Marxist-Leninist Sexual Fundamentalism?

      • I’d laugh at Christian Sexual Fundamentalism, but we have the Pearls and Purity Movement.

      • Heh.

        I know more than a couple Objectivist Marxist-Leninist Sexual Fundamentalists. The are objectivist libertatian hyper-conservatives regarding all policies that do not benefit them, and ardent raging collectivists regarding all policies that do benefit them, and they are prudes with insight into Biblical secrets.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          “Objectivist Marxist-Leninist Sexual Fundamentalists”?

          That sounds like the terrorist group’s Manifesto in that one Max Headroom episode, whose jargon contradicted itself almost every word.

    • I’ve begun laughing, and have founded others who laugh.

      It gets lonely, but there are companions.

    • Christiane says:

      don’t forget the ‘Lebensborn’ movement in Germany . . . the place of women there was brought down to ‘basics’ to the point where they had ‘homes’ where women (so called ‘Aryan’) bred babies with Nazi officers and donated their babies to the state for the ‘Third Reich’ . . . it is hard to imagine this, but when people reduce others to ‘objects’ for purposes, how quickly they dehumanize those people by taking away their God-given dignity.
      Some of our modern fundamentalist Christian people are heavily into patriarchy movements that do not recognize the dignity of the human person when that person is female
      . . . I’m thinking here of Doug Wilson and his Vision Forum movement, where ‘control’ over women is primal even to their theology . . . scary stuff, this. In my opinion, the folks who teach Eternal Submission of the Son are up to their necks in patriarchy, but they will deny ‘excesses’ and cling to certain bible verses to support their treatment of ‘wives’ and ‘daughters’. Hard to understand people like Bruce Ware and John Piper in their stranger attitudes towards ‘the place of women’, but it is clear that they are NOT seeing women in the same light as the majority of Christian people in the Body of Christ, so I would call them also as a kind of ‘fringe’ movement that practices ‘the gracious submission of women to their husbands’, among other corollaries of the patriarchy system. Is the harmful to women? There are blogs that explore some of the harm done to women by the patriarchy system in fundamentalism . . . some of the entries are heart-breaking

  10. I live among plain Amish/Mennonites as my neighbors here in Lancaster County, PA. Long ago, their ancestors opted for “outright separation as the only way we can keep ourselves and our children ‘safe’ from the culture around us.” The result has been a cluster of insular sects that endlessly divide over the most trivial matters regarding attire and lifestyle, and spend much time and energy guarding their counter-culture boundaries. Although there are some things I admire about these people and their communities, their inner-directedness seems nothing like the image of Jesus Christ as it’s drawn in the gospels.