Evangelicalism’s Lost World

In this curious blend of moral posturing and play it safe proclamations, Sasse is very representative of what’s probably the dominant strain of Evangelical thinking today.

.. Ben Sasse is a conservative exemplar of what I term “neutral world” Christianity.

  1. Positive World (Pre-1994). To be seen as a religious person and one who exemplifies traditional Christian norms is a social positive. Christianity is a status enhancer. In some cases failure to embrace those norms hurt you.
  2. Neutral World (1994-2014). Christianity is seen as a socially neutral attribute.  It no longer had dominant status in society, but to be seen as a religious person is not a knock either. It’s more like a personal affectation or hobby. Traditional norms of behavior retain residual force.
  3. Negative World (2014-). In this world, being a Christian is a social negative, especially in high status positions. Christianity in many ways as seen as undermining the social good. Traditional norms are expressly repudiated.

.. Renn then discusses the church’s “strategic response” to these worlds.

When we lived in Positive World, we saw emerge the Religious Right, the Positive World paradigm, which was “highly combative and oppositional vs. emerging secular culture.” We also saw the emergence of the “seeker-sensitive” megachurch movement. Its success depended on a basic friendliness to Christianity in the broader culture.

.. The church that emerged out of Neutral World are the “urban church” types. Renn:

The neutral world church is very different in a number of ways. It has traditionally been much more apolitical (though many of its practitioners lean left). It’s also much more heavily urban and global city focused. It tries to avoid highlighting areas where Christianity is in conflict with the world. Instead of being antagonistic towards the culture, it is explicitly positive towards culture. In fact, you could sum up much of the model under the heading “cultural engagement.” They want to meet the culture on its own terms, and reach people as participants in a pluralistic public square. They want to be in the mainstream media, not just Christian media or their own platforms. Many of their ministries have been backed by big money donors.  These are many of the people who denounced Trump to no effect during the election. In effect, they represent a version of Christianity taking its cues from the secular elite consensus.

Renn says that with the exception of “some Southern Baptists and some older white guys,” the Evangelical leadership today is Neutral World. Tim Keller is the No. 1 example of a successful Neutral World pastor. His success at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City “powerfully validated the Neutral World model.” Renn:

He explicitly validated the pursuit of success at the highest echelons of American art, media, finance, etc., believing that Christianity had something to offer in those fields at all levels. He believes these secular fields, while suffering from fallenness like all human institutions, are fundamentally positive contributions to humanity and that Christianity should participate and engage with them rather than fighting against them or denouncing them.

.. Here’s the problem, according to Renn: Since around 2014, we have shifted from Neutral World to Negative World — but a lot of Evangelicals still think we’re living in Neutral World, or wish we were.

When the world switched from positive to neutral, the cultural engagement strategy was readily developed. With the switch from neutral to negative, the church needs a new strategy. However, one does not appear to be forthcoming. The lack of negative world ideas is remarkable not just for the fact that it has not occurred, but that it has received so little attention.

.. There is only serious engagement with the negative world out there I know of, Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option.”  Dreher is an admixture of positive (political movement conservatism), neutral (Crunchy Cons), and negative (Benedict Option) worlds.

.. There is only serious engagement with the negative world out there I know of, Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option.”  Dreher is an admixture of positive (political movement conservatism), neutral (Crunchy Cons), and negative (Benedict Option) worlds.

.. Renn says that in 2014, he reckoned that “as soon as being known as a Christian would incur a material social penalty, which I anticipated happening soon, there would be a mass abandonment of the faith by the megachurch crowd, etc.”

This didn’t happen, he said. What happened instead was that Neutral World Evangelicals have taken up the response of Mainline Protestant church by embracing the world and the social gospel. “In other words,” writes Renn, “they decided to sign on with the winning team.”

.. The average neutral world Christian leader – and that’s a lot of the high profile ones other than the remaining religious righters, ones who have a more dominant role than ever thanks to the internet – talks obsessively about two topics today: refugees (immigrants) and racism. They combine that with angry, militant anti-Trump politics. These are not just expounded as internal to the church (e.g., helping the actual refugee family on your block), but explicitly in a social reform register (changing legacy culture and government policy).

I’m not going to argue that they are wrong are those points. But it’s notable how selective these folks were in picking topics to talk about. They seem to have landed on causes where they are 100% in agreement with the elite secular consensus.

.. Unlike Jerry Falwell, who never had secular cachet and lived in the sticks, these guys enjoy artisanal cheese, microbrews, and pour over coffees in Brooklyn. They’ve had bylines in the New York Times and Washington Post. They get prime speaking gigs at the Q conference and elsewhere. A number of them have big donors to worry about. And if all of a sudden they lost the ability to engage with the culture they explicitly affirmed as valuable, it would a painful blow.

.. The neutral world Christians – and again that seems to be much of Evangelical leadership today – are in a tough spot when it comes to adjusting to the negative world. The move from positive to neutral world brought an increase in mainstream social status (think Tim Keller vs. Pat Robertson), but the move to a negative world will involve a loss of status.

.. But the reality is even in my secular urban work the ground is eroding under my feet. Everything is becoming hyper-political, whether I want it to be or not or whether it should be or not. I’m going to end up in a higher conflict mode whether I want to or not. Just like what happened to Tim Keller at Princeton. Buckle up.

.. People are going to be forced to make choices, across a wide spectrum of domains.

.. We already know from the past that social gospel style Christianity is a gateway to apostasy. That’s where the trend is heading here.

.. he notes that the Millennials in his congregation are in effect Biblically illiterate and have a definition of God’s justice that is taken from secular leftist politics.

.. They did not, for example, see anything at all problematic about Hillary Clinton and her views. A generation or so from now when these people are the leaders, they won’t be people keeping unpopular positions to themselves. They won’t have any unpopular positions to hide. They will be completely assimilated to the world.  Only their ethics will no longer be Hillary’s, but the new fashion du jour.

.. The battle now beginning in the world is going to require “masculine virtues, ones in desperately short supply in the church.

 The template is Paul, who was one tough hombre. Paul was a Jewish blueblood on the fast track to high council membership who threw it all way to endure beatings, imprisonment, etc. (One of the underappreciated virtues of Paul is just how physically and mentally tough that guy was).

.. Aside from seeking converts, he doesn’t advise his followers to engage the culture, get politically active, or anything like that. Nor did he instruct his followers to run away from the world. Rather, he focused on building up the church in holiness, and exhorting believers in the new faith to overcome the world in themselves. 

.. [T]he church needs the manly virtues of enduring

  • suffering,
  • hardship, and
  • having values that are higher than worldly social status and success

– people who stand on solid rock, not who have a finger in the air to see which direction the wind is blowing so they can conform.

.. Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life ..

.. Wlken is an eminent historian of the early church. What he sees happening today, in our post-Christian culture, is the church today returning to a position like in its early centuries: as an often-despised minority within a pagan society.

.. Renn is right: a weak, compromising, emotion-driven church is not going to survive what we are in now, and what is to come. If we don’t know who we are, deep down, and if we have not had that identity sedimented into our bones through serious study of Scripture and Christian thinking (“a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend”) and disciplined practices, we are going to be assimilated.

.. The reason for the Church councils back then was to hammer out what Christian orthodoxy demanded the faithful believe about the nature of Jesus Christ. These weren’t issues about which we could agree to disagree. They mattered a lot. The reason we have Christianity today in the form we do is because the Church fathers thought hard about this stuff, took difficult stands, and defended them.

.. The Negative World doesn’t dislike, and at times loathe, orthodox Christians because we fail to be winsome. It dislikes and loathes us because of what we believe to be true.

..At the nominally Catholic Georgetown University, a group of student activists is petitioning the university to defund a student group that defends the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. Why? Because the group stands accused of “hatred and intolerance.” I’ve mentioned in this space before talking to a professor at a Catholic university who told me he would never attempt to teach the Church’s doctrine on marriage and family, even in a neutral academic way, because he would surely be denounced by students to the administration for creating an “unsafe space,” and the university would move to fire him.

.. Take the Apostle Paul Option if you like. It’s the same basic thing: understanding the situation the church faces in these post-Christian times

.. Again: there is no alternative. We don’t live in Positive World or Neutral World. The virtues of church life that obtained in those periods don’t work anymore.

.. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that everyone’s stereotype of the Christian guy in college is someone who is extraordinarily nice and polite, but also quite effete

.. This conception of gentlemanliness is so core to the identity of people like Dreher that even when they see that it is fatally flawed, they can’t bear to change. They can only confront in battle that which society at large has given them permission to.  And even then they are unwilling to do what is necessary to actually win, hence the rejection of pagan alt-right masculinity while functionally surrendering to its victory. What is Dreher actually going to do to blunt the appeal of Jack Donovan? As far as I can see, nothing.

In short, the modern American Christian is all lamb, no lion.

..  I’ll take that criticism, which is especially weird coming from someone who professes belief in a man courageous enough to suffer without fighting back, even though he could have called down a host of angels to defend him from his enemies. There’s sometimes big difference between being a man, and being masculine.

.. I publicly confronted the leadership of my own church repeatedly for nearly four years regarding the child sex abuse scandal, until it finally broke me. A whole lot of Catholic men who are more conventionally masculine than I am stayed silent. I don’t expect that I’ll ever be able to work in a mainstream newsroom again because of the things I’ve written about marriage and sexuality.

.. But look, if I turn into a hater and a crank and an asshole, then I’ve lost my honor just as much as if I shied fearfully away from a fight that I ought to have joined. But again, there’s a big difference between being a man, and being masculine.