Wednesday, July 19, 2017

"You are the light of the world!

This sounds like an interesting book, but a very limited one.  I'll accept it as a work of sociology; but it needs the context of church history to really be useful:

Yet Jones raises the possibility that Christianity can only function effectively as a religion in the absence of its dominance in culture, which is to say, as the underdog. Just as Southern evangelicals came to dominance as a response to the perceived diminishing of Christianity in the public sphere among the pluralistic tendencies of the 1950s, so too, Jones suggests, must any effective Christianity of today — one capable of firing up its members — respond against the dominant culture.

He cites several recent examples of thinkers who have advocated just that, from Rod Dreher’s “Benedict option” of focused seclusion to Baptist firebrand Russell Moore’s embrace of Christianity as counter-“cultural.” He writes, "As Christianity seems increasingly strange, and even subversive, to our culture, we have the opportunity to reclaim the freakishness of the gospel, which is what gives it its power in the first place.”

It is that paradox that lies at the heart of The End of White Christian America, and in discussions of Christianity and public life more generally. How can a religion often defined as a religion of outsiders — one whose sacred texts embrace the overturning of the money changers in the Jerusalem temple and celebrate those who leave their families behind to follow a wandering preacher — ever function in a dominant paradigm without losing its distinctive character?

It is that question that Jones’s book leaves us wondering: whether the death of White Christian America, as a cultural construct, is a good thing for Christianity, the religion. For a religion that was once subversive, Jones hints, being countercultural may just be the ideal way to be.

Modern-day ecclesiology has been focussed on that "paradox" for decades, now.  The paradox is not at the heart of a sociological study; it's at the heart of church history.  And the analysis discussed in the Vox article is limited to white Protestantism.  If you want a critique of race and the white Protestant American church you can start with Dr. King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," because that was the thesis of that open letter to white Protestant churches.  That the most segregated hour in America was Sunday morning starting at 11:00 a.m. (the Protestant worship hour) was true long before Tara Isabella Burton noticed white churches didn't really do that much in the civil rights movement of 50 years ago.

Christianity will have to become countercultural, even subversive, in order to remain one of the world's great religions.  I really think that is beyond argument.  The Catholic church was once the church of empire.  In the New World, it was an arm of the Spanish king.  The missions in Texas which are now national parks (and deservedly so) were not missionary efforts by Catholic orders; they were explicitly an effort of Spain to control land and people for the benefit of the crown.  The Church may have been interested in souls, but it was the velvet glove around the iron fist of the King.  And that's just an example from recent history, since all our knowledge of the Roman church and European politics tends to default to medieval times.

Never forget it was Lord Acton in the 19th century who warned the Pope, the leaders of Acton's church, that power tends to corrupt, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.  That the church should be in the world but not of the world, is hardly a new idea.

Nor do Protestants get off lightly in this.  Calvin had his Zurich, and Luther his anti-semitism and his love of beer.  They created churches around the cultures they knew, not from whole cloth and based on radical restructuring of human relationships.  Many of the latter kind of experiments occurred in America after Protestantism had pretty well made America safe for Christianity (but not necessarily Roman Catholicism), but all those experiments soon fizzled.  The Christian church has always been a creature of its culture, not a creator of culture.  It is ideally a light in the world, but more commonly just another way for the world to justify itself.  William Bradford wanted to create a Christian community when Europeans here were still colonists.  When enough people had arrived to make Plymouth an outlier rather than the norm, his dream fell to reality.  He had a chance to create a new culture; it didn't work.  It never has.

Many would say Christianity did lose its "distinctive character," and is only now in a position to regain it.  But that way lies arrogance and boundary drawing, leaving me "in" and you "out."  That is not The Way, either.  The great secret of Protestantism was that difference was allowed, and tolerated.  There is not that much difference, in the end, between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, which is why the ecumenical movement flourished for as long as it did (Burton passes lightly over that, as if ecumenism were a weakness, not a strength.  That may be her own view, or that of the book under review; I can't say.  Whatever the source, it's wrong, if only because it presumes that evangelicals who have, as is noted in the review, seen their day (and a short day it was, too) were somehow more "successful".  We have to wonder at a "success" that comes at the end of 500 years of Protestantism and is still only a minor portion of international Christianity, and already showing the limits of its power and appeal after a mere 30 years or so.).  The way forward is not to start declaring a new "true church."  The way forward is to do what Christians have done for millennia:  Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; fear God and obey God's commandments; do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God; clothe the naked, feed the hungry, comfort the sick; entertain angels unaware.

The world will not count this as success.  But the light will be in the world, even if the world knows it not.


  1. It certainly doesn't lend itself to writing a VOX article about or even a book. I think one of the problems with Protestant religions, the ones which have local control and governance is that when the neighborhood or town changes and the church declines it has a tendency to go and get turned into condos or get torn down. I think that's one of the problems, there are a lot of others. I think a lot of it flows from the adoption by a very well educated clergy of academic assumptions and beliefs generally hostile to the Gospels, the undermining of the authority of The Law that is inevitably the source of the whole thing, including Prophesy. Subjecting those to 18th and 19th century standards led to debunkery instead of understanding. I do wonder if such things as Pentecostalism, Pietism, the Hassidic movement in Judaism would have happened of been felt to be needed if a more nuanced view of things hadn't come to dominate in so many areas. Subjecting scripture to that kind of criticism alien to the worlds and thinking of those who wrote the scriptures has had an effect.

    I found this in the VOX article to be sort of clueless.

    "...Wednesday spaghetti suppers and prayer meetings, invocations from local pastors under the Friday night lights at high school football games, and Sunday blue laws that shuttered Main Street for the Sabbath.”

    To think that the rote blessing at the quintessential example of American consumerist paganism, Friday night football, is anything like Wednesday's fellowship or the suspension of commerce for a few hours on Sunday is confused thinking, thinking that mistakes the contradictory trappings of piety for something more like the real thing. Maybe Brueggemann is right, that a country that doesn't practice a sabbath is headed for fascism. If so then such distinctions are more important than ever. Maybe the Friday Night rites of neo-gladiatorial spectacles are more a sign of another way the churches went wrong. I can't stand the presence of football at so many Catholic universities, it makes me sick.

  2. I'm old enough to remember the reason for "blue laws," one my father explained to me in an East Texas town with one, very small, synagogue (probably the only one between Dallas, Houston, and, oh, St. Louis, MO): because the Jews would be open on Sunday, and good Christians didn't want the competition.

    Of course, everyone is open around the clock, now, even on Thanksgiving and soon, I'm sure, on Christmas day. but it was never really about keeping the Sabbath holy; it was about keeping control. After all, plenty of people had to work Sundays during the fall to bring us televised football.....