27 June 2008

Invader Christian

One of the most important functions of Christian prophets in our day is the ability to perceive the consequences of various forces in our culture and to make value judgments upon them. -- Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline.
Seventeen days since my last post. What have I been doing? Thinking, mostly.

On 27 May I listened to several podcasts by That Mom (Karen Campbell). (H/T: Kevin D. Johnson at Reformed Catholicism.) Two of the ones I listened to were on Homeschoolers and Culture (4 and 18 January 2008). In these podcasts she discusses the relation of homeschoolers to the culture under the five headings H. Richard Niebuhr uses in his discussion of Christ and Culture. In doing so, Karen briefly summarizes H. Richard Niebuhr’s five views of the relation of Christ to Culture – without sacrificing accuracy. As a neo-Calvinist I am greatly interested in the topic of Christ and Culture. But I digress.

Briefly, those five views are as follows:

1. Christ against Culture (Opposition)
2. Christ of Culture (Agreement)
3. Christ above Culture(Superiority)
4. Christ and Culture in Paradox (Tension)
5. Christ the Transformer of Culture (Reformation)

Of the five views Campbell selects the fifth, Christ the Transformer of Culture, as the most preferable Christian option. Who doesn’t, anymore? Since Francis Schaeffer (preceded in the Netherlands by Abraham Kuyper) came on the scene around four decades ago, orthodox Christians have been highly motivated to engage culture with the idea of transforming it, in contrast with previous practice, spearheaded by fundamentalists, to take the first approach, which led only to the creation of a Christian counter- or sub-culture.

But who can blame the fundamentalists? After all, their eschatology made it an obvious choice. Jesus is coming back, tomorrow most likely, so no need to bother rearranging deck chairs on a sinking Titanic. The world is supposed to be getting worse, so don’t bother wasting time and energy trying to halt or slow the decay, including the move to a one-world government headed by The Antichrist. Better to evangelize and get people into the life-boat of Jesus, who (did I mention?) is coming back tomorrow.

But those who were motivated by the likes of Kuyper and Schaeffer and their ilk had to consider that the analogy of the sinking ship might be inapplicable: the ship has been sinking for millennia. Maybe the world isn’t best compared to a sinking ship; or at least it isn’t a sinking ship only because the once-Christian West is sinking. Whenever Jesus is coming – and He is coming – the world is going to go on until He returns. We may not be able to bring heaven to earth (although some remain convinced that we can), but perhaps we ought to expend some energy keeping hell from coming to earth. Our Christian ancestors, as convinced as we are of the return of Christ (as the Creed says, “He shall come again, to judge the living and the dead”), changed a great many things in their own world, starting with the face of the Roman Empire, an empire which was itself the product of a culture in decline. One could even include, I think justly, the birth of Europe. They also produced Byzantine culture, not too shabby for people looking forward to the return of their lord.

And what have Christians in the modern era produced as a result of their expectation of the soon-return of Christ? “Honk if you love Jesus.” “In case of rapture this car will be unmanned.” “Christians aren’t perfect – just forgiven.” “Jesus: Don’t leave earth without Him.” Ooh. Aah. Wow. Heavy, man.

Our spiritual forebears produced Byzantine culture. We have produced Contemporary Christian Music, a cheap imitation of contemporary non-Christian music. (“If you like ‘Hootie and the Blowfish’ then you’ll probably also like ‘Third Day’.” No offense to ‘Third Day’. But that is how CCM marketers tried to peddle them.)

But I digress. Again.

As I listened to the podcasts, favorably disposed as I am to the Christ as Transformer of Culture view, a thought struck me: The project, thus far, and after decades of work, seems an abysmal failure. I was alive to witness, just about as it was happening, the birth of the religious right. That was almost thirty years ago. I can’t imagine (and I’m just spit-balling here) that a series with a premise like ‘Swingtown’ could have launched back then – well, not on broadcast television. But not only has it launched, it will probably last a few seasons, just like ‘Desperate Housewives’. The Right could get Ronald Reagan elected back then; I doubt they could pull it off today, even if Reagan were alive.

Clark Carlton puts it really well:

Could anyone possibly claim that the United States is a more moral nation now than it was in 1980? … Speaking strictly as … Christians, has it really gotten easier to live [a Christian] life in America over the last twenty-five years? Take a look at cable TV, the internet, the bestseller list and the clothes they sell to teenage girls at every department store in this country and try to tell me with a straight face that the answer to that question is, “Yes”. The fact is that after twenty-five years of hellfire-and-damnation political speeches and mobilization efforts, this country is in worse shape now than it was when it all started. (Where the Religious Right Went Wrong”, here)

Well, I was 15 when “it all” started. And I don’t see how anyone could possibly claim that the United States is a more moral nation now than it was in 1980.

Carlton goes on and explains why. In short, the Christian “culture warrior” has really adopted the same methods as his opponent, the Left. That may seem on its face the way to go about it; after all, the fact that we want different things doesn’t mean we can’t utilize similar methods. If the Left accomplished their goals through the courts and the legislatures then, perhaps, so should we. But that’s just it: the method of the Left is a component of their message, their worldview. In the end, and in many respects, the religious right has ended up buying into the same basic worldview as the left. And that worldview is a materialist worldview which has it that, among other things, humans can be perfected by government action.

We have met the enemy. They are us.

In the end, most of the would-be “culture warriors” have become nothing better than non-isolationists, wanting in theory to embrace the reformation view of Christ and Culture, but in fact – by adopting the method and, hence, the worldview of their opponents – exercising a nuanced version of the agreement view, and doing little more than riding along in the very stream whose direction they desire to alter. They are “Christian” dialectical-materialists. There they go, down the same materialist rapids as everyone else, but in a “Christian” way, on a “Christian” raft, with their “Christian” paddles and, of course their “Christian” river guides.

And so, the average Christian “culture warrior” is about as skilled, about as intimidating, and in the end will be about as successful as Invader Zim.

But, like Invader Zim, he is very, very entertaining, despite his utter failure.

Part 2

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James Frank SolĂ­s
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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