Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Engaging the Church

One of the few magazines to which I still subscribe is The American Conservative--and conservative in the sense of writers like Daniel Larison, Patrick Deneen, Bill Kauffman, Andrew Bacevich and Pat Buchanan. I'm afraid our celebrity "conservatives" wouldn't know what to make of this publication. I particularly enjoy the magazine's book reviews. In the February 2011 issue (not yet online,) Richard Gamble, a professor at Hillsdale College, reviews To Change the World: the Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by sociologist James Davison Hunter.

According to Gamble, Hunter "takes up the question of what Christian faithfulness ought to look like in 21st-century America...[and] offers nothing less than 'a new paradigm of being the church in the late modern world.'"

Ho-boy. Whenever you hear the phrase "new paradigm" in regard to the Christian faith, you know what is coming. Christianity American-style never seems to tire of "new paradigms." Not that Hunter doesn't make some good points. He "challenges the American church's assumption that it can redeem the culture from the ground up, one person at a time, with the power of ideas wedded to political activism....this 'hearts and minds' approach...misunderstands the way sustainable change happens in society and will never achieve its noble purposes."

And Gamble notes:

"Hunter is at his best in cutting across superficial distinctions among the evangelical right and left and the neo-Anabaptists, uncovering the bad habits they have in common. American Protestants as a group, and even Catholics, have adopted, among other dubious propositions, a naive transformationalism, a mythic civil religion that commonly fails to distinguish between Israel and America, a negative posture toward the world that emphasizes what Christianity opposes rather than the gift of grace it offers, and a politicized and power-driven strategy to defeat the enemy....He rightly criticizes Christians for cultivating a 'proprietarian' attitude toward the American narrative and culture, as if the nation personally belonged to any branch of Christianity or even to Christians in general."

But Gamble finds that many "will have a hard time wrapping ...[their] mind around just what kind of church Hunter longs to see. At times, he seems merely to dress up an old-fashioned social gospel and anemic ecumenism in trendy language. It is hard to grasp what his recommendations would amount to if he explained them in ordinary words." And while Hunter "insists more than once that the goal of Christian activism ought not to be to transform the word," Gamble detects an "unmistakable desire for the church to be busy in worldly affairs, to move beyond Word and Sacrament for the sake of Word and Deed."

For Gamble, the author "forgets what we might call the 'dark side' of the gospel"--that of not bringing peace but a sword, of setting brother against brother, husband against wife, etc. Gamble rightly observes that "a robust 'theology of the cross'--to borrow the vocabulary of Lutherans, who, along with other confessional, creedal Christians are nearly absent from this book--knows that the gospel reconciles God to man but that it doesn't necessarily reconcile man to man." Indeed, "rather than solving the world's problems, the faithful church might appear to make things worse from a human perspective."

Gamble takes Hunter to task for claiming that it is especially harder for contemporary Christians to bear witness to the faith.

Perhaps generic "faith" has become harder to arrive at in modern America--perhaps--but the Christian gospel has never expected to find "resonance" with the world. It did not resonate with the culture of 1st century Rome. Christianity exploded into the world as something hardly "plausible' or "persuasive" to human eyes. Yet pagans converted by the thousands and the Church flourished. Just why contemporary "social conditions...make faithfulness difficult and faithlessness almost natural" is not obvious, nor is it clear why Christians today should find that challenge more daunting than the 1st-century martyrs did.

I particularly like the following from Gamble:

Christians who have a higher allegiance to the church than to American society will not take encouragement from Hunter's recommendations for "faithful presence." Social benefits from such a reconfigured orientation to the world may be real, but Christians ought to have their eyes open to the costs involved. A church that trades less effective techniques for more might lose its integrity, the very essence of what defines it as an institution unlike any other, and the unique message it brings to the world. Anyone who spends much time with young Christians these days knows that a generation has been raised by spiritually nomadic church-hopping parents--or even by radically de-institutionalized "home church" families--who have not bothered to initiate their sons and daughters into the life of the church. They have sent their children to the right schools and to worldview boot camp, but they have left them unbaptized, uncatechized, unaccountable, and unhabituated to regular public worship. This trend is becoming increasingly noticeable even among the offspring of conservative homes. A higher and more urgent calling than engaging the world might just be engaging the church.


Milton T. Burton said...

I think our celebrity conservatives know very well what to make of "The American Conservative" because other than Ann Coulter they are not as stupid as their followers. Their strategy is simply to ignore it and pass off their own brand of neo-fascism as true conservatism.

Milton T. Burton said...

That "paradigm" business reminds me of a statement a few years ago by some Anglican woman I happened to read. She was one of those long-faced bony dreadnoughts the English seem to produce in such robust abundance. She worked in a church run soup kitchen once a week and said, "This is such a wonderful way of doing Jesus."