Say It Ain’t So, Dave

Evangelicals and the Cultural Mainstream

Every day I read the New York Times. I have to see what’s happening in the world in order to do this broadcast. But sometimes it sets my teeth on edge.

A couple of weeks ago David Brooks, the Times‘s new and generally conservative columnist, wrote a provocative op-ed piece titled “The National Creed.” In it Brooks argues that Americans hold their religious beliefs very loosely. We feel free to jump from one church to the next as if the differences make no difference. Brooks writes that Americans believe that, “In the final days, the distinctions will fade away, and we will all be united in God’s embrace. This happy assumption has meant that millions feel free to try on different denominations at different points in their lives, and many Americans have had trouble taking religious doctrines altogether seriously.”

As a result, says Brooks, we tend to think that all people of good will are “basically on the same side,” we practice religion that is easygoing and experiential rather than rigorous and intellectual, and we “have trouble sustaining culture wars.”

Regarding culture wars Brooks writes, “As the sociologist Alan Wolfe demonstrates in his book, The Transformation of American Religion, evangelical churches are part of mainstream American culture, not dissenters from it.”

You rarely read a column that is as worthy of serious consideration as this one. If Brooks, a careful and insightful observer of cultural trends, is right, this is a devastating indictment of the Church. God forbid that we should ever become part of the mainstream. By our very character, living in a sinful world, we’re called to be countercultural, a force for moral change.

Now, in one way, of course, we always have to be part of mainstream society in the sense that God has put us in this country. We’re called to be good citizens and good neighbors. We are not somewhere out on the fringes. Jesus made it clear that we are to be “in the world.” What He told us not to do is be “of the world.”

Some leaders have recently argued that Christians are aliens and can always expect to be persecuted and reviled. So instead of fighting back, we ought to be content in our roles, or just build our churches. This can only lead to passivity and despair. As one friend of mine noted, being a peculiar people needs “to be set against the fact that we are called to be ambassadors to the world, fully engaged with it, and followers of a faith in which the Incarnation is central . . . retreating to a Christian cul-de-sac is not the proper outworking of what we believe.” I couldn’t agree more. Only by contact with the culture can we effectively seek to change it so that the City of Man more consistently resembles the City of God. And if we don’t seek to engage and change the culture, the culture inevitably changes us.

Since the early eighties, evangelicals have been serious about cultural engagement. Often we’ve done it ham-handedly to be sure, but we’ve been active. This is no time to retreat, no time to give up, and certainly no time to blend comfortably into the mainstream. I pray that Brooks is wrong, but that his words and my words will serve as a badly needed wake-up call for the Church.

 

For Further Reading and Information

David Brooks, “The National Creed,” New York Times, 30 December 2003, A21 (titled “Faith-hopping in America” in the International Herald Tribune).

John Fischer, Fearless Faith: Living beyond the Walls of ‘Safe’ Christianity (Harvest House, 2002).

BreakPoint Commentary No. 011218, “Mushy Ecumenism: Incoherent Civil Religion.” (Archived commentary; free registration required.)

Charles Colson and Ellen Vaughn, Being the Body: A New Call for the Church to Be Light in the Darkness (W Publishing, 2003).

St. Augustine, The City of God (Doubleday, 1958 edition).

Stand to Reason trains Christians to think more clearly about their faith and to make an even-handed, incisive, yet gracious defense for classical Christianity and classical Christian values in the public square.

CounterCultural Christians” is a twelve-session interactive multimedia resource on the topic of Christian worldview. These studies will challenge Christians to understand the impact of cultural influences on their faith and explore the impact our worldview has on every area of life.


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