Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

12/20/2008 (3:04 pm)

Anti-Religious Bigotry Makes the Headlines

Probably the most controversial news of the week was President-elect Obama’s announcement that he’s asked Rev. Rick Warren, Evangelical and pastor of the Saddleback Church in southern California, to pronounce the benediction at his inauguration. I noted with some surprise back in August, back when CNN broadcast Warren’s non-debate between the presidential candidates from Saddleback Church, that Evangelicalism seems to have gone mainstream. Obama’s progressive supporters hoped that they were electing a full-bore progressive President; Obama seems to be saying instead that he’s everybody’s President. Gays are furious — although, as Rush Limbaugh pointed out with some amusement, Warren’s position on gay marriage is identical to Obama’s.

Coincident with this stunning flap, I was reading reviews on Amazon this morning for a book entitled unChristian, by David Kinnaman of the Barna Group, a polling organization. The book apparently documents common reactions to Evangelical Christians based on a lengthy study, and they’re uniformly negative. I have not read the book, but one of the reviews gives us the flavor of it:

In his book The Heart of Christianity (2003) Marcus Borg of Oregon State University describes how his university students have a uniformly negative image of Christianity. “When I ask them to write a short essay on their impression of Christianity,” says Borg, “they consistently use five adjectives: Christians are literalistic, anti-intellectual, self-righteous, judgmental, and bigoted…”

A new book called unChristian (2007) by David Kinnaman of the Barna Group presents objective research that supports Borg’s subjective anecdote. Kinnaman’s three-year study documents how an overwhelming percentage of sixteen to twenty-nine year olds view Christians with hostility, resentment and disdain.

These broadly and deeply negative views of Christians aren’t just superficial stereotypes with no basis in reality, says Kinnaman. Nor are the critics people who’ve had no contact with churches or Christians… Rather, it’s based upon their real experiences with today’s Christians. In addition to their statistical research, the book includes anecdotes from people who were interviewed, follow-on comments at the end of each chapter by some 30 Christian leaders, and reflections about why we’ve come to such a place and how we might make it better…

According to Kinnaman’s Barna study, here are the percentages of people outside the church who think that the following words describe present-day Christianity:

* antihomosexual 91%
* judgmental 87%
* hypocritical 85%
* old-fashioned 78%
* too political 75%
* out of touch with reality 72%
* insensitive to others 70%
* boring 68%

It would be hard to overestimate, says Kinnaman, “how firmly people reject– and feel rejected by– Christians” (19). Or think about it this way, he suggests: “When you introduce yourself as a Christian to a friend, neighbor, or business associate who is an outsider, you might as well have it tattooed on your arm: antihomosexual, gay-hater, homophobic. I doubt you think of yourself in these terms, but that’s what outsiders think of you” (93).

I’ll plead guilty to being occasionally too political, and even to being boring; you all would know better than I. However, the culture’s negative feeling about Evangelicals is not static, it’s grown over the years, and I don’t think that’s because the Church has changed all that much (it may be because the Church has not changed all that much.) I think it’s because the culture has changed — and I think this produces a real danger for Christians, in more ways than one. One danger, of course, is the growing possibility of social or political persecution. The other danger, though, is the danger of inviting the culture to change the Church in the wrong ways, and for the wrong reasons.

I’ve been an Evangelical, or at least a quasi-Evangelical for about 35 years, so I’ve heard all of these complaints directed against me, more than a few times. Those of you who have read this blog more than once can imagine how I might react to the charge that I’m anti-intellectual. Yes, I’ve heard that one. Against me. Plenty of times. Usually from boneheads who can’t reason their way properly out of a paper bag that’s open at both ends. It’s pretty galling.

I’ll never forget the time a woman my father was dating (my mom died in 1988) told me that I was not capable of objective reason because I was religious. I noted that if that was true, aptitude tests of my analytical ability somehow failed to pick it up. This woman was obviously intelligent, insofar as she was well-read, had a decent vocabulary, and enjoyed discussing current topics, but I didn’t notice any reasoning ability to justify her superior pretensions. In fact, aside from the fact that she was simply a horrible human being (an opinion probably colored by my emotions since she was trying to replace my mother, dammit) she was obviously so bigoted as to be unable to render a sound opinion about religious people.

This is a lot more common than modern critics like Kinnaman acknowledge. Yes, I’m absolutely sure that the average person in Kinnaman’s survey responded that Evangelicals are literalistic, anti-intellectual, self-righteous, judgmental, and bigoted. That doesn’t mean that they are. I think there are plenty of true adjectives that can be applied to most Evangelical churches, but I’m also willing to wager that when measured objectively against the general population (however that might happen,) those would not be among them.

On the contrary, I think that particular list is the product of anti-intellectual, judgmental, self-righteous bigotry on the part of the Church’s critics. It’s one of the ironies of the human soul that those who judge, usually accuse others of the things of which they, themselves, are guilty. I mean, come on — reread that list of adjectives in the green quotation block, above, and try to convince me that the people saying those things are not being judgmental.

It’s a useful exercise, once in a while, to listen to your critics and ask yourself whether they’ve got a point. I’m not sorry Kinnaman wrote his book, and I really want to read it. However, that sort of self-evaluation is no place to live, and especially not when you’re trying to live by the will of the living God, and you suspect that your critics mostly want to deflect uncomfortable truths from touching themselves. We don’t need to conform to our critics’ will, but to God’s.

One of my deep concerns about the emerging church is that its goals have been formed by the hostile rationalizations of the unredeemed. The loudest voices calling for social justice in the modern Western world are the voices of politically-motivated neo-Marxists, not of people genuinely concerned about real human needs. What they call “justice” is not justice at all, it’s divisive class warfare aimed at destroying capitalism and ushering in a tyrannical socialist regime. Even those who don’t agree to their political goals have been influenced by their vision, and mimic it when speaking of “reform;” though they may be sincere, their understanding of the human soul is often so inaccurate that their notion of what people actually need is useless. This is no place for a Christian to receive guidance.

Aiming at social justice and helping the poor is good, but conforming to the current, cultural view of what that looks like will eventually discredit the Church, since it will eventually lead to social disintegration. Worse, it will not help the poor. Progressive policies invariably harm the poor, rather than helping. I’ve spent plenty of time in the ghetto, and most of the people I’ve met there won’t be any better off if you give them money, nor will government protection from oppressors do much for them. What most of them need is righteousness, and often their fortunes change as they begin to acquire it. It doesn’t take rocket science to imagine why someone might be accused of being “judgmental,” “old-fashioned,” or “insensitive” for saying so, even if it’s true — especially if it’s true.

I am naturally concerned that the level of bigotry against Christians is growing. I am open to being convinced that Christians, themselves, are responsible for some part of that growing animosity. I am aware that churches generally need to reflect current fashions around them if they’re going to communicate with the culture at large. However, the negative opinions of my neighbors do not prove that I’m guilty of what they charge; especially not when the Messiah Himself took the trouble to warn me that they were going to dislike me on His behalf.

Thomas Jefferson gave sound advice that Christians need to take to heart:

On matters of style, swim with the current. On matters of principle, stand like a rock.

There are some things a man has to stand by even if the entire world calls him bad names.

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December 20, 2008 @ 10:30 pm #

A few thoughts …

1. I have a fundamental problem whenever I see the term “social gospel” used in any positive, religious sense. For many churchgoers, the social gospel (redistribution, performed by the government) is substituted for the actual gospel.

2. Marxist doctrine gives short shrift to reactionaries. I’m not surprised Marxists have bad things to say about Christians — especially when they fail to cave into subverting the church and the culture. It’s supposed to be a done deal already, and some pesky people aren’t buckling under.

3. Even before Marx, Christians have had a very hard time of it in many times and places. This is the situation for Christians all over the world today. It is certainly nothing to be hoped for, but it’s nothing new, either.

4. I’m curious about what you mean by the “emerging church?” From what (and into what) is it emerging? How is it different from the one that emerged in the events of the New Testament?

December 21, 2008 @ 8:52 am #

Oddly enough, the reaction to Christians today seems to mirror the reaction to Christ Himself in the “mainstream” society of His day. Remember, Nero famously blamed Christians for the burning of Rome after Nero burned Rome. You can’t read the New Testament without at least once or twice stumbling across a passage where we were warned that people would react this way to us – for His sake. It’s absolutely nothing we’re doing, it’s simply a typical Liberal reaction to the fact that we’re telling them they’re wrong, and a constant reminder to them that they aren’t morally, ethically, or intellectually superior. Liberalism isn’t based on intellectualism, intelligence, deep thought, or academic reflection. It’s a religion based on narcissism, and there’s nothing a Narcissistic Hedonist hates to hear more than the fact that he or she is wrong…


December 21, 2008 @ 11:51 am #

Some of the bigotry is self-inflicted. I have noticed the born-again Christians seem to be pretty arrogant. Their attitude is, either, ‘I am born again and you are not so I am a better person than you.’ or ‘I’m born again and you are not so I am a better Christian than you. This attitude is offensive. When people hear things like this they tend to paint the entire group with the same brush. Also, being uncompromising on principle can be a good thing, but politics is all about compromise and negotiation. Christian intransigence on certain issues frustrates people. Finally, wearing your identity on your sleeve tends to put people off as well. I quit reading Andrew Sullivan’s blog many years ago because he kept waving his homosexuality in my face.

December 21, 2008 @ 12:40 pm #

RL –

First of all, I said “social justice,” not “social gospel,” but we’re pretty much in the same place. I have some of the same reaction you do — caution because the phrase has so often been associated with neo-Marxist sentiments — but I think we’re illustrating the opposite side of the coin to what I was warning against in the essay.

The essay warns against allowing the culture to shape our message by dictating to us what “social justice” is supposed to look like. The converse error is allowing our reaction to their errors to shape our message — insisting that we not do certain things because the liberals do them, or because there’s a biblically incorrect version of the same thing. Either way, the unredeemed are controlling our message, and that’s wrong.

Justice is one of God’s major concerns, and just because certain political groups have made a habit of creating victims and fanning the flames of class warfare, does not mean that such things as crooked landlords don’t exist. We do need to be involved in helping people get out from under whatever’s got them pinned down, and sometimes that involves advocacy as well as instruction.

Changing topics slightly, the term “emerging church” is one I borrowed from a contemporary movement, and I think I’m using it slightly differently; I used it to refer to attempts to update Evangelicalism and modify the message in order to fit into contemporary notions of justice and truth, focusing on ministering to HIV patients and caring for the poor instead of emphasizing pastoral oversight, foreign missions, and accurate theology (as though those were mutually exclusive.) I’ve noticed that churches aiming at updating in this fashion tend to adopt leftist political goals, and I think that’s a frightening error, as the spirit of modern progressivism is actually the opposite from the Spirit of the living God. I feel as though my brothers are being deceived and captured by the enemy of our souls, and that will eventually hurt the Church very badly.

December 21, 2008 @ 12:54 pm #

feeb –

I don’t know if you were around the last time I wrote about the phenomenon you’re describing. Here’s the link. Also here, just two days later. What you’re calling “self-inflicted” bigotry, I actually explain pretty clearly at the first link. And you’re right, Evangelicals do bring some of that on themselves.

On the other hand, it’s somewhat unavoidable. If you’re not a believer, and not really familiar with Christian theology at all, how do I explain to you that God offers redemption from sin and a very different and better life, one that I’ve already begun to experience, without the risk of having you hear “I’m better than you?” When I get that reaction, my usual reply is “I’m not better, I’m just lucky” (the usual formulation is “not better, but better off”) but that doesn’t really help much. Once the other person has taken offense, it’s kinda tough to talk them down from it. Our culture has a built-in resistance to any suggestion that one way of doing anything is intrinsically better than other ways.

Finally, I came across this fascinating video of Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller) describing an incident in which a humble fellow offers him a Gideon Bible. What struck me from that talk was Jillette’s observation that’s exactly opposite the usual, cultural criticism of Evangelicals: Jillette wonders “If they really believe we’re going to hell, how can they not attempt to warn against it?” Having spent half a lifetime learning to stifle myself because proselytizing is so offensive to my neighbors, I don’t know exactly how to take that criticism, but I know he’s got a point.

December 21, 2008 @ 3:07 pm #

Phil, points well taken, thanks for the response.

As for justice, there’s a debate about whether the church should participate in activities designed to alleviate perceived injustice, or whether it should avoid activism, counting on the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of Christians to help them do what is right.

The issue is alive in my own denomination, as is the question of making the gospel “more relevant” to today’s world. Of course, this line of narration invites the questions about what was wrong with the gospel in the first place, and what is different about today’s world. My response to both: nothing.

December 21, 2008 @ 7:57 pm #

It’s impossible not to offend people who are offended by everything. As one individual posted above, he/she is expecting to be offended by Christians – no surprise when they are. The preaching of the cross will always be an offense to some, because, quite frankly, they don’t want to hear it. I would rather offend you by preaching the Gospel than offend Him by not… And, in religion, as in politics, if you get offended, well, too bad, so sad, sometimes the the truth hurts. If liberals weren’t so weak-minded and weak hearted, it wouldn’t hurt so much to hear things they don’t want to hear. I’ve never seen a liberal take one iota of a second to try to avoid offending anyone else, so, frankly, why should I bother either?

December 22, 2008 @ 12:20 am #

Phil -

Did you notice how the cartoonist you post here changed the number to 3% after originally posting it as…I think it was…10%? I wonder what that was all about?

(Author notes: Yes, I did. I’m guessing that he still had the inaccurate Kinsey number in his head, and somebody corrected him after he first posted the cartoon. Kinsey’s research has been discredited; several much more reputable studies have since put the proportion of homosexuals at around 2.7% of the population.)

December 23, 2008 @ 10:50 am #

This is the inevitable result of 40 years of Hollywood propaganda. In 1946 Father O’Malley was presumed to be the good guy. Now if a character is identified as openly religeous,chances are he’s the bad guy.
Also they have neatly and seamlessly tied together Fundamentaliist Muslims = Fundamentalist Christians = Evangenical Christians = all Christians. Therefore all Christians are as bad as Islamist head choppers.

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