Christianity For Iceberg Time
The Rev. Dr. Pete Sanlon, an Evangelical Anglican pastor living in the UK, is a proponent of The Benedict Option. He is at work on a two-part series for an Evangelical magazine there, explaining to Evangelical readers the Benedict Option and why it’s needed. Part two hasn’t yet been published, but here’s a link to part one. He’s given me permission to quote it in a limited way; if you want to read the whole thing, you can buy the article from The Record, the monthly magazine of the Free Church of Scotlans.
Here’s the part of the piece that I think is most valuable for Evangelicals. The reality it describes in the UK is nearly our own in the US, and becoming moreso every day. Earlier in the piece, Father Sanlon describes the situation for Christians in the West as being like the Titanic‘s. So many people perished, says Father Sanlon, because far too many people assumed that the ship was too big to sink, and because they ignored warnings. So too is it with the church today. Here’s Father Sanlon:
I believe that the iceberg that has sunk the way we live as Christians in the UK is actually a concoction of attitudes and social-spiritual realities, that have frozen together.
The first part of the iceberg has arisen from the fact that Christianity once had a deep hold on the consciousness of the UK. When a culture has rejected Christianity, it tends to then despise it. That creates a more volatile situation than before the culture has ever heard the gospel. (This phenomena of hostile rejection is described in Mark 4 at the personal level, and Romans 1 at the cultural level.)
The second part of the iceberg is the joining of government authoritarianism to enforced celebration of unbiblical views of humanity – especially in the area of sexuality. The story of how the 1960s vision of free love developed in the UK through the individualist 1980s and entertainment focused 1990s is a complex tale. What is proving to be the twist of the knife is the willingness of our governments (local and national and European) to use (or abuse) their powers to enforce celebration of views that were only a short time ago viewed as eccentricities.
The third part of the iceberg has formed because almost everything about how British Christians have done church over the past 70 years has depended upon a very high degree of cultural acceptance of our activities and beliefs. Consider how many churches advocate friendship and workplace conversations as key for evangelism. Well that becomes very difficult under current HR guidelines. Consider how many church plants rent space for meetings from councils or schools – we are already seeing that become more difficult due to holding beliefs that are not culturally acceptable. Many churches view their buildings as a hub for local community events — this is thought of as a bridge to the local community. But how does this work when the next generation views people who are Christians as evil — homophobic, transphobic — and worse? Some continue to argue for setting up Christian schools — but they must be regulated by a government that is increasingly hostile. Others promote social helps of various stripes – but these usually must exclude what is derisively termed ‘proselytising.’
Over the past few weeks an Independent Enquiry into horrific sex abuse cases in the Church of England has heard witness statements suggesting that traditional Christian beliefs made leaders more likely to ignore abuse. As such views are increasingly accepted by the next generation — and reinforced by the media — the Church will find its model of building bridges, making cultural connections for outreach – impossible to sustain. Already it is proving very unfruitful – but many press on with it, unable to admit the ship has been holed beneath the waterline.
Read the whole thing, available for purchase from The Record. It doesn’t cost much. Part Two will be published next month.
What I think is so important about this passage, at least for us Americans to grasp, is that a massive cultural shift is underway, one in which traditional Christians are and will increasingly be viewed with hostility. LGBT rights are the tip of the spear. I was messaging this morning with some Evangelical theologian friends, one of whom was pointing out that it is becoming rude in conservative circles to fail to celebrate gay marriage. Note what I’m saying here: not “rude to condemn” but “rude to fail to celebrate.”
This signals a massive cultural shift. The position that small-o orthodox Christians hold on this matter will be equivalent to football players “taking a knee” at a bowl game in the Deep South. It will be seen as something so offensive as to be intolerable, and to make everything we have to say about what makes us believe and act this way anathema to their ears. I suppose this is one reason why I have some sympathy for the kneeling football players, though I wish they wouldn’t do that: I know that the same kind of visceral rejection and spite is coming upon traditional Christians for a stance of conscience we believe that we have to take.
Anyway, Father Sanlon’s main point is surely correct: that the churches have been operating from the point of view that the broader culture is positive, or at least neutral, towards traditional Christianity. Those days are over.
Aaron Renn, in his free e-mail newsletter The Masculinist (subscribe here), believes the same thing. Renn, a conservative Evangelical living and working in NYC, offers a paradigm for understanding the times that is helpful. He says that we left behind “Positive World” a long time ago — that is, a world where people thought the church was a good thing. We spent some time in “Neutral World,” but have now shifted to “Negative World.” Here’s something from a long blog post I wrote about it last October:
When we lived in Positive World, we saw emerge the Religious Right, the Positive World paradigm, which was “highly combative and oppositional vs. emerging secular culture.” We also saw the emergence of the “seeker-sensitive” megachurch movement. Its success depended on a basic friendliness to Christianity in the broader culture.
The church that emerged out of Neutral World are the “urban church” types. Renn:
The neutral world church is very different in a number of ways. It has traditionally been much more apolitical (though many of its practitioners lean left). It’s also much more heavily urban and global city focused. It tries to avoid highlighting areas where Christianity is in conflict with the world. Instead of being antagonistic towards the culture, it is explicitly positive towards culture. In fact, you could sum up much of the model under the heading “cultural engagement.” They want to meet the culture on its own terms, and reach people as participants in a pluralistic public square. They want to be in the mainstream media, not just Christian media or their own platforms. Many of their ministries have been backed by big money donors. These are many of the people who denounced Trump to no effect during the election. In effect, they represent a version of Christianity taking its cues from the secular elite consensus.
Renn says that with the exception of “some Southern Baptists and some older white guys,” the Evangelical leadership today is Neutral World. Tim Keller is the No. 1 example of a successful Neutral World pastor. His success at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City “powerfully validated the Neutral World model.” Renn:
He explicitly validated the pursuit of success at the highest echelons of American art, media, finance, etc., believing that Christianity had something to offer in those fields at all levels. He believes these secular fields, while suffering from fallenness like all human institutions, are fundamentally positive contributions to humanity and that Christianity should participate and engage with them rather than fighting against them or denouncing them.
Here’s the problem, according to Renn: Since around 2014, we have shifted from Neutral World to Negative World — but a lot of Evangelicals still think we’re living in Neutral World, or wish we were. Renn:
When the world switched from positive to neutral, the cultural engagement strategy was readily developed. With the switch from neutral to negative, the church needs a new strategy. However, one does not appear to be forthcoming. The lack of negative world ideas is remarkable not just for the fact that it has not occurred, but that it has received so little attention.
There is only serious engagement with the negative world out there I know of, Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option.” Dreher is an admixture of positive (political movement conservatism), neutral (Crunchy Cons), and negative (Benedict Option) worlds. He even physically moved from backwoods to Louisiana to New York City then back again. He’s also Eastern Orthodox, not Protestant. He’s all over the map in many ways, and as a result the Benedict Option is critically flawed in my view. However, at least it’s addressing reality.
Interestingly, neutral world Evangelicals seem to have largely rejected the Benedict Option, and therein lies an important tale.
What is that tale? Renn says that in 2014, he reckoned that “as soon as being known as a Christian would incur a material social penalty, which I anticipated happening soon, there would be a mass abandonment of the faith by the megachurch crowd, etc.”
This didn’t happen, he said. What happened instead was that Neutral World Evangelicals have taken up the response of Mainline Protestant church by embracing the world and the social gospel. “In other words,” writes Renn, “they decided to sign on with the winning team.”
Renn concedes that his lifestyle — he’s a writer in New York City, and loves being there — makes it hard for him personally to abandon the Neutral World model. He wants it to be true (so do I, for the record)!
But the reality is even in my secular urban work the ground is eroding under my feet. Everything is becoming hyper-political, whether I want it to be or not or whether it should be or not. I’m going to end up in a higher conflict mode whether I want to or not. Just like what happened to Tim Keller at Princeton. Buckle up.
People are going to be forced to make choices, across a wide spectrum of domains. I’m afraid current trends indicate that Christian leaders are going to make the wrong ones. We already know from the past that social gospel style Christianity is a gateway to apostasy. That’s where the trend is heading here.
I was speaking with one pastor who is a national council member of the Gospel Coalition. He’s a classic neutral worlder who strongly disapproves of Trump. But he notes that the Millennials in his congregation are in effect Biblically illiterate and have a definition of God’s justice that is taken from secular leftist politics. They did not, for example, see anything at all problematic about Hillary Clinton and her views. A generation or so from now when these people are the leaders, they won’t be people keeping unpopular positions to themselves. They won’t have any unpopular positions to hide. They will be completely assimilated to the world. Only their ethics will no longer be Hillary’s, but the new fashion du jour.
If you are a Christian who is not adept at reading these signs, you are susceptible to signing on for that slow boat ride through the iceberg field. Read the whole thing.
To sum up: the UK is farther along this road than the US is, but we are both moving into a popular culture in which to believe what traditional Christians believe, especially on matters of sex and sexuality, is to become a pariah. The world does not want to hear what we have to say, unless we reflect its own beliefs back to it. Many, perhaps most, Christians will not be willing to live as pariahs and exiles to society’s margins. They will rationalize whatever needs to be rationalized to stay in the game — including convincing themselves that they live in Neutral World, and those icebergs aren’t really a threat at all.
Then they’ll start calling the icebergs Big Rock Candy Mountains.
And then there will be a mad dash for the lifeboats.