What’s The Source Of The Church’s Problems?
On Sunday, David French published on his Substack a thoughtful essay on the threats to the church. I found that it articulated well some of my own conflicted thoughts about the issue, which is, as you know, always top to mind with me. Excerpts:
It’s becoming increasingly obvious that one explanation for profoundly different Christian approaches to politics and culture rests with different answers to the following question: Does the primary threat to the church come from within the church or without? Put differently, does the church stumble and fall primarily because of the sins of the church or because of the cultural and political headwinds directed against the church?
It’s a question closely related to questions about our own humanity. Are we fundamentally fallen individuals who sin primarily because of our own sin nature? Or are we good people, facing challenges primarily because we’re negatively influenced by our environment?
Before you give the “right” answer based on a textbook knowledge of Christian theology, think of your actual answer based on how you direct your emotions and energies.
I stopped right there to consider my own thoughts. I realized that for me, it’s not an either-or, but a both-and — and that this is why so many people on both sides of the question find me frustrating.
I believe that we live in a post-Christian and increasingly anti-Christian society and culture, one that is rapidly making it harder for faithful small-o orthodox Christians (that is to say, Christians who do not agree with the party line on sexual issues) to exist meaningfully in the public square. Nobody is going to cancel a Christian for his or her traditional beliefs and practices regarding luxury, avarice, gluttony, or any of the other so-called “deadly sins”. But resist the world’s view on lust, and you find yourself in a world of trouble.
Besides which, the fundamental materialism of our consumerist, hedonistic society is profoundly anti-Christian. This challenge to fidelity would exist even if the Sexual Revolution had never happened.
So, yes, the environment in which Christians exist, never perfect, is much more hostile now than it was.
But it’s also the case that Christians are an equally dangerous adversary to ourselves. Far too many of us have little to no sense of our own sins and failings, and our own collaboration with the world. For me, a telling example of this was a big story one of my Dallas Morning News colleagues wrote nearly twenty years ago, about the brokenness that pastors, priests, and rabbis were seeing in their relatively well-off congregations in north Dallas and its suburbs. Dallas is quite religiously engaged, with full churches as the norm (at least back then it was; I haven’t lived there in over a decade). Religious leaders told the News, though, that they were seeing a rash of divorces and broken families from people trying desperately to keep up with each other in spending. That is, families were going deeply into debt to make sure they had houses as big as their friends from church, and cars as nice as theirs, etc. This is not the mark of a Christian people.
Most of the negative reaction to The Benedict Option from Christians had to do with what they perceived as its “head for the hills” strategy. The book doesn’t actually say to head for the hills, so I struggled to understand what their real concern was. I finally guessed that the books real message — that we Christians can’t keep living as we do, fully assimilated into bourgeois American life, and expect to keep our faith — was what truly upset them. It’s a version of the Rich Young Ruler problem. The unhappy truth of American Christian life is that if believers have to choose between middle-class success and the Christian faith, most of us will choose middle-class success, and lie to ourselves about what we’re doing.
The Benedict Option was a successful book, but Live Not By Lieshas been much more successful. They both have similar messages, but LNBL is even more pessimistic, so you would think its sales would be worse. What accounts for the difference? The fact that the four years separating the books have made the message of The Benedict Option much harder to dismiss. It is far more difficult to maintain one’s illusion that things are basically fine in our world, and that all we Christians need to do is to sit back and wait for the danger to pass.
Still, it frustrates me that a fair number of my tribe — Christians who are theologically, morally, and politically conservative — are betting all their chips on the hope that the main fight is political, and can be won through politics. It’s just not true, and to say that does not mean that political engagement is useless. We have to stay engaged as long as we can. But it’s to say that the core problem is a loss of spiritual meaning — and that’s something that each of us has the ability, and indeed the duty, to address in our own lives.
So, back to French, who quotes this blog:
I’ll give you an example, from Rod Dreher’s always-interesting and thought-provoking American Conservative blog. His pages are often a clearinghouse for Christians who express dark fears about the future of the church and the republic. They write anonymously to describe woke excesses in American corporations and the American academy. They describe the ways in which the culture is leading their children astray. One note, from an anonymous homeschool father, struck me as particularly poignant.
In spite of growing up with deep religious instruction, extreme restrictions on technology, and isolated from public-school kids, his daughter had turned suicidal, began cutting herself, rejected her faith, and adopted an LGBT identity. The father was stunned. “WE THOUGHT WE WERE SAFE,” he typed in all caps. How did his daughter go astray? The father thought he determined the culprit:
After the initial shock, when we were in “how did this happen??!?” mode, we discovered that it all had come in through the influence of one person, her best friend (who was from one of those “safe” Catholic homeschooling families I mentioned). As it turns out, the family was living a double life, with the public image of being devout but with severe dysfunction at the heart of the home. In the dysfunction, the “best friend” had no supervision and unlimited internet. So, with all the sleepovers the girls had in that house over the years, Lord knows what they were doing.
Well, well, well. Lesson learned (and word of warning to your readers): If you aren’t seeing what your kid is doing yourself, you don’t know what they are doing, period. NOBODY IS SAFE. Trust perhaps, but always verify.
First, God bless that family. I hope they heal, I hope the dangerous depression subsides, and I hope the daughter recovers her faith. But when I read the father’s heartbreaking letter, I wanted to type back in all caps, YOU COULD NEVER MAKE YOUR DAUGHTER SAFE.
The reason is simple. Parents cannot save children from their own fallen nature. Sin comes from within, not from without. You can purge their world of every negative image, remove every godless friend, and surround them with the best Christian culture, and these words from Jesus will remain completely true:
And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him”…For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
I agree with that about 75 percent. Where I push back is on having more sympathy with the father than David seems to (though I don’t think he is unsympathetic to the man). The man’s daughter, like all of us, is sinful, but I think it’s inaccurate to say that the struggles with sin that people, especially young people, face today are no different than when us older people were kids.
When I was a kid, the worst trouble regarding porn that any of us boys could have gotten into was finding somebody’s dad’s Playboy or Penthouse. Even then, that required having the good luck (or so it seemed to us) of one of us having a father that read dirty magazines. It was very easy to keep porn out of the hands of kids. I can well remember what it was like to be 13 years old, with testosterone surging through one’s veins, and thinking about sex constantly. If porn had been easily accessible, I think it’s fair to say that most of us boys back then would have been reading it constantly. The idea of getting our hands on a pornographic movie was beyond consideration. Nobody had them.
I am fairly certain that 13 year old boys have the same amount of testosterone coursing through their bodies as their fathers’ generation did. But now they have the Internet there to make extreme hardcore porn available to them with no effort at all. If I’m honest with myself, I don’t know how I or any of my middle school friends (much less high school) would have been able to resist it.
And now, this:
We all know about the insane number of young teenage and adolescent girls who consider themselves to be trans. If you read any of the literature on this, you know that most of these girls got the idea from the Internet, and via social contagion. And they are experiencing this stuff within a culture that is designed to affirm anything they choose to think about their alleged trans identity. The anonymous man from the anecdote on my blog expected to be able to trust a fellow homeschooling Christian family to hold the line on this stuff. They did not, and now the mind virus has infected their own daughter.
I think it is really unfair to expect individuals to be able to resist this stuff on their own. When I was a kid, the stakes were much less dire. It is a qualitatively different experience to encounter Playboy at 13, and to encounter endless videos of violent sex. It is a qualitatively different experience to feel ill at ease with your body at 13, and the advent of sexuality, and to do so in a world that has become wholly pornified (therefore making you feel that as a woman, you will be seen as a target for violent male sexual aggression), and with the presence of the Internet to offer escapist ways of thinking about your sexual identity and biology that have never been anything but far-fringe in human history.
And if you’re raising kids, it’s a qualitatively different thing to be able to let your son go sleep over at his 8th grade buddy’s house, with the worst thing you have to worry about is that they will get their hands on a Penthouse, and quite another to have to worry that they’ll gain access to hardcore fetish porn because some kid’s parents let him have a smartphone with no filter. It’s a qualitatively different thing to have to worry that your daughter sleeping over at her 8th grade friend’s house will end up going down the insane rabbit hole of trans-positive websites, and will come to see in them a kind of solution to her anxieties about her body and her sexual desires. The inability of parents, even conservative Christian parents, to trust each other to hold the line on technology is a debilitating reality.
Both/and. The corrupt world and the weak-fleshed individual. I think it’s fair to say — and accurate, because he says it himself — that David’s emphasis on the individual nature of sinful corruption explains why he still believes in the basic liberal (as in classical liberal) way of framing the world. I don’t, and I can’t, because the structures and forces lined up against individual virtue are too overwhelming for most people to overcome. My problem — not a problem that David has, nor his Ahmarist opponents — is that I don’t really believe in liberalism, but I can’t have confidence that any postliberalism on offer in the US will work. Postliberalism in America is likely to be left-wing postliberalism. I mean, look, even the US military is going woke.
In my writing on this blog, I focus more on the threats coming at the church from the world, because I see a big problem in so many conservatives, and conservative Christians, believing that it’s really not so bad, or that it can’t happen to them. But garbage like this event from over the weekend at a Bible college in Oklahoma is terrible news for the church. These people are living in a dream.
How is it possible that crowds of people are still coming out to see this maniac? Conservatism is done for if the tent is “big enough” for this. https://t.co/dhEc9A3xxH
— Steve Skojec (@SteveSkojec) April 19, 2021
This is why, unlike so many of my conservative friends, I can’t so easily dismiss David French’s critique. I was talking recently with an old friend, a Catholic conservative who said that his children are trending left because for them, Donald Trump and things like QAnon are what conservatism means. They have never seen anything other than that. They may not be woke, but they don’t see anything in conservatism worth believing in. The ugly truth is that far too many of us conservatives — Christian and otherwise — are not really conservatives, but anti-liberals. This crossed my mind last night while reading this 2005 Jeet Heer interview with the great Hungarian-American historian John Lukacs, who identified not as a conservative, but as a “reactionary”. Excerpts:
”Already [in the ’50s] the trouble with most conservatives was that it was a negative conservatism,” says Lukacs, who penned several anti-McCarthy articles for Commonweal magazine when the Senator was riding high. ”They were anti-liberal. And that’s not enough.”
But even when pressed, Lukacs has difficulty finding any good words for populism, American-style. To him, the rise of right-wing populism here is troubling because it means that the conservatives no longer serve as a shield against the dangers of mass politics. Instead, ”conservative” has come to mean simply ”antiliberal.”
”Nationalism is a very low and cheap common denominator that unites people,” he says. ”It is hatred that unites people. People take satisfaction from the idea that we are good because our enemies are evil. This is a very American syndrome but it is also universally true of mankind.”
Without question hatred of the Other is uniting factions on both Left and Right in the US now. Still, I think Lukacs’s point (again, made in 2005) about conservatism having become merely “antiliberal” applies to conservative Christianity as well. The headmaster of a classical Christian school told me once that most of the people who send their kids to his school think of themselves as conservatives, but really all they want to do is get their kids away from liberalism. And that is not enough.