The paradoxical pairing of nostalgia and forgetfulness are everywhere in today’s American culture: Trump supporters who want to “make America great again,” one shocking @realDonaldTrump tweet at a time; hipsters who want grandpa’s vintage manliness without his Eisenhower-era values; movie fans who love period films but can’t remember the best-picture winner from last year.
Then there’s this particularly widespread memory lapse: We say we want a good society with morally upright citizens, but we forget the significant role Christians play, and have played for millennia, in the world’s flourishing. It’s something Christians themselves are forgetting. Many are increasingly embarrassed, self-loathing, and viciously infighting. At times, they’re more vocal on blogs and Twitter about the alleged good-for-nothing horribleness of Christians than the most ardent atheist.
Today’s religious freedom debates exemplify this amnesia about Christianity’s contributions to the common good. In the balancing act between LGBT protections and free exercise protections for religious businesses and institutions, federal and state governments seem poised to dispense with the latter for the sake of the former. This summer California debated a controversial proposed law (SB 1146) that threatened to drastically narrow religious protections for the state’s Christian colleges and universities, subjecting religious schools to lawsuits and loss of state financial aid for their students if they continued enforcing admissions, housing, hiring, and other policies based on their traditional beliefs about sexuality and gender. Due to an unprecedented public outcry, including from African American and Catholic church leaders, lawmakers eventually amended SB 1146 to remove its most controversial portions. For Christian colleges across America, though, the bill served as an ominous sign of things to come.
The prospect of Christian colleges and universities being legislated into secular existence has been met with a collective shrug by mainstream American culture. Never mind that universities were invented by Christians. Never mind that each year, Christian colleges and universities graduate thousands of men and women who are motivated by the ethics of Jesus to serve others. Never mind that, as scholars Robert Putnam and David Campbell point out in American Grace, “By many different measures religiously observant Americans are better neighbors and better citizens than secular Americans.”
Never mind all that. Christians are discriminatory, dumb, and dangerous, and society is better off without them.
The ‘Recipe’ for Good Faith
When that is the prevailing mentality, what are faithful Christians to do? How should believers understand their identity and purpose in a society that increasingly lumps them in with the KKK?
This is a question taken up by Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman in Good Faith: Being a Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme. Like unChristian, the book Lyons and Kinnaman co-authored nearly a decade ago, Good Faith mines Barna Group data in an insightful survey of the changing landscape of faith and American culture. Both books analyze societal perceptions of Christianity, but where unChristian’s word to Christians was “make these changes and society will have a better view of you,” Good Faith’s is more, “society may never have a good view of you, but be good for society anyway.”
Lyons and Kinnaman suggest that Christians should see themselves as a “counterculture for the common good,” speaking and living in ways that are contrary to the spirit of the age. Yet their difference should make a difference. In relationships, sexuality, justice, and all other aspects of life, Christians should be confident that “God’s moral order leads to human flourishing.” They should seek that flourishing for the common good, even if it is met with shrugs or offense or intolerance. Rather than retreating from the world when we find ourselves in exile, Christians should adopt a posture of “growing inward and facing outward.” They should maintain conviction while also prioritizing compassion, balancing the tension of “Firm Center, Soft Edges”, a phrase they borrow from Biola University president Barry Corey. The “recipe” for good faith, they suggest, is compassion that coexists with conviction in the context of consistent Christian living: “how well we love + what we believe + how we live = Good Faith.”
All of this is well articulated and on point. It’s stuff Christians need to hear and heed. But I have a sinking feeling that the book’s compelling arguments for “good faith” (including three chapters on LGBT issues that are essentially a “greatest hits” of the reasonable points you might have heard at Q conferences over the years) will fall on deaf ears among readers who are unconvinced.
So many of these arguments have been made and lived out for so long, to no PR avail. We live in a world where emotion trumps rationality, forgetfulness trumps history, and fear trumps civility. In such a world, all the “good faith” efforts we could muster will still be called bad faith; the most relevant things will be labeled irrelevant, and vice versa.
So where does that leave us? How can we slow the pace of forgetfulness?
I think we start on the inside, educating ourselves about and building confidence in the gospel’s good news. When it comes to Christianity’s relevance, Lyons and Kinnaman rightly note that “just because an increasingly secular and narcissistic society thinks the gospel is irrelevant doesn’t mean that it is irrelevant.” But what’s to stop Christians themselves, as they fuse with and are embedded within a “secular and narcissistic” society, from losing their grasp of the gospel’s relevance?
Perhaps in the “growing inward and facing outward” formula, we need to focus a bit more, for a time, on growing inward: a more local, church-focused Christianity wherein faithful communities rediscover their heritage, clarify their theology, and learn to love their identity, however freakish that identity looks to the surrounding culture.
This likely means adopting the sort of engaged alienation that Russell Moore calls for in Onward, a call that “preserves the distinctiveness of our gospel while not retreating from our callings as neighbors, friends, and citizens.” It may mean we follow some iteration of what Rod Dreher terms the Benedict Option, which is not a “head for the hills!” retreat as much as a commitment to building a more historically rooted, non-forgetful Christianity where believers are less susceptible to the winds of contemporary culture. This option, as Carl Trueman recently argued, recognizes that the greatest priority in a secularizing society is de-secularizing the church.
The future of good faith in America depends on believers being more Christian than American, more compelled by the City of God than the City of Man, more submitted to the authority of Scripture than the authority of experience. It also depends on strong local churches and believers who experience Christian community not as an abstraction, but as a tangible, flesh-and-blood, brick-and-mortar reality. This is an area where Good Faithcould have focused more attention. Big-picture trends and data about a nation’s religious dynamics are helpful, to be sure. But any change we might hope for will require healthier local churches, practically equipped to help 21st-century disciples understand the teachings and model the behavior of a 1st-century rabbi.
The future of good faith in America will also require Christians to take a serious look at cradle-to-grave education, considering how things like biblical literacy, coherent catechesis and classical/Great Books programs can help us battle the forgetful inertia of the dominant culture, which Lyons and Kinnaman agree is leaving today’s children with “little hope of holding firm to a faith distorted by society’s corrupt moral code.” The importance of education cannot be overstated: education that emphasizes worship, liturgy, and rhythms of Jesus-centric life alongside Plato, Paul and Wayne Grudem; education that takes the long view in our Insta-culture; education that cultivates the virtues, including what blogger Jake Meador calls the virtue of indifference: “indifference to results, indifference to the opinions of the sophisticated masses, indifference to the trends and norms that shape popular culture.”
The opponents of Christianity understand the critical importance of education too. That’s why Christian colleges are their most prized target. We can pray and fight for the rights “of good faith Americans to swim upstream against the cultural current,” but if, in the end, our Christian colleges lose funding or accreditation or simply lose their saltiness, we should lament but not despair. We’ll just have to create new learning communities in their place.
Good faith ebbs and flows in history, and its geographical strongholds wax and wane. But good faith never goes away. For thousands of years it has endured threats from within (bad faith) and without (persecution), and American culture today is nothing that it hasn’t seen before. Good faith endures not because it is trendy but because it is transcendent; not because it is old, but because it is eternal. We may be in a Babylon-like culture, but we are citizens of the City of God, “a city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). For that reason we needn’t freak out, but rather press on in our Eden-old task: to image the Creator by ordering a chaotic world, keeping the light alive amidst a formidable darkness.
Brett McCracken is a Los Angeles–based writ er and journalist, and author of the books Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide (Baker) and Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker). His website is brettmccracken.com.