Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2017. The reading schedule is online at https://xastanford.org/summer-reading
I found chapter three much more engaging than chapter two. If you’re getting bogged down, it gets better.
Chapter Two: Old Cultural Wineskins
If sincerity were the same thing as faithfulness, then all would be well, for Christians, as a rule, are nothing if not sincere—not least in their desire to be “faithful in their own generation.” But if I am even partially correct about the nature and profundity of the changes of late modernity, then against these sincerity could never be enough by itself. At least a fragment of wisdom would be required as well. (page 213)
As a Protestant, I truly believe in sola fide (faith alone). But very often I find Christians in our culture treating faith as if it were a feeling or some mere sentiment. Faith encompasses so much more than that! Faith that lacks faithfulness is not the faith God requires — and faithfulness is a matter that springs from the convictions we have cultivated and the habits we have developed far more than it does from the emotional impulses we experience.
Chapter Three: The Groundwork for an Alternative Way
In a milieu where the church and its people are so quickly and roundly criticized for their shortcomings, it is easy to overlook a central theological truth; that is, that however inadequate or pitiful the church may seem at times (and may, in fact, be), where the scripture is proclaimed, the sacraments administered, and the people of God continue to seek to follow God in word and deed, God is at work; the Holy Spirit is still very much active. (page 225)
If I could have one truth tattooed on your generation’s arm, something like the above would be a strong contender. Always remember that you are not merely inviting people to follow Christ, you are inviting them to become part of the Body of Christ. You should love it and invite others to love it alongside you. Sadly, the Body of Christ is often slandered by believers who think only of her faults (often with shocking inaccuracy) and little of her strengths.
Be slow to assume you have a good read on how the church has acted in history. For that matter, be slow to assume you have a good read on how the church is acting today. Have you heard that Joel Osteen’s church has been callous during the flooding of Houston? Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook users sure got that impression. Before you apologize to your friends for Osteen’s alleged hypocrisy, read these articles: Flood him with criticism: Let him who is without sin cast the first stone at Joel Osteen and his church (Bobby Ross, Jr, GetReligion), Was Joel Osteen’s Houston ‘Megachurch’ Affected By Hurricane Harvey? (Snopes), The Joel Osteen Fiasco Says A Lot About American Christianity (Laura Turner, Buzzfeed). Based on the evidence I’ve seen, Lakewood Church not only acted defensibly but actually acted wisely and helpfully. Acting in a manner unfamiliar to some of their critics, they were more concerned with actually doing good than with merely giving the appearance of doing good.
This, incidentally, is a useful reminder that the Bible isn’t kidding when it tells us there will be those who “those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ” (1 Peter 3:16, NIV). I often meet young Christians who believe that if we just act nicely enough that the world will love us. You’re not going to be a better representative of Jesus than Jesus Himself was, and He was tortured to death. Temper your expectations.
I say all that to say this: if you hear a negative report about a church, do your homework before you assume the criticisms you are hearing are accurate. A surprising amount of the time the criticism will be false or will be misleadingly true.
But when a criticism of the Church is true we need to take it seriously.
Nowhere is the task of critical resistance more urgent than in the church itself for the ways that it too has accommodated to the spirit of the late modern age. St. Peter is right to say, “judgment begins with the household of God” (1 Pet. 4:17). Antithesis, then, means that the church’s own structures and its own engagement with the world must be continually scrutinized. Here especially, critical resistance must always be creative and constructive; guided by devotion to the beloved community. (page 236)
Moving on, Hunter identifies a problem that I think is particularly strong at Stanford:
In contemporary America, Christians have faith in God and, by and large, they believe and hold fast to the central truths of the Christian tradition. But while they have faith, they have also been formed by the larger post-Christian culture, a culture whose habits of life less and less resemble anything like the vision of human flourishing provided by the life of Christ and witness of scripture. The problem, in other words, is that Christians have not been formed “in all wisdom” that they might rise to the demands of faithfulness in a time such as ours, “bearing fruit in every good work.” (page 227)
We need to recognize that our culture is always trying to create unchristian convictions within us. Stanford does it more aggressively than American society because the campus is a much less free environment.
But that doesn’t mean that we give up and reject our society. Far from it.
When people are saved by God through faith in Christ they are not only being saved from their sins, they are saved in order to resume the tasks mandated at creation, the task of caring for and cultivating a world that honors God and reflects his character and glory. (page 236)
And so we participate in our society and seek to make it better, recognizing that there is goodness everywhere because of God’s common grace. But even when we find an area of alignment of our values with society’s, we recognize that there will be tension.
It is important to emphasize that the realm of “common grace” is, by no means, a neutral space. It is God’s grace after all—it emanates from him and its purpose is to give him glory. To make strong and active affirmations about the present world, then, in no way implies the autonomy of knowledge, morality, desire, justice, or beauty. The idea that there are common or objective standards for these things independent of the created order is an illusion. In the contemporary world, neutrality is the pretence of all secular establishments; a myth concealed by its hegemony. (page 233)
As a result, we need to have a level of skepticism about the structures of our fallen society.
In the present historical context, this means that Christians recognize that all social organizations exist as parodies of eschatological hope. And so it is that the city is a poor imitation of heavenly community; the modern state, a deformed version of the ecclesia; the market, a distortion of consummation; modern entertainment, a caricature of joy; schooling, a misrepresentation of true formation; liberalism, a crass simulacrum of freedom; and the sovereignty we accord to the self, a parody of God himself. As these institutions and ideals become ends in themselves, they become the objects of idolatry. (pages 234–235)
And now we’re getting close to what I take to be Hunter’s ultimate point: we don’t participate in society primarily to change the world. We do it simply to bless those around us.
If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world, in other words, it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor. (page 234, the original has emphasis that I don’t think is being reproduced here)
I’m eager to see where his argument goes from here.