The decline of orthodox Christianity (II)  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , , , ,

In my last post (July 30) I listed the five sociological and historical forces that Ross Douthat identifies in his book, Bad Religion as the primary contributing factors in the decline of the attractiveness and authority of Christian orthodoxy in America. Whatever “proximate causes of Christianity’s decline” (his term) you consider most definitive, the ones he lists certainly contributed.

What I want to do in this post is identify some of the factors within evangelicalism that seems to me to have contributed to the decline. I realize that on this level there are significant regional and denominational differences that are worthy of note, though I will not take the time to parse them out here. Sadly, a number of these factors are still with us.

Spokespeople who represent a shriveled version of faith.
            The so called “Christian media” has produced a host of pundits and commentators who have positioned themselves as representatives of the evangelical world. Many have been more animated by political ideologies than by historic biblical orthodoxy, some have been distinctly uncivil, many have spoken to issues far outside their expertise, and a few are little more than buffoons preening in the spotlight. I have listened to their comments in dismay, at times wondering if I could in good conscience continue to identify myself as an evangelical.
            Though this does not address religious pundits specifically, Susan Cain in her excellent book, Quiet: The of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking notes: “A well known study out of UC Berkeley by organizational behavior professor Philip Tetlock found that television pundits—that is, people who earn their livings by holding forth confidently on the basis of limited information—make worse predictions about political and economic trends than they would by random chance. And the very worse prognosticators tend to be the most famous and the most confident” (p. 52).
            We would have been far better served by silence. We still would be.

Squandering spiritual resources.
            As the world passed from modernity to postmodernity, it was quickly clear that rather than a descent into secularism, a renewed interest in spirituality was blossoming. It’s true this trend was not immediately evident in the books and articles produced by the knowledge elite, but it couldn’t be missed in coffee shops and in the themes expressed in popular music and film. At such a point, it would make sense that attention and creativity would be given to the rich spiritual resources of evangelical faith, but often no one seemed to care or notice.
            Consider just one example: liturgy. Liturgy rooted in the ancient practices of the church, thoughtfully rendered for today and creatively shaped by the gospel itself is a rich spiritual resource to be demonstrated to a watching world. A self-confident and comfortable church, however, goes through the motions, perhaps even enthusiastically, failing to realize how beauty must be carefully nourished if it is to be appreciated.
            Even today it is often obvious that the leader has not carefully prepared for each aspect of the service. Prayers, readings, and hymns are introduced with tired phrases that once might have sounded fresh, now repeated every week, “please stand with me and respond in praise…” as if that’s an intelligent way to introduce the corporate singing of a hymn full of phrases and concepts not normally spoken in everyday speech to someone who is unchurched. Insufficient context is provided to tie each element to the last and to the whole, and speaking louder than normal is apparently thought to grant authority or authenticity.
            Non-liturgical evangelical traditions still have a liturgy, if we define it as the order in which the various elements of worship appear during corporate worship. The problem for such churches is demonstrating that their order is rooted in anything more ancient or authoritative than the group’s preferences, and then leading it so that the whole demonstrates an orthodox faith.

Faith separated from vocation.
            The evangelical church professes to believe the Reformation teaching that all work brings glory to God, but in practice this has been rarely reflected in the life of congregations. A proliferation of church and parachurch activities have been produced, and often the subtle impression has been given that truly spiritual people are involved in such programs.
            The problem remains. The truth of the matter is that our faithfulness as Christians is expressed in our vocations. Our work fulfills our calling to build culture and witness to God’s mission to bring Christ’s kingdom to fulfillment in his creation. Even if this is believed, it is rarely taught explicitly, and in practice is smothered by the pressure to volunteer for more church sponsored events and activities.

Priorities in ministry set by reaction not biblical and historic faithfulness.
           As Christianity has declined in attractiveness and authority, evangelical leaders have responded in various ways. Some adopted a consumerist model, and assumed their attempt was good because huge churches resulted. It was years before data was available to prove what should have been evident: using what fallen people like to make church entertaining guts the gospel of its meaning and power. Some have embraced postmodernism, arguing that historic orthodoxy itself must be reimagined. Before long in their preaching and writing were espousing positions that are at best heterodox. Others have reacted against this heterodoxy, retrenched and emphasized theology, so that their people became well versed in identifying differences in varying schools of thought about the minutia of doctrine. For some reason many of these seem to fail to comprehend that orthodox Christianity also provides us with a worldview by which we can see, discern, and faithfully find our way through the myriad choices of ordinary life.
            All these reactions, still with us, are understandable, but unfortunate.

Claims to change the world.
            Over the past century evangelicals have claimed the gospel transforms not just lives, but families and cultures to eventually change the world. Sadly, these claims have been misapplied politically so that electing the correct politicians was promised to usher in a renewed period of traditional family values, economic freedom, and justice.
            These claims reached a high point with Ronald Reagan’s election, but the reality was disappointing, if not embarrassing. As conservative Ross Douthat points out in his book, Bad Religion, Reagan’s worldview did not align itself with the orthodoxy: “As John Patrick Diggins wrote, ‘Reagan offered three of the most radical thoughts ever held by an American president: We have no history at our back; the people know no evil because our God-given desires are good; and only the state knows how to sin.’ The Gipper took elements from modernist theology and adapted them to right-of-center politics. Instead of History’s God working out His purposes through the development of the modern bureaucratic state, it was democratic capitalism that reflected God’s ultimate will for humanity. Reagan’s was a utopianism of free men and free markets, rather than of a benevolent administrative body—but it was a utopianism nonetheless, unconstrained by traditional conservatism’s sense of tragedy” (p. 267).
            Perhaps a bit less hubris would be wise. I happen to believe that the gospel is the true transforming power of all of history, but pinning the hopes of transformation to particular political, judicial, legislative, or evangelical events is irresponsible. As each year passes these claims seem more foolish. Once again, silence would be preferable.

An absence of human flourishing.
            The claim that the gospel is transformative will be implausible unless those who claim to live by it exhibit lives of beauty, virtue, love, and grace. Accomplishing this is impossible, of course, but thankfully the Lord has sent the Spirit. It does not require anything extraordinary but faithfulness in the ordinary and routine, the deeply subversive arts of warm hospitality, unhurried conversation, a simple meal, good listening, and a quiet dependence on God through prayer. Following the mistaken impressions of the Second Great Awakening, over the course of the twentieth century evangelicals have depended more on techniques and programs than on radical discipleship.

Unethical evangelism.
            The primary approaches to evangelism fostered since the end of World War II were modeled after sales techniques. Some were frankly unethical, such as those involving “surveys” that were really not surveys, their data never collected and tabulated, but were merely a set of manipulative questions designed to funnel the encounter into a particular presentation. All the church really succeeded in doing was convincing the world that evangelism was a form of marketing and the gospel was one more commodity. Many involved "bait and switch," giving the impression of professing interest in one thing, only to suddenly change direction to a pre-packaged witness.

Reaction rather than discernment.
            When a minority is not prepared to meet the challenges of living in a culture that does not share its deepest convictions and values—and may even be hostile to them—the tendency is to react. This in turn gives the impression the minority’s position is weak and indefensible, so that the fearfulness displayed seems plausible to the majority. If the minority then withdraws into a self-imposed ghetto, with its own activities, media, music, art, and language, the majority’s opinion is further supported.
            It is extremely difficult to be a thoughtful minority, especially if you haven’t noticed the culture’s change switching you from a majority force to a dismissed minority. It’s hard work to be discerning, instead of merely reacting to things, but there is no other possible way to be faithful in a pluralistic world.

Enough for now: I provide this list not as something exhaustive but as impressionistic, anecdotal, and incomplete. It seems to me these tendencies within evangelicalism have not served the church well, and most of them still haunt us. They comprise factors that seems to me have helped reduce the authenticity and authority of orthodoxy within the evangelical movement over the course of the last 70 years.

I look forward to your comments, pro and con, or adding to what I've included here.

This entry was posted at Monday, August 06, 2012 and is filed under , , , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


Sadly all these traits I recognize all too well. In general I think Christianity is characterized outwardly as an abstaining, a lacking, a rejection and unfortunately that seems to be mirrored by many within the faith as well. It's much easier and clearer to define a faith by a list of 'thou shalt nots', whether that's drugs, excessive alcohol, sex before marriage, etc - than positively by a list of more holistic and open traits.

Sexuality, the environment and money are three themes you've touched on which have been addressed problematically or very little - to me they're key contemporary areas of discourse and lifestyle which are crucially important personally and to many of my friends, which the church as a whole has failed to dialogue on in a considered fashion. It's a shame because the Bible takes strong, radically different positions on all three which are highly relevant, but instead of solomon's sensual sexuality, eden's stewardship of nature or jesus' nomadic poverty, it's Christians who are waving the gay hate placards, driving the SUVs to church and celebrating a rampant capitalism indistinguishable from everyone else. I too have often wondered just how many disclaimers I have to put before the title 'Christian' before I'd actually want to claim it.

I'd love to say I could see evidence of 'human flourishing' in other christians or in myself but that's largely not the case either. I find much of the Bible (especially OT) to be either dry, vicious (in terms of human life and value), obtuse, or a combination of the above, finding instead moments of joy which somehow resonates spiritually through an everyday occurence in the city or a performance piece by an artist. On rare occasions something labeled as 'Christian' does resonate and I find I can stand behind it without disclaimer or commentary, the most recent example being Andrew Marin's apology and hug at the Gay Pride Parade in Chicago, his Marin Foundation group refuses to take a political or polarising stance - indeed any official stance - on homosexuality, freeing them up to connect instead of divide.

August 9, 2012 at 5:50 AM

Though it seems strange to write this, it's too bad that what I wrote happens to be be true. One saving grace is that though orthodox Christianity can not be separated from the church (the grace of the means of grace are given only to the church), the faith transcends the human institution.

Your comment about the Old Testament was especially poignant to me, and though I have no illusions about having many answers it would be a delight to sit, share a cup of freshly brewed coffee, and talk through some of the texts you find "dry, vicious, or obtuse." I'm grateful you called attention to Andrew Marin, since I was unaware of his work, and the positions he takes. Very glad to know about him.


August 20, 2012 at 5:07 PM

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