American Christians need to figure out how to respond to the emergence of the Negative World
My church has been getting involved in a ministry called LifeWise that teaches public school students Bible curriculum during school hours. It's been growing rapidly, and there's a lot of excitement about it, but I worry that as it draws more attention the ministry will be subject to either legal or cultural opposition, or else missional compromise.
Have you heard of Joseph Minich's Bulwarks of Unbelief? Minich is a Reformed scholar who studies the intellectual history of ideas and works in lesser known, smaller, yet more agile institutions (such as the Davenant Institute, which you might remember from having Alastair Roberts on a while ago) that allow a degree of intellectual freedom not always possible at larger, bureaucratized educational or religious institutions. The book is a high level treatment of the causes of unbelief, similar to Taylor's A Secular Age. It posits that the plausibility of Christianity (or theistic belief more generally) eroded with changes borne out of the industrial revolution, which first hit the lower classes in the early 1800's and then the middle classes in the mid 1900's. (I have a long review of Minich's book on my Substack and a much shorter one at Mere Orthodoxy, if you're interested.)
I think part of interacting with the "negative world" is coming to terms with the plausibility structures of the post-industrial world that tend to push us toward unbelief and make it the default posture among most modern people. You might be particularly interested in remarks about how ancient and medieval Christians tended to view the city as the place where God (via his order) was most present, which is diametrically opposed to some modern Christian views of the city as a place of evil.
Since I can't say it better than him, I'll just let the sublime Alan Jacobs say it for himself:
Us Jews have lived in the negative world for >2000 years, and the last few weeks have shown that we still live in the negative world. I don't pretend to know the ins-and-outs of the evangelical landscape, but there are important lessons you may want to learn from smaller groups like us.
Some ideas to consider:
1. A more instrumentalist approach to the government, rather than an attempt to make the government impose your policy agenda on the population at large. Orthodox Jews in the US have done this in many ways where they live - support to educational institutions (grants for security, for science education, for meals, etc), allowing for religious accommodations in jobs, etc. Also lobbying both parties to secure favorable stances towards matters of critical importance - antisemitism, supporting Israel, etc.
2. A greater attempt at inward strengthening of communities to encourage trust within the community (which also makes young people think twice about leaving). This means turning away from the individualist homesteader-in-the-woods approach. A lot of American libertarian ideas are toxic to community building, which is of utmost importance in a negative world. Examples include babysitting/childcare sharing (for example, our small community uses whatsapps to coordinate babysitting across parents and teenagers), reaching out to those who are sick, communal charity, etc. It seems to my eye that many churches are good at this already, but it gets harder when everyone is dispersed over a wide geographic area.
3. A more deliberate approach to relocation. Orthodox Jews for example will not move places/take a job somewhere if there is not a community already established there. Here's an example I have shared before about how this is done: https://communities.ou.org/fair
4. A more deliberate approach to encouraging marriage to others who share similar values.
5. Emphasizing the positive/joyful aspects of your religion rather than bemoaning the decline of society. People who are tired of secular culture's emptiness will find you, but only if there is emotional resonance
6. Being resolute and unapologetic about your commitment - one of the comments below mentioned Daniel, who is an excellent example of how to retain your faith in exile. One of the advantages of our diverse society is that this is generally well received as long as others do not think you are imposing ideas on them.
7. Creating ownership - for us it is in schools, synagogues, etc. but also in the re-establishment of sovereignty in our land. Aaron has talked a lot about this. But when you are in exile, be prepared to move on
8. Education of youth - young, teens, young adults. My impression is that a lot of the current environment is shallow. I have met many adults who went to Catholic school and even send their own kids to Catholic school who cannot explain basic concepts to me - like what is Advent? Parents and pastors can have a lot more influence here than what they print in a textbook at school (which most kids do not read anyway).
9. Summer camp to build cultural and personal ties over dispersed communities. Camp is a huge (and expensive) part of American Jewish culture which creates lifelong ties
10. Creation of a social media substructure that encourages your faith, rather than a hopeless attempt to wall it off. Of course parental controls are important, but even more important is that your children will want to follow Christians online.
From my history lessons, there are a lot of things here that resemble early Christianity, which arose from Judaism and probably took many lessons from the Jewish diaspora of the ancient world.
It's been a 60-year campaign to demoralize Americans and destroy our Christian spirit. Ending prayer in schools, demanding the removal of all Christian displays from public places, trying to force Christians to bake gay wedding cakes, stopping Christians from praying after a football game, etc. It's been an endless series of litigious attacks that have shamed and embarrassed Christians into hiding.
A view from England. I know that your view is that the American political and cultural tradition has all the resources needed to address contemporary problems. I suspect this is hubristic and that there are much bigger spiritual battles heating up that are beyond the capability of the American political and cultural tradition. 2 Thess 2 describes a "strong delusion" sent by God himself on those who "refuse to love the truth". This principle - if it is in play today - would portend something very serious for the American political and cultural tradition.
I think the situation in England is more stark. For almost 1500 years, for better or worse, the history of the British Isles has been shaped by Christianity. There has been an Alliance of one form or another between the church and the rulers of Britain since at least the time of the very first Archbishop of Canterbury in AD597. This evolving Alliance has, over the centuries, created a profound co-dependency between church and country, like two woodland vines twisting in and out of each other to the point where they can no longer be disentangled without uprooting both of them. But this is now changing – the uprooting has begun. Particularly since WW1 and WW2, the British state has been choosing a secular path which explicitly rejects this Alliance. The institutional church is not only losing influence in the corridors of power, it is also increasingly irrelevant to the population at large. But the institutional church remains deeply invested in the Alliance and, like a jilted lover, seeks to cling on to whatever influence and relevance remains. As the nation slides into secularism, so also must everything invested in the nation, including the institutional church. There are serious consequences. By embracing the lie of secular liberal democracy (the current British political and cultural tradition) and thereby rejecting the wisdom of God, Britain is adopting attitudes and courses of action that are increasingly unwise – the nation appears to be adrift from reality, and at times insanely so. This is God’s judgement: those who reject his divine wisdom are given over to an unsound mind to make their own choices and experience the harsh consequences of departing from divine wisdom. This judgment applies as much to the British church as it applies to Britain. The time is now to wake up to reality – the Alliance between church and state (in its British form) was always unholy and its inevitable termination, which is very painful, should be embraced rather than resisted. That wake-up means (i) dis-investing in the Unholy Alliance that has compromised the church for centuries and (ii) re-investing in true gospel allegiance to Jesus Christ, in the obedience of faith, in the expression of loyal love to our God and Saviour, trusting in him rather than relying on the power structures of this world and its wisdom (aka as its political and cultural tradition).
Yes, thank you Aaron.
I'm sure your eschatology must play an important role in how you suggest we live in the "Negative World" - I'd love to read your book.
May I ask what your eschatology is?
John FK Mulder.
PS. I'm a South African, writing from that country.
I think the Western/American church has gotten very comfortable being in the majority of the culture and has forgotten how to exist as the upstart in a hostile culture. I think we have many examples and principles to remember and draw on from both the Old and New Testaments between the parts of the exile and the early church experience but it seems like most of the church is either in complete denial that there is an issue or is in complete panic looking for political solutions which can perhaps delay things but probably can't solve them. Finding that balance will be tricky. A lot of the former types will probably forego shining a light on the world in order to become a mirror of it. But it is also true that some of the latter types seem to pick fights over molehills rather than the essentials. Tony Evans gave a great sermon a year or two ago about this issue from Daniel and on the fact that God is still in control even in a hostile secular culture, but that God didn't act until Daniel drew his "line in the sand" so to speak. Thing is, that line will probably be different for different churches and for individual Christians depending on their circumstances and work environments. I fear even among Christians that do know what time it is there will be a lot of time wasted over arguments about where the line should be drawn, rather than actually getting to the business of drawing them and helping people become resilient enough to stand by them.
I don't think churches are ready for what is coming, because I don't think pastors are ready for what is coming on the evangelism/church education front. We were mostly all educated in the positive or neutral world. It is hard to adapt. Here is an example: Someone comes to the church for the first time with no background in Christianity at all. None. No one off VBS as a kid, no friend who took them to church, nothing. No Bible in the home. Pastors are used to lots of different kinds of people, the atheist who might be more well read on certain subjects, the rebel who knows better, the one who just wandered away and stopped coming, those returning to the faith of their parents or grandparents, etc... but this experience of someone who has no Christian background, not even a Bible story, that will be a new experience for the church and for pastors and it will become more and more common.
I've played competitive ultimate frisbee since 1987. In 1995, I came to know the Lord Jesus as my Savior. My life turned inside out and upside down and I am grateful for that -- I needed to be alive as I was dead in my sins. Since then my faith in Christ has not limited my ability to play ultimate or obtain roster spots. Except recently, I get the sense or impression that teams (same age bracket) no longer seek me out to be part of their roster for regional or national tournaments. It doesn't seem to be a matter of skill, experience or ability. And I do shower regularly. I wonder about the unspoken negative attitude toward Christian players that organizers and captains may have. My spiritual spidey sense give me the vibe that something has changed over the past few years -- teams are less welcoming to Christian players.
I see the Christian Church as the primary way to heal the huge gender divide in our country. They need to be courageous, united and outspoken. To acknowledge the fact that the genders are equal but different. To celebrate their differences and the fact that the Lord made them complimentary.
Christian Churches must counter the negative treatment given boys & men in our society. Not discuss how they can be 'better' or 'good' men, but how to be proud of their masculinity. If your not sure what that would look like, just lift up boys & men the way we have lifted up girls & women for the last 30 years.
Do you think it's even a possibility? What are your thoughts about my supposition? Thank you
I believe that the three-worlds story applies to more than just Christianity. There are many values in our society that have gone from positive to neutral to negative. Patriotism. Achievement. Rigorous thinking. etc.
IMHO, social media is the biggest factor. It allows a small minority to spread their message very quickly to large numbers of people. Another factor that can't be ignored is just the general degeneration of our society. As you have pointed out, any type of Christianity is actively discriminated against. The elites in our cultural industries and in (most of) our educational institutions are actively hostile at worst, or just ambivalent at best, to what used to be considered normal. I don't know what is happening in the US as I live in Canada, but up here every weekend thousands of protestors are supporting Palestine and chanting death threats against Jewish people. Individual Jewish businesses are being targeted and Jewish people are having their homes vandalized. This would have been unheard of a generation ago. I believe things are going to get worse before they get better, and I fear for the US when the next Presidential election takes place.
I live in very liberal Seattle, in the city proper. One has to be quite careful what one says in public. This fear of "being cancelled or shunned or labeled racist, homophobic, etc." is quite real. Even the Bible-teaching churches I visit pay heed to this secular ethic and are careful/often apologetic when talking about "those issues." Some are speaking Biblical truth, but bend over backwards to look at tolerant as they can and not be labelled as bigoted, racist or intolerant. To get ahead, remain respected in the community you need to "virtual signal" with "the right" answers. I choose to just not talk about "those issues" openingly, and when asking I generally sidestep the issues. Only with those I have vetted and trust do I talk opening about my traditional Christian values and worldview. I can't see any benefit in talking opening in my community at large. It will only lead to needless loss and/or an unhealthy martyr complex.
Mr. Renn, I found your work as I consider converting to Christianity. As part of the elite culture, my friends and family have no framework for appreciating or participating in my journey. They think I’m making an error; they believe that the authentic loving spirit of Christianity is upheld by the secularists. They see no generosity of spirit amid the self declared Christians. What counsel would you give me?
I think my question would be at what point in the Negative World do you lean into going to jail, losing your job, etc.
Do/should people quit their jobs when their companies have a pride month event at work? What if they didn’t attend for years and it’s mandatory now? What if it’s mandatory to not only attend, but participate in a way where they couldn’t just hide in the corner and leave early?
At some point the Negative World may induce Christians to experience hardship for certain Christian doctrines, but not “Christianity” altogether (I love Jesus and I’m openly gay, etc.) What doctrines are worth jail/economic hardship?