The Blowback Against the Three Worlds Model
Recent critical takes show that the "three worlds" has become the key framework for understanding today's religious landscape.
My three worlds of evangelicalism model has only continued to grow in reach and influence, especially since an updated version was published in First Things earlier this year.
We see this growth in the recent criticisms of the model leveled by high profile people, including David French, Russell Moore, and Tim Keller. (These include criticisms of James Wood over his use of my framework as well). The most recent is David French’s weekly dispatch from yesterday reprising his argument that today is simply the same old negative world it ever was. He writes:
As one writer put it in an influential First Things essay, prior to 1994 the culture retained a positive view of Christianity. That view turned more neutral between 1994 and 2014, and since 2014 we’ve entered the “negative world,” where “being known as a Christian is a social negative, particularly in the elite domains of society,” and “Christian morality is expressly repudiated and seen as a threat to the public good and the new public moral order.”
This notion puts an intellectual frame around right-wing Christian rhetoric that declares we have to “take our country back.” Everywhere there is a sense of siege, and each and every act of unfairness or censorship directed at conservative Christians (whether in the United States or as far away as Australia) is amplified as proof of the concept. We have entered a new, dark time, it is said, and thus the “old ways”—which include a commitment to kindness in the public square—are simply inadequate for the moment.
But this analysis is fundamentally wrong. It’s dangerously wrong.
I will make a few observations about these recent critiques.
First, it’s powerful validation that my model is becoming the key way evangelicals understand the recent religious landscape of America. The fact that these very high level people feel it’s important to rebut the framework attests to its growing influence and that it is resonating with ever more people. It’s become too big to ignore.
Second, it’s interesting that French, Moore, and Keller all make the same essential argument against the three worlds model, which is that nothing has changed. That’s why I refer to this line of critique as the “it’s the same old negative world it ever was” argument. I don’t find this compelling because clearly there have been some major cultural shifts that took place during President Obama’s second term, as I previously discussed.
If you find their perspective on the matter to be more compelling, then of course you should accept that and structure your life and ministry around it. I think there actually quite a large number of people who do think this way. As we progress further and further into the negative world, however, I expect this number of decline substantially. It’s similar to the reception of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option book. Back in 2016 when it came out, many people disagreed with it. Today, many of those former critics have come around, telling him that they’ve changed their mind. The fact that his follow-up to it has sold over 200,000 copies to date shows that reality is moving in his direction.
My three worlds view is very complementary to the Benedict Option. So I expect the trend to continue favoring it over business as usual.
Third, their beliefs perhaps help to illuminate aspects of the increasing hostility of French and Moore to other evangelicals that has occurred over the past few years. It’s obvious that something actually has changed. But if secular society is basically the same, then what is the source of change? Evangelicals themselves. It is their changes - their decision to throw in with Trump, for example - that have produced these cultural conditions. We see this in French’s latest dispatch, when he writes:
I’ve endured all the responses that have caused right-wing Christians to call this the negative world. That includes campus shout-downs, efforts at physical intimidation, and lost job opportunities. But I can also say with absolute, total conviction that 25 years of leftist protests have paled in comparison to the ordeal of the last seven years of opposition to Trump. Nothing in my previous life prepared me for what came after my first National Review posts that critiqued Trump.
In essence, this accepts that we’re in a new era, but sites the origin of that change in evangelicalism itself rather than society.
I should note that Keller has not taken this turn
Fourth, I find it interesting that none of these major critics has seen fit to mention James Wood or me by name in their critiques.
Fifth, I am not personally that interested in the debates over “winsomeness.” My model is really not about that at all. Nor do I argue that Christians need to “take our country back.” In fact, in a negative world where Christians are clearly a minority, the culture war model as historically understood is obsolete. I plan to do extensive work on this that will likely roll out next year. But one of the ongoing themes in my writings here, which you can see in my coverage of the online men’s movements and the dissident right, is the growth of a post-Christian right, especially in youth cohorts. This will have profound consequences for our politics. Among other things, the traditional evangelical appeals of Republican politicians past will no longer work and will likely disappear from the scene.
James Wood has written more specifically about winsomeness. The attacks against him have actually been much worse than those against me. I believe most of his critics have fundamentally mischaracterized what he has actually said. So I encourage you to read Wood for yourself.
Sixth, I’ve always said that my framework is a tool, and the first word but hopefully not the last one. In that light, Joe Rigney, president of Bethlehem College and Seminary, recently gave a talk that reframes the negative world in a different context. He says that what makes the negative world unique is its rejection of natural law.
I can’t begin to do this justice here, but I’ll give a capsule summary. All cultures have recognized the natural law embedded in God’s created order. CS Lewis referred to this using the Chinese term “Tao” to show its cross-cultural nature. So, for example, all societies know that murder is wrong. Not every society interpreted this equally well, but it informed how human societies operated. Even the liberal Protestantism of the midcentury era accepted the moral and ethical principles of Christianity.
With regards to French’s essay, Rigney makes two key points. One is that in the negative world, society has now rejected this natural law order. That’s what makes it unique. Two is that there’s a difference between living within the natural law and living up to the natural law. Hence positive world Christianity accepted the natural law, but also fell short of living up to it in important respects, which is why there was still societal evil and injustice even in the positive world.
The Temperature Is Getting Turned Up
As my framework continues to grow, there’s a good possibility that the level of pressure and critique brought to bear again it, and potentially against me, is only going to grow.
I’d like to be clear that I consider the critiques of French, Moore, and Keller to be completely within the bounds of legitimate public debate, even if I disagree with their conclusions and some of their characterizations. I have criticized French and Moore myself, so I have to expect they will not hesitate to criticize me. When you step into the arena, critique comes with the territory. But it’s still not pleasant.
As my profile and critiques of me grow, the expectation levels on me only go up. I’m planning to elevate my game accordingly and try to stay focused on my mission, while recognizing that we are in a war of ideas. I very much plan to work hard to make sure my ideas win that war, because they are better than the alternatives right now. But I don’t want to just fight with people all the time.
Public criticism can also lead to a variety of negative effects. We can collapse under the pressure. Or we can let it knock us off course and radically change our positions. My next monthly newsletter, which comes out next Monday, is on this very point.
So as criticisms ratchet up, I need your help. I’d appreciate prayers that I handle it well. And I’d invite you to send me feedback if you think I’m drifting off course or handling something poorly.
I’d also like to once again ask you to become a paid subscriber here. Realistically, financial support is critical to helping me to stay strong in the face of critique, especially when the people criticizing me have vastly greater financial backing than I do. By becoming a Subscriber, you also get exclusive content, podcast transcripts, occasional free webinars, and access to my Subscriber Knowledge Base.
Without the support of Subscribers like you, my three worlds piece would never have been published in First Things. Think about that. Sometimes when we donate money or subscribe to something, we don’t feel like we’ve really made much of an impact. But your subscriptions here have already had a direct and major impact on the evangelical world. Thank you so much. And with your support I will endeavor to make sure that level of impact only continues to grow over time.