We can ill-afford to have an insulated, self-absorbed, accommodating faith. Not ever, but especially not today. If the church has any hope of changing this world, it must recover its conviction of the Word’s authority (without picking and choosing what we want to agree with). Believers must be as intentional as ever to engage with contemporary thought, ready to demonstrate that only faith in Christ can satisfy one’s quest for meaning. Two recent articles have reminded me of this. They are well worth reading.
The first is Kate Julian’s article in the most recent The Atlantic, “The Sex Recession.” Our culture has, as she puts it, “never been more tolerant of sex in just about every permutation.” And yet, Americans of every age are having less sex. The reasons are deeply troubling—deeply troubling—for those of us who believe in the sanctity of marriage and the need for moral purity. We have abandoned all restraint, thanks to the sexual revolution, and now we are tasting its awful fruit. We have betrayed the gift God has given us and denuded it of all meaning. Unconditional love and covenant vows have been replaced with porn and sex for one. We are creating new definitions and playing God with our sexual choices. We must read, ponder, pray, preach, and speak into this tragedy.
The second is Andrew Sullivan’s “America’s New Religions,” (NY Magazine). I am going to condense his lengthy article, giving a series of quotes. Each is worth slowing to reflect. His words must also provoke us to thoughtful, cultural engagement. We are, after all, to be a force in the world—not a refuge from it.
Sullivan begins by noting everyone has a religion. Everyone pursues a way of life that gives some meaning, some transcendent value. Even atheists pursue some significance, some set of values to live by, as well as certain rituals—like meditation and prayer (which I am assuming descend into a centering on self and prayers to self). Sullivan notes we are compelled to find meaning because, unique to all of creation, we know we will die. And this existential fact requires some way of reconciling us to it while we are alive.
What Sullivan does next is to point out the dead ends we have pursued. Science is one. It can provide hypotheses, but it provides no ultimate meaning. The same is true of history. We now live in a post-Christian West that hopes it can find meaning in progress—“a gradual ascent of mankind toward reason, peace, and prosperity.” But technological achievements and material possessions and latest diets do not do this. Instead, Netflix, air-conditioning, sex-apps, Alexa, kale, Pilates, Spotify, Twitter—they all end up creating a world in which we rarely get a moment to even confront ultimate meaning. Which, last I checked, is all part of the deceptive strategies of the Evil One. We are a terribly distracted culture, increasingly oblivious to what matters—that is until a tragedy like a sickness or death or some significant loss strikes.
Little wonder the writer of Ecclesiastes writes: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone” (7:2). Every time I sit in a service, I am reminded of my own mortality, and I ask myself afresh—“Am I about pursuing God’s purpose for the time I have left on this earth?” No other question really matters.
We will soon exchange gifts in hopes of finding the latest technological toys, but even the next generation Echo will not “slake the thirst for something deeper.” Adrift from the true faith, we will keep searching, and without Christianity, this yearning more and more is turning to politics for satisfaction. Religious impulses, “once anchored in and tamed by Christianity,” are now finding expression in various political cults. It might be the cult of Trump on one side or the cult of progressive social justice on the other. Some believers bravely resist the cults, but, concludes Sullivan, all too many Evangelicals have turned Christianity into a political and social identity—not a lived faith.
These political cults, that demand the nightly attention of their adherents, are filling the void that Christianity once owned, “without any of the wisdom and culture and restraint that Christianity once provided.” We have embraced wealth and nationalism as core goods and become increasingly indifferent to the destruction of the creation we say we believe God has made. Sullivan’s conclusion: “The appeal of leader-cults is overwhelming the fading truths of Christianity.”
Here is one place we should stop and ask ourselves some hard questions, beginning with—“How did we get here? How did we lose our voice, our influence?” There are no simple answers, but I wonder how much of it goes back to all too many churches that have become self-absorbed entertainment centers where pastors preach only what’s popular and discipleship and accountability have become forgotten mandates.
Sullivan finds that there is still a nominal Christianity on the cultural scene, and many profess it, but they demonstrate by their choices and their convictions that they have left it “far behind.” People are coasting along on materialism without the interior resources to keep them going when a crisis hits. “Many have responded to the collapse of meaning in dark times by simply and logically numbing themselves to death, extinguishing existential pain through ever-stronger painkillers that ultimately kill the pain of life itself.” Witness the opioid epidemic.
We can ignore articles such as these and tell us everything is fine. We might even skip their lengthy summaries, preferring to skim along on a diet of Tweets and self-absorbed posts on Facebook. But we do this to our peril.
We cannot afford to cave-in to the demands of contemporary culture. James Davison Hunter, in his book To Change the World, closes with timely words—“We are not bound by the ‘necessities’ of history and society but are free from them.” We are free to actively, creatively, and constructively seek the good in our spheres of influence—practicing the faithful presence of Christ. We must.