Talking Past Each Other: Class and Culture in the Church

I’ve been scribbling a few ideas of late under the general heading of The Chalmers Option. Briefly, it is an attempt to think through how the Western church can recover a healthier vision for its future not simply in order to recover a holistic theology that encompasses poverty, oppression, and suffering but through that very recovery. This exchange of values is brought about by “the expulsive power of a new affection”—that we only turn away from a faulty love in the face of an overwhelmingly better one—a phrase from Thomas Chalmers.

The name’s similarity to The Benedict Option is not an accident. I am highly in favor of the direction Rod Dreher has taken in teasing out this concept on his blog and in his most recent book. The church cannot give away what it does not have, and this soul searching is long overdue. Without an internal culture shift, our hope of external cultural impact is a waning illusion.

So why bother to riff on a good idea? First, if there was any shortcoming to the book, it was the relative gloss on how well the concept might apply to those already on the margins of our culture. I chalk that up to the simple fact that nobody can put everything in a single book, so I’m offering this as an addendum more than a corrective. Second, several voices (both online and in person) pointed out that civilizational decline narratives don’t resonate very well with those who never experienced a cultural ascendancy. There is a similar sense of moral/spiritual loss in marginalized communities, but the present urgency is not felt so keenly where being an outcast has long been the norm.

Since poverty is as much a culture as a condition, this raises the question of how the BenOp translates across cultures. Though it is explicitly a strategy for the West, the spiritual and community disciplines that the book commends are needed for all Christians.

In this, as in so many other arenas, Christians tend to talk past each other about the same concerns and truths. Disagreement and uncoordinated efforts are as often the result of cultural disconnects as actual opposition. We usually fail to recognize the intentional and unintentional roles we play in shaping those very cultures.

New York Times columnist David Brooks’ July 11 piece on the growing cultural divide between elite and mainstream American cultures (the now-infamous “Sandwich” column), has a lot to teach us in this regard. Class cuts across many planes, and members of the elite culture (those with education, at least a little bit of money, and connections to the halls of power) are increasingly incapable of even holding conversations with anyone not just like themselves.

Brooks is by no means the first to raise this point. Sociologist Charles Murray published a book-length study of the growing cultural divide in 2012’s Coming Apart. Murray’s work shows that on nearly every metric of social health (social capital, marriage, employment, etc.) those on top tend to remain on top, and those on the bottom tend to remain at the bottom. The divide itself is nothing new, but what has changed in recent decades is the lack of mobility across it. We simply do not mix across class lines anymore. Murray’s thesis rings true, and he supports it with compelling evidence, but I fear that his tense is wrong: maybe we really have come apart. Nothing short of love (with intense patience) can restore the power of community, the value of shared rituals, the art of neighboring and other practices that can hold us fast against the wider cultural maelstrom.

Brooks, Murray, and others (including Alan Jacobs and Dreher) speak of a set of cultural shibboleths, and these can hold just as much sway within the church. Murray observes that religious attendance in the U.S. has held somewhat steady among the richer classes while cratering among the poor. What underlays this, though, is not only the broader issues Murray discusses (healthy lifestyles, social networks, etc.), but a cultural stratification among and within churches themselves.

The failure of evangelical jargon (“Christianese” we used to call it) to connect with unbelievers and the general culture has been talked about a lot, so much so that most churches have thrown it out in favor of simpler terms (which, in turn become jargon themselves). “Getting saved” becomes “trusting Christ.” “Christian” becomes “Christ-follower.” “Sanctuary” becomes “worship center.” The list goes on. I’m not sure what can be done about this particular phenomenon—in-group slang will always be with us.

At what point, though, does a shared language become a barrier rather than a unifier? I see some unsettling trends in the way that the educational and economic segregation of the faithful interacts with professionalization of pastoral work to contribute to disunity among the faithful. The theological language used in wealthier and more educated congregations (technical terms, church history, Greek or Hebrew being used and translated, etc.—all good things in themselves) is incomprehensible to the majority of Americans who call themselves Christians. Moreover, the level of education expected for pastors in most evangelical denominations leads those with seminary degrees (and the debt burdens that come with them!) to only seek ministry roles in wealthier areas. This accelerates the divide, depriving trained pastors of the opportunity for long-term learning from Christians outside of their social bubble and depriving lower-income churches the chance to benefit from the good work of seminaries.

These threads are coming together to function as “condensed symbols” for a largely accidental elitism within the Body of Christ. None of us have planned for this to happen, but we’ve wound up here by virtue of not considering the larger cultural issues at work. We’ve arrived now at a place where childlike faith is not enough to burnish our identity in Christ, where “loving the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, mind, and strength” means having a Masters-level understanding of Scripture and theology.

When we consider many of the other disappointing aspects of church culture (the rise of a mushy “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” in place of submission to King Jesus, churches’ accommodation of aspects of the sexual revolution, etc.), this dynamic is lurking in the background. The generally poor state of teaching afflicts all of us across the spectrum. When we live in one bubble or the other, we will always be tempted to shade our teaching away from the whole counsel of God and bow to the cultural norms that press on our churches from the outside (see again the “A-side/B-side” comparison in the last post).

A little courtesy and communication theory (“consider your audience”) could go a long way. All of us need to rediscover how to treat American God-fearers with the same love and patience we treat the unevangelized across the world—listening, contextualization, and long-term discipleship. People should always be growing in their understanding of the depth of God’s truth, but the vibe in church should be “welcome to our journey together” not “you’re too dumb to be a good Christian.”

Food for thought.

Photo: Atlanta History Center, July 2017.

Theological Poverty: More on “The Chalmers Option”

In an earlier post, I suggested a “Chalmers Option“—the pursuit of a holistic vision of living out the kingdom of God that could overpower and push out competing temptations. I’m reacting to visions (explicit or implicit) of Christian faithfulness that fail to challenge the comforts of cultural status quo. This “expulsive power of a new affection” would necessarily lead to a radical revision of the way of life in which we’ve been stewed.

Labeling this construct as I did is ever-so-slightly self-serving. I mostly interact with this blog (and the Internet more generally) wearing my “private citizen” or “interested bystander” hats rather than in any professional capacity. My day job is relevant here, though. I serve at a ministry called The Chalmers Center, which is named for Thomas Chalmers, though we’re probably better known through the book, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself than by our name.

We focus on helping Christians to think differently about poverty and then do something about it. This is a much larger project than just offering “best practices for alleviating poverty.” It requires people to fit a “new affection” sort of revolution into their thinking, and shift their behavior accordingly. This is a needed precursor for churches to actually impact their communities (particularly in low-income neighborhoods) in ways that recognize, respect, and restore the mutual brokenness of all people and the broken systems they create.

A Christian approach to bridging the divide between people with wealth and people living in poverty has to wrestle with this brokenness. “Poverty” is not simply a lack of material goods: people can be materially poor (lacking wealth, access to social capital, education, a healthy “pride”, etc.), but we can also be poor in other ways (lacking humility, meaningful relationships, generosity, etc.). Separating “the poor” from the mainstream in our thoughts and actions strips them of their dignity as God’s image-bearers.

This is a hard leap of understanding for most, both because our “affections” are warped by the surrounding culture and because we often act out of an anemic theology. Christianity has always wanted to flirt with Plato, preaching the Gospel in all its spiritual and eternal aspects while reducing the body to a vehicle for personal piety. When we slide this way, whatever one may choose to do with that body (aside from a few unpardonable transgressions) is not terribly relevant, so long as the soul is saved and sanctified. This is not simply a Protestant problem, though the Reformers’ needed focus on justification has particularly pushed their theological descendants toward emphasis on metaphysical over embodied ministry.

Something in our finite knowledge wants so badly for the truth to be either all spirit or all flesh. The mystery of the one true Gospel is precisely that it requires us to recognize that it is all of both. My friend Dr. Carl Ellis has a helpful framework to think through this point. Holistic theology has two complementary parts: an epistemological “A-side” and an ethical “B-side” If you play either the A-side or the B-side without the other, you’re not hearing the full symphony. Both are necessary for full faithfulness, even when we don’t realize it, and choosing sides is a dangerous temptation.

Perhaps our willingness to look past the two-sided nature of our responsibilities before God stems from a desire to “be OK”, to find a narrative for brokenness that comforts and acquits us.

“A-side” theology teaches us the totality of man’s Fall in the Garden, but somehow we manage to rationalize this cosmic upheaval to a simpler problem of personal sin. This downplays the depth and breadth of our rebellion against God, allowing us to judge those wrestling with consequences of the Fall as lacking personal responsibility and reassuring us that our relative “blessedness” means we’re making the right choices. Such a view makes it very difficult to wrestle with our own complicity in the systemic brokenness around us in a “Christian nation” like the United States.

“B-side” theology, drawing on the Old Testament, teaches us that the whole community is deeply connected, and every injustice taints and corrupts the whole nation. Just like we distort “A-side” teaching, though, we can rationalize this into a focus only on large-scale problems that downplay every person’s need of redemption from sin. If the brokenness we wrestle against is “out there” or someone else’s fault, we can go on about our lives without the hard work of repentance.

Part of the Chalmers Option, then, has to be learning to grapple with both “sides” and their implications for how we live each day before God and man. This opens our hearts to a wider vision of Christ’s kingdom and the church’s role as “the pillar and support” of that truth (1 Tim. 3:15), but also a wider vision for repentance.

It calls us to see our great guilt in the ways we have allowed deficient theology to shape our culture, even the ways we deliberately handicap our reading of Scripture to conform it to our favored sin patterns. If we have eyes to see, it shows us that the reason that we even need to contemplate a “Benedict Option” to preserve the church against a hostile culture is at least partly due to the church’s role in creating that culture.

These realizations should breed a humility that points us back to dependence upon God to forgive, heal, and sustain us. That dependence can lead us, finally, to the love that has the capacity to drive out the weak and failing accommodation to comfort and consumption that has too often characterized the faith in the West. In that “new affection” is our ancient hope.

W. H. Auden, in “As I Walked out One Evening” sums it up well.

“O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbor
With your crooked heart.”

Semper reformanda.

Further Thoughts
Talking Past Each Other: Class and Culture in the Church

Photo: Grace Episcopal Church, St. Francisville, Louisiana, June 2016.