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.

Further Thoughts
Weaving a Future: The Chalmers Option?
Theological Poverty: More on “The Chalmers Option”
The Spiritual Vitality of Place

Photo: Atlanta History Center, July 2017.

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3 thoughts on “Talking Past Each Other: Class and Culture in the Church

  1. Pingback: Weaving a Future: The Chalmers Option? | Hardscrabble

  2. Pingback: Theological Poverty: More on “The Chalmers Option” | Hardscrabble

  3. Pingback: The Spiritual Vitality of Place | Hardscrabble

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