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.

Weaving a Future: The Chalmers Option?

Few would argue that all is well “in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world“—it’s what most needs to be done about it that divides people. I’m increasingly convinced that something very like Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option represents a good path forward.

Even if we weren’t facing an impending crisis of religious liberty, I’ve got little confidence in the current status quo of American church life. The standard combo of buildings, preaching (which is vital!), programs (which can be useful!), partisan politics (which will be our undoing!), music (which can be meaningful!), messaging, and mission statements is failing to reach unbelievers and retain believers in active membership.

A Poor Competitor
Why? It is too compatible in many respects with other visions of the good life, and asks just enough of us to make it a poor competitor. A church that offers little more than a tepidly baptized consumer culture is no substitute for “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” As Russian author Eugene Vodolazkin put it, “people need other things to live by,” and the church should be the fountain from which a purer vision flows.

In multiple conversations of late around the subject of preserving and strengthening this faith, I’ve used the The Benedict Option as a gauge of sorts—testing appetites for the hard work of a Christianity uncoupled from the shackles of Americanism. Most resonate with the call Dreher articulates to a faithful, intentional community of spiritual formation, even if there is disagreement over his particular application. Others (often those who hold the power and purse strings) see tweaks and innovations to be made, for sure, but believe the basic design is still working.

This is why pursuing legal cover for churches and nonprofits, conscience protections for service providers, and other current political maneuvers (though crucial) cannot be the whole solution. For generations, we’ve been discipled to believe that we can live and let live; that the rest of the culture is just one radio revival away from returning to our fold. The opposite has turned out to be true, and it is we who are walking the aisle to pledge faith to the other side. Americanism is a religion; glistening advertisements the illuminated manuscripts of its bible of consumption. Protecting a vision of the church that fails to recognize this does nothing to advance Christ’s kingdom, and often works actively against it.

Perhaps this is why the reaction to Dreher’s thesis has been so heated (albeit often from those who pan the book without having read it, or, at least strain to miss the point). Nothing less than the nature of the church is at stake. Either the Gospel matters in every nook and cranny of life or it doesn’t matter at all. Either “in [Christ] all things hold together,” or nothing holds together at all. Such an all-encompassing and embodied faith ought to be the pursuit of any healthy church.

Of course Dreher isn’t the first to call for such. One of his more ardent detractors, James K. A. Smith, is a leading voice in this direction. What Dreher adds to the discussion is framing it in terms of strategy. How do we get to a place where such a holistic vision is the Christian norm? This requires something greater than simply an intellectual assent to the the idea of a revitalized church. Human behavior seldom shifts on the merits of an argument alone.

A New Affection
Smith tells us that “We are what we love,” but warns that we may not love what we think. Retraining our loves takes discipline, but it also requires grace-driven vision. This is not a new idea, by any stretch. In the early 19th Century, well-known Edinburgh pastor Thomas Chalmers preached a sermon entitled “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” In it, he said:

“The heart is not so constituted; and the only way to dispossess it of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one. Nothing can exceed the magnitude of the required change in a man’s character—when bidden as he is in the New Testament, to love not the world; no, nor any of the things that are in the world—for this so comprehends all that is dear to him in existence, as to be equivalent to a command of annihilation” (emphasis mine).

Within the context of the serThomas_Chalmers_-_Project_Gutenberg_13103mon, Chalmers leans heavily toward personal spiritual discipline as the key to answering that call. In the life and ministry of his church, however, a powerful grasp of embodied grace worked itself out in faithful care for the needy, massive social reforms, and holistic approach to ending poverty and restoring dignity in his city.

Chalmers seems to have understood that the Gospel of Christ speaks of a relentlessly physical reality—an incarnate Savior who bled, died, and rose just as surely as he preached, healed, and forgave. A Christianity that promises only spiritual gifts lacks real “expulsive power” to dislodge our present comforts and fears. A Christianity that demands nothing of us in this life but a public piety and lip service to doctrine sounds an awful lot like a “command of annihilation.” Sitting on a cloud, strumming a harp for eternity is hell, not heaven. What we need to understand is that this call to a whole-body, whole-life discipleship is a feature, not a bug, in God’s good design.

Turns out, we do need other things to live by. Nothing short of this world-upending, world-rebuilding mission—given to us directly from the hands of Jesus Christ the Son of God!—can dislodge our stubborn pursuit of self, wealth, and health.

Perhaps this Scottish churchman has much to teach us yet, particularly in terms of how we live out the Gospel toward the wider society. Perhaps his call to look to the poor and oppressed can cure our atrophied vision and give us the strength to endure. Who is more likely to accommodate their faith to the cultural winds, the one who is afraid of losing privilege or the one who has long endured shame? A church unwilling to suffer is bound to be swept into irrelevance by the increasingly anti-Christian mainstream.

To put it another way, what do we have to lose? Any commitment to biblical truth and standards will ultimately land us on the margins of modernity. Better to rush there ourselves in love, “boast of the things that show our weakness,” and embrace the lessons forged in hardship by those who have always lived there. This faith in which we stand, this church we love, which Christ has promised will endure to the very gates of hell, is embodied, suffering, and persevering—just like our Lord. Pursuing the fullness of His kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven, is the way we will weather the coming storm.

Further thoughts
Theological Poverty: More on “The Chalmers Option”
Talking Past Each Other: Class and Culture in the Church

Photo: Dew on spider web with flame azaleas, Elk Knob, North Carolina, June 2017.

But He Died!: The Cross and God’s Sovereignty

Originally published in Disciple Magazine, April 25, 2011.

My dad has often said that the older he got, the more convinced he was of God’s absolute sovereignty and the less sure he was of his own free choice in the developments of his life and faith. A younger me was less inclined to see things that way–something about our human nature always chafes against any notion that we aren’t in control of our daily lives—but now I couldn’t agree more.

We are born into this world thinking ourselves the masters of our domain, seeking every opportunity to manipulate our situation to our advantage. Paradoxically, we learn to expect that our demands will be met whenever we make them precisely because we are utterly helpless. A parent doesn’t meet the needs of a child because the child’s cries obligate action; rather they do it out of love and concern for their child. A parent, not their child, creates and sustains the proper environment necessary for growth. From this, we grow up predisposed to believe that our parents exist to serve us, and we drag that image into our understanding of God.

Immature prayer often sounds like a more polished and polite version of a young child’s begging: “Lord, please give me (insert desire here);” “Lord, please take away (insert bad situation, illness, or difficulty here).” Is there anything wrong with that? Certainly not, as we are exhorted to ask God for His good gifts—even self-centered prayer acknowledges God as the source of the blessing. When the content of all our prayers is centered on such supplication, however, we are clearly missing something. A God powerful enough to give us these blessings and good enough to answer when we ask is deserving of so much more in our relationship to Him. Just as we (hopefully) grow to see our parents as so much more than providers, we should mature in our understanding of God.

Theologically, this teases itself out in debates about the nature of salvation, righteousness, and responsibility. Who is the actor when we pass from death to life? How can we do right and cease from sin? Why do bad things happen in the world if God could stop them? Most of us, at least at some point, struggle with the interplay between personal autonomy and God’s absolute authority. The Scriptures, which reveal both God’s eternal power and the drama of human choice, give precious little on which to build a sound case for the unilateral triumph of either position.

To put it too simplistically, we can look at it this way. Those who see God’s authority rigidly, to the point of not allowing man responsibility for anything, view God’s sovereignty correctly—He is either sovereign over all or not at all—but they impute to Him man’s motives and attitudes in the application of that authority in such a way that misses the vastness of His love and mercy. Those who see man’s autonomy rigidly, to the point of diminishing God’s power, correctly see that we are responsible for our choices, but they impute God-like motives to us that undercut the depth, darkness, and totality of our sinfulness.

I’ve known people who grew into belief in God’s sovereignty and then have had that confidence shattered by personal experiences or simply an overwhelming awareness of the trauma of life in a fallen world. When we witness a horrific crime or natural disaster, we can’t help but wonder how and why God would allow such things. To some, the assurance that “God is in control” is no comfort and seems a hollow brush-off of visceral suffering.

God is in control, though, just as He was in control the day His beloved, holy, innocent Son, Jesus Christ, was brutally beaten and crucified in Jerusalem. The cross of Christ (vís-a-vís God’s sovereignty) is not simply a lesson in how God’s plan through what appears to be abject evil is in reality an unimaginable good (a la Gen. 50:20), though it is the ultimate example of that. The crossEcce Homo is not just a lesson in the ways in which God’s plan is beyond our understanding, though it is that too. Though a display of His grace and power and authority to erase our sins, it is still more. Perhaps the way the cross most boldly proclaims God’s sovereignty is through showcasing His willingness to suffer.

Christ was God, the Word made flesh (John 1:14), not another created being. Christ, “who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself…humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death…” (Phil. 2:6-8). He came from a position of equality with God and yet became a man, “so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17). He came down to know the full measure of temptation (Heb. 4:15), pain, and separation from the Father: “In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety. Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered” (Heb. 5:7-8).

The suffering which culminated at the cross included 33 years of life in this broken place. Christ lived with the poor sanitation, poor health, and poor food and water quality common to all in the first century world. He lived through three decades of human strife, quarrelling, brutality, political tension, sickness, sorrow, and death. Even more than that, He was born into poverty, a member of an oppressed people group, living in a town and region of low reputation as far from the power centers of the Roman world as one could get. He was probably maligned all His life by those who knew that His birthday and Joseph & Mary’s wedding day didn’t add up. He was probably envied and maneuvered against by His siblings and neighbors. Perhaps His carpentry shop was robbed or vandalized. In his years among us, He took into Himself the fullness of human misery so as to be unassailable in His compassion for us.

When Satan tempts us to believe that God is somehow out of touch or incapacitated by the scope of natural and moral evil in the world, we have to cling to the cross. When he tells us that God could not know our pain, could not feel our inner turmoil, and is not interested in the details of life in this world, we have to throw the battered, bloody body of Jesus in his face and shout, “But He died!”

When we are tempted to doubt God’s goodness and compassion, when we read of divinely-ordered genocide (as in 1 Sam. 15) in the same book as we discover His everlasting lovingkindness (and are told to see this as a contradiction that undermines our faith) we have to fall on the cross. The justice and love of God are both predicated on the finished work of Christ: He knows “everyone whose name has…been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain” (Rev. 13:8). Everything about our understanding of and relationship with God has to hold up under the power of the cross; otherwise, it is incomplete and is “no gospel at all” (Gal. 1:7).

The longer I follow Christ, the more I embrace my dad’s statement. The driving factor in this shift hasn’t been so much that I’ve learned more about God’s sovereignty from growing in His Word (though I have), but that I am daily confronted with the magnitude of my sin and the ways mine and others’ sins are reflected in the systems of the world. The more I recognize my own rottenness, the more I recognize that any standing I have before God is His doing alone. The less sound my case seems in the face of God’s holy justice, the more His love breaks through in all its glory. If I thought I deserved even a snippet of it, it would be cheapened to me beyond recognition. I’ve got no right whatsoever to live with God, but He died!

Charles Wesley’s words ring true: “And can it be, that I should gain an interest in my Savior’s blood? Died He for me, who caused His pain, for me, who Him to death pursued? Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”  Amen.

Photo: Ecce Homo by Antonio Ciseri, Public Domain.