Posts Tagged With: America

A Response to “Engaging the Culture Doesn’t Work” by Dean Abbott

alamoDean Abbott recently made an insightful post on the patheos blog.

I would like to offer some agreement and some critique of his thesis. The theme is basically the title, “Engaging the Culture Doesn’t Work.”

“It has also been, largely, a failure. The evidence is plain. In spite of the resources poured into these efforts, American culture has increasingly embraced the cultural and sexual Left.”

By what measure, I would like to ask Mr. Abbott, has Christian cultural engagement in America been a failure? Brothers I have met in places like the United Kingdom, Germany, or Australia do not share that perspective about Christianity in America. They wonder speechlessly that Christianity in America is as successful yet, as it is, in permeating American society. They marvel at the boldness and freedom that we personify in talking about our faith in public, or to express views contrary to say, for example, “gay marriage”, because it is simply not possible for them to get by this way as we do in the United States of America. This is not by any means a reason to boast, or take pride in ourselves. It is a reason to give thanks to God. Where else in the developed world are Christians yet considered an important voting bloc, to whom even non-Christian politicians wish to ally themselves and make promises to appoint justices who will maintain their values, and pass laws to protect their religious liberty? This kind of recognition of strength is not happening in any other western nation that I am aware of. Where else in the world do Christians maintain the full liberty to preach the gospel on a bustling street corner, or to homeschool their kids in the Christian faith?

The benchmark to which a mutual fund is compared is not zero. It is to be expected that stocks will go up and down. It’s in comparison with indices like the S&P 500 or total market indices that the performance of a managed mutual fund is judged. Let us apply this technique to this topic. Christianity in America has had its losses, like Obergefell vs. Hodges, the Supreme Court Decision that imposed “same-sex marriage” on all fifty states. (The final chapter in that national debate is yet unwritten.) But we have also had our successes. We scuttled the Equal Rights Amendment, deregulated home-schooling, banned late-term abortions, put hundreds of abortion clinics out of operation by putting onerous regulations on them, pushed back on recognition of transgenderism in the military, and achieved landmark precedent on the right of Christians to run a business in accordance with our Christian values. Where else in the modern western world do Christians enjoy the liberty that we do in America, and what would it be like today if Christians had not been engaging culture with the law and gospel, in all areas of life? Christians would be barred from approaching the bench as lawyers, getting any desirable jobs, or opening businesses, unless they hid their lights under bushels and pretended to be the opposite of what they are. Merely stating the unique claims of Jesus Christ as Savior in certain public settings would be considered criminal hate speech, as it now is in the United Kingdom. In most of the western world, a refusal to enroll ones children in government-approved schools is cause for arrest, but in America we have the freedom to educate our own children from the starting point of a Christian worldview. I am working in urban Southern California at a mid-sized corporation with offices nationwide, and have the privilege of attending a weekly Bible study at lunchtime in the office with co-workers, which is occurring at most of the corporate buildings, and is even recognized as an official employee activity. It is a small group, but nevertheless one that would not be tolerated in most of the secularized western world. We mourn at the decline of Christian values in America, but on the other hand, in comparison with the most culturally similar nations in the world, things are looking much better in America.  In America’s military and prisons you will still find a preponderance of paid staff chaplains generally conservative and evangelical in their view of Scripture. You can still get Christian radio stations on the radio in America. Churches can still rent (or even get free use of) public space or sign up to set up an evangelistic book table at a show or special market, or start a student group at a University. Things would certainly be a lot worse for Christians, and the progress of the gospel, if they had not been working hard at engaging the culture socially, evangelistically, politically, and even artistically over the last forty years. So, has Christian cultural engagement been a total failure? Not at all, and we have much to be thankful for.

Speaking of the post-World War II era, Abbott writes, “Millions of people still attended church.

But, even then, in elite circles, Christian belief was a mark of low status.” And “We have now arrived at a moment when this dynamic can no longer be hidden. The hostility of our elite institutions and those who run them is well documented.”

I think that Mr. Abbott makes the mistake of placing the cultural center of gravity of American life in the “elite circles.” In America, elites are more the object of derision than objects to emulate. The center of gravity in America is the great wide majority, the great middle class also known as the bourgeois. It is they that drive the culture and define it, unlike in many other countries like the United Kingdom or France. America has always had a very wide anti-establishment and even an anti-intellectual streak. America’s cultural center is more Hollywood than Opera, more hamburgers and pizza than coq au vin. This has had good and bad ramifications for Christianity in America. But, it is something that Abbott’s thesis fails to consider.

“Christianity has become marginalized because Christian belief has become an obstacle to getting what most people want: social status and the privileges which accompany it.”

Americans in general loathe and disdain the cultural elite. The American culture, or, if you prefer, cultures, are more popular than elitist. This is one of the distinctive things about America that is obvious to every European or Asian who visits. Our heroes are self-made businessmen, power-hitting baseball players, and compelling Hollywood actors, not blue-blooded politicians, impressionist visual artists, or aristocrats. In America, success is not generally measured by social status or fitting in the upper class, but by individual achievement, particularly pulling oneself up to wealth and fame by the bootstraps. The American Dream is the aspiration of the middle class. So, in the American context, Christianity as the anti-establishment faith of the people has flourished far more than the established mainline church social clubs. Note the demise of the mainline churches even as non-denominational churches have flourished. The latest Pew Research, indeed, shows that evangelicalism in America, in contrast with other developed western nations, is holding steady, not declining in numbers.

What is the alternative to cultural engagement? If, as Mr. Abbott describes, engagement has been a failure (which I have demonstrated to be false), what is his alternative? He proposes none. His reference to Rod Dreher makes me think it is hermitism, a retreat to introspective preservation. But, rationally speaking, that will only accelerate the current trends and bring the wrath of the world to bear upon the Church in America in more nasty ways more quickly. How could it not? The current political climate shows that just as it’s not enough for evangelicals to engage winsomely, it will not be enough for them to disengage, either. The unbelieving world will come after us in all their fury if we retreat. There is no shrinking from the cultural battle at hand. How did insular ghettos work for the Jews in Europe? They attracted pogroms and the Holocaust. Giving up on the creation mandate is tempting, because sometimes the result of our labor is disappointing or frustrating, but it is not a practical option. And let us be cheerful, because our God will prevail. To use a historical analogy, after the Alamo came San Jacinto.

Now a point of agreement: Abbott is spot on with his criticism of the stylistic attempts of evangelical churches to engage the culture by imitating it. As he notes,

“Many evangelicals sensed something was going on. They responded as though the problem were a matter of style rather than content. They created churches calculated to prove evangelicals could be as hip as anyone else. The result was churches that had rocking worship bands, superb lighting, a million cool programs and no cultural impact.”

The only lasting success to come from this trend was to make the hip pastor in a goatee and skinny jeans a universal object of derision.”

Very true. The mistake of evangelicalism has largely been emphasizing style over substance, as if the problem were that the church were not stylistically inviting enough to the world. This approach will never work, because the world has better style (in worldly terms) than the church ever will. Faced with the problem of social and cultural marginalization, evangelicalism on the whole has chosen the wrong remedy. Abbott insightfully describes that failure.

Now, I would like to propose another course of action. As we maintain and defend our faith, our families, our lives, and our heritage, let us focus on content over style, substance over sizzle, God-honoring worship over entertainment, and our confession of faith over results. Our churches must be historically confessional and biblical, not trendy. And let us not shrink from the battle, because we know that we are more than conquerors in our Lord Jesus Christ, that He is even now reigning as king, and that He will soon finish the conquest of all His and our enemies. What a privilege it is to be a part of that operation. Let us serve God in our occupations, with our businesses, in direct evangelism, in apologetical answers, in our schools, in our communities, in running for office and in making our political voice heard. Let our churches hold to our confession of faith and our pious practice, let us pray for a great awakening across our land, and let our families continue to lead and adhere to the fear and admonition of the Lord, because nations may come and go, but His kingdom reigns forever.

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A French Huguenot minister in New York

A little family history. Here’s a letter written by a Dutch reformed minister in New York to the Classis of Amsterdam on September 30, 1696. His name is Domine Selyns. In the letter he mentions the French reformed minister who serves where my ancestors the Sicard family [bearing my paternal grandma’s maiden name] were settled in New Rochelle, New York. His name was Reverend (or Domine to use the Dutch title) Bondet, A Huguenot minister from France and a former professor at the famed Academy of Saumur. This was the pastor of some of our ancestors in of New York who had escaped France eight years before.  

Selyns writes, “Domine Brodet [Bondet], who was formerly professor at Saumur, and who lived among the Indians and preached to them for eight years, is at New Rochelle, 20 miles from here, and is very useful by his ministerial gifts and holy life.”

A History of the Reformed Church, Dutch in the United States by ET Corwin, 115.

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Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly speaks out against the secularization of public schools–affirms Christian America

prayer-at-first-continental-congress

Faced with the growing secularization of public schools in America, the PC(USA) defined the position of American Presbyterianism in the following pronouncement by her General Assembly in the year 1870:

“We should regard the successful attempt to expel all religious instruction and influence from our public schools as an evil of the first magnitude. Nor do we see how this can be done without inflicting a deadly wound upon the intellectual and moral life of the nation…We look upon the state as an ordinance of God, and not a mere creature of the popular will; and, under its high responsibility to the Supreme Ruler of the world, we hold it to be both its right and bound duty to educate its children in those elementary principles of knowledge and virtue which are essential to its own security and well-being. The union of church and state is indeed against our American theory and constitutions of government; but the most intimate union of the state with the saving and conservative forces of Christianity is one of the oldest customs of the country, and has always ranked a vital article of our political faith.”

General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) 1870, quoted in A History of the Presbyterian Churches in the United States by Robert E. Thompson, 1895, p. 199.

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Presbyterians Pressured by President Lincoln

Illustration of the Bombardment of Fort SumterWhen the Confederate Army cannonaded Ft. Sumter on April 12, 1861, opening the Civil War, it turned out to be a moment that crystallized the patriotic feelings of many Americans in defense of the Union. Sumter awoke a sleeping giant. It was on of those “rally around the flag” moments that the South had probably not expected it to be, when people across the Union who were previously apathetic or ambivalent about the political disputes between North and South felt a rush of anger over what the South had done, and a desire to preserve the Union. Reading about this turn of events reminds me of the patriotic response many Americans exhibited during the First Gulf War, when Lee Greenwood soared to the top of the charts with his perennial favorite, “God Bless the USA”, and later, the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 when Union flags seemed to fly on every car antenna in a surge of patriotic feeling.

Just one month after Sumter, in May 1861, Rev. Gardiner Spring introduced a resolution at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church U. S. A. calling for a day of prayer and fasting, in light of the national trouble and warfare that had already broken out with the siege of Ft. Sumter and the secession of 8 states. He was an influential and respected conservative in the denomination, hand-picked to present the resolution by the pro-Union side. It made one small mention of prayer for the preservation of the Union, without including any denunciations of the Southern States that some had wanted to see in it. What many may not know, is that the Lincoln administration was pressuring the Presbyterian Church to pass a resolution supporting the Union. The Presbyterian Church was at that time one of the three largest church bodies in the Union, and the Lincoln administration, perhaps rightly, thought that the declared support of the Presbyterian Church toward the Union would help secure the loyalty of the Border States: New Jersey, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri toward the federal cause. The vote went 156-66 in favor of the resolution*. A contingent protested the resolution led by Charles Hodge, but to no avail. Moderate-mindedness could not quell the spirit of patriotism or the desire to help preserve the Union.220px-abraham_lincoln_o-77_matte_collodion_print

In response, the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States was promptly formed of the forty-seven presbyteries in the South. A schism of the Northern and Southern Presbyterian Churches took place, which did not reunite for over one hundred twenty years. While it was sad that political concerns split the church, it was also a continuation of the Presbyterian tradition of a mutually helpful relationship between the church and the civil government.

*See: A History of the Presbyterian Churches in the United States by Robert Thompson, New York: 1895.

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Presbyterianism in America

The group of ecclesiastical bodies which co(c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundationnstitute the Presbyterian family in America hold a place of great importance in the religious life of the nation.  American Presbyterianism has been of weight beyond its numerical strength through the services it has rendered to theological science, the interest it has maintained in Christian doctrine, the high standard of intelligence it has set up for both its ministry and its people, its capacity to develop strength of character, its superior family discipline, and its conservative influence upon the national life.

Robert Ellis Thompson, A History of the Presbyterian Churches in the United States, 1.

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