In some ways, there has never been a scarier time to be a Christian in the West than right now. There has also never been a better time to be a Christian in the West than right now. Why? Because Cultural Christianity is dead, and the days of Christianity being a part of any moral majority are over.
See, it’s not exactly going to buy you any cultural cache to be a Christian right now. We increasingly seen as backwards and anti-progressive, desperately trying to use whatever remaining political power that remains to turn culture back to the 1950s, while risking winding up on “the wrong side of history”. When we’re living consistently what we say we believe, we are weird—really, really weird to the world. Am I the only one who sees that as potentially a very good thing?
Is the end of cultural Christianity a bad thing?
Thankfully not, at least not if Russell Moore’s latest, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel, is any indication. Moore believes the “increasing marginalization of Christianity offers an opportunity for the church to reclaim a gospel vision that has been too often obscured, even within sectors of the church we think of as ‘conservative'” (61). We have, as he puts it:
…the opportunity to bear witness in a culture that often does not even pretend to share our “values.” That is not a tragedy since we were never given a mission to promote “values in the first place, but to speak instead of sin and of righteousness and judgment, of Christ and his kingdom. (10)
Onward is all about helping its readers reclaim that understanding—to move away from seeing ourselves as an embattled moral majority, and instead embrace our role as a prophetic minority wherever God has placed us.
Wars, rumors of wars, and culture wars
Careful readers will notice that Moore is not concerned with changing the content of our historic message—he is not advocating a revisionist alternative in order to gain favor with those who reject us—but encouraging us to consider our methodology. This is especially important when addressing concerns of renewed culture wars.
Christians of another generation (and many of the current one) grew weary of culture wars (and culture warriors). These Christians tired of hearing how the world was going to hell in a hand basket, and how whatever issue on the agenda would bring about the end of America. They weren’t interested in getting back to a Christian America (and whether or not such a thing ever existed is an entirely different matter). They just wanted to everyone to keep their opinions to themselves, and get along.
Moore is no advocate of an unrestrained culture war that sees gay rights activists and abortion proponents as our enemies. We are not to run around acting like some “protected class of victims.” Instead, “we ought to see that our culture is less and less connected with the roots of basic knowledge of Christianity” (180). And this viewpoint changes how we approach those who would disagree with our view of marriage, human dignity, sexuality, and so many other issues. We approach them with what he describes as convictional kindness:
This kindness is not weak or passive. In fact, kindness is an act of warfare.… Those who serve Christ must be kind to everyone, Paul wrote. Those who serve Christ must show honor to everyone, Peter wrote (1. Pet. 2.17).… The Spirit bears fruit in our lives, as Jesus lives out his life through us. This fruit consists of kindness and gentleness. This is not a break from the fighting. This is how we fight. (224–225)
The tension of fighting faithfully
No doubt many reading these words will struggle with this idea. I’ll admit, I struggle with it at times. I mean, show kindness to those who ridicule us? Yep. Show kindness to those who deny non-conformists the right to practice their religious beliefs without discrimination? You betcha. Why? Because they aren’t our enemy. They have believed a lie. Though they are responsible for their acts of rebellion against God, they are also victims of Satan’s schemes to defame God.
So to fight against them—to attack and demean, to fire all of our ammunition at those who are merely doing the bidding of the Serpent misses the point. Our war is not with flesh and blood, but powers and principalities. Our enemies are spiritual, not incarnate. It doesn’t mean we cower in a corner and merely “take” it when someone does us wrong. But it does mean we, like Jesus as he was dying on the cross, need to be prepared to say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Where the future champions of the faith may be found
It’s also a recognition that the future leaders of the church might be among those working against us, just as Saul was there approving the death of Stephen (Acts 8:1).
The next Jonathan Edwards might be the man driving in front of you with the Darwin Fish bumper decal. The next Charles Wesley might be a misogynistic, profanity-spewing hip-hop artist right now. The next Charles Spurgeon might be managing an abortion clinic right now. The next Mother Teresa might be a heroin-addicted porn star right now. The next Augustine of Hippo might be a sexually promiscuous cult member, just like, come to think of it, the first Augustine of Hippo was. (255)
This is so important for us to get: Those out there in the world right now, those who might even be violently opposed to us right at this very moment—any one of them could be saved by God, redeemed by and through the death of Jesus, and used by God in order to further his gospel. Were it to suit his purposes, God could someday use the very same lesbian couple that sued a Christian baker for not baking their wedding cake to reach the gay community with the gospel of Christ as easily as he could use the president of Planned Parenthood as an advocate to end abortion, and as easily as he uses any of us according to his purposes.
And so if we do not show these people kindness, even as we decry many of the things they represent or currently participate in, we are missing the point. After all, “the path to peace isn’t through bellicosity or surrender, but through fighting the right war (Rom. 16:20). We rage against the Reptile, not against his prey” (231).
Embracing the strangeness of Christianity
This will seem strange to the world. Heck, it will seem strange to many Christians, won’t it? Honestly, it felt a little strange to even write it. But it’s true, and this is one of the beautifully strange things about Christianity. God isn’t out there looking for “good people” to do his will—he takes wicked, messed up people like you and me and calls us good. And that merely scratches the surface of the strangeness of Christianity.
Everything about what we believe is strange to a world like ours—it is totally incomprehensible. Sexual expression belonging only in the context of monogamous heterosexual marriage in a world racing toward polyamory? Bizarre. Having more than one child in a culture where children are more of a burden than a blessing? Peculiar. Believing “a previously dead man is going to show up in the sky, on a horse” (12)? Kind of nutty.
This is the sort of strangeness we need to embrace if we’re serious about truly engaging the culture—and that won’t happen until we are arrested by the strangeness of the gospel ourselves. Onward presents a captivating picture of the weirdness of Christian belief, of convictional kindness in a world of mudslinging and second guessing. The world needs “strange” Christians, and I hope all who read this book will recognize within themselves a desire to be exactly that.
Title: Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel
Author: Russell Moore
Publisher: B&H Publishing (2015)
- Note: all quotes are taken from an advanced reader’s copy. Page numbers may differ in the final edition.