White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

Enough About Us Already: Our American Protestant Obsession with Being Loved by the World

“They like you,” according to Christianity Today‘s latest cover story (August 2011), by Bradley R. E. Wright, a University of Connecticut sociologist. Wright challenges the alarmist rhetoric of some in recent years who have created the impression that our fellow Americans hate us and we need a public relations makeover. Taking issue with George Barna among others, he argues that we have a persecution complex-or at least an almost pathological need to be loved. Actually, when asked to register their feeling in terms of warm or cold, the weather report for evangelicals is “generally sunny and mild”-somewhere between Jews, Catholics and mainline Protestants at one end and Muslims, Buddhist, and Mormons at the other.

Admittedly, this could be the worst news of all. It’s like the anxious teenager who asks a group of peers, “What do you think of me?”, only to hear a nearly unanimous reply, “We don’t, actually.” As they say, no publicity is worse than bad publicity.

Introducing this issue, CT managing editor Mark Galli said he hoped that Wright’s article might help us to move on from self-obsession (“Inside CT,” page 7): “A movement that casts anxious glances to see how it’s doing in the eyes of others is in either childhood or adolesence…It’s time for evangelicals to put away childish things….The fact is that in the end, people don’t care if we are cool. They don’t think it an improvement to call ourselves ‘Jesus followers’ instead of ‘Christians,’ let alone ‘evangelicals.’”

There’s a long history of American Protestants wanting the approval of their neighbors. For a good part of our nation’s history, respectable denominations with roots in the Reformation surrendered their confessional peculiarities for a generic evangelical witness. A lot of this had to do with evangelism: wanting to reach the population of declining practicioners of the faith. Churches, with their distinct catechism, forms of worship, and government, were eager to reach nominal members as well as Native Americans and Africans, slave and free. Yet a lot of it had to do with cultural hegemony. Having fought off the Leviathan of Rome, the new Christendom would come only with the stripping away of doctrinal distinctives that divide activistic Protestantism. Especially after the Second Great Awakening, “deeds, not creeds” became the mantra.

Well, we know where this has led. The mainline churches are really sideline bodies. In numerical terms alone, they are a shadow of their former selves: each coalition partner reduced by at least half over the last 30 years. Still, it takes a while to get used to one’s marginal status. As a quip attributed to veteran sociologist Peter Berger has it, “Puerto Ricans, Jews, and Episcopalians each form around 2 percent of the American population. Guess which group does not think of itself as a minority.”

In “The Death of Protestant America” (First Things, Aug/Sep 2008), editor Joseph Bottum offers insightful analysis of the obsession of mainline Protestantism with cultural clout and respectability. Bottum relates that the United Church of Christ website celebrates its cultural influence, beginning with John Winthrop’s vision of “the shining city upon a hill” to the adoption of the first non-patriarchal (read: non-trinitarian) hymnal. “That’s a curious admission for a major American denomination,” notes Bottum.

By its own account, the church’s intellectual life has come to an end. And as its numbers catastrophically decline, the ordinary practice of its members has ceased to influence the culture. The United Church of Christ is left little except its putatively prophetic voice-and a strikingly unoriginal voice, at that. All the issues on which the church opines, and all the positions it takes, track the usual run of liberal American politics. The key, however, is not the mostly uninteresting politics of the church bureaucracy but the astonishing lack of influence those political statements have. With no deposits into the account of its prestige by accommodating the other props of the nation-and no influence on the culture from the everyday practices of its congregants-the prophetic demands of the United Church of Christ cash out to nothing. No one listens, no one minds, no one cares.

As Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas quipped, “God is killing mainline Protestantism in America, and we @#% well deserve it.” Global evangelicalism has enormous strengths, especially when compared to other head-line capturing Christian movements. Yet is its preoccupation with itself and with worldly approval the harbinger of a similar death wish?

Something like this question was asked just yesterday in the Guardian, a leading UK newspaper. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s obviously full of people who call themselves Christians; and certainly full of religious believers in a way difficult for many Europeans to understand or to accept. But is what modern Americans believe actually Christianity at all? When the mainstream churches went into an apparently irreversible decline towards the end of the 20th century, this was interpreted as a decline of liberal Christianity, and its replacement by fundamentalism. But is the church of Rick Warren anything more than vaguely therapeutic moralistic deism?

The question is hardly a new one. It was raised as least as long ago as the late 19th century by Henry Adams, who wondered whether the American faith in progress and in self-improvement was really the same thing as traditional Christianity. But it’s still an interesting one. Has the evangelical movement turned itself into an entirely new religion, unrecognisable to “orthodox” European Christianity: a reinterpretation of the Christian myths almost as strange as Mormonism? Consider the Youtube video video of a NASCAR chaplain praying for all the sponsors of the event, from Toyota to Sunoco, and then thanking God for his “hot wife” before finishing with the doxology “Boogity boogity boogity. Amen”. Is this really anything that traditional theologians could recognise as Christian? Or is it just a wrapper round some mixture of superstition and advertising?

Whatever the “media elites” (a perennial bogeyman) say otherwise, evangelicalism is probably more politically and culturally powerful than so-called “mainline” Protestantism. Yet already evangelicalism suffers from the same desire to be loved as the mainline denominations that are now irrelevant. Both are obsessed with cultural clout and approval, although mainliners crave the attention of “high culture” (art, science, education, etc.) while evangelicals court popular culture. Think symposia vs. rallies, NPR or The New York Times vs. FOX and USA Today, opera vs. Christian pop concerts. In either case, we’re sure that we are having a cultural impact, when it’s mostly we who have moved. [See W. Robert Godfrey's article, "The Myth of Influence," in the Sept/Oct 1998 Modern Reformation]

As Joseph Bottum points out, churches that retained their confessional identity-Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Reformed, and Mennonite-actually had a disproportionate influence on culture in ways that were not even calculated. Strong Christian families, churches, and schools have been enormously successful in passing the faith on from generation to generation. Of course, the danger in these groups was its own kind of cultural hegemonies. They weren’t thinking about how to be successful, relevant, or attractive. That has been its strength and its weakness. In fact, oblivious to a fault, they did not even realize when they were being gradually reshaped by the forces of modernity. For a while, the Christian Reformed Church stared American Protestantism in the face, declaring, “In isolation is our strength.” It’s no wonder that eventually you have a generation that finds the environment more of a stifling hot-house rather than a flourishing arboretum.

Both tendencies-isolationism and accommodationism-are driven mostly by fear: fear of being absorbed, and fear of being left out. There has to be something in the middle here, driven by something from God (the gospel) rather than something from ourselves (either conservative or progressive instincts).

Enough about us, already. Either the church is a witness to the Triune God, revealed consummately in the incarnate Son, clothed in his gospel; or it has no right to exist, whatever its impact, usefulness or relevance on other points. On the horizon of mass movements at least, evangelicalism still has considerable strengths. Nevertheless, we do well to ponder the line from Newsweek religion editor Kenneth Woodward in 1993: “The mainline denominations may be dying because they lost their theological integrity. The only thing worse, perhaps, would be the rise of a new Protestant establishment that succeeds because it never had any.”

A Confessionalist Piety

The Gospel Coalition has released another video discussion involving Mike Horton. In this installment Mike talks with Ligon Duncan and Kevin DeYoung about whether or not pietism and confessionalism need to be mutually exclusive–or if that is a false dichotomy to begin with in the history of Reformed churches.

Piety and Confessionalism: Friends or Enemies? from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

WHI-1061 | What is the Gospel?

The Great Commission calls us to preach the gospel to every creature, but just what is this gospel that we are to proclaim? Some say it’s being born again or asking Jesus into your heart, while others say that it’s a call for us to participate in Christ’s ongoing work of reconciliation and redemption through building a more just and loving society. The hosts interact with these views and others as they seek to clarify the true meaning of the gospel of Christ. The White Horse Inn: know what you believe and why you believe it!

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A Listener Letter

I appreciated your most recent White Horse Inn episode. I recently went to a LifeWay Bookstore to purchase Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Lifeway had nothing by Calvin. I went next door to Barnes and Noble and they had a copy! It’s a shame that a secular bookstore has more theology than a Christian bookstore.

-Mike N.

Horton Interviewed about Breivik on Issues, Etc.

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Our good friend Todd Wilkin from Issues, Etc. called Dr. Horton on Tuesday to talk about his recentblog post on Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian “fundamentalist” and cultural crusader who murdered eighty people at an Oslo camp. Listen to the audio below for Dr. Horton’s take on Breivik’s “mission” and why the confusion of culture and Christendom can lead to violence.

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Dropping Out (of the Faith) in College

One question I’m often asked is, “Do you have any advice about a good college?” They’re especially interested (both parents and high school seniors) in finding a school where their faith will be strengthened rather than undermined.

According to a recent study, it doesn’t really matter. College students drop out of the church at astonishing rates at religiously-affiliated as well as secular institutions.

The way I usually answer the question is to change the subject from college to church. In my experience, it’s far more important to find a good church than to expect a college to buttress one’s faith. Of course, it’s important to find a good church when you’re raising kids in the first place. Churches and families that fail to immerse young people in the covenant of grace place an awful burden on a college—even a solid Christian one—or a good church in a college town. Nevertheless, I’ve seen terrific examples of faithful churches that evangelize, teach, and incorporate even shaky believers into the body of Christ while there in college. The college doesn’t matter. It could be Harvard, Biola, or Cal State, or wherever.

My own experience at a Christian college has something to do with my thinking on the subject. There were a lot of rules, daily (mandatory) chapel, spiritual life conference, and on and on. University meets summer camp. It was hard to find a parking space on Sunday morning, because who needed church? The college was a kind of surrogate church. Tough questions that you’d be asked on a secular campus weren’t pressed here. Everybody sort of nodded to the right answers, though not always sure why. Spiritually, it was pretty dull, routine, and mindless. Yet everyone got into it when the praise band did its thing in chapel and a great motivational speaker talked about how to surrender more of our lives to Christ.

A lot of those friends today are unchurched. Some are bitter—the last person they want to talk to is a conservative Christian, much less an evangelical. I don’t blame the college, but the whole religious sub-culture that shaped these young people and then provided a few extra years of moralistic, therapeutic deism.

This article by Marybeth Hicks at Townhall.com is well worth the read. I hope the statistics will jar us out of the false assumption that our young people “get it.” They don’t—unless our homes and churches give them grace.

“College Students Need to Keep Their Faith” by Marybeth Hicks

WHI-1060 | Preaching the Word in a Culture of Narcissism

Our age is not known for its love of the truth. Rather, some are calling it a culture of narcissism. And, unfortunately, evidence of this is found not only in our secular culture, but in countless evangelical churches and best-selling Christian book titles. In his second letter to Timothy, Paul warned that in the last days people would become lovers of themselves and would not endure sound teaching. With itching ears, he said, they’ll raise up teachers to suit their own passions and turn away from the truth. So what are we to do in such a time as this? On this program, the hosts will walk through 2 Timothy 3 and 4 to discuss Paul’s advice about preaching the Word in a culture of narcissism.

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Father of Many: An Appreciation for John Stott

Yesterday at 3:15 pm London time, John Stott was welcomed into the presence of Christ, whom he served so faithfully for many decades.  Tim Stafford’s eloquent obituary jibes with my own limited experience with this great man.  In the presence of John Stott, you were palpably aware that you were among one of God’s giants—not in the usual “American” style of big personalities, but sort of how you might imagine being in the room with a godly grandfather.  It’s the humility, graciousness, and intense personal concern that seems most striking to a visitor.

Having met him once before in the States, I visited Dr. Stott at his flat on a couple of occasions years ago while I was studying in England.  Reversing the roles as I had imagined them, he fussed over his guest with a cup of tea and open-ended conversation, surrounded by books and work-in-process.  A lifelong bachelor, he encouraged me to accept my own singleness up to that point as a gift—at least for a time—to focus on study and labor.  Because God did not give him children, he told me, he had spiritual offspring all over the world.  He didn’t say it proudly, as if referring to nameless masses, but I suspected he had actual faces in mind.  It was a great encouragement.  We talked about the state of evangelicalism, which seemed to be a source of encouragement and disappointment.  A few years ago I had the honor of writing a foreword for his new edition of Baptism and Fullness: The Holy Spirit’s Work Today.

John Stott belongs to a generation of British evangelical leaders who worked patiently, prayerfully, persistently, and intelligently within the established church.  They were not known for their own achievements, networks, and influence, but for their exposition of God’s Word with clarity, dependence upon the Spirit, and concern for both the lost and the gathered.

Even when friends and co-laborers (such as Martyn Lloyd-Jones) disagreed with him, they did not impugn his character.  There are so many lessons that we can learn from John Stott’s example, especially in a time and place given so much to self-promotion.  Although his hand in shaping the better streams of global evangelicalism is obvious, he always carried on this ministry as a parish pastor of All Souls in London, where he was raised and spent his entire ministry.  Looking at this whole ministry from the outside, as a mere acquaintance, I admire his concentration on the ministry of the word rather than on his own impact and legacy.

The evangelical cause around the world has reason to mourn John Stott’s death, but even more reason to praise the Triune God for a legacy that others can now reflect upon precisely because he does not seem to have been obsessed with it himself.   In his final hours, according to the obituary, family members gathered around him listening to Handel’s “Messiah.”  A completely fitting end to a wonderfully attractive life.

Enlightenment Fundamentalist Slays 80 at Norwegian Summer Camp

At least 76 people are dead after Anders Behring Breivik massacred campers on an island off the coast of Oslo, Norway.

Finally, the media has a face and a name for making its heretofor unjustified claim of moral equivalency between conservative Christianity and Islam.  Religion may be fine as long as it’s private, and you don’t really believe the key teachings of any one in particular.  In any case, those who think they need to act on their confessional convictions in daily life—much less encourage other people to embrace them—are on the path to terrorism.  Finally, we can reassure ourselves that Islam is not the problem; it’s “Christian fundamentalism.”

But for anyone interested in the facts of the case, the secularist narrative has lost its poster-boy.  In an on-line manifesto, Breivik makes it clear that he is not a “fundamentalist Christian.”  He prefaces one comment with, “If there is a God…” and says that science should always trump religion.  So in terms of religious convictions, he sounds more like Richard Dawkins than Jerry Falwell.  Yet, unlike Dawkins, Breivik pines for the “good ‘ol days” of Christendom, especially the crusades.  “Regarding my personal relationship with God, I guess I’m not an excessively religious man. I am first and foremost a man of logic. However, I am a supporter of a monocultural Christian Europe…”

The nineteenth century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche shrewdly observed that in his day the bourgeois elites of Europe wanted  the fruit of Christianity (i.e., moral culture) without the tree itself (i.e., the actual doctrine and practice).  Breivik is not a poster-boy for “Christian fundamentalism,” but the fulfillment of Nietzsche’s prophecy.  It’s one thing to confuse the kingdom of Christ with the kingdoms of this age, but we need a new category besides “fundamentalism” for the secular faith in “Christendom” without Christ.

Anders Breivik.  Here is someone who thinks of himself as a general in “a culture war”—a defense of Christendom without Christ. “As this is a cultural war, our definition of being a Christian does not necessarily constitute that you are required to have a personal relationship with God or Jesus.”  In fact, “Being a Christian can mean many things,” he says, but mainly it’s about protecting “the European cultural heritage” with “reason [as] the primary source and legitimacy for authority.”

It is not required that you have a personal relationship with God or Jesus in order to fight for our Christian cultural heritage and the European way. In many ways, our modern societies and European secularism is a result of European Christendom and the enlightenment. It is therefore essential to understand the difference between a ‘Christian fundamentalist theocracy’ (everything we do not want) and a secular European society based on our Christian cultural heritage (what we do want) (emphasis added).

At least in religious terms, it sounds like the average European or North American: “It is enough that you are a Christian-agnostic or a Christian atheist (an atheist who wants to preserve at least the basics of the European Christian cultural legacy (Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter). The PCCTS, Knights Templar is therefore not a religious organization but rather a Christian ‘culturalist’ military order.”  It’s hatred of the cultural “other,” not faith in Christ, that drives groups like Breivik’s.

In another irony, Breivik’s portrait of the reinvigorated crusader invokes the “die-a-martyr-and-go-straight-to-Paradise” doctrine of Islamic terrorists.  “We are not only automatically granted access to heaven in light of our selfless acts; our good deeds and final sacrifice will be added to the divine storehouse of merit and will therefore help other less virtuous individuals…”

One thing Breivik clearly is not: a Protestant.  In fact, he hopes that all Protestants will return to Rome under a unified papal system that (he hopes) will recover its old crusader nerve.  “I usually refer to Protestantism as the Marxism of Christianity. As long as you ask forgiveness before you die you can literally live a life as the most despicable character imaginable.”  Interesting thing to say after you’ve massacred 80 Norwegian campers.

WHI-1059 | The Road to Emmaus

What is the Bible principally about? Some say it’s about life transformation, while others say it’s a recipe book for achieving health, wealth, and prosperity. But what if you had the chance to listen to Jesus himself explain the basic message of Scripture? Interestingly enough, this is exactly what we find in Luke chapter 24 as Jesus walks with his disciples on the road to Emmaus. On this edition of the White Horse Inn, the hosts walk through this fascinating chapter and discuss its implications for our understanding of Scripture.

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