Timing is everything and, if it weren’t for the massive scandals unfolding from within the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, Christians in the Age of Outrage might have had its moment. The present status of online dialogue is such that any and all rebukes toward greater civility, charity, and thoughtfulness are appropriate, and the author does a commendable work in aiming to improve the witness of ill-mannered Christians engaged in unsavory online partisanship. Ed Stetzer’s latest book emerges from a national survey of evangelicals and non-evangelicals by the Billy Graham Center Institute regarding the intersection of religious belief, political climate, and social media, and proposes solutions to advance congenial public discourse by Christians for the good of the church’s mission. Viewed through this lens, Christians in the Age of Outrage perhaps holds certain value.
Based on the aforementioned statistical findings and his own experiences, Stetzer discerns a widening cultural divide between, first, non-Christians and Christians (subdivided into categories of ‘Cultural’, ‘Congregational’, and ‘Convictional’ Christians), and, second, faithful Convictional Christians and all other nominal believers. Nominal Christians are becoming “nones” and non-Christians give less audience to biblical truth because Christians are indiscernibly different in manners, method, and message from the world of unbelievers. Indeed, every strata of Christian seems to be given to the same worldly idols of “politics, identity, and personality,” and a readiness to outrageously promote and defend their idols. So much so that ‘Cultural Christians’ evidence the near complete evisceration of any distinction between believer and unbeliever, signaling the trajectory toward which Congregational and even Convictional Christians are sliding.
Christians in the Age of Outrage, then, positions itself as a clarion call to every category of Christian to (i) repentance, (ii) better behavior, and (iii) loving witness with greater devotion to prayer and the Bible in order to “break the same bad habits as everyone else” (33). Segmenting his work into three major parts, Stetzer identifies the problem of cultural outrage (mostly socio-political polarization), then proceeds to examine the self-justifying lies that perpetuate outrage, and concludes with missional alternatives to such self-justifying trends.
Where once evangelicalism could have been said to perpetuate a legacy that combatted nominal Christianity through an active, vibrant faith, Stetzer notes with irony how several studies indicate that religious identity evidences little bearing on the ethical or theological views or behaviors of those who self-identify as Christians. “In other words,” he writes, “the beliefs and practices of most people who call themselves Christians do not look like what we’d expect from people who are actual disciples of Christ” (64). Such “nominalism” impacts everything, especially manifesting the love of Christ, the gospel of Christ, and the rule of Christ. Here, the author could not be more correct and the ensuing conversation calling for amelioration sounds a welcome Reformational note, notwithstanding its omission of the foremost topic headlining newspapers.
However, while astutely identifying the problem and exposing the self-justifying lies that defend our culture’s idols, the third part of the book that presents the proper biblical response of the disciple regurgitates standard evangelical fare: read, pray, fast, participate in your community of faith, and be a good neighbor, but with this addition—show online manners. Stetzer follows with a cornucopia of resources for accomplishing these things, along with a motley of tips for “becoming ambassadors to the age of outrage” (169).
Christians in the Age of Outrage approximates something of a niche application guide to the significant contributions of James K. A. Smith and Alan Noble, who have marshaled efforts toward deep reform in Christian habits, belief-formation, and behavior through sacred ritual, sacred Scripture, sacramental identity or devotion, and sanctified vocations. Stetzer, however, has nothing to say about the doctrine of vocation, nothing to say about the sacraments, and hardly a word about ritual and habit formation. This makes sense—as an analyst, his focus is decidedly more immediate. He’s not necessarily looking to expose the philosophic-theological underpinnings that inform the inconsistency of Christians’ behavior with their profession; he’s identifying the problem and proposing the solution.
Considering that the book is written to provide practical solutions to a pragmatic audience, Reformational Christians who are looking for a more socio-theological discussion of how and why the tone of civic discourse has declined would do better to look elsewhere. Christians In The Age of Outrage is provides a succinct, descriptive account of how evangelicals engage in public discussion—and how they can improve in that endeavor—but is decidedly focused on the pragmatic (as opposed to the philosophical) aspect of the situation. This is where I felt his argument would have merited from a slightly broader scope—in overlooking multiple ecclesial outrages (the sexual abuse scandals dogging both Protestant and Catholic churches), he disregards the fact there is something to be outraged over, which makes any contemplation of “the world at its worst” incomplete at best. There’s an important distinction between a frank and courteous objection to a tweet or blogpost and an expletive-riddled ad hominem, but outrage itself is not necessarily unrighteous or unbecoming. Anger at the harm and trauma that’s left behind when one image-bearer violates another, or when the church disregards sins committed in favor of self-protection is a good thing—Christ rebuked the Pharisees sharply for profaning the temple and perverting the law, and Paul didn’t spare the Galatian and Corinthian churches for their sexual immorality. In the current climate, the need for more charitable and courteous discourse is necessary, but it should be buttressed by an acknowledgement of the need for outrage, as well.
Rev. John Bombaro (Ph.D.) is a Programs Manager at the USMC Headquarters. He lives in Virginia with his wife and children.
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