Dreher’s chapter on church is probably the one that most gets to the core of what I am attracted to and what I am repelled by in his thesis. He starts by ominously citing a First Things writer bemoaning the “collapse of Christian civilization.” Then he summarizes the message thus: If you do not change your ways, you are going to die, and so will what’s left of the Christian faith in our civilization . (P. 101)
I have, I am confident, beaten into the ground my assertion that our civilization isn’t Christian to begin with; that whatever you may think of the value of Western culture, it doesn’t really bear much resemblance to anything that the Church of the 1st Century would have recognized as reflecting the radical, outsider-embracing love of Jesus the Christ or his first followers.
And I think I have also made the point amply that part of our faith is the hope that comes not from human progress or competency but in trust that our God is intimately involved in human history and has a plan that someday will give it meaning. So threatening us with “If you don’t change right now, Christianity will disappear,” is not that far from “I’ll turn this car around right now” in stopping power. God will do what God wants, including wiping out this culture and replacing it with something else. But believers in Christ, while motivated to give their lives in sacrifice if need be, do so not because the burden of maintaining civilization falls on them; instead, they do it from a wellspring of sacrificial love inspired from the surety that God has already won and is firmly in charge.
But when you’re prepared to write him off, he does this. Quoting Russell Moore’s Onward:
“We will engage the culture less like the chaplains of some idyllic Mayberry and more like the apostles in the book of Acts,” writes Moore. “We will be speaking not primarily to baptized pagans on someon’es church roll, but to those who re hearing something new, maybe for the first time. We will hardly be ‘normal,’ but we should never have tried to be.” – (p. 101)
Now you’re talking.
Dreher being Dreher, his model for what this form of church set apart is, well, medieval. Return to the past, embrace high liturgy, distinguish what is uniquely Christian rather than cultural, shine a spotlight on Christian asceticism and tighten Church discipline, and reembrace classical art and beauty as a form of evangelization. And embrace the real possibility of exile and martyrdom.
Except for the martyrdom part, I’m not sure that’s the playbook that the Church of Acts drew up. Let me try to respond point by point.
On liturgy: I agree (I think) with Dreher that the point of liturgy is not to entertain us, or even to “feed” us. Worship is our opportunity to offer praise to the God in whose hands our fate rests peacefully and to encounter Him directly in a way that not only nourishes us but challenges us and shapes us. We are not the final arbiters of “good” worship, as commonly defined by whether we liked the songs or the sermons. Good worship is when God shows up and changes us. That happens in high liturgies, sometimes, for some people. It happens in other forms for other people. I can’t predict when, who, where, how. For me, it’s in contemporary Christian music that traditionalists often abhor. It’s in mass, yes, but in churches ornate and simple, ancient and modern, in languages foreign and familiar. And it is, most of all, in the experience of community at worship, the sense that I am not alone before the altar but in a community of friends and strangers alike that share a common journey and are being bent toward a common god like a flower toward the sun. I don’t challenge what does that for Dreher; traditionalists should heed Gamaliel and not challenge those who God finds through other forms of liturgy.
Separating Christian from cultural: again, I have a position here, and that position is to look for the fruits of the Spirit being wrought. I agree with Dreher on the premise that the Church should be a counter-culture, and I don’t begrudge tradition as a source of that counterculture. But it’s a source, and the measure of when to draw on it should be whether doing so produces a culture that fosters the fruits of the Spirit.
Asceticism: Let me put it out there; I think Dreher is right here. I live with a heavy reliance on a version of Jesus’ reply when asked why his disciples don’t fast while John’s do: How can you fast when the bridegroom is here? I see, in my wife, in my Church, in the world around me, the bridegroom everywhere. It is hard to fast in God’s presence and if you’re looking his presence is hard to miss. But I know enough people who have grown their ability to sacrifice themselves to God more fully by making the small sacrifices of fasting that I can’t discount it’s value. One day God will conquer my resistance to fasting. In the meantime, as one who knows dearly that tomorrow is not promised and God is with us right now, I focus on feasting well.
Discipline: I can understand intellectually the argument that in order to be truly in but not of the world, but be the separate, wild, Acts-like counter-cultural Church we are called to be, we need to ensure we are being appropriately different by enforcing discipline. I get it. The argument holds.
Except I am hard put to see a group that focuses on discipline without using it as an excuse for judgmentalism, a holier-than-thou attitude that sets back the power of God to reach the people who need reaching, people who can sniff out condescension at 40 paces. And if nothing else, it seems to me we are called not to get in God’s way.
We should be relentless in pushing God’s unconditional love on people, and we can’t really understand that unconditionality, we can’t really embrace God’s mercy, without acknowledging the standards of decency that we have crossed and the unacceptability of our behavior. But in terms of where we live our lives and understand ourselves that is farthest from reality? Well, maybe I am just projecting, or maybe I am lazy, but my experience of people is that they are deeply knowledgeable of their sinfulness and woefully ignorant of God’s careless embrace of them nonetheless. So is there a need for some sort of inward-facing reiteration of what goodness looks like, what love looks like, and how we can twist love into such a knot that it’s impact is the opposite of what God wants? Sure. But later. First comes love, messy, sloppy, and fully accepting. Trust God with the rest, if you can.
Art and beauty: This is a corollary to the liturgy discussion in some ways. While the intent is different – and this is important, because it’s far too easy to evaluate worship as if it is a concert – the question is similar about how wide the lens is with which we try to picture God (in the case of liturgical style) and how wide the lens is with which we try to show God to the world (in case of art). I’m pretty low brow on culture, truth be told. People see stuff in art and hear stuff in music that, despite a good liberal arts education, escapes me. So, yes, the Church should use every cultural avenue to bear witness to God in the world. And we should evaluate them not by the yardstick of the monks more than a thousand years ago. We should measure Christian art by whether it brings anyone closer to Christ.
Should we be ready for exile? Should we be ready for martyrdom? On the one hand, I’d say, I guess ironically, “It doesn’t hurt.” If we prepare for martyrdom, if we yield everything we have to God to dispose of if that’s what it takes to be faithful, then we are doing what we are called to do. Whether God makes that request of us remains to be seen.
On the other hand, I think anticipation tends to be worse than reality, as is often the case. I know that for a long time I was very reserved about sharing anything related to my faith in a public setting – at work, online, in the marketplace. When I started to let my love leak out, I did so with a bit of a cringe, expecting to be slapped down by the world, by my employer, by the trolls. I’m still waiting. Not that there haven’t been very small moments of truth, times when the question has been called about whether to be true to my faith or to fit in, but exile? Martyrdom? Not yet. And not only not yet, but in my halting professions of faith, I am more likely to hear gratitude from fellow believers who are just a little more intimidated than I am when it comes to speaking up, that I gave them just a hair more courage to be integral selves. If, at the end of this, I get the door slammed, then I guess so be it. But I’m not scared, since I keep getting told “Be not afraid” by the people in Scripture.
Leave a Reply