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I went to Mordor and All I got was this Winsome T-shirt
The Hobbits and the Negative world
In February of this year Aaron Renn published an essay at First Things on the “Three Stages of Evangelicalism”.1 Renn’s “three stages”- positive world, neutral world, and negative world- correspond with what he sees as changes in the reception evangelicalism receives from the broader American culture. Each stage also corresponds with a “ministry strategy”- the approach Christians take to influence the broader culture with the Christian faith.
I’ll confess I only read this piece today, but I have heard it talked about constantly in the online writerly communities I visit. Everyone, it seems, is trying to figure out WHAT IS GOING ON in the American church.
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There are several ways people try to figure out WHAT IS GOING ON. The first is by writing a taxonomy.
A taxonomy is a tool used to classify a group of information. Relied on often in the sciences, taxonomies had a moment in the work of Thomas Aquinas, who used them to describe how sins of lust, for instance, were hierarchically related.
Renn’s piece- which I’ll get to in a moment- is fine. But that’s it- it’s just fine. It is a series of observations about how culture has changed and with it, religious practice. The amount of response it has generated is outsize to the quality of the piece itself (sorry, Aaron)- which tells you that a taxonomy provides something that people, and especially modern Christians- are really, really into.
So what kind of solace does a taxonomy provide? Renn’s states that in the positive world (pre-1994), Christianity was thought to be a general social good. Whether or not one was Christian, the value of the religious system was taken for granted. In “positive world” Christianity, Christians who sought to influence the culture did so with a “culture warrior” or “seeker sensitive” stance.2
Note that these two stances, which in tone are often thought to be diametrically opposed, both correspond with a “positive world”.
In the second epoch- the neutral world- cultural engagement became the new evangelical strategy. In Renn’s words:
[Neutral world Christians] did not denounce secular culture, but confidently engaged that culture on its own terms in a pluralistic public square. They believed that Christianity could still be articulated in a compelling way and had something to offer in that environment. In this quest they wanted to be present in the secular elite media and forums, not just on Christian media or their own platforms.
I am a child of the neutral world. Had I not done a PhD in an entirely secular academic climate, I may still live there. My affect has always been a Christian version of Sally Fields at the 1985 Oscars- certainly likability would translate to influence.
I’ll leave aside, for now, the question of whether this cultural moment is over (though it is indeed over) and simply say that “likability” itself is pretty dreadful preparation for conversion. (Just like the livestream is poor prepartion for martyrdom. Pull the plug already, fellows.)
And this, in fact, is the heart of my concern. Renn’s taxonomy gives us a nice overview of what people are doing and how their ministries have changed over time. Everyone is arguing and discussing the taxonomy and where they fit in it and where he is wrong about it. But Renn is not all that interested in the deeper question of why cultural fit/ accommodation is such a reflexive instinct of American Christians. Instead of asking whether the taxonomy works or where we fit in it, might we instead ask why our constant impulse is to “impact the culture”- if this is even a Christian impulse, at its heart? Might we ask whether we need a taxonomy to figure out what to do? Shouldn’t Christians know what it is they ought to do, regardless of the “cultural” moment?
Take Renn’s “seeker sensitive” model, the second strategy utilized by the positive world:
A second strategy of the positive-world movement was seeker sensitivity, likewise pioneered in the 1970s at suburban megachurches such as Bill Hybels’s Willow Creek (Barrington, IL) and Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church (Orange County). This strategy was in a sense a prototype of the neutral-world movement to come. But the very term “seeker sensitive” shows that it was predicated on an underlying friendliness to Christianity; it’s a model that assumes that large numbers of people are actively seeking. Bill Hybels walked door to door in suburban Chicago, surveying the unchurched about why they didn’t attend. By designing a church that appealed to them stylistically, he was able to get large numbers to come through the doors.
Though I got them backwards in a recent Hedgehog piece (gulp), I cannot stop thinking about Hybels and Warren. I am low-key obsessed with the question of how corporate models of business success became theological models for “church growth”. I obsess over churches with coffee shops styled after Starbucks, with how pastors became CEOs, with how those same churches now have men with Confederate-style beards serving pour-over coffee and pastors extolling emotional empathy; always-be-closing might as well be the motto of the Megachurch.
Pastor’s bookshelves once held Good to Great and the Four Hour Work Week- now everybody is reading the Emotionally Healthy Pastor and The Body Keeps the Score.
Before you flood my inbox (who am I kidding, three dozen people read this at most)- Good to Great changed the way I pack my kid’s lunches, it is a terrific book. And who would prefer an emotionally unhealthy pastor to an emotionally healthy one?
I am not against coffee or efficiency or even hierarchy or facial hair. But the point of my piece at Hedgehog was that American evangelicalism is a marketplace.
Americans can choose what they believe in. This means Christianity is one among the options of things that Americans can choose. If American Christians care about growing their market share, then they need to be attractive, “relevant”, likeable. Otherwise why would anyone choose their team? But what if the goal of being a Christian is not marketing yourself to the culture?
It’s been a minute, as they say, since I spent any time with the Hobbits. Things are not going well for them.
Pippin and Gandalf are at the Siege of Gondor. They wake in the morning but cannot tell the time because darkness has now descended on the land:
The next day came with a morning like a brown dusk, and the hearts of men, lifted for a while by the return of Faramir, sank low again. The winged Shadows were not seen again that day, yet ever and anon, high above the city, a faint cry would come, and many who heard it would stand stricken with a passive dread, while the less stout-hearted quailed and wept.3
Sauron is amassing his forces in Mordor. The people of the City are about to be besieged. Amidst this mood of gloom and darkness, the Black Riders of the Air appear. As the assault continued, the warriors defending Gondor gradually flee, “some running wildly as if pursued”.4
The wall of Gondor is slowly under siege, threatened by missiles and battlements;
the enemy was flinging into the City all the heads of those who had fallen fighting at Osgiliath, or on the Rammas, or in the fields… marred and dishonored as they were, it often chanced that thus a man would see again the face of someone that he had known, who had walked proudly once in arms, or tilled the fields, or ridden in upon a holiday from the green vales in the hills.5
The moment is like this one, foretold in the book of Matthew:
16 then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; the one on the housetop must not go down to take things from the house; the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath. For at that time there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. (Matthew 24:16-22)
The devastation is not only physical but moral;
soon there were few left in Minas Tirith who had the heart to stand up and defy the hosts of Mordor. For yet another weapon, swifter than hunger, the Lord of the Dark Tower had: dread and despair… At length even the stout-hearted would fling themselves to the ground as the hidden menace passed over them, or they would stand, letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands while into their minds a blackness came, and they thought no more of war; but only of hiding and of crawling, and of death”.6
Amidst this siege, Denethor is pressing Faramir for his decision to not bring the ring to Gondor. The decision was foolish, according to the King, and further threatens the city. Denethor would have preferred Faramir bring the ring to Gondor to aid in the defeat of Sauron.
“If what I have done displeases you, my father,’ said Faramir quietly, ‘I wish I had known your counsel before the burden of so weighty a judgment was thrust on me.’
‘Would that have availed to change your judgment?’ said Denethor. ‘You would still have done just so, I deem. I know you well. Ever your desire is to appear lordly and generous as a king of old, gracious, gentle. That may well befit one of high race, if he sits in power and peace. But in desperate hours gentleness may be repaid with death”.7
After this exchange, Faramir goes to the front, where he is struck by a deadly dart. The end of the chapter finds Denethor sitting next to the deathbed of his second son, refusing the company of even Gandalf (“Comfort me not with wizards!”, says Denethor, in one of the best lines of the entire trilogy).
It seems that Faramir’s choice may have been the noble one, in that he resisted the temptation to use the ring for his gain. Nonetheless, Denethor’s words ring true- in desperate hours, gentleness is likely the wrong tool.
Which leaves us with the third, “negative world” option. According to Renn, roughly since 2014 American evangelicalism has inhabited a different space in the broader cultural imaginary. The experience of an evangelical has shifted from “welcoming” to “hospitable” to “suspicious” or sometimes “downright hostile”. I think Renn is correct here, though, as he notes, the individual experience of such a phenomenon likely differs due to one’s geographical and socioeconomic location.
Renn’s concern is not merely to map cultural shifts in reference to evangelicalism but to map the means evangelicals have used to “reach the culture”. By his read, negative world evangelicalism has not found its strategy:
Despite ample evidence that America has now entered the negative world, no evangelical strategic approaches to it have emerged. American evangelicals are still largely living in the lost positive and neutral worlds. Their rejection of Dreher’s Benedict Option was not about too much Catholic terminology or disagreements over strategic elements. It was rooted in a denial of reality. Evangelicals were, and to a great extent still are, unwilling to accept that they now live in the negative world.
On this, Renn and I agree. I would push a bit harder- Bless all of your hearts, do not come for me- but what if we stopped thinking about “reaching the culture” as the primary task of Christian witness? What if we took our public witness private?
In his biography of Karl Barth, Eberhard Busch writes of a time Barth encountered a Roman Catholic Church that was bombed during World War I. As a shell exploded, the Magnificat was sung interrupted. The presence of evil in that church could not be denied. The encroaching forces of violence and despair would seem to demand for immediate action. Yet the liturgy went on. While the nations raged, the liturgists in that one church proclaimed that the Lord was King. Busch notes that “[Barth’s] respect for this…had nothing to do with deficient sensitivity to the threats of grenades and other symbols of this age. He was convinced that the church does not serve its people aright, or protect them properly against dangers, if in doing so it is diverted from its own worship of God and interrupts it.”8 For Christians, what is real is the claim that evil will not prevail, that violence begets violence, that we serve another kingdom.
Sometimes we cannot proclaim this in a way the culture can understand. If this is Mordor, if poisoned arrows are flying and Nazguls are descending, “winsome” may be misplaced. But so, too, might fire. What Christians need in Mordor is to be more like Hobbits, not using their influence for ill or fighting fire with fire- but singing songs of home.
Upon meeting Pippin, Denethor asks him to sing. Pippin resists;
“we have no songs fit for great halls and evil times, lord. We seldom sing of anything more terrible than wind or rain. And most of my songs are about things that make us laugh; or about food and drink, of course”.
“and why should such songs be unfit for my halls, or for such hours as these?” asks Denethor. “We who have lived under the Shadow may surely listen to echoes from a land untroubled by it? Then we may feel that our vigil was not fruitless, though it may have been thankless.9
To be a Hobbit in Mordor is not to be given the proper armor, the right physique, to be dashing or handsome or heroic. It is, as I’ve written previously, to be bound by a sense of duty to do the thing ahead of you. It is to remind each other that our task is not fruitless, even though its thankless. It is to remember that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20), though the nations rage (Ps 2). This humble sturdiness, this persistent obligation to be bound to one another and to tell tales of home and to sing- is being a Hobbit in Mordor, or a Christian in the negative world, much more than this?
In his enormously prescient Resident Aliens, Hauerwas pushes back on the easy accommodationist strategies of the positive and neutral worlds. “The theologian’s job”, he writes, “is not to make the gospel credible to the modern world, but to make the world credible to the gospel.”10 The “church confronts the world with a political alternative the world would not otherwise know”…“And the tribalism of nations occurs most viciously in the absence of a church able to say and show, in its life together, that God, not nations, rules the world”.11
For Hauerwas, the confessing church is
a radical alternative. Rejecting both the individualism of the conversionists and the secularism of the activists and their common equation of what works with what is faithful, the confessing church finds its main political task to lie, not in the personal transformation of individual hearts or the modification of society, but rather in the congregation's determination to worship Christ in all things.12
We don’t need a better public witness or a better strategy for evangelism or a better apologetics. We need a better church. So get to work.
This is an updated version of a newsletter Aaron wrote in 2017 (!) entitled “The Lost World of American Evangelicalism”.
The inverse relation here between cultural cache and what Renn calls the “backwater” nature of the culture warriors is interesting. Aaron, has anyone followed up on this? I could take you up on that someday.
Busch, The Great Passion, 13.
Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens, 24.
Hauerwas 41, 43.