How Should Christians Engage A Contentious Culture
I was quite excited this week to dive into Love Kindness written by Biola University President Dr. Barry Corey, or as he is affectionately known around campus—DBC. When I cam across the promo video for Love Kindness it seemed excessively timely, especially when its writing provided the inspiration for DBC’s Washington Post piece on the tone of this years presidential race. This years GOP primaries alone have provided all the evidence necessary to point to a need to return to the Sermon on the Mount. Candidate Trump can boast a surprisingly (or is that disturbingly, startlingly, alarmingly) high percentage of the self-proclaimed evangelical vote, but it is hard to imagine that anyone supporting him actually believes that “the meek will inherit the earth” or that he who “is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” For its help navigating this political cycle alone, I am deeply grateful for Love Kindness, but my hope and prayer is that the message of Love Kindness stays with me for a long while.
In addition to Love Kindness, Dr. Russell Moore, who presides over the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention, published Onward last year. Onward and Love Kindness are interrelated in Christ-like kindness defines our path forward as Christians in an increasingly secularized society. We have ranted and raved, battled and boycotted, challenged and criticized, but it has gotten us no where in terms of the culture wars. Dr. Moore’s Onward comes in the new line of cultural engagement books like Andy Crouch’s Culture Making and James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World. This new wave rejects the idea of culture warring and advocates a creative, Christ-like presence within all realms of society—including the art scene, the political debate, athletic competition, and philosophical dialogue. Moore’s approach is not unique, but it is pointed—how can Christians engage the society (culture) around us without losing the gospel? The answer doubles us back to DBC and Love Kindness.
The third voice I want to pull into this conversation is that of Dr. Richard Mouw, former president of Fuller Theological Seminary. Dr. Mouw’s Uncommon Decency, originally published in 1992, updated and expanded in 2010, is a call to be counter-cultural in our civility. That is, how can Christians reflect the kindness and compassion of Christ in a world that wants to draw battle lines on nearly all issues. Or, more precisely stated, how can Christians love those who believe that love must affirm. Having briefly presented these books it may be clear that I have listed them out of order—I may unreasonably prefer to introduce them in authorial alphabetical order, while writing about them in the order of a particular flow of thought—from Moore to Corey, concluding with Mouw.
Prophetic Minority in a Secularizing World
Charles Taylor commented on the growing secularity of the present age in his famous work The Secular Age. In it he noted the change in course in America from a religious nation (one in which belief, particularly adherence to Christian belief, was not only the majority position, but in many ways the only option many were presented with) to a secular nation (one in which not only were more options available, but belief was no longer the most plausible choice). Interestingly enough in 2007, when the book was published, the nation still look pretty Christian. As Dr. Moore picked up the idea of secularization in his much more approachable text, he notes that the Bible belt is fading, that the moral majority is nonexistent and that our role in the world has changed. Once Christians were political gatekeepers holding influence and political weight to keep America on the moral path even if they weren’t on the narrow path. Since the emergence of president Barak Obama this has not been true. Some reports have Christians winning popular opinion on issues, but the courts have oft leaned the other way as the Obergafell decision indicates.
The Stats: Onward (2015) is 243 pages of winsome projection and commentary on the state and future of the Church. I highly recommend this book and I am grateful to B&H publishing for sending it to me to review. There are few books that will be more relevant of challenging. Moore takes our assumptions and American proclivities to task. Do we really place the Kingdom of God first? Or our American identities? For those of you that don’t get books sent to you for free, Onward will run you $15.29 or minimal $6.29 for the Kindle edition.
(Chapters 1-3) In response to the changing times, Dr. Moore calls Christians to be a prophetic minority rather than a moral majority. As the moral majority, Christians often engaged in battle, siege, or culture war language. This no longer works, it is questionable whether it ever did, and if we continue to cling to this mentality not only will we continue to lose influence (not just cultural influence, but the relational influence to share the gospel), we will also stumble into an idolatry of the past, or influence, or a particular moral frame work. We will speak of these as salvific rather than God and his Christ. Our hope, Moore says, needs to be placed firmly in the good news of the Kingdom of God which has broken into our world and is now waiting for the proper time to be completely realized/established. So we seek first God’s kingdom. This of course means that we share the gospel so that more citizen enter the kingdom, but it also means that we seek to see kingdom values, like justice for the poor, freedom for the oppressed, protection for the weak, embodied in our communities.
(Chapters 4-5) This then is our mission as believers. To join the on going mission of Christ and his church. To preach, share, and live in light of the gospel. Thus Moore writes,
Our mission reconciles sinners to God, but also reconciles person to person, community to community, humanity to nature. We must speak truth to power, even as John the Baptist did to King Herod (and sometimes with the same results). Let’s feed the poor, house the homeless, shelter the widow, adopt the orphan, advocate for the unborn, and steward the environment. But, as we do, let’s, most importantly, preach peace and justice, for individuals and for the whole world, found in the bloody cross and empty tomb of Jesus. As the culture finds Christianity stranger and stranger, we will find that the strangest thing we have to say is, “Jesus saves.” (112)
(Chapters 6-8) Today there are significant issues that the Christian worldview and mission need to address. Christians need to be engaged in the defense of human dignity, religious liberty, and the family. At minimum American Christians can vote to defend the rights of the unborn and the all peoples of particular faiths. We should be engaged in defending Muslim’s rights to perform their ordinances and specific practices, as well as the rights of Christian bakers and photographers, or universities and ministries, to operate out of their Christian convictions. Personally speaking I have mixed feelings about whether Christians should participate in same-sex wedding ceremonies or receptions, but no one should waiver on whether Christians have the right to conscientiously turn-down offers to take part in them.
(Chapters 9-10) Moore closes his book advocating a convictional kindness. The same topic that Dr. Corey advocates and explains in his book. Both Dr. Moore and Dr. Corey see kindness and love to be compatible with the calling of Christian virtue and conviction. In fact, Dr. Moore sees it as the key to disarming the culture war and outrage mentality of the secularized society.
Having finished Dr. Moore’s Onward, I could have said that it is the most relevant and timely book I would read this year. However that could easily be true for Dr. Corey and Dr. Mouw’s books as well. We live in a society that seems to see outrage as something to do for fun and there is a belief that everyone has a right not to be offended. Some bemoan this and rightly so, but simultaneously the death of cultural Christianity and increasing intensity over conversations in the public square clears a path forward (or I should say Onward) for engagement with the gospel. We might understand this as a season of pruning, where God tends the dead and dying branches of the faith, taking them away to give room for new life. The final question Dr. Moore answers is how we can move onward. His answer is convictional kindness, Dr. Corey takes up this same admonition in his book.
Dr. Corey’s primary struggle is to articulate a kindness that is theologically robust and faithful. While that is quite a difficult task, the glaring shortcoming of his book is found elsewhere. Specifically on the cover—why does Mark Batterson get a blurb right on the cover relegating Alistair Begg, David Wells, Mirslov Volf, and Eric Metaxas to the back cover, and J.P Morland, Richard Mouw, Philip Ryken, Ed Stetzer, and a host of other impressive names to those front few pages which everyone skips anyway? I had to look up who Mark Batterson is. This is totally ridiculous. DBC needs to have a serious chat with whoever is responsible. Jokes aside, Dr. Corey tackles a controversial subject and one that is increasingly important given the heated nature of the public square.
The Stats: Over 235 pages Dr. Corey tries to articulate the shape, motive, and purpose of kindness in the Christian life. Using biography and anecdote as guiding rails, Dr. Corey illustrates the biblical foundations of kindness and issues a call and vision for its place in the contemporary church. Love Kindness (Tyndall, 2016) runs $13.91 or $9.99 for the Kindle edition. This book also gets my highest recommendation, though the caveat should be added that for those who prefer straightforward propositional content (and as such would be frustrated with the heartfelt anecdotes) might want to prioritize Uncommon Decency over Love Kindness, but both books really should be read.
Unlike Onward there is not a progressive argument being built, but rather Love Kindness reads more like a master jeweler appraising a valuable gem—turning it round and round to observe and consider each of its faces and facets. As such, rather than rehearsing the argument, it will most likely be most helpful to look at a few of the facets that stood out to me.
Kindness is the calling of Christians. To follow Christ is to be called to kindness.
Over the years I’ve been quick to relegate the way of kindness to someone who is simpler, who is less of a leader than I am. I’m quick to conclude that some people have the knack for kindness, but it’s not my thing…When I do this, I’m missing the point that for followers of Jesus, it’s not an option but a mandate, not an occasion, but a lifestyle. (6)
We might be tempted to think that some of us get a pass on kindness because it runs against the grain of our natural dispositions. Maybe we think, as Dr. Corey did, I can’t be kind because I need respect as a leader, “kindness is too soft.” But there is no way out of Jesus’ call to be kind. This sort of thinking might also imply that kindness has been mistaken for niceness. Dr. Corey writes,
Niceness may be pleasant, but it lacks conviction. It has no soul. Niceness trims its sails to prevailing cultural winds and wanders aimlessly, standing for nothing and thereby falling for everything… Niceness is cosmetic. It’s bland. Niceness is keeping an employee in the job, knowing he’s no longer the right fit. (xiv)
But kindness is not niceness, as Dr. Corey says. Niceness actually runs afoul of kindness, being unkind when it avoids confrontation and correction because it desires comfort over the awkwardness that kindness can produce. The task DBC sets before himself in this book is to show, as he says, how kindness can have “soft edges” without compromising its convictions the form a “firm center”
Kindness is Christ-centered.
The point of being kind to those with whom we disagree is not to be respected or befriended. That may never happen. Nor is the point of kindness to avoid either ruffling feathers or feeling awkward, which is cowardly ‘niceness.’ The point of kindness is to represent Jesus. Being kind to those with whom we disagree helps bring Christ to the center of the situation… To honor Jesus is to live and love as he does. With kindness that is genuine winsome and with love that is unconditional and relentless, we are able to love people were they are. We are able to point them to their greatest good, which is found only in the gospel. (54)
The goal of kindness is to open our lives to others so that, whether they agree or disagree, they are confronted with who Jesus is. Christians have been mean and contentious. Guilty. But taking up the call to kindness means make ourselves vulnerable and ‘receivable’ showing a soft (though uncompromising side). In doing this, we can not easily be written off as judgmental and backward. In kindness we can converse about our reasons and theology and faith. We can share why we believe what the Bible says about Jesus and homosexuality and care for the poor and doctrinal clarity. Dr. Corey is helpful in introducing the subject, but Dr. Richard Mouw masterfully applies it to the public square, deepening the challenge.
I wonder if Jesus could have won this election. I wonder what Jesus would have done in one of the GOP debates. I wonder these things because Christians are not just people who affirm some facts about Jesus and God, but they are people deeply changed by a submission to Jesus and now seek to humbly imitate him and follow him—to follow the suffering servant, to follow the humble king, to follow him about whom Peter the Apostle writes,
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Peter 2:21-25 ESV)
Would Jesus have remained silent before candidate Donald Trump’s boasts and bluster as he did before Pilate’s questioning? Would Jesus have stood passively and silently by like Dr. Ben Carson or would he have engaged?
As Christians it is important to consider what following our King looks like in every realm, whether public, private, or personal. Dr. Mouw’s Uncommon Decency hopes to give us some pointers and guidelines for asking about and pursuing Christlikeness in the public square.
The Stats: This updated and revised edition (IVP Books, 2010) is 180 pages of thoughtful discourse on what will likely be an increasingly important issue, regardless of who wins this election. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It needs to be read, discussed, and applied. Well worth the $14.89 or $9.99.
Dr. Mouw’s plea for Christian civility is really a plea for the pursuit and embrace of human flourishing. It is better to find a way to dialogue and pursue the truth together than to push “the others” away. Like Moore and Corey, Mouw believes that a commitment to kindness/civility does not force us to doctrinal flimsiness or relativism. Rather the goal is to combine truthfulness with gentleness. It is then no surprise that the former president of Fuller Theological Seminary is found among the endorsers of the current Biola University president’s Love Kindness.
A few keys to note about Uncommon Decency. Mouw, like Corey, sees the pursuit of Christian civility as the pursuit of divine character. Civility is about honoring others. We can disagree and even debate, but we ought not do so in a manner that disrespect those who are made in the image of God. Civility seeks to reduce disagreement where possible by seeking understanding and clarity—ultimately, “If we end up disagreeing after all is said and done, then at least our disagreement will be an honest one” (50). Civility is part of the process of Christian discipleship and is helped along “by the consciousness that we live coral Deo—before the face of God” (55). Civility is a product of the heart, it seeks understanding and empathy from a teachable position. It should also be noted that civility has its limits and boundaries.
It is not always the case that I recommend so highly the books I read. Some are mediocre and while they can be helpful there are better books out there. Some are bad in terms of either their argument, their research, or their writing. In this case, each of these books is not only good, but well worth the time and money they will cost you. American society seems increasingly contentious, and why shouldn’t it be? We are increasingly a nation of highly educated, but unlearned people. Everywhere we turn from the New York Times to the U.C. educational system, we find ideology rather than thoughtful deliberation. We treat politics like sport, rooting for our team and their players, not because they are the best suited, but because they are our team. Political correctness on college campus’ and in the media seems to be enforced by mob rule at the cost of free speech. If we want to truly be counter-cultural then let us dispense with the fear of the other and love truth and our neighbor sacrificially. That is what these books call us to and it is a much needed call.
Thanks for reading, I hope you check out these book,