Thursday, July 08, 2021

In Need of Analysis: Wake Up and Smell the Potpourri

I’ve never really liked Christian bookstores.

They have that cloying sweetness typical of the boutiques my wife loves, the ones that sell knick-knacks, scented candles and throw pillows. There’s just an unreality to such places that hits you from the moment you step in the door, a sense that you are entering a zone that has nothing at all to do with the world outside, and where perhaps strange and delicate mythical creatures can thrive.

Okay, I may be exaggerating a little, but you get the idea. If you’ve been in such a store, you know: there’s just something terribly weird about the place. The divergence between the real world and the interior environment — and even its divergence from other store environments — is quite startling; and when you first walk in it takes you a moment to adjust.

Made for the Real World

Personally, I don’t want my Christianity to be like that. While I’m grateful for Christian store owners who stock the books I want but cannot always find in regular bookstores, I don’t want to think of my faith locked up in an antiseptic box like that. It just seems to me that the proprietors, despite their good intentions, are somehow really missing the whole point.

The Christian worldview is a vital and powerful thing, a set of convictions that are made for the real world — a sword to take to war, not a fistful of novelty feathers. I’ve learned that you can take it to a university and knock down walls with it. It can endure all sorts of wind and weather, and invariably vindicates itself over all rivals, given time and the patience of faith. It’s the most real perspective you can actually have. It can face up to any sort of philosophical or evidentiary challenge, rebounds with vigor against all cynicism, and shatters illusions. When the truth appears, Christianity is always on top.

Losing Our Saltiness

So why is modern Christendom itself so shy? Why has it absented itself from the normal flow of human traffic and removed to the sanitized precincts of bookstore and chapel? Of what are we afraid?

In his book, Chameleon Christianity, Dick Keyes talks about how we are losing our saltiness and hiding our light. He writes:

“Hidden light … is Christian tribalism — the protective containment of Christian distinctiveness within the Christian ghetto or subculture. It entails Christian tribal dialects, tribal education, tribal music, tribal television, and even the Christian tribal yellow pages — all mystifying to those uninitiated into the tribe. Much time is spent reassuring the membership of the superiority of their beliefs and traditions over the terrible evils lying outside the fortress walls.”

Christianity is naturally an “outward shining” movement; whenever it turns inward and becomes tribal it not only hides its light but also begins to become increasingly detached from the realities of the world outside.

The Psychology of Tribal Life

Of course, this is precisely what the advocates of inwardness value about it, since they harbor a nagging fear that their kind of faith cannot survive long in the cold climate of the real world. They feel that self-preservation can best be achieved through creating environments in which mutual reassurance is high and skeptical critiques are muted, or absent altogether:

“The psychology of tribal life demands proscribed answers for most of life’s questions. The New Testament, however, does not give us enough of these rules to hold a tribe together; it allows far too much freedom. So when a church or Christian group becomes tribal, part of the process includes adding many rules and prohibitions to the ethics of the New Testament. This is especially true in a fast-changing society, where the church would otherwise have to grapple constantly with new and complex issues from the outside world.”

There are many problems with this impulse, not the least of which is how it cripples evangelism. Today, many Christians meet unbelievers in the context of the workplace or not at all. Many do not practice hospitality outside of their church circle; and they maintain few non-Christian friendships, and perhaps no deep and self-investing relationships.

Between Choreography and Door-Pounding

No wonder, then, that they also protest their lack of opportunities to witness — they’re just not building the kinds of relationships that issue in trust, or producing the kinds of dialogues that expose what ordinary people really think or are really experiencing. As Keyes adds:

“Evangelism becomes a particular problem for the tribal church or group. Typically these people will not know others socially who are not already Christians. Evangelism then becomes artificial and contrived, if not insensitive and belligerent.”

In many evangelical congregations today, there are two types of witnessing only: one is the “artificial and contrived” type, exemplified by weekly rote of the gospel meeting. There, choreographed performances of “get saved” messages are conducted (usually in the absence of any unbelievers) in an environment so overwhelmingly numerically dominated by the ‘faithful’ that no wind of doubt can creep in, and no contrary voice is to be heard. The second type of witnessing, far less popular, is what Keyes calls the “belligerent” kind — the shouting street-preachers or Saturday morning door-pounders, who deliver their various jeremiads to the world, but afterward feel free to retreat again into the safety of their Christian subculture.

Messy Lives of Suffering People

There is, in all this, a sad failure-of-nerve on the part of Christians, an inability to trust that the Lord can empower us to deal more directly with the world. The realness of our faith is refined through our contact with opposing attitudes. As James tells us, “pure and undefiled religion in the sight of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ” consists not merely in “keeping oneself unstained by the world”, but in doing so even while “visiting orphans and widows in their distress” — in other words, in involving ourselves in the messy lives of suffering people. As the Lord also told us, we are not to be “of the world”, but we are most assuredly to remain “in” it.

I am not saying there is no place for Christian bookstores, or Bible colleges, or even for church meetings not open to all the public: but I am saying that if our whole Christian life, or even the majority of it, is conducted within such sanitized environments, then there’s likely to be something very stunted, flabby and saccharine about our faith.

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