Tim Keller on Ross Douthat on why is Christianity marginalised in the West

A friend pointed me to the fact that Tim Keller has a blog … had missed that. As with everything Kellerite it is worth reading and listening to.

He has just started a series on a book by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat called Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (The Free Press, 2012).

Well worth a read.

Some people bash the church as if it is solely responsible for the increasing marginalisation and irrelevance of Christianity in the West. It’s interesting the Douthat does not mention internal factors at all in his 5 big reasons. He’s more into sociological analysis. This is how Keller summarises things:

1) Political polarization between the Left and Right in the USA has drawn in many churches and weakened its credibility. [And to add an Irish context, the legacy of how deeply entwined Protestantism and Catholicism became with Unionist and Irish Nationalist identities]

2) The sexual revolution means that the biblical sex ethic now looks unreasonable and perverse to millions of people, making Christianity appear implausible, unhealthy, and regressive.

3) Decolonization, Third World empowerment, globalization, has given the impression that Christianity was imperialistically “western” and supportive of European civilization’s record of racism, colonialism, and anti-Semitism.

4) The enormous growth material prosperity and consumerism works against faith and undermines Christian community.

5) These four factors had their greatest initial impact on the more educated and affluent classes, the gatekeepers of the main culture-shaping institutions such as the media, the academy, the arts, the main foundations, and much of the government and business world.

I’d want to add to these 5 an internal dimension: things like the church’s own captivity to the Enlightenment / consumerism / Christendom and such like. Those are all big easy to throw around words that would take a ton of unpacking, but the bottom line being that a factor in the church’s marginalisation surely has been its failure truly to be the church. Hauerwas and Newbigin have plenty to say on this.

However … what Douthat says sounds right. I get a bit weary of church-bashing as if if only we could do this and that, all will be well. And since we don’t, we are to blame for the ‘move to the margins’.

For in the end such church bashing does a number of regretable things:

ultimately it is people bashing. The ‘church’ is actually embodied in local a congregation of all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds. Are they culminatively responsible for the marginalisation of the church in the West? Are they to be made to feel guilty for such failure? How constructive can such a blame game be?

it is too narrow. As Douthat argues, the story of the decline of the church in the West is a combination of several huge cultural shifts. He has a particular American focus. These will play out slightly differently in different contexts, but the overall story is persuasive. There are bigger principalities and powers out there that express themselves in ways inimical to Christianity.

– it tends, however unintentionally, to assume that ‘we’ are centre stage – that ‘we’ have the ability, power and influence to change the culture, to regain ground.

– it tends to be negative.  Yes, let’s have a longing for reform and renewal. But also let’s be realistic as to the how the wider culture is now in a place where the claims of the Christian faith as seen as bizarre, irrelevant, possibly dangerous and unattractive.

What then is a response to the increasing marginalisation of the church in the West?

Another way of asking this is how to introduce constructive change. With guilt, warnings, frustration and impatience, or perhaps a re-writing of the Christian story (a la Mclaren for example)?

I’m going to reveal my anabaptist sympathies here.

Let’s faithfully, authentically and joyfully preach and live out the good news of Jesus Christ, the risen Lord in our local church and community. Let’s keep in step with the Spirit and as we so let’s love God wholeheartedly and love our neighbours as ourselves. Let’s do what in our ability and responsibility to do and let’s not deceive ourselves that we hold the key to turning the tide of Western culture around.

Comments, as ever, welcome


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