In an old standup bit from a few years before his untimely death, Norm Macdonald mocked the way American media sometimes manufactures fear through their coverage of global affairs before memorably pivoting to the one country that really did scare him.
I watch the news. It makes you afraid the news. All these stories, Iraq, Iran, North Korea. Trying to scare me. But does it ever really scare you? Do you ever wake up in the night and go ‘ah! North Korea! That little tiny country across the ocean. I wonder if they’ll get me.’
Reflecting on the bit, it occurred to me that there’s something familiar about it. I have spent my entire life in the white evangelical world, which means I am now old enough to have seen this exact dynamic play out many times over in our movement, as every 3-5 years we (or our professional class, at least) identify a new Big Bad that is supposedly destroying the church. (In recent years, the speed with which we cycle through trends has accelerated, no doubt due in large part to the way that social media makes it far easier to distribute propaganda.)
Thus: “Ah, postmodernism is going to get me!” (1995-2005) “Ah, secular humanism is going to get me!” (2005-2010) “Ah, cultural marxism (remember that one?) is gonna get me!” (2015-2019) Or, most recently, “Ah, critical race theory is gonna get me!” (2019-present)
Here’s the thing: I’ve known dozens of people who have left the faith. Probably 85% of the people I grew up with have apostatized. A good percentage of the folks from my megachurch youth group that I attended briefly in high school have done the same and, so too, have some of my peers from my campus ministry days, though thankfully not nearly so many. I’ve heard so many stories of apostatizing. You know how many times I’ve heard someone attribute their loss of faith to any of the fabricated villains supposedly threatening Christianity?
“Ah, critical race theory is going to get me!” say the white evangelicals. But it isn’t. You know what’s going to get you and get your kids and get your fellow parishioners? Your iPhone might. Your prayerlessness will. Your lack of mercy will. The spirit of the age that promises you everything if you’ll just give up those silly superstitions you were taught in church, that’ll get you. But critical race theory? You’re having a laugh.*
This is a kind of preface to a new project I’m going to be attempting on my personal blog. My friend Kirsten has been writing a new Substack newsletter about her experience reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time. It’s one of my favorite things from 2022 so far. Kirsten is just a great writer, so I’d read anything of hers. But the obvious joy she is experiencing as she reads this book that has delighted me for so long and her absolute disdain for performative intellectualism has made the series something I look forward to seeing in my inbox each week. Just go sign up and see for yourself.
Reading it also made me want to find a similar project for myself. The combination of reading something great you’ve never read before, making yourself write about it, and not really caring about The Discourse was all quite attractive to me. For myself, though, I wanted to read some significant modern theologian (my reading in modern theology is still very haphazard and scattered) who spoke in a theological key to issues of public life. I doubt I’ll pull off anything as enjoyable as what Kirsten is doing, but I’m gonna give it a try.
What am I reading? I asked a few people for recommendations and landed on the mid-century Catholic thinker Henri De Lubac. I’m starting with his book The Drama of Atheist Humanism and then will be reading Catholicism followed by his book on Origen and Scripture. I’m only a little way into Drama but already I have found it as exciting as the friend who recommended De Lubac to me told me I would. And here’s what most excites me about it so far: I think De Lubac, writing in 1943 (!), had a better, more honest account of what exactly western Christians were up against than do most professional evangelicals nearly 80 years later as they continue their sad bit of shadow boxing, all while their churches empty out in the background.
Reading De Lubac has felt at times like throwing open the windows of my mind and letting a stiff, cold breeze blow through. With the exception of Herman Bavinck, I haven’t encountered many modern theologians in my own ecclesial tradition who speak with the clarity and cutting edge that De Lubac has as he addresses the problems confronting us today. I’m reminded of what Brandon wrote for us a couple years ago following Pope Francis’s remarkable Urbi et Orbi benediction in the early days of the pandemic:
This was the Catholic Church as a church, as the Church, not as a glorified NGO or an impotent proposer of alternatives or a gathering of eccentrics, addressing the world on the terms of heaven. This was the Church throwing open the windows not for the world to come in but for Christ to go out. This was the beginning, if she sees it through, of a new era of speaking to the world, not just with words but with the confident posture and full dramatic tradition of the Church of Jesus Christ, savior of the world.
That gesture Brandon is talking about is, I think, what we desperately need more of today, on both sides of the great 16th century ecclesial split. We need a church confident within its own life because it is confident in her Lord that is emboldened to throw open its doors and windows so that Christ can flow out into the world. The image Mary Karr offers in her poem about Christ’s resurrection still lingers in my mind, years after first reading it:
In the corpses core, the stone fist
of his heart began to bang
on the stiff chests door, and breath spilled
back into that battered shape. Now
its your limbs he comes to fill, as warm water
shatters at birth, rivering every way.
Christ has come to fill our limbs. Now if only more of us actually believed that.
There is a seriousness I sense in De Lubac that is almost wholly lacking in contemporary evangelicalism. It is most certainly lacking amongst the fear mongers who want us obsessing over critical race theory or, if you trend lefty, toxic patriarchy or whatever other outrage de jour they’ve cooked up for us today.
We live in a world shaped by the atheist humanism De Lubac describes so precisely in his book. It might be more honest to say we live in a world that has been shredded to ribbons by that atheist humanism. And if the church could recover some basic sense of moral seriousness for a moment, if we could act as if we really believe all the crazy things found in the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments, if we could, in short, behave as if we actually fear God and as if Christianity were actually true, I think we might see something remarkable happen.
But, God help us, we must become serious first.
* I’m sticking this in a footnote to save myself a bunch of long annoying interactions on Twitter: Sure, I’m not wholly without sympathy for those who have concerns about the social ramifications of certain curriculum choices in our schools. Certainly, I think there is reason to be concerned about certain classical liberal rights given what we are seeing on some college campuses and what polling data often tells us about the rising generation.
That being said, what concerns me is the same thing that concerned an old college pastor friend of mine. He lamented to me once that if he asked one of the male Bible study leaders from his campus ministry about their prayer life, walk with God, or even just their Bible reading, he’d be doing well if he got two minutes of conversation out of them. On the other hand, if he asked them about the latest segment on Tucker Carlson or brought up Second Amendment rights, they’d go for an hour without interruption.
Why is it that it is so easy to get white evangelicals worked up about right wing political causes and often so difficult to get them to show up for Sunday evening church (or even Sunday morning church!) or to become more engaged in their prayer life or to memorize the Apostle’s Creed? My gripe here is with the way our passions and energies are activated and dispersed.