Over the weekend I gave a paper at a small conference that was basically pitched as “let’s offer the most sympathetic, from-the-sources account we can of modern ideas about self and nature, then let’s knock them down with Walker Percy and Marilynne Robinson.”
My reasoning for wanting to write something like this is simple: Statistically speaking, there are almost certainly millions and millions of people in this country that fit somewhere along the “I’m having doubts about my faith,” to “I’m an angry exvangelical with a Twitter handle and a Substack,” continuum. (Say they’re between 3.5 and 5.5 on Mike and Skyler’s spectrum. If we start from 120 million self-described evangelicals in America as of around 2005, then I don’t think my “millions and millions” estimate is off.)
If we want to persuade those folks, we gotta be able to describe their alternative to the faith in a way that is recognizable and obviously good-faith in its engagement. So I quoted lots of Enlightenment people, a Marxist scholar I’ve learned a bit from, and a few others. Then we can turn the tables and take it apart and press them on why that account of reality really doesn’t work the way they want it to. So that’s what I tried to do. (This is basically Francis Schaeffer’s strategy and also overlaps a great deal with Tim Keller’s.)
After the talk was over, I think every undergraduate student in attendance was in line to talk to me about the paper. Several asked if they could have a copy of it. These people know what I’m doing because they’re either struggling with faith themselves or a bunch of their friends from youth group are and they’re trying to figure out how to help them. (I think something like 85% of the kids I grew up going to church with are not Christian anymore.)
Another friend works in the northeast, routinely speaking on college campuses on politics and ethics. He tries to present students with a picture of Christian faith that holds the line on sexuality and gender issues while also addressing issues of race and justice in ways that are more constructive and faithful to the Christian tradition than most of what is on offer in white evangelicalism these days. Students eat it up. He’s been kept after events for four hours talking to students.
Another friend also routinely speaks to students on issues of sexuality and gender. He presents an extremely conservative line that not only is not affirming on LGBT+ issues, but also is critical of the rampant embrace of contraception amongst evangelicals. He has the same experience that I did and my friend did. Students eat this stuff up. They want more. They’re starving, y’all.
To put it simply, I think many young Christian people want desperately to be Christian, but they also want to be able to be intellectually honest, trust what they see with their eyes on race and economics, and they want to be free from all the partisan nonsense they likely grew up in.
And so much of what I do at Mere O and much of what my friends and I are doing more generally is trying to convince people that Christianity really is good news for themselves and for the world, and that very much includes the parts of the faith that progressive folks find so repugnant, such as the church’s teachings on marriage, life issues, and contraception. Based on the reaction my friends and I get from people, there’s a huge demand for this sort of thing. I think people are starving for depth.
But here’s what happens when you move away from reality land and into the hellworld of reformed media: We basically don’t talk about marriage anymore. Life issues are still addressed, which is obviously good. But even acknowledging that systemic racism is a thing will get you labeled a heretic. Pointing out that the Bible and church teaching do not allow us an absolute right to our private property will get you called a Marxist. And if you have Jemar Tisby come speak on campus and if your lone black faculty member teaches a class to .5% of your student body that reads an Ibram Kendi book, a hack journalist and some angry donors will show up with torches and pitch forks.
15 years ago I was a college student at the University of Nebraska majoring in English and History. I was pretty confused. I had been hurt by abusive church culture, but also had parents who were faithful enough and kind enough that it kept me around; I wasn’t ready to give up entirely on Christianity.
But I needed a reason besides “my parents are wonderful people,” and “I like some C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer books” to imagine sticking around. And Bart Moseman, then the campus pastor at Nebraska, and Mike Hsu, then the pastor at Grace Chapel here in Lincoln, gave me those reasons. And over our many conversations, they presented a vision of Christian faith extremely like what I’m trying to show people today and what my friends are trying to show people today.
Because of that, I’m still a Christian today, I’m doing the work I’m doing here and at IVP and at Davenant and at Plough, and I’m married with four kids that my wife and are I doing our best to raise as Christians in a pretty difficult and confusing world. All of that is because God is faithful, my parents are remarkable, and two pastors did their jobs. And Bart and Mike have tons of people with stories like mine that they’ve served during their ministries. (And, of course, both Bart and Mike would say Tim Keller is a hero of theirs who they have learned much from, but we all know how the reformed media hellworld feels about Tim these days.)
This is what we’re after here at Mere Orthodoxy. We want to live in reality, not a contrived partisan world defined by propaganda and ideology. We’re after a missionary encounter with the post-Christian west. We’re after justice and truth and beauty. We’re after an account of the faith and of reality that actually seems plausible and imaginable to skeptics and badly catechized Christian kids who are desperate for a way to keep their faith.
If that kind of work matters to you, if it sounds like something worth doing, then hop on board. If God continues to bless the work, we’re gonna go places. There are a lot of starving people out there and we’re trying to give them something real. Join us.