The culture wars are back, and in full force. Truth is, they never left. What’s different in this moment, as moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt so incisively points out, is that the enemy is no longer just “those on the other side” but now includes “dissenters or nuanced thinkers on their own team.”
I see it in my own community. The mistrust, the fracturing, the shrinking of tribal circles, the battle lines being starkly drawn. The other day one of my parishioners, a sincere Christian man whom I’ve always experienced to be the quieter, more gentle type, said to me, “Pastor, a storm is comin.’ We Christians better get ready for a fight!” It didn’t even sound like him. Sounded more like politicians and news pundits rallying the troops for cultural warfare.
Let me be clear. As a Christian and a local pastor, I believe that the church should care about what’s happening in the broader culture. And I believe we are called to engage culture, even influence culture from a place of deep and sincere faith. But the key question is “How are we to do this? And for what end (telos)?”
By definition, cultural warfare is fundamentally about the struggle for power and dominance—and the goal is to “win” and conquer “the other side” by whatever means necessary. I believe the church is called to a different kind of witness—what James Davison Hunter calls “faithful presence” and Makota Fujimura calls “culture care” and Tim Keller speaks of as “a third way.” They’re all getting at the essence of the same thing: followers of Jesus live in a countercultural way, resisting the vitriol and toxicity of partisanship and culture wars. Instead, Christ-followers cultivate the fruit of the Spirit and seek the flourishing of the common good through a humble, confident and winsome witness.
Recently I’ve been deeply troubled by the rise of voices on the “new Christian right” who are claiming that this kind of approach by Keller and others no longer works. First Things associate editor James Wood published an article a few weeks ago titled “How I Evolved on Keller.” He begins by praising Keller for being a “C.S. Lewis for a postmodern world” and for how much Keller impacted his own faith, but then he goes on to dismiss Keller and his approach as no longer effective for the cultural and political fight in front of us. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Jesus may have told us to turn the other cheek, love our enemies and take up the cross, but it’s also time to put on the gloves and get in the ring and fight for the soul of our nation. Since then, others like Rod Dreher have piled onto this argument.
One of the more bizarre parts of Wood’s argument is the claim (taken from Aaron Renn) that Keller’s approach worked when culture was “neutral” to Christianity, which he describes as the window from 1994 to 2014. During this 20-year-period Christians may have been viewed as “an eccentric option among many,” but there was not outright cultural hostility. But in 2014 all that changed. And now the broader culture has turned “negative” toward the Christian faith, and this calls for a drastically different tactic.
I’m not going to take the time here to say much more about this premise, except that I find it deeply flawed. One of the best responses to Wood is fellow conservative evangelical David French’s article here, where French pokes all kinds of holes in the premise. French goes on to say that even if you agree with this premise and the culture has in fact become more “negative” and hostile to the Christian faith, do desperate times really justify desperate measures? Where in the gospels or the New Testament, or in the story of the early church, do we see that the ends justify the means, particularly when it comes to bearing witness to our faith? Whenever Christians fall into this kind of rationalization, as history sadly shows, all the wrongs things happen.
Here’s how French says it:
“We live in an age of negative polarization, when the cardinal characteristic of partisanship is personal animosity. In these circumstances, a Christian community characterized by the fruit of the spirit should be a burst of cultural light, a counterculture that utterly contradicts the fury of the times. Instead, Christian voices ask that we yield to that fury, and that a ‘negative world’ is now no place for the ‘winsome, missional, and gospel-centered approach.’”
French concludes with this:
“But this isn’t an evolution from Tim Keller, it’s a devolution, and it’s one that’s enabling an enormous amount of Christian cruelty and Christian malice. Wood says ‘Keller was the right man for a moment,’ but he also says, ‘it appears that moment has passed.’ That’s fundamentally wrong. When fear and hatred dominates discourse, a commitment to justice and kindness and humility is precisely what the moment requires.”
I couldn’t agree more with French. As Christians, “followers of the Way,” the means matter just as much as the ends. The means are the ends. We don’t live out Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount when it “works” and gets the results we want—the candidate we voted for or the political policy we favor—but then abandon it when adversity comes. This is the cruciform way of life in Christ, the way of life in God’s kingdom. In the words of Russell Moore, “The cross contradicts our culture wars.” Yes and amen!
This is precisely the moment, I believe, when we need to show the world another way, a better way. A way that holds together truth and grace, justice and kindness, conviction and humility, and faithfully points to another king and kingdom.