What Happened to the Christian Story?
How has it come to be that Western culture has moved beyond, or even rejected, the Christian story?
Granted, cultures are dynamic, and change should be expected. New narratives arise based on new discoveries and new ways of seeing and interpreting the world. It’s human nature to enjoy a good story, and we grow tired of the same plot day in and day out.
Yet it appears that the Christian story hasn’t suffered from boredom as much as from rejection. The Christian narrative has been pushed aside in favor of exploring other alternatives plots.
Christianity is not merely losing influence. It’s encountering direct hostility. Some of this hostility is the fault of Christians themselves. We cannot turn away or pretend that uncomfortable facts don’t exist or that mistakes haven’t been made. Our analysis isn’t aimed at blaming anyone, but rather plainly assessing the real situation, because, as a certain storyteller reminds us – only the truth can set us free.
Christianity in Crisis
In general, we must admit that the Church is finding itself more and more abandoned by the culture: not because the culture is corrupt or immoral or lost, but because it has looked intently at the Church’s actions, statements, and behavior, and found such wanting and of little value and relevance – it has rejected what it’s seen and moved on.
Christians have failed to update the telling of the Christian story with the findings of modern science, social science, and discovery.
In general, a lot of what Christians say and claim appears to no longer adequately align with contemporary experience and knowledge of reality. Human learning and knowing has outpaced most theological development. Yes, some of Christian theology has kept up. But sadly, most theological innovation has not reached the average layman and has not been adopted by mainstream Christian churches. Many Christian communities remain mired in forms of literalism and fundamentalism.
And unfortunately, many of these communities wear their literalism and backwardness as a badge of honor, claiming they alone offer the pure Christianity. Poorly educated, yet highly outspoken and pushy clergy, absurd public policy stances, outrageous public statements, and an assertion of an unmerited privilege have all weakened Christianity’s standing. Much of Christian theology has been rightly passed over and even rejected, because many Christians insist on poor formulations, outdated intellectual defenses, and illogical defenses for their claims.
There remain Christian communities and denominations that have an intellectual predisposition. Yet even traditions and communities that are erudite and intellectually savvy, still sometimes suffer from outdated ontologies and presuppositions long shown to be untrue.
As a result of poor formation, many Christian churches have fostered spiritualities that amount to magical thinking, wish fulfillment, and ego-projection. These communities have sadly traded appreciation of sacred mystery and the message of self-giving of the Gospels, for a “name it, claim it, prosperity should be yours” spirituality that worships Santa-God and treats Jesus as some kindly, imaginary friend molded in our own image.
Further, we must reconsider spiritual practices and attitudes that reduce God to a favor dispensing mechanism. Much of mainstream Christian spirituality is juvenile, “pop-spirituality” rooted in rudimentary exchange, barter, and control behavior. “If I say my rosary, go to church, say the right prayers, and be a good boy or girl, Santa-God will bring me good things.” Religion is about meaning, not control. And religion rooted in control will ultimately disappoint. Besides, a key message of Christianity is that hearts can only change when we give up trying to control others and circumstances.
The increased influence of postmodernism, relativism, individualism, and consumerism predispose many to see Christianity’s often weakly made truth claims as authoritarian and even imperialistic. There’s a growing distaste for using religious language, especially talk of sin, which is widely interpreted as prudishness, moralism, and the unnecessary inducement of guilt. Increasingly, Christianity is viewed as backwards and a threat to reason, human rights, and social progress. And Christians have helped foster that impression.
We’ve lost the sense of the deeper plot of the narrative, instead telling the Christian story in ways that has led to abuse, marginalization, and the effort to control others.
Decades of political overreach, intentional marginalization of others, a desire to control the culture and not merely influence it, and unsophisticated resistance to certain cultural trends (the equality of women, LGBT+ equality, etc.) have left Christianity not only looking bad, but being held in suspicion, and even seen as hostile and dangerous to social progress.
The so called culture wars of the past several decades has left a lingering bad taste in the mouths of many. While it can argued that there isn’t an essential connection between positions on birth control and certain expressions of sexuality and Christianity, the fact is that every issue backed by traditional Christian institutions and bolstered and defended with theological arguments has lost in the ongoing cultural conflicts – abortion, divorce, contraception, premarital sex, homosexuality and same sex marriage, and so on.
Some of these positions deserve defending, or at least seriously discussing. And people of good will and sound minds will reach different conclusions – even Christians. Whatever one thinks about some of these issues, if Christianity wants to be influential, if it wishes to be taken seriously and have it’s message considered – it must formulate it’s arguments in clear and reasonable language, avoid appeals to religiously sectarian justifications, and demonstrate to the culture the truth of it’s propositions.
Few would argue that Christianity should not attempt to influence politics and culture. The question isn’t influence, it’s control. In the United States, the marriage of conservative Christianity with the Republican party has won a few elections, but damaged both for the long term. Worse, this grab at power was not for the sake of the poor or marginalized, it was an attempt to control the mainstream culture along the lines of a narrow theological worldview. Numerous Churches have damaged their credibility – and the credibility of all Christians – as a result.
Christians have failed to live their lives as if the story mattered.
Christians have often failed to live up to their own ideals. This is to be expected given human imperfection. We’re all human. Yet when churches use religious liberty as an excuse for grasping at cultural privilege, when the largest denomination in the world overlooks decades of systematic child rape and horrific sex abuse committed by its own clergy, when thousands of churches spend tens of thousands of dollars installing coffee bars and fellowship lounges, but do little for the poor, when Christian leadership aligns with the powerful and offers no voice for the powerless, and when church communities promote marginalization – when our churches are merely extensions of the Empire – we’re in serious trouble.
So much of Christian thinking and practice has been co-opted by the mainstream secular culture. Our religious thinking has been infected by consumerism and individualism. Worse, it has suffered from the reductionism of niceism – the watering down of the Gospel message to being nice. When the Christian message becomes undifferentiated from that of the popular, secular culture, it becomes redundant and irrelevant.
Further, many churches have ceased to foster meaningful religious experience by conveying a sense of mystery, sacredness, and wonder. Banal music, liturgies, rituals, and shallow teaching have taken their toll. This is not nostalgia for some lost Golden Age – no such reality ever existed. The proposed solution is not Latin Masses, choirs led by organs, or 1940s style liturgies. Rather, communal ritual must reclaim its gravitas once again. When Sunday morning is more entertainment rather than it is reflection, when it’s more political message than communal meaning, it comes at the expense of the mystical. The failure to convey the mystical erodes lasting, authentic commitment.
The Need for Renewal
The above, begins to explain declining institutions, declining financial support, declining participation, and declining relevance or even interest. Entire denominations are in danger of vanishing. More than a third of Americans are no longer affiliated with a church, the situation in Europe is even worse, and the rate of loss is increasing. (See the Pew Research Center or Barna Research for studies and figures.)
Human society is always in some form of crisis and churches are not exempt from this dynamism. The history of Christianity contains dozens of examples of rise and decline, change, adjustment, and the emergence of new styles, emphasis, and practice.
But this time appears to be somewhat different. The issues cut to the core of what it means to be a Christian and how we understand the meaning of the Gospels. It seems that Christianity has lost its ability to speak meaningfully to the culture.
The scope of the renewal necessary is daunting – ranging from rethinking the foundations of our theology, to reading the scriptures with fresh eyes, to finding more effective ways of communicating and explaining our claims, to changing Christian practice and spirituality, to restoring the primacy of love, hospitality, generosity, and tolerance on the part of all Christians.
The renewal needed goes far beyond tweaking programs, music, and liturgical styles. It is not going to be found in committees, tool kits, and conferences. Such efforts might help, but are marginal. Christianity is not a program. The necessary changes go deeper to the level of self-understanding and theology – and even beyond that, to the level of individual and communal repentance.