An Evangelical reader passes on a recent edition of The Masculinist, an monthly e-mail newsletter about “the intersection of Christianity and masculinity,” written by Aaron Renn. I can’t find a place to link to the article, so I’ll quote it. The reader told me that I should take a look at it, because it might explain the cool reception The Benedict Option has had in some Evangelical circles.
The essay leading the newsletter (#13) is one of the most insightful things I’ve read in a long time. I’m going to quote it at length, but let me say at the front end that it’s so good that I immediately subscribed to The Masculinist, and I strongly suggest that you do too. Renn is a conservative Presbyterian who is concerned about the decline of a sense of manhood within Christianity (and in society), and the failure of the churches to respond to the crisis.
Renn begins this essay by critiquing Sen. Ben Sasse’s book The Vanishing American Adult, which focuses on twentysomethings who fail to launch into adult life. Renn says the book is “very good in many ways,” but addresses only the top 20 percent of American households — the kind of people whose kids are going to have a much easier time launching than all the rest. Renn:
Sasse does not forthrightly address any of the serious problems facing America’s youth with any proposed solutions that might get him into the slightest bit of hot water. (He did give family breakdown a mention, but did nothing with it). The kids growing up in white working class communities with rampant family breakdown, unstable employment, drugs, etc. have much bigger problems in life than learning how to travel well. Drug addicted parents are injecting babies with opioids to make them stop crying (true story). There’s one woman I know personally who had four kids by three different fathers, two of whom were brothers. And who went though a significant stretch to drug addiction where she was completely out of the picture while her kids where raised by grandparents. Those kids face serious problems. (Two of them have already had out of wedlock children of their own, one of them already with multiple partners). Similarly, a black teenager in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood faces much bigger problems than his summer reading list.
Sasse, despite all of his pretention to moral superiority, despite his constant anti-Trump preening, despite all of his Evangelical faith, despite being a US senator, is unwilling to stand up in the public square and say unpopular things to confront the serious problems in America, ones not amenable to uncontroversial feel-good solutions like “consume less.”
In this curious blend of moral posturing and play it safe proclamations, Sasse is very representative of what’s probably the dominant strain of Evangelical thinking today. So it’s worth exploring what that is – and why it exists.
Renn goes on to talk about “the Three Worlds”:
Ben Sasse is a conservative exemplar of what I term “neutral world” Christianity. In my framework, there are three worlds we’ve seen in my lifetime related to the status of Christianity and traditional Christian norms in society.
1 Positive World (Pre-1994). To be seen as a religious person and one who exemplifies traditional Christian norms is a social positive. Christianity is a status enhancer. In some cases failure to embrace those norms hurt you.
2 Neutral World (1994-2014). Christianity is seen as a socially neutral attribute. It no longer had dominant status in society, but to be seen as a religious person is not a knock either. It’s more like a personal affectation or hobby. Traditional norms of behavior retain residual force.
3 Negative World (2014-). In this world, being a Christian is a social negative, especially in high status positions. Christianity in many ways as seen as undermining the social good. Traditional norms are expressly repudiated.
To illustrate the differences, consider these three incidents:
1 Positive World: In 1987 the Miami Herald reported that Sen. Gary Hart had been having an affair, and cavorting with the woman in question on his yacht. He was forced to drop out of the presidential race as a result.
2 Neutral World: In 1998 the Drudge Report broke the story that Bill Clinton had been having an affair with intern Monica Lewinksy, including sex acts in the Oval Office. Bill Clinton was badly damaged by the scandal but survived it as the Democratic Party rallied around him and public decided his private behavior was not relevant to the job.
3 Negative World: In 2016 Donald Trump, a many whose entire persona (sexual antics, excess consumption, boastfulness, etc.) is antithetical to traditional Christianity, is elected president. The Access Hollywood tape, for example, had no effect on voter decisions about him.
Even for those who hate Christianity, the rise of Trump, something only possible in a post-Christian world, should give them pause to consider.
Renn then discusses the church’s “strategic response” to these worlds.
When we lived in Positive World, we saw emerge the Religious Right, the Positive World paradigm, which was “highly combative and oppositional vs. emerging secular culture.” We also saw the emergence of the “seeker-sensitive” megachurch movement. Its success depended on a basic friendliness to Christianity in the broader culture.
The church that emerged out of Neutral World are the “urban church” types. Renn:
The neutral world church is very different in a number of ways. It has traditionally been much more apolitical (though many of its practitioners lean left). It’s also much more heavily urban and global city focused. It tries to avoid highlighting areas where Christianity is in conflict with the world. Instead of being antagonistic towards the culture, it is explicitly positive towards culture. In fact, you could sum up much of the model under the heading “cultural engagement.” They want to meet the culture on its own terms, and reach people as participants in a pluralistic public square. They want to be in the mainstream media, not just Christian media or their own platforms. Many of their ministries have been backed by big money donors. These are many of the people who denounced Trump to no effect during the election. In effect, they represent a version of Christianity taking its cues from the secular elite consensus.
Renn says that with the exception of “some Southern Baptists and some older white guys,” the Evangelical leadership today is Neutral World. Tim Keller is the No. 1 example of a successful Neutral World pastor. His success at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City “powerfully validated the Neutral World model.” Renn:
He explicitly validated the pursuit of success at the highest echelons of American art, media, finance, etc., believing that Christianity had something to offer in those fields at all levels. He believes these secular fields, while suffering from fallenness like all human institutions, are fundamentally positive contributions to humanity and that Christianity should participate and engage with them rather than fighting against them or denouncing them.
Here’s the problem, according to Renn: Since around 2014, we have shifted from Neutral World to Negative World — but a lot of Evangelicals still think we’re living in Neutral World, or wish we were. Renn:
When the world switched from positive to neutral, the cultural engagement strategy was readily developed. With the switch from neutral to negative, the church needs a new strategy. However, one does not appear to be forthcoming. The lack of negative world ideas is remarkable not just for the fact that it has not occurred, but that it has received so little attention.
There is only serious engagement with the negative world out there I know of, Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option.” Dreher is an admixture of positive (political movement conservatism), neutral (Crunchy Cons), and negative (Benedict Option) worlds. He even physically moved from backwoods to Louisiana to New York City then back again. He’s also Eastern Orthodox, not Protestant. He’s all over the map in many ways, and as a result the Benedict Option is critically flawed in my view. However, at least it’s addressing reality.
Interestingly, neutral world Evangelicals seem to have largely rejected the Benedict Option, and therein lies an important tale.
What is that tale? Renn says that in 2014, he reckoned that “as soon as being known as a Christian would incur a material social penalty, which I anticipated happening soon, there would be a mass abandonment of the faith by the megachurch crowd, etc.”
This didn’t happen, he said. What happened instead was that Neutral World Evangelicals have taken up the response of Mainline Protestant church by embracing the world and the social gospel. “In other words,” writes Renn, “they decided to sign on with the winning team.” More:
The average neutral world Christian leader – and that’s a lot of the high profile ones other than the remaining religious righters, ones who have a more dominant role than ever thanks to the internet – talks obsessively about two topics today: refugees (immigrants) and racism. They combine that with angry, militant anti-Trump politics. These are not just expounded as internal to the church (e.g., helping the actual refugee family on your block), but explicitly in a social reform register (changing legacy culture and government policy).
I’m not going to argue that they are wrong are those points. But it’s notable how selective these folks were in picking topics to talk about. They seem to have landed on causes where they are 100% in agreement with the elite secular consensus.
I won’t speculate on their motives, but it’s very clear that neutral world leaders have a lot to lose. Unlike Jerry Falwell, who never had secular cachet and lived in the sticks, these guys enjoy artisanal cheese, microbrews, and pour over coffees in Brooklyn. They’ve had bylines in the New York Times and Washington Post. They get prime speaking gigs at the Q conference and elsewhere. A number of them have big donors to worry about. And if all of a sudden they lost the ability to engage with the culture they explicitly affirmed as valuable, it would a painful blow. For example, to accept Dreher’s Benedict Option argument they’d have to admit that the entire foundation of their current way of doing business no longer works. Not many people are interested in hearing that.
The neutral world Christians – and again that seems to be much of Evangelical leadership today – are in a tough spot when it comes to adjusting to the negative world. The move from positive to neutral world brought an increase in mainstream social status (think Tim Keller vs. Pat Robertson), but the move to a negative world will involve a loss of status. Let’s be honest, that’s not palatable to most. Hence we see a shift hard to the left and into very public synchronization with secular pieties. That’s not everybody in Evangelical leadership, but it’s a lot of them. Many of those who haven’t are older and long time political conservatives without a next generation of followers who think like them. (Political conservatism is also dying, incidentally).
Renn explains that he lives in Manhattan and loves it. He’s happy there, and has a lot to lose if he were to accept the implications of Negative World and live by them. He would prefer that Negative World were not true.
But the reality is even in my secular urban work the ground is eroding under my feet. Everything is becoming hyper-political, whether I want it to be or not or whether it should be or not. I’m going to end up in a higher conflict mode whether I want to or not. Just like what happened to Tim Keller at Princeton. Buckle up.
People are going to be forced to make choices, across a wide spectrum of domains. I’m afraid current trends indicate that Christian leaders are going to make the wrong ones. We already know from the past that social gospel style Christianity is a gateway to apostasy. That’s where the trend is heading here.
I was speaking with one pastor who is a national council member of the Gospel Coalition. He’s a classic neutral worlder who strongly disapproves of Trump. But he notes that the Millennials in his congregation are in effect Biblically illiterate and have a definition of God’s justice that is taken from secular leftist politics. They did not, for example, see anything at all problematic about Hillary Clinton and her views. A generation or so from now when these people are the leaders, they won’t be people keeping unpopular positions to themselves. They won’t have any unpopular positions to hide. They will be completely assimilated to the world. Only their ethics will no longer be Hillary’s, but the new fashion du jour.
So, what does this have to do with masculinity? Renn asks.
The battle now beginning in the world is going to require “masculine virtues, ones in desperately short supply in the church.
The template is Paul, who was one tough hombre. Paul was a Jewish blueblood on the fast track to high council membership who threw it all way to endure beatings, imprisonment, etc. (One of the underappreciated virtues of Paul is just how physically and mentally tough that guy was). He said he counted it all as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ. He also someone who could say, “I have not shunned to declare unto you the whole counsel of God.”
Here’s the thing, says Renn: Paul did not focus his struggle on the world, but within the church itself. Aside from seeking converts, he doesn’t advise his followers to engage the culture, get politically active, or anything like that. Nor did he instruct his followers to run away from the world. Rather, he focused on building up the church in holiness, and exhorting believers in the new faith to overcome the world in themselves.
It can be assumed that everything after that followed. Renn concludes:
[T]he church needs the manly virtues of enduring suffering, hardship, and having values that are higher than worldly social status and success – people who stand on solid rock, not who have a finger in the air to see which direction the wind is blowing so they can conform.
I wish I had a link to the entire essay to post here, but there is none. However, if this essay is the quality of analysis you can find every month in The Masculinist, it’s well worth subscribing.
I’d love to read Renn’s critique of the Benedict Option (Aaron, if you’re reading this, write me). As I tell audiences, I don’t have all the answers, but I hope I’m asking the right questions. I am eager — I mean this — to receive constructive critique. The Benedict Option is meant to start conversations within which members of the church universal — Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox — can bring ourselves to face the world as it actually is, and develop meaningful responses to it. For me, the Ben Op project is a work in progress; I really do want to help the church build resilience in the post-Christian world, and if I’ve gotten something wrong, or only half-right in my work, I welcome fraternal correction.
But, to get back to Renn’s theme, I’m reminded of this quote from the theologian Robert Louis Wilken, which I cite in The Benedict Option:
Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture.
Wilken is an eminent historian of the early church. What he sees happening today, in our post-Christian culture, is the church today returning to a position like in its early centuries: as an often-despised minority within a pagan society.
Renn is right: a weak, compromising, emotion-driven church is not going to survive what we are in now, and what is to come. If we don’t know who we are, deep down, and if we have not had that identity sedimented into our bones through serious study of Scripture and Christian thinking (“a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend”) and disciplined practices, we are going to be assimilated. Period. The end. That’s the reality.
Here’s what’s not going to work:
Church Clarity mirrors the demand of Christian fundamentalism.
Don’t think. Don’t nuance. Don’t discuss. And don’t listen. Just declare…
— Preston Sprinkle (@PrestonSprinkle) October 20, 2017
Jesus never wrote a doctrinal statement.
Christian doctrine is embodied, practiced, and lived. It can’t be captured in an online statement
— Preston Sprinkle (@PrestonSprinkle) October 20, 2017
Tell that to the fathers of the Council of Nicaea. How lovely it would be for a 21st century American Evangelical to go back in time and tell them to knock off the arguing over Arianism, that Jesus never wrote a Creed, and that they should really focus on dialogue and relationship-building with the Arians. Athanasius was not winsome, thank God.
The reason for the Church councils back then was to hammer out what Christian orthodoxy demanded the faithful believe about the nature of Jesus Christ. These weren’t issues about which we could agree to disagree. They mattered a lot. The reason we have Christianity today in the form we do is because the Church fathers thought hard about this stuff, took difficult stands, and defended them.
Our world is very different from the world of the fourth-century church, but one thing is constant: the need to defend Christian orthodoxy, in thought, word, and deed. It is not enough to defend it intellectually. It is more important that we embody it in our lives, that we live it out, and make our lives a witness to the Truth. It is true that doctrine itself is not the key to salvation, from a Christian point of view. But it is also true that without embodiment in certain concrete forms — beliefs and practices — Christianity cannot survive.
It is important to have a relational faith, yes, but if we are guided in our thoughts and actions by the telos of maintaining relationship, we are bound to apostatize at some point. The Negative World doesn’t dislike, and at times loathe, orthodox Christians because we fail to be winsome. It dislikes and loathes us because of what we believe to be true.
I think that the Church Clarity initiative by LGBT Christians — to name and shame churches that aren’t 100 percent endorsing of LGBT sexuality and identity — is an ugly thing. But I think there’s real value in it, in that it compels, well, clarity on where we stand. A church that is unwilling to claim and defend orthodox Christian teaching, even within a welcoming and pastoral setting, is ultimately going to capitulate to cultural pressure. Calls for “dialogue” and “listening” are fine on the surface, but what they ultimately mean is that this is a time for the orthodox within the discussion to work out their rationalizations for capitulation. Because in the end, that’s the only way these churches will retain cultural respectability.
At the nominally Catholic Georgetown University, a group of student activists is petitioning the university to defund a student group that defends the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. Why? Because the group stands accused of “hatred and intolerance.” I’ve mentioned in this space before talking to a professor at a Catholic university who told me he would never attempt to teach the Church’s doctrine on marriage and family, even in a neutral academic way, because he would surely be denounced by students to the administration for creating an “unsafe space,” and the university would move to fire him. He wasn’t joking. I talked to other professors at the same institution who said it was true.
This is happening at some Catholic universities right now. You think it’s going to get better? You think secular universities are going to avoid this somehow? You think this is going to be contained within certain communities? A reader wrote me the other day saying that his own sibling told him that he and his wife ought to be imprisoned because they didn’t endorse progressive doctrine on LGBT.
An Evangelical reader writes:
As a brief aside relating to what you’ve said about young Christians being in retreat on this issue, two young evangelical friends of mine were involved on [a Facebook thread about a conservative Evangelical college’s LGBT stance]. Both are professed Christians and at least claim to not believe in the morality of homosexuality; both were against the college excluding LGBT-affirming denominations. One of them responded to my criticism on the thread of the letter with an angry personal attack in which she divulged private information about my religious background. As I’ve mentioned to you in a couple of emails before, I’ve seen plenty “on the ground” with young evangelicals and homosexuality, and I can tell you from my experience that most older Christians have no idea how willing to capitulate on this issue the great majority of them are. Even those who take a more or less orthodox stance on the matter regard things like opposing transgender bathrooms or legalized same-sex marriage as crank positions on par with an unswerving faith in Fox News or believing that the moon landings were faked.
Everything you’re saying in The Benedict Option is spot-on; I doubt your critics would be able to keep up their words about the book very credibly if they could see what I’ve seen. It’s a disheartening picture, but believe me – having been on the ground for years in evangelical youth culture, I can tell you that what you’re saying is spot-on.
The point I wish to make here is not simply that the Evangelical church in the pews (like the Catholic church in the pews) is going to collapse doctrinally on LGBT issues. It’s that when pressured by the consensus of the broader culture on issues that contradict longstanding orthodox Christian teaching, they will capitulate for the sake of maintaining a relationship with that culture. Today it’s LGBT; what will it be tomorrow? Remember, most Christians in Germany during the Nazi era put aside their convictions and rationalized supporting the Nazi Party. It can happen here to Christians who don’t know what the church of history teaches and expects of them.
Put bluntly, it’s as if Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego rationalized that maintaining their relationship with Nebuchadnezzar and his court was worth bowing down to the golden idol, because after all, they need to be salt and light, they can do a lot of good as the king’s servants, yadda yadda.
Fiery furnaces as the price of staying true to God? Shoot, most Christians today don’t even want to think about being disliked by the world. When the time of testing comes, I expect that most of us will fail, and won’t even notice that we’ve failed, because we will be so ignorant of what Christianity is that our consciences will be untroubled. And then our children will not be Christian at all.
I take Renn’s criticism that The Benedict Option is a problematic response to the challenge of staying faithful in Negative World, though I’d like to hear more from him about where and how it fails (I’ll publish it on this blog if he hasn’t published it anywhere else). But look, you don’t have to think that I get the prescription right in the book to recognize the validity of the diagnosis. This is why in the book I invite Christians to get involved as a “creative minority” to pioneer ways of living that will strengthen us now and in the time to come. This is going to require having hard conversations about difficult truths. But we have no alternative. Take the Apostle Paul Option if you like. It’s the same basic thing: understanding the situation the church faces in these post-Christian times, and focusing intensely on building up its inner life, so that when we do go into the world, we will do so as faithful Christians. And if the world should reject us, we will be willing to suffer that as Christians, without backing down from what we know to be true.
Again: there is no alternative. We don’t live in Positive World or Neutral World. The virtues of church life that obtained in those periods don’t work anymore.
By the way, Renn criticizes Evangelicals, of which he is one, but there is very little in his essay that does not apply to all Christians living in America.