07 May 2012

A Faith of Whose Own?

AS A TWO kingdomite, of the Pannenberg persuasion, I always begin reading “Christ & Culture” books with a sigh and some hesitation. Jonathan Merritt's A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars was no exception.

First, though, I'll warrant that I'm not representative of the target audience of this book, for the following three reasons: (1) I've read my fair share of academic "Christ & Culture" books; (2) I'm in my late 30s (and thus a cynical, disengaged and barely Christian genXer); and (3) I am not southern (though I am intimately familiar with the Southern Baptist Convention and the Royal Ambassadors, Living Christmas Trees, 4th of July Sunday extravaganzas, as well as Freddy Gage crusades). But enough about me.

This isn't to say that I ought not to have read the book, or that I didn't enjoy it, for what it's worth. I do think the target audience very much ought to read this book, however. If you're just coming to the "Christ & Culture" discussion, if you're in your 20s–early 30s, if you were raised in the Bible Belt, or (which I didn't mention previously) if you're from an older generation and desire to get a glimpse of the angle from which Millennials are engaging these matters, then read this book.

I think I'd commend it even if I didn't largely agree with it; I remain somewhat surprised that I did, actually. I was expecting a conflation of the kingdoms at least on every other page, but Merritt is refreshingly aware that if he were to simply swing the pendulum the other way, to simply react to the cultural construction in which he was raised, that he'd end up being just another side of the same coin (e.g., Fundamentalist/Modernist; Christian Right/Christian Left; Mohler/Wallis, etc.). In the end, Faith of Our Own is essentially a lay-level version of certain bits of James Davison Hunter's To Change the World.

Nutshell message:
  • "As one plunges deeper into the culture wars, one loses a sense of reality and embraces a partisan perception" (p. 35).
  • Christians are not to abandon the public square, but we need to learn how to engage it in a less worldly and politically partisan way.
  • "Good Christians are good citizens, and as such, they should establish a faithful presence in the public square as in media, business, science, education, and the arts" (p. 40).
  • "Ousting is a typical culture-war tactic," leading to third-degree separationism. (And I would add, it's a typical tactic among those who think they have the corner on dogmatic truths.) "The result is an insulated group in an isolated echo chamber where conservatives become more conservative and liberals become more liberal. No one has permission to think for themselves" (p. 61).
  • "We take a slice out of the Bible-pie and then call it the pie" (p. 88).
  • "The change we're witnessing is a shift from a political faith to an incarnational faith. One that seeks to be a faithful presence in the public square but knows that real change happens when we heal and help each other" (p. 153).
  • In his role as public representative of his church (and, by default, Christianity), he "never wades into debates about specific legislative proposals," and "where the culture wars are fought, unity is almost always absent" (p. 160).
It wasn't until the last chapter that it became clear to me that Merritt's thinking about the relationship between the church and state (or "Christ & Culture") was one that I hope others of his generation and younger pick up. Merritt recounts a time when Richard Mouw had written an essay on social ethics that caught the eye of Carl Henry. Henry wanted to publish it, but not without implementing a few edits. Here's the text (from pp. 173–74):
Mouw argued that the church should take stands on specific issues of social justice, but Henry wanted to change the wording to speak of individual Christians' needing to take stands. But Mouw . . . believed that the church as an institution should speak to specific social justice concerns in the public square, so he turned down Henry's offer.
Note that by "specific social justice concerns" what's not meant is the church as an institution decrying in general poverty, racism, criminal justice reform, hunger, etc. (I mean, who would disagree that those are societal ills?), but rather specific legislative solutions to those problems. As the story goes, after a few weeks of back-and-forth, Mouw let Christianity Today publish the essay:
The final version asserted that the church must maintain its prophetic voice and say "no" to the status quo of injustices, but stopped short of saying the church should endorse specific policy solutions. . . .

[Mouw later wrote] "What I really wanted to say is that the church—in the form of both preaching and ecclesial pronouncements—could do no more than merely utter a 'no' to some social evils. There were times, I was convinced, that the church could rightly say a bold 'yes' to specific policy-like solutions. I now see that youthful conviction as misguided. Henry was right, and I was wrong."
What else can I say? [queue: Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus] If this isn't a good two-kingdoms start in the right direction, I'm not sure what is. God bless you, Jonathan, for not offering the same old reactionary tripe.

But this wouldn't be a proper review without some critique, right? While I'm not familiar with Merritt's other writings, the prose is just okay. Not much literary flair here, even if there's a good handful of quotable content throughout it. He also nudges up against pietism at times, spiritualizing everything. And despite his caveat in chapter 9, his generation comes off smelling a little rosy. He sometimes conflates the two kingdoms in his desire to alleviate societal ills through Christianity, as if the gospel itself is about making the world a better place. Sure, it may serve as an impetus to do this or that, but more properly this is where the concept of natural law would enter, which for obvious and forgivable reasons didn't have a place in this book. Finally, his brief recognition of the sinful fragmentation of the church catholic in chapter 9, while commendable, offers little more than the typical Protestant low-church ecclesiology (pp. 162ff.; but Merritt is Baptist, after all).

Because Faith of Our Own is, as one endorser put it on the back cover, "part memoir, part manifesto," the reader ought to move beyond it pretty quickly. Anecdotes can only take one so far. Here's my short list of "Christ & Culture" must-reads, for those whose palates have been whet (in a somewhat arbitrary chronological order of reading):

    1. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge and The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion
    2. The Politics of Jesus
    3. Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong
    4. The Way of the (Modern) World: Or, Why It's Tempting to Live As If God Doesn't Exist
    5. A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society
    6. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World
    7. The Cost of Discipleship


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