The rumble strips on our highways have been a good invention. When you’re behind the wheel and fall into a moment of inattention or distraction, that carved-up piece of pavement beside the white shoulder line quickly calls you back. When I hit the rumble strip my usual instinct is gently and slowly to correct my course, as if I’d been deliberately exploring the boundaries of the road. But I’ve also had times when it has really jarred me and I’ve overcorrected, giving myself and my unsuspecting passengers the sudden sense of a swerve. Thankfully, our highway planners have often been a step ahead of us, placing another rumble strip in the centre. It seems that it’s in our nature to be prone to overcorrections.
C.S. Lewis claimed that the devil doesn’t send errors into the world one by one but rather in pairs. On both sides of the truth are opposing but related mistakes. I’m sure this works itself out in many parts of life, but I’ve certainly seen it in Christian thinking and conduct, and that’s my subject here. We—and by “we” I have in mind particularly Christians in the broadly evangelical heritage—have fallen victim to several overcorrections in the last generation, and by doing so we’ve missed out on our particular distinctiveness, the contribution that we have to offer the world as followers of and witnesses to Jesus.
In this post, I have in mind three areas—the material world, cultural engagement, and our destination after death—where we have swung from one wrongheaded pole to another, and as a result we have made Christian speech not more relevant but less so. This is worth noting since, whether wisely or foolishly, relevance has become a factor in our conversation as Christians. About these three areas of thought I’m not going to attempt much more than to point in a direction, to suggest that here is a topic to consider. But I think they’re important enough for further thought and conversation.
The Material World: Disembodied Christianity or Total This-Worldliness
First, the material world. For a long stretch of time, evangelical Christians tended not much to value material things. We preferred to speak of everything in “spiritual” terms. We determined worth by how spiritual or unspiritual it seemed to be. Meals and music, the battle against poverty and efforts to care for the natural world—all of these were a step below what God really cared about. And because they were a step below, they might as well be ignored. I remember reading a column by a local pastor years ago who proclaimed that the earth and everything in it was ultimately going to burn anyway, so whatever we do to improve this world is at best pointless and at worst a rejection of God.
Well, we came to see that the resurrection of Jesus strongly affirmed the goodness of God’s created order, and it showed God to be interested in putting things back together rather than throwing them away. This emphasis has been especially strengthened in the past twenty-five or thirty years. As a result, we became more wholehearted in our efforts to be active in “this-worldly” concerns, no longer imagining such work to be an abandonment of our convictions. But then a problem set in: we became so interested in solving the problems of this world that we forgot that we had always believed there were deeper realities than just the ones we could see. Suddenly evangelism seemed less defensible than feeding people, the offer of a relationship with God less realistic than building a house for the homeless. It hasn’t happened all at once, but it’s happened nonetheless, especially among younger evangelicals (I mean here those of us who are under 55 or so, but especially those under 40). We have become captives to a total this-worldliness. We sometimes sound more like mid-20th-century liberal protestants working to bring the kingdom on earth in our own strength than a community of hope in Jesus Christ, a people whose faith in him leads us to trust that there is more going on than our eyes can see, and indeed more problems to address than merely those of flesh and blood.
Cultural Engagement: A War Against Culture or Uncritical Embrace of Our Culture
Second, cultural engagement. It’s quite well-known that evangelicals in the early- to mid-twentieth century tended to hang back from the surrounding culture. Intending to fulfill Jesus’ words about being in the world but “not of the world” (John 17:14), some Christians felt that the best policy was to withdraw from culture. “Worldliness” was our most serious threat. Like the inhabitants of River City in The Music Man becoming convinced that a pool table in town would be the root of every imaginable evil, fear or antipathy toward culture seemed the only safe approach. My grandfather, only perhaps half-jokingly, until the end of his life would come out with world-wary statements such as, “The bowling alley! Well, you know that a Christian would never go to a bowling alley!” The church my parents attended when I was a toddler in the late 1970s encouraged its congregants to throw out their collections of rock records. Until I was eleven years old, we never crossed the line of going to a movie theatre, a decision that was something of a hold-over from that earlier church experience. Evangelicals of this sort believed that they were guarding themselves from sin by fighting off cultural influences.
To say that this is no longer the case would be an extreme understatement. Whether due to deep convictions about where we might find God at work, or simply because Star Wars, The Simpsons and Seinfeld were such fun to talk about, evangelicals of late-Gen-X and younger have been fully engaged with culture, especially pop culture. But what began as a bid to be part of a public conversation, to connect with our neighbours over common ground, has become, I sometimes fear, an uncritical embrace of all that culture has to offer us. We now take our moral cues and our direction about life’s purpose from the media we consume and the conversations that a non-Christian public is having. It’s not just that we can’t tell the difference between the voice of our shepherd and the voice of the hired hand (John 10:11-18), it’s that we don’t even pause to listen for it anymore. The old and simple habits and practices of listening prayerfully to Scripture seem to be disappearing.
Our Destination After Death: Overconfident Judgment or Sentimental Universalism
Thirdly, we seem to have overcorrected when it comes to discussing the important question of people’s destinations after death. I expect we all know the caricature of the born-again zealot who loudly announces that the world is going to hell. Whether it was done in that stark a way or with more subtlety, evangelicalism (along with the majority of the Christian church) has historically been committed to the belief that faith in Jesus is essential in order to enter into God’s promises of future glory. As a university student who had grown up in that culture with those convictions, I was once confronted (with a smile) by a coworker at my part-time job with a simple question: “Tell me the truth. Do you think I’m going to hell?” I tried to nuance my answer, but my convictions about the necessity of Jesus led me to an awkward conversation. My acquaintance was trying to put his finger on the perceived judgmentalism of evangelical Christians, our apparent overconfidence about our own knowledge of who is “going to heaven” and who is “going to hell.” To lose our commitment to a black-and-white view was to lose our entire impulse to mission. To lose this commitment was to turn our backs on Scripture itself.
In the last few decades, as we’ve found ourselves living in an increasingly post-Christian society, we have properly become a little humbler about our own knowledge of what’s going on in other people’s hearts and minds. We’ve learned that it is wise to reserve judgment, and not only wise but right, since we are not the final judges of anyone. And yet there is a tendency toward sentimentalism among us that leads us routinely and glibly to say, after someone’s death, that “they’re in a better place now,” apart from any consideration about personal faith or a life lived for God. The result is that our humility (itself a virtue) has been transformed into false assurance. In seminary, when I was taught that it wasn’t my job to send the deceased to hell in a funeral service, the teacher reminded us in the same breath that we ought not to send the deceased to heaven either. The correction may have been necessary, but the overcorrection may be inoculating us against the power and beauty of God’s promises in Jesus.
The Quest to Be a Biblical, Gospel People
We could surely go on. The danger of overcorrecting is always a real one. It’s important to realize, however, that trying to stay within the lines of the road is not about being “moderate” for its own sake. It’s not that our old ways were what they were because we were too much a “Bible people” and now we need to adapt to the modern world. In each of these three areas, the ditch and the oncoming lane of traffic are ways of straying from Scripture. This was the case in the past as much as it is in the present. The quest to avoid the rumble strip on either side of us is the quest to be a biblical, gospel people. Navigating a straight course can only be done as we humbly listen to God in his word, allow him to correct our course, and always be wary of our own tendency to whip the wheel too far to one side or the other.