“both believe that the culture war is over and that ‘our side’ has lost. We both believe that it is pointless simply to shout Bible verses louder, or to base arguments on the private religious convictions of the Founding Fathers, or to huff and puff that we must be taken seriously because Christianity was important way back when. And we both believe that the language of exile is appropriate for the imminent condition of Christians in the USA. (https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2016/06/eating-locusts-will-be-benedict-optional)
Whoa! What’s going on here? Culture warriors waving the white flag? Admitting defeat?
Now we’re getting somewhere! Finally!
This is a benchmark moment in the history of the church in this country. Another irrevocable step in the demise of Christendom. You know, Christendom. When America was a Christian country. A people chosen by God to inhabit this new land (forgetting the Native Americans who were already here) and be a beacon to the rest of the world of freedom and justice. When the Ten Commandments were the law of the land (at least in theory though never in practice). The people through whom God would reach out and save the rest of the world. Where Presidents close every speech with “God bless America!” and pastors and priests offer invocations at public civil events. You know – that Christendom.
It’s been dead and dying for some time now. But many American Christians have been very reluctant to accept this defeat. They have fought tooth and nail to resist it and turn the struggle into a reaffirmation of the Christian America they always believed it was. But now, maybe with the widespread acceptance of gay rights, even they realize the game is up. At least some of them, publically known and respected figures, do.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer experienced all this in a highly compressed way in the twelve years of Nazi rule in Germany in 1930-40’s. He saw the whole Christendom project dismantled right before his eyes. And somehow, in the midst of that hell, he was graced to “peep around some corner” (as Karl Barth put it) and see something of the lay of the land beyond Christendom. He left us his reflections on what this meant for Christians and the church in his Letters and Papers from Prison. There’s no denying that these are provisional and fragmentary ideas and thoughts, easy to misunderstand and dismiss. Yet, in my judgment, these are the most valuable pieces of testimony we possess for what we are going through now. In other words, Bonhoeffer has been where we are just getting to now. He was a man ahead of our time! And we are still trying to catch up with him.
Thus when we read Carl Trueman’s assessment of the way ahead it is gratifying that it breathes the spirit (if not every detail) of Bonhoeffer’s own vision for a church beyond Christendom.
· Conventional politics will not save us . . . This is . . . a claim about the limited expectations we should have regarding political engagement, particularly at the national level.
· The church is not the world . . .
· Christians must retrieve their own traditions as the fundamental sources of their identities . . .
· Christians must prioritize the local community as their sphere of action . . . .
· What we face is not a struggle within a culture but, strictly speaking, a clash of alternative cultures. This is where the language of the end of the culture war needs to be understood correctly. It is not that we are to surrender to the dominant culture. It is rather that we are to model an alternative culture. And we are to do so first in our local communities.
Three cheers for Truman, Dreher, and others of their ilk. May their number increase and may the Spirit of God continue to draw all Christians who have been at odds in this culture war in America together around this kind of agenda for the way ahead through the end of Christendom. Not as a gathering of victors and the vanquished but as a people with the humility to confess that “Christian America” was a heresy we all participated in and benefitted from, that our division into traditionalist and progressive parties is something God wants to call us out of and into something new, that the church as a whole has participated in. Some of us were guilty but all of us are responsible.
One caveat. Bonhoeffer called his church to a time of waiting for God to raise up the church as a public presence and voice in Germany’s post-Christendom culture. He advised that prayer and doing good deeds and practicing the “arcane discipline” (of worship) in secret should occupy Christians as we wait. I think this is a good idea for us to consider. We await the decision and call of the sovereign Lord as to whether we still are of any use to him here.
At any rate, the times “they are a changin’” as Bob Dylan sang fifty years ago. For the church in America that change appears to reached another benchmark moment. Thanks be to God!