For Christians in the secularizing West, the days of privilege have ended. And that’s not entirely a bad thing. We’re exiles and always have been, even if it hasn’t always felt like it. This world is not our hope, and this world is not our home. Moreover, today’s mounting hostility toward historic Christianity confronts each of us with a fork-in-the-road, 1 Kings 18:21 kind of choice. If it results in what Tim Keller has called “the death of the mushy middle,” then praise God.
Still, the new cultural climate is fraught with serious challenges. What about religious liberty? What happens when views Christians have openly espoused for two millennia are suddenly deemed intolerant? We’re no longer just backward; we’re bigoted. We’re no longer just wrong; we’re evil. In Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It, Greg Forster carefully explores both how we got here and how God’s redeemed people ought to respond. The book is published in Crossway’s Cultural Renewal series edited by Keller and Collin Hansen.
I talked with Forster, program director at the Kern Family Foundation and a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, about cultural change, religious freedom, why he’s optimistic, and more.
How would you situate Joy for the World among Richard Niebuhr’s classic Christ and Culture and conversation-shaping contemporary works like Andy Crouch’s Culture Making and James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World?
Crouch’s Culture Making is conversational, talking about everyday life. It reads like the kind of discussion you might overhear between thoughtful believers over coffee. You could give that book to anyone. To Change the World is a densely packed academic tome with a complex social theory. Hunter has a carefully thought out and fiercely held opinion about everything you’ve ever heard of, and a hundred things you haven’t. For the layman, it’s intimidating; even for scholars, there’s a lot more going on in To Change the World than most people see at first.
Joy for the World falls between these two. Like Crouch, I wrote a book for the ordinary people who come to my weekly class at church, where I teach salesmen and insurance adjusters and mechanics and prison guards and stay-at-home moms. But Joy for the World isn’t casual conversation; it’s for those who want to take the next steps beyond that stage. I’m indebted to people like Crouch who have generated a real hunger for substance on this issue. Now I want to challenge those salesmen and mechanics to move from milk to meat, to think through “culture” a little more systematically. We need to study a little more history, learn from different kinds of models, work up specific plans for action. What can we be doing in areas like sexuality and family, or work and economics?
Niebuhr stands apart from this conversation. It’s a magnificent book in spite of its flaws, well deserving its reputation, but Niebuhr is almost totally detached from the contemporary world. Crouch, Hunter, and I write about what we see going on in the world around us, asking what we ought to be doing about it; Niebuhr just doesn’t connect to those questions.
How does the joy of God uniquely speak to the cultural moment in America today, and how should it shape our approach to the world around us?
A hundred years ago, tons of people thought they were Christians because they went to church and lived the same way everyone else did. That’s spiritually empty, but at least it kept people out of the worst kinds of depravity. It was an efficient sin management program. Almost all that is gone now. On the whole this is a good thing, but one downside of the new situation is that those who don’t really know Jesus are moving into worse and worse sins. Their lives are falling apart as a result, both individually and as a culture.
The time is ripe for Christians to shine like stars in this cultural darkness, because we have the joy of God.
You devote quite a bit of attention to the embattled issue of religious freedom. Why is it significant that freedom of religion is a “totally new approach to social organization, one that is unprecedented in all human history before the wars of religion”?
Religious liberty is an astonishingly rare gift, and most Americans (Christians and non-Christians alike) have lost their appreciation for how precious it is. America is the supreme religious freedom society; for us religious freedom is not just one concern among many, but the basic organizing principle of our civilization. We’re blessed beyond reckoning to be the inheritors of this unique experiment. When you read the American founders, you can see they had a palpable sense of themselves as pioneers. And they were absolutely right—they were inventing a whole new mode of culture. They were building on inherited wisdom, of course, but they were entrepreneurs. We have a responsibility to carry that vision forward, and it’s no small task in light of the cultural challenges religious freedom creates.
You distinguish between two ways Christianity relates to civilization: organizationally and organically. What’s valuable about each approach?
You need organizational Christianity—most fundamentally the local church, but also all the other kinds of institutions committed, as institutions, to advancing Christ. These are the only places where the special work of the Spirit in the hearts of believers can fully reach expression in shared life—where we can have koinonia that permeates the rhythms of the organizational culture and shapes our rules and policies. We need these places to ground us and to equip us, and also to carry out certain special functions the mission of Christ requires.
But that’s not where people live most of life. Most of life takes place in a culture we share with unbelievers, and if we’re not building people up to practice discipleship and spread the joy of God in those places, we’re mostly wasting our time. By definition, organizational Christianity can’t carry the joy of God into those structures of culture outside the church; we need a mode of Christian cooperation that’s more organic, something that subsists in our relationships and personal interactions rather than formal institutions.
You contend that Christians need to change the way we aim to influence American culture. What exactly does an average lay believer need to change?
The answer will differ from person to person, but the broadest answer is we need to apply our Christianity to the way we live, and then work together to spread those applications in our spheres of influence. Narrower things like political activism and evangelism are important, and we need to keep doing them. I do all those things myself. But cultural influence comes from Christians living, and being seen to live, and working together to implement throughout their spheres of influence a holistic and distinct way of life that differs from the way everyone else lives because it’s transformed by the joy of God as a work of the Holy Spirit.
How many people have thought in those terms? Does the Holy Spirit transform the way you do your job or get involved in the life of your own community? Can you connect with others to discover and spread those unique ways of participating in the culture?
Despite the serious challenges we face, why is it actually rational for Christians to be “moderately optimistic” as we look ahead?
God is in control, and the Holy Spirit has supernatural power that transcends our natural limitations. This fact implies that cultural success is always—always—a possibility for the church, if we obey God and God decides to grant it. He doesn’t owe us cultural success, but he can always give it if he wills, and he often does. It isn’t an excuse for acting rashly or irresponsibly, or developing false expectations. As someone said, it’s good to believe in miracles but presumptuous to expect them. But we should be attentive to the positive signs of the times as well as the negative ones.
American evangelicals are well equipped to face the challenges of the coming century, and even to take the lead in doing so. We believe in the freedom-of-religion society. We’re highly adaptive. Our theology emphasizes getting out of the church building to make our faith active in the world. We have a robust appreciation of the fall, so we know better than to think we can change the world just by having the best arguments. Oh, and one more thing—we know our Bibles. When operating a complex system, it never hurts to study the instruction manual.
Like I said, God doesn’t owe us success. But we owe God our best effort at achieving success, and hope will not put us to shame.