Anyone effective at persuading other people understands that the way we choose to frame a discussion, establish categories, or create labels carries an inordinate influence on setting the terms of the debate. That’s why it’s vital to interrogate not only the surface disagreements but also the underlying framework if you’re going to find any amount of meaningful consensus.
A few weeks ago, I began a series on the rise of the neo–Religious Right, starting off with (1) a brief history of the culture war, (2) the tendency to tear apart conviction from civility, and then (3) a closer look at the idea that we now inhabit a “negative world” and (4) why this feels like a blast from the past to me. I’ve been interacting with Aaron Renn’s account of recent evangelical history:
- Before 1994, we lived in the “positive world” where the culture had a positive view of Christianity.
- From 1994 to 2014, we lived in the “neutral world,” where the culture was neither positive nor negative toward Christianity.
- Since 2014, the cultural landscape has shifted and Christian morality is seen as reprehensible, so we must find new strategies for living faithfully in a world that opposes true Christianity.
In the previous column, I pointed out the powerful impact of imagining oneself in the “negative world,” because this was how I saw myself and my church back in the early 1990s when Renn says we still lived in the “positive world.”
The Shift on Sexuality
Today, I want to point out another feature of Renn’s taxonomy that deserves attention: the underlying narrow scope of controversy that supports his perspective.
Renn points to a cultural shift that took place nearly a decade ago (which, incidentally, Tim Keller and Stephen McAlpine also note). If you’re tracking cultural norms surrounding morality and sexuality, then Renn is right: before 1994, most of society had a largely positive view of Christianity’s teaching on marriage, family, and sexuality (even if cracks showed up from the 1950s on, as the birth control pill severed sex from procreation, setting the stage for a radically revised view of sex—not to mention the loosening of laws related to divorce, etc.).
Of course, we Christians in the 1990s who saw ourselves as a besieged remnant in a godless culture would have said we were in the “negative” and not just the “neutral” world already. (It was 1996 when the Southern Baptist Convention boycotted Disney for their subversion of traditional family values!) Not to belabor the point I made in the last column, but it deserves repeating: the self-perception of living in the “negative world”—whether it’s truly accurate or not—has tremendous power on the psyche and posture of churchgoers.
But who can deny that societal opinion has turned decisively against Christian views of sexuality and marriage in the past decade? Renn’s taxonomy captures a movement from positive to neutral to negative on this issue. And that movement comes with massive implications. Carl Trueman can trace the philosophical ride that started centuries ago, but no one can dispute the rapid shift in the last 20 years on issues such as same-sex marriage and transgender ideology. The metaphysical implications go well beyond bathroom battles. Even if you pinpoint the dates differently than Renn does, on this issue, his taxonomy makes sense.
Change the Lens
But there’s the catch. Sexuality is one (very important) issue of Christian concern. But the best way to test a framework proposed as a general way for seeing the world is to change the lens so you look at it with another issue in mind.
What happens when we change the issue from the norms of morality and sexuality to societal views of racial justice? One could make the case that, on this issue, we’ve moved the other way—from negative to neutral to positive, where society now favors a view more favorable to biblical Christianity: that all human beings, regardless of ethnicity, are worthy of respect and dignity and equal protection under the law. This doesn’t mean there’s no longer work to be done in this area, nor does it discount the challenges that recent essentialist views of race pose to a biblical worldview. But certainly we can agree that the cultural pressures on this matter have shifted considerably in the past 60 years.
Picture a faithful minister of Jesus Christ holding to a deeply Christian view of humanity and equality in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1950s. Would he have described himself as living in a “positive world”? This was a time when white ministers were beaten, and sometimes killed, for their witness to biblical truth and their defense of black brothers and sisters who faced injustice and brutality. This was an era in which black ministers saw their homes and churches bombed and their neighbors lynched.
For 200 years prior to the Civil Rights Movement, Christians who understood the biblical vision of human beings marked by the image of God and who sought to live according to the “pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ” stood with heroes like Frederick Douglass against the “corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial, and hypocritical Christianity” all over the country. And they paid a price for faithfulness during that era. This was a negative world toward true Christianity. Baptists in Montgomery, Alabama, warned the great English preacher, Charles Spurgeon, that if he “should ever show himself in these parts, we trust that a stout cord may speedily find its way around his eloquent throat.”
Change the lens from sexuality to anthropology, and it becomes much harder to make the case that pre-1994 the culture was inclined toward a “positive” view of true Christianity. Which is why I doubt many brothers and sisters from the Black Church tradition would find the positive/neutral/negative taxonomy helpful.
Always Negative and Positive
I acknowledge that Renn captures something of the shift in societal views of sexuality, and the implications are indeed massive: we hear of professors being denied tenure, businesspeople afraid to share their views, the encroachment of DEI initiatives that leave Christians concerned for their jobs, Christian schools under fire for teaching basic biblical truths, and more. Nothing I’ve said denies these challenges are real and likely to increase in the days ahead. John Stonestreet of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview has said we need a “theology of losing our jobs,” and he’s right. Taking the Christian stand is costly.
But my point is this: taking a stand for true Christianity has always been costly. Christian ministers lost their jobs in the 1960s for doing nothing more than allowing African Americans to attend worship! In some way or another, we’ve been in the negative world since the time of the New Testament, but the form of that hostility toward the faith changes depending on the place and the era. And the opportunities—where society smiles on aspects of Christianity—change too. We live in positive, neutral, and negative worlds simultaneously, depending on the issue.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” wrote Charles Dickens, and John Piper says that line is “true at every point in the history of a God-ruled, sin-pervaded world.” In 1859, the year Dickens first wrote those words, God was doing mighty things in China and Northern Ireland, where religious awakenings were taking place. Charles Spurgeon was one of the world’s greatest preachers, and George Müller’s orphanages showed Christian compassion to the least fortunate. But 1859 was also the year Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, which undermined the uniqueness of humanity as made in God’s image. It was the year John Stuart Mill wrote an influential essay that weighed moral decisions and valued people based on their usefulness to society.
So, what do we say about our times? How do we put all of this together—things that seem like progress and things that seem like decline? “Don’t assume any specific historical trajectory of good or evil is fixed and unchangeable,” Piper cautions. “God evidently loves to do his surprising work in hard and unlikely times.” That’s good counsel because it gets to the heart of our faith. The gospel shows God doing the most amazing things in the most unlikely times.
The problem with letting the “negative world” frame occupy an outsize part of your imagination is that it chains you to a too-narrow scope of seeing the world and then limits the possibilities you can see. We must beware of both the myth of progress and the myth of decline. “The world is what the saints and the prophets saw it was; it is not merely getting better or merely getting worse,” wrote G. K. Chesterton. “There is one thing that the world does; it wobbles.”
In the next column, we’ll get back to the rise of the neo–Religious Right and the return of the culture war. I don’t have a political program or a particular proposal to put forward, but I want to lean on some past experience to provide a few cautions and (hopefully) some wise counsel as we discern potential ways forward for faithful witness in this era.
This is the fifth column in an ongoing series. If you would like my future articles sent to your email, as well as a curated list of books, podcasts, and helpful links I find online, enter your address.
1. The Return of the Culture War
2. The Tearing Apart of Convictional Civility
3. Navigating the (New?) Negative World
4. Didn’t I Grow Up in the Negative World?
5. We Need to Complicate the Negative World
6. Let’s Contextualize Tim Keller
7. Encouragement and Caution for Culture Warriors
8. Truthful Witness in the Public Square
9. Five Quick Takes for New Culture Wars