The Foolishness of the Gospel for the Survival of the Church

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Yesterday, I summarized a recent book from David John Seel, The New Copernicans: Millennials and the Survival of the Church. Seel describes the cultural challenges we face in reaching the millennial generation and urges the church to set aside an older conception of the faith for a fuller and more robust embrace of the imagination.

Today I want to look more closely at Seel’s proposal and explain why, despite some helpful insights, it will not take us where we need to go.

HELPFUL ANALYSIS

First, let me acknowledge several of the stronger parts of Seel’s work. Some of the best chapters in this book focus on secularism, relying on Charles Taylor’s insight into current society, where we experience the “odd mixture of God not being a daily operational reality and at the same time not excluded . . . an open but contesting way of apprehending reality” (112). Many millennials experience a haunting desire for transcendence, and Seel points to this phenomenon as promising for the church.

Seel also appeals to Tolkien and Lewis to make the case that the recent resurgence of paganism, insofar as it represents an openness to transcendence, may be a more fertile field for the planting of Christianity than the militant materialism of old-school atheism. We should welcome the return to transcendence because of its preparatory effects for the gospel, even if we differ with unbiblical solutions or practices.

Seel rightly recognizes how foreign the Bible will feel to many millennials today who encounter it for the first time. He urges preachers to “acknowledge how strange some of the Bible seems to modern ears” (128). The paradox of the Bible’s familiarity and strangeness is fruitful ground for preachers in our day, when alert to how biblical teaching may be heard and received by millennials. This is contextualization at its best.

MILLENNIAL STEREOTYPE

Without denying some of the good cultural analysis and wise recommendations in this book, I still believe The New Copernicans suffers from major flaws. One of the most noticeable comes early on in the book and then is repeated throughout: the generalization of millennials. Over and over again, we read that “most millennials feel” a certain way, or “most millennials resist” a certain idea or practice.

Millennials hate stereotypes, for example, which ironically is itself a stereotype of millennials (plus, what generation loves a stereotype?). Speaking of stereotypes, we read that millennials “always prioritize lived experience over abstract reflection.” Always? I’ve no doubt that Seel speaks for some millennials when he describes the culture of authenticity reflected in Burning Man and the expressive individualism on display in certain urban contexts. But the stereotypes and generalizations, which I grant must at some level be unavoidable in a book on millennials, are so prevalent as to challenge his overall proposal.

PROBLEMATIC IDEALISM

But the biggest problem with The New Copernicans is not in its over-generalizing, but in its idealistic approach to millennial sensibilities. “Millennials not only think differently, they think better,” Seel claims. “They have intuited a more accurate assessment of human nature and reality” (19). Millennials have rejected the reductionist understanding of knowledge that we inherited from the Enlightenment and have opted for a more imaginative, right-brained approach. Therefore, they are the “hidden treasure of the church” (20). So it’s time for “reverse mentoring,” in which parents stop talking and learn instead to listen to their children, in order that the faith of everyone will be strengthened.

On one level, I appreciate Seel’s optimism about millennials. This positive outlook may give pause to the church leader who sneers at our generation and sees nothing of value in our sensibilities. If Seel’s book were only a helpful corrective to older church leaders who stand to the side with arms crossed and a dismissive tone toward younger Christians, I’d be fine with it. But as a millennial reader of this book, the idealistic take on my generation seems over-the-top at times. What follows is a prime example.

ENLIGHTENMENT VS THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE BRAIN

Seel’s proposal assumes that the church is battling for survival because she is weighed down by the baggage that comes from a previous frame (Enlightenment rationalism). The solution is to adopt a new frame (the millennial imagination).

In the book, older generations get chastised for jumping on the Enlightenment bandwagon and for allowing their faith to be too heavily influenced by a reductionist frame. But Seel issues no warning at all against jumping on a new bandwagon or adopting a frame that must be, in some way, reductionist as well. It’s as if the cultural frame shift is only an opportunity for the church, without any corresponding challenges. But this makes me wonder: Was the church wrong to thoughtlessly adopt the Enlightenment frame so heavily? If so, then shouldn’t we pause before running headlong toward the new millennial frame?

Seel advocates a “both/and” imagination over against “either/or” rationalism, but ironically he does so in a way that is almost always “either/or.” Either the head or the heart. Either reason or imagination. Either we’re openhanded or we’re a closed fist. Regarding the essential aspect of faith, for example, Seel asks whether we see it as “belief or trust, knowledge or relationship?” (129). Either or. It’s almost as if the long history of describing saving faith in 3D (noticia, assentia, fiducia) never happened.

The either-or’s show up in Seel’s criticism of Tim Keller for the way he answered columnist Nicholas Kristof when he asked if someone who disbelieves the resurrection can be considered a Christian. Kristof asked a left-brained question, and Keller (to Seel’s chagrin) gave a left-brained answer.

“Kristof needs more poetry, not more propositions. What we got was an intellectual impasse, rather than the beginning of a humble exploration of a relational experience.” (69)

But Kristof asked a simple question and wanted a straight answer. He wanted a proposition, not a poem. Why the either-or? Are left-brained questions and answers now off-limits?

CERTAINTY AND DOUBT

As Seel’s proposal unfolds, it becomes clear that the problem isn’t rationalism by itself but the arrogant certainty that seems to accompany it. Certainty is the boogeyman here because it drives away doubters and detractors. “Closed transcendent institutions have a tendency to emotionally brutalize high-profile detractors,” he writes.

Yes, the church should do better at discerning different kinds of doubters (those who in Jude’s counsel need to be shown mercy and those whose doubt is of a more serpentine form—“Did God really say?”). But it’s hard to imagine Seel cheering on the New Testament authors whose certainty led to the categorical rejection of error, labeling a wrong view of Jesus’s humanity as of “the antichrist.” And even if we make an exception for the apostles who wrote under divine inspiration, we still have the early church’s battles over what must have seemed trivial doctrinal points. (What’s the big deal about one vowel in homoiousios or homoousios? Besides, Arius heralds his view of Jesus with such imagination, even composing songs to promote it.)

The truth is, we didn’t inherit theological definition and rational proposition from the Enlightenment. They’re right there at Nicaea and at all the ecumenical councils. Athanasius and Augustine’s dense work on the Trinity well preceded today’s systematic theologies. But although he nods toward the pre-Enlightenment Christians, Seel holds up Rachel Held Evans, Peter Enns, and Frank Schaeffer as prophets of the New Copernican sensibility (69).

OPEN HAND

We must also consider Seel’s recommendation that we hold our faith with an open hand, which he believes is the truly humble approach. He is “not advocating for the absence of convictions, only the self-awareness that my knowledge is limited and my proclivity for error is real.” (78) We are truth-seekers, not know-it-alls. “If we think of faith as a pilgrimage rather than a light switch, we’ll be in a much better place to assist New Copernicans in their spiritual seeking” (103), Seel writes.

Seel is right that our knowledge is limited and that our proclivity for error is real. He’s also right to see faith as a pilgrimage (although Bunyan didn’t need to wait for millennials to discover that image before he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress).

But at what point do Christians become something more than truth-seekers? When do we become truth-finders and then truth-spreaders? Surely the Christian must always be seeking the truth, but at some point, the Christian must start submitting to the truth that has been found.

An open mind is a good thing, as is an open mouth, but as Chesterton pointed out, the point of both is to close on something solid. The purpose of seeking truth is to find it. The point of the pilgrimage is that we are actually going somewhere. And contrary to Seel’s vision of the Christian out on the open road just hitchhiking alongside other seekers, each on an individual quest for happiness, Jesus’s parables lay out two paths—and they diverge. Yes, we’re pilgrims on the road, but the road either leads to everlasting happiness or eternal destruction.

That’s the problem with being completely and forever “open-handed” with your faith. You can’t hold onto anything. And a church that isn’t holding onto anything doesn’t mind if people belong to the community without consenting to any particular dogma (136). This isn’t to say that Seel pushes for an “anything goes” mentality.” He lays out guardrails, but strikingly, Scripture isn’t one of them. Instead, the only guardrails we need are “the Holy Spirit within and lived experience without” (177).

How would this proposal transform the church? Seel writes:

“Rather than preaching and making ourselves heard, we need to learn to listen more than we speak, and start giving ourselves, our presence, and our love in a sacrificial manner. It’s about being like Jesus” (142).

But the main thing we see Jesus doing in the Gospels is preaching and making himself heard, and even leaving certain villages that had plenty of people in need of healing so he could preach elsewhere. Yes, we need to listen, but if we never proclaim something, we’re not like Jesus at all. Plus, the more we resemble Jesus, the more not less our preaching will sound “either/or” in a lot of places (narrow or broad path, old and new wineskins, wise and foolish builders).

I agree with Seel that we need to interact with millennials humbly and charitably, but we should do that because we’re Christians, not because that’s what millennials prefer. Besides, I’m not sure that the millennial generation is as open-minded as Seel thinks. The Coddling of the American Mind chronicles recent debates over free speech on college campuses (which I realize may be as reflective of iGen as they are of millennials). The expressive individualism that Seel celebrates at Burning Man shows up on college campuses in a culture that fosters nothing like a humble truthseeker on a pilgrimage. Alan Noble describes how the “be true to yourself” mindset affects civil discourse:

“Instead of an idea being wrong or even harmful, it becomes an existential threat to students. If any idea challenges one of my closely held beliefs, then it challenges my identity, and if it challenges my identity, it challenges my very existence. Thus, when you disagree with me, you are actually questioning my humanity or right to exist.”

Call this what you want, but open-minded and open-handed is not what comes to mind.

CONCLUSION

The New Copernicans ends with a call to the church to adopt the new cultural frame before it’s too late.

“How we decide to respond to the warning discussed here will determine the future direction and viability of the evangelical church. If we continue to play the game according to the old paradigm and habitus, we will be left holding a losing hand and will look the part of the fool” (196).

A losing hand, and looking the part of the fool. A grim vision of the church’s future.

But isn’t “looking the part of the fool” one of the Christian’s callings in every generation? The gospel must never lose its foolishness; otherwise, we rob it of its power. It is precisely in the foolishness of the gospel that the profound transformation of each and every generation takes place.

As Chris Martin has said, “Millennials are not the future of your church; disciples are the future of your church.” So maybe we have to be ready and willing to “lose” the next generation in order to “save” it, precisely because in a world that markets everything to that 18- to 34-year-old demographic, the only thing that will stand out is a church that says: Millennials are not the most valuable thing in the world; the gospel is, and we’re called to preserve it and pass it on. The church’s survival depends on the church valuing something above relevance to the millennials—good news that remains the only hope for every generation.

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