In February 2022, First Things published what became a viral essay, “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism” by Aaron Renn. Life in the Negative World: Confronting Challenges in an Anti-Christian Culture is his book-length expansion of that essay. Renn argues that American evangelicals have lived in three different “worlds” over the past 60 years: the first he calls a “positive” world in which Christianity was held in high cultural esteem; the second, a “neutral” world in which Christianity was reasonably tolerated in wider culture; and, finally, the “negative” world in which culture is openly hostile to Christianity.
The transitions between these three worlds have necessitated new strategies for evangelical engagement with wider culture, according to Renn.
For example, the strategy of “cultural engagement” wherein the Christian seeks to influence and “leaven” existing cultural institutions may have made sense in a positive or neutral world, but it seems a fool’s errand in an openly hostile culture. Living in the negative world means living as a religious minority in an anti-Christian environment. That, he argues, requires rethinking strategies for how to fortify the Christian community and to engage effectively in the church’s positive mission.
Life in the Negative World: Confronting Challenges in an Anti-Christian Culture
In Life in the Negative World, author Aaron M. Renn looks at the lessons from Christian cultural engagement over the past 70 years and suggests specific strategies for churches, institutions, and individuals to live faithfully in the “negative” world—a culture opposed to Christian values and teachings. And since there is no one-size-fits-all solution, living as a follower of Christ in the new, negative world and being missionally engaged will require a diversity of strategies.
Renn, a senior fellow at American Reformer, begins the book with a slightly modified version of the original essay. He then amplifies his earlier explanations of the various cultural strategies evangelicals employed during the positive and neutral worlds, which he labels “culture war,” “seeker sensitivity,” and “cultural engagement.”
However, he argues none of these models stemmed the tide of secularization and the corresponding decline toward a post-Christian America. The current task, he suggests, is to adapt to the reality of the negative world. He writes,
In adapting to the negative world, the best and most relevant parts of the other models should be honored and retained. The culture warriors, for example, understood that sometimes it’s necessary to be lower status and unpopular with society’s elites. The seeker sensitives were focused on the Great Commission and ensuring there were no artificial, man-made barriers between people and the gospel. The cultural engagers understood the value of the life of the mind, as well as having a more sophisticated understanding of cultural power than other evangelicals. (42–43)
The rest of the book is Renn’s attempt to craft such an adapted strategy for living in the negative world. He raises important questions for individuals and institutions in a post-Christian culture: How is the individual believer to live in the negative world? What are the new challenges, and how might they be met?
He also expands his view to important institutional questions: What are the best ways for Christian institutions to survive and even flourish in the negative world? How can the church best engage in its mission in the context of the negative world?
Everyone can feel Christianity’s diminishing prospects in contemporary American culture, along with society’s increasing hostility to Christian beliefs.
Renn tells an intuitive and elegant story that instantly resonates with readers, as is evident from the reception of his original First Things essay. Everyone can feel Christianity’s diminishing prospects in contemporary American culture, along with society’s increasing hostility to Christian beliefs. Christians are rightly concerned about the rapid cultural acceptance of LGBT+ values and the harm those will have especially on children and teens. Constant pressure from various fronts encourages Christians to compromise their convictions and limit their speech about issues of faith. Christians are experiencing negativity as they move through this world. But Renn’s analysis of the reason for this and what we should do about it is altogether too simplistic.
Renn can be concrete and particular—he can date the transitions between worlds with near pinpoint accuracy (it’s “1964” and “1994” and “2014”)—and yet simultaneously be elusively vague and abstract. After telling this “how we got here” story, he writes,
The three worlds model is a simplification of complex phenomena designed primarily for practical purposes. These frameworks aren’t like theological or scientific models, which are claims to objective truth. They’re more akin to tools. (13)
This is a strange comment, as it follows a dozen pages filled with what appear to be actual truth claims. He then writes that there are other models or tools one could just as well use:
In fact, there may be many different such frameworks that can explain the same phenomenon, each useful to some people but not to others or for illuminating a different dimension of the situation. People should try out different frameworks or lenses on a problem to examine it from multiple angles in order to give them the best overall understanding of the world. Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option is a related but different lens, for example, on the changes that happened with the transition to the negative world. (13)
I wonder if, when Renn appears to be writing about the worlds, he’s actually writing about his tool. Is it possible the “three worlds” isn’t a story about the actual history of our culture but rather a story about the practical usefulness of his story of the three worlds? His emphasis throughout on “models” and “frameworks” for cultural understanding tends to reinforce this impression. Because his model isn’t tethered to any objective norm (more on that shortly), it’s liable to become a sort of self-referential solipsism.
Moreover, myriad facts undermine the tidiness of this story. Renn even mentions some of them, but his proposed framework doesn’t budge. In cultural analysis, this is usually evidence of a procrustean bed, where any facts not fitting the theory aren’t considered relevant.
For example, he mentions Tim Keller’s treatment at the hand of Princeton Theological Seminary as evidence we’ve arrived in the negative world. I wonder what he makes of that same Princeton’s treatment of J. Gresham Machen in the 1920s—back in the supposed positive world. How is it he can casually mention that the U.S. Supreme Court escorted God to the door of the public school in 1962—the heyday of the positive world—and not notice it’s in tension with his thesis? Were elite American institutions generally positive to the kind of evangelical piety represented at the Scopes trial back in the halcyon days of 1925? Not hardly. Why do some at the center of one of his leading examples dispute his interpretation of the events?
I could ask similar questions about any of his narrative’s plot points. The strangely confident arbitrariness of his chosen “transition” points gives the impression the “three worlds” framework is superimposed on history rather than emerging from a genuine examination of it.
Renn is engaged, then, in an exercise of multiperspectivalism, in which his model or “lens” is just one among many. But there’s often a missing ingredient: the normative. He is, above all, asking normative questions: “I talk about how to live as Christian individuals and families, how we should structure our churches and institutions, and how we can take advantage of the new opportunities the negative world will open up for mission and evangelism” (xvii).
These are imperative questions (how ought we), and here his toolbox is limited, which Renn acknowledges:
I want to be clear that I am neither a pastor nor a theologian. I don’t claim to be an authoritative Bible teacher—although with limited exceptions, I mostly avoid making arguments based on the Bible. And as an evangelical, I, of course, use Scripture to inform and illustrate my work. But this book is primarily in the genres of cultural analysis and strategy, where I do have significant professional experience. It’s about the social, cultural, and political context in which pastors and theologians have to apply God’s Word today. (xvii)
That approach may sound reasonable at first glance, but notice Renn’s analysis of the “social, cultural, and political context” is explicitly untethered from the Bible. It stands on its own and can be understood on its own through a variety of sociological methods and models. First we understand the world, then pastors apply God’s Word to it.
The subtle assumption is that the Bible doesn’t dictate our understanding of the world. This is unfortunate, and it negatively affects the book. For example, he emphasizes that the negative world is “unknown territory” (43) and even a “fundamentally unknown world” (44). This means, according to Renn,
Creating models for the evangelical church in the negative world will thus involve a large number of people exploring various parts of the landscape. It will involve a lot of trial and error. It will involve experimentation. It will involve false starts and the ability to adapt and adjust quickly. It will require wide but loose alliances and networks with a lot of information sharing. (46)
But the negative world isn’t unknown territory or a “fundamentally unknown world.” It’s not true that we’re groping around in the dark by way of trial and error and false starts. The entirety of the Bible—every word of it—was written to people living in the negative world; it describes that world in painstaking detail and tells believers explicitly how they should live in it. Renn’s book is long on sociological models and pragmatic, prudential, and utilitarian propositions but short on normative, biblical ethics.
In with a Bang, Out with a Whimper
When Renn finally begins building his “adapted” strategies for living in the negative world, it’s remarkable how anodyne they are. So uncontroversial are most (not all) of his proposals that the reader ought to wonder what all the fuss is about.
His chapter titles summarize his recommendations for the negative world: “Become Resilient,” “Become Excellent,” “Pursue Institutional Integrity,” “Pursue Community Strength,” “Be a Light,” and “Be Prudentially Engaged.” These suggestions are what you’d expect to find in a business leadership book at an airport bookstore.
Renn’s analysis of the ‘social, cultural, and political context’ is explicitly untethered from the Bible.
It’s a letdown after the dramatic and overheated framing that we’re in a new, uncharted, and unprecedented world. Few, if any, of the strategies he proposes are new, and they don’t represent a shift from what Christians of earlier generations did.
Some of Renn’s proposed course corrections are simply a mirage. For example, in chapter 8, he explains that in the positive and neutral worlds, evangelicals sought to be cozy with mainstream cultural institutions so as to be a transformative influence. However, he argues, “Evangelicals in a negative world must necessarily shift toward a more passive engagement with cultural institutions and develop their own inwardly focused community-strengthening initiatives” (119). Then, in the first paragraph of the next chapter, he writes,
With the status of Christianity declining after 1964, wherever evangelicals felt the country was heading in the wrong direction they built a parallel economy, giving particular focus to cultural products. We see the fruits of these efforts today in the numerous evangelical publishing houses and contemporary Christian music producers and radio stations. (131)
Renn’s “new” proposal is to create an evangelical subculture, which he now says has been the strategy all along.
Some of Renn’s benign proposals are salutary. However, the arbitrariness and vagueness of the “three worlds” model, combined with its lack of normative input, haven’t had a salutary effect. Instead, it has opened the door for malefactors to co-opt its themes and language in service to radical and often ugly agendas. I fear it’s proving an empty vessel that may be filled with whatever one desires. Unfortunately, some of Renn’s readers seem to believe the prescription for Christians living in a negative world is to commit to whatever fight the algorithm serves up next.
Phrases like “They don’t know what time it is” are used to casually dismiss friendly critiques from those with similar theological convictions. “They think we’re living in a neutral (or positive) world” eliminates the need to consider outreach approaches that aren’t overtly hostile because of ideological differences. The terms “positive world” and “negative world” are now used as though the model carries moral weight.
Authors are generally not responsible for what readers do with their ideas. In this case, however, the overly dramatic framing of the problem invites equally dramatic solutions. It turns out Renn had in mind all kinds of benign, sometimes insightful, and occasionally useful suggestions like how to be resilient and financially independent and how to strengthen our communities. I have no hesitation in recommending you get the book and read all about it.