Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Where is the Hope?

Written by: on March 21, 2019

Ross Douthat, writing in 2012, could have waited just a few more years before penning Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics to include forthcoming distressing events, nicely rounding off his jeremiad observation of Christian decline in the United States. In a few  years he could have included on his list the increased reports of shootings (police against citizens and vice versa), the bankruptcy of the city of Detroit, the U.S. Supreme court striking down DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) which eventually led to gay marriage being the law of the land. Add to that the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch on duty who claimed self defense in the shooting death of an unarmed black teen named Trayvon Martin, stoking renewed racial tensions causing several riots in other cities with demands of justice. 

Another critical event Douthat could have included in his book had he waited is the rapid decline in sexual mores. In the 1960’s, the idea was to liberate sexual constraints in the name of progress. To simply say that has changed is an understatement. Since the legal adoption of gay marriage in 2015, our culture now entertains issues of transgenderism, gender dysphoria, non-binary, gender reassignments, etc. The language surrounding this particular issue is confusing, even to experts. 

Douthat’s observation of culture decay in the U.S. is a sobering reality that ideas do have consequences. However, and I confess, having studied apologetics at a graduate level, most of my conclusions explaining Evangelical drift is from a social context that seeks to define truth in relativistic terms or an outright rejection of the existence of god. i.e., atheism. Douthat on there other hand is keen to discern that this is not always the case:

“The religious mistake has been to fret over the threat posed by explicitly anti-Christian forces, while ignoring or minimizing the influence that the apostles of pseudo-Christianity exercise over the American soul.”1

James Davison Hunter in his book To Change The World makes a convincing case that our cultural challenges cannot be mitigated through a simple “change of hearts and minds”2 either. Hunter, I believe, overstates his case because in the end he advocates for a “faithful presence within” mindset which is itself an indication of a changed heart and mind. Other experts chime in with their panacea. Rod Dreher proposes that authentic renewal “will have to happen in families and local church communities,” a grass-roots movements retreat, harkening back to the days of the Benedictines in the 10th century, forming communities that extolled the virtues of order, work, prayer, hospitality and a balanced view of life.3

I had a chance to interview Timothy Muehlhoff, professor of communications and author of Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence  in a Post-Christian World. He wrote the book partly in response to Deborah Tannen’s description of our current culture as being the argument culture. Argument culture according to Tannen is a disposition “that urges us to approach the world, and the people in it, in an adversarial frame of mind.”4 I asked him what he thought would be effective in helping turn culture around. He said the solution is for believers to start showing neighborly love and compassion.5 This is easier said than done, but is there any better way? After all this is exactly what the Lord commands of us. In chapter three he expounds specifically what neighborly love and compassion looks like.

Ross Douthat, Os Guinness, Rod Dreher, James Davison Hunter, Vincent Miller and other Evangelical leaders offer timely humble answers to our post-Christian world problems. We may see things get better with the coming generation or not. But we must never lose hope. Even as a self-identified pessimist, Douthat offers great hope:

“In The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton describes what he calls the “five deaths of the faith”—the moments in Western history when Christianity seemed doomed to either perish entirely or else fade to the margins of a post-Christian civilization. It would have been natural for the faith to decline and fall with the Roman Empire, or to disappear gradually after the armies of Islam conquered its ancient heartland in the Near East and North Africa. It would have been predictable if Christianity had dissolved along with feudalism when the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, or if it had vanished with the ancient regimes of Europe amid the turmoil of the age of revolutions. And it would have been completely understandable if the faith had gradually waned during the long nineteenth century, when it was dismissed by Marx, challenged by Darwin, denounced by Nietzsche, and explained away by Freud. But in each of these cases, an age of crisis was swiftly followed by an era of renewal, in which forces threatening the faith either receded or were discredited and Christianity itself revived. Time and again, Chesterton noted, “the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs.” But each time, “it was the dog that died.”6

And yet our best hope is Christ.

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”7

1 Ross Gregory Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York: Free Press, 2013), 4.
2 James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010), 17.
3 Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (NY, NY: Sentinel, an Imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2018), 48-77.
4 Deborah Tannen, The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue (New York: Ballantine Books, 1998), 3.
5 Tim Muehlhoff, Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, an Imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2017), 53-66.
6 Douthat, 277-278
7 John 16:33

About the Author

Harry Edwards

Harry is married to Minerva and has the privilege of raising two young men. He is the founder and director of Apologetics.com, Inc., an organization dedicated to defending the truth claims of Christianity on the internet, radio and other related activities. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Christian Education and a Masters of Arts degree in Christian Apologetics from Biola University where he currently works full time as the Associate Director of the graduate programs in Christian Apologetics and Science & Religion. Harry is currently pursuing a DMin (Leadership & Global Perspectives) from George Fox University. He is an active member at Ocean View Baptist Church where he leads an adult Bible study and plays the drums for the praise and worship band. In his spare time, Harry enjoys doing things with his family, i.e., tennis, camping/backpacking, flying RC planes and mentoring others to realize their full potential in the service of our Lord.

8 responses to “Where is the Hope?”

  1. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Thanks so much for your thoughts. I found Douthat extremely hopeful and helpful (as opposed to Miller’s Consuming Religion) in his prognosis for the recovery of Christianity in America (his conclusion on pages 277-292). How does Douthat sit within your research and your view of hope offered by the writers you have alluded to? Thanks for your insights.

    • Thanks for the insightful question Harry. I think Douthat has got it right if we are to turn culture around for the better. This might be a long post so forgive me.

      First, we do not have to use conflate “American Culture” with “Christian Culture.” They are two totally separate things. I think that’s an easy one to understand. Asians have their own valid expressions of the faith; so do the Africans, etc.

      Second, there really is no such thing as “Christian Culture” that we hope for. However, as Os Guinness would say, a Christian community who thinks and behave as obedient followers of Christ will exhibit the kind of culture that extols Christian virtue — or something like that. I know it’s a very nuanced view of culture. If I understand Os, he might say it in this way. While there might not be a monolithic Christian culture, there might be an African Christian culture which could be appreciably different from an Asian Christian culture. So on and so forth.

      What some folks don’t like, and I’m trying to understand where they are coming from, is that America seems to be a place where there are a lot of Christian things going on and so therefore is labeled as a “Christian nation” or is the model of Christian culture. Many Christians harken back to the good old days and proclaim America a Christian nation. It sounds triumphalist but vacuous by those who say it. But if we’re honest we have to allow for two ways to understand this. One, the U.S. was not founded to be a Christian nation. The First Amendment prohibit this when it says “…Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,…” So that’s clear.

      However, do we deny that many of the founders, presidents and citizens of America in 1776 were Christians? It seems rather obvious that the answer is yes. One only to walk the streets of DC, view the monuments and museums and one would be hard-pressed not to give them praise for embarking on this “great experiment.” Sure, it wasn’t perfect, and many lessons were learned (Civil War, Civil Rights Movement, etc), but the foundation and documents (US. Con) supporting it were
      astoundingly remarkable.

      I could go on but my rambling stops here. 🙂

  2. Jenn Burnett says:

    You draw our attention to Douthat’s assertion of cultural decay in the U.S.. There are many unhealthy behaviours that are just now coming to light which I would hedge aren’t evidence of recent decay, but perhaps indicative that Douthat’s glory days were built upon (or at least around) some significant moral failures. For this reason, I am left unsatisfied that a ‘return to the good old days’ would actually lead to a thriving culture. How would you caracterize a thriving American culture? And what would be the relationship of this ideal culture to the rest of the world?

    • Hey Jenn. Thanks for the provacative questions and comments. You mentioned that there are some unhealthy behaviors just now coming to light built upon moral failures or something like that. Would you mind giving me some specific examples?

      You asked how I’d characterize a thriving American culture. A thriving American culture or any culture for that matter would be the kind whose citizens acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Savior; that he desires to have a relationship with us through his word and discipleship among believers. Communities (church) organically form as a result of this, ushering social services and other helpful things, etc.

      The fact that we would think this is far-fetched or too ideal is an admission that God’s kingdom works are insufficient to bring about human flourishing.

  3. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Thank you for this, Harry. I too appreciated Chesterton’s quote that you included – I was a bit down after getting to the conclusion and recommendations. It is a beautiful reminder that no matter how dark or difficult it seems, this is ultimately God’s Church and His redemptive plan. His sovereignty does not dismiss us of our responsibility. But I am deeply grateful for the tension and the truth that we are not on our own.

    • Hi Andrea. Thanks for this. Yeah, the book reminded me of Jeremiah and the days God’s people were exiled. Jeremiah 29: 4-7 might be one of the best advices for America today. How we do that in our context is our job as leaders.

  4. Mary Mims says:

    Thank you, Harry, for your assessment. I think it is very balanced. I appreciate your apologetics background and how it informs your posts. I hope to pick up some good readings from your citations.

    • Thanks for the encouragement Mary. I admit, it’s tough not going full bore apologetics as a remedy for our current cultural ills as some of my good friends would attest. While there are a lot of things apologetics can do to help change hearts and minds, we need other things, i.e., discipleship, prayer, vibrant church life, mentoring, etc. Thanks again Mary.

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