Everybody’s been talking about Aaron Renn’s “Three Worlds of Evangelicalism” thesis as well as the various uses to which it’s been put by folks like James Wood and others. The nutshell is that in pre-1994 U.S. we lived in a “positive world” where being a Christian was a net social positive, post-94-2015ish it was “neutral world” where, it was, well, a social status neutral, and now, post 2015, we live in “negative world”, where, again, obviously, it’s a social negative. I won’t rehash everything, because if you’re reading this I’m going to assume you’re up on things.
In perhaps predictable “third way” fashion I’ve been of a both/and, or “this side has a point, but also so do they over here” mindset about it. For someone who has had the opportunity to revisit his own progressive university 16 years after having left it as a student in order to minister to its students as a pastor, it’s very obvious to me that something has changed. Whether that is simply the furtherance of a trajectory that was long set before I left, or something qualitative has shifted is something I haven’t quite decided. Consider what follows a bit of thinking out loud, then, to clear my own mind and perhaps help clarify things for others.
I was pointed to a recent, Alan Jacobs piece by a friend with whom I’ve been discussing such matters. Jacobs is forceful in his opposition to Renn’s thesis. Given his study of history, the US’s waning and waxing levels of church membership,“for much of America’s history, and in most of America’s places, whether someone was demonstrably a Christian or not really didn’t matter all that much.” The 1950s to the 1990s were sort of a goldilocks zone of public, Christian profession, which he takes to have cast a distorting lens upon the whole.
The problem for Jacobs goes deeper, though, for taken in a properly theological sense, being a Christian who attempts to obey all of Christ’s commands has always landed you in a negative world in some way. The 1950s South might have publicly respected Christina profession, its norms surrounding God’s creation of male and female, the nature of marriage, and so forth but giving a fully Christian affirmation of the full dignity of all of his image-bearers, especially the black ones, would have cost you dearly.
Jacobs is helpfully highlighting the difference between professing Christianity and publicly being a Christian in word and deed in a fully consistent fashion. On Jacob’s theological reading of history, the reality will be that no matter the context you live in, you will always live in a “negative world.” Actually practicing Christianity will cost you in every time and place, and so there is a sense in which the question doesn’t even matter. “Whether it’s a positive world or a neutral world or a negative world or a multiverse or just a crazy old world, my job is the same: to strive for faithfulness to the Lord Jesus.”
There’s something that strikes me as obviously right and obviously wrong at the same time and it makes me wonder if there isn’t some confusion as to the level and types of claims being made and their political and pastoral significance.
It seems that it is fully possible to acknowledge that in some deep, eternal, existential sense, Christians must own that they are never fully at home in this world, that they must strive for faithfulness and resist the devil as well as the passions of the flesh which make war against their souls just as much in 40 AD as in 1940 AD. As Kierkegaard pressed the question, there is a contemporaneity of Christ such that the call to take up one’s cross and follow him is ever new in a world with devils filled. We should never imagine the 1800 years (from his time) that had passed since Christ had walked the earth did not erase the difficulty of that call. There is an absolute, spiritual and theological level at which, yes, one might say, “it’s negative world all the way down.”
Nevertheless, it does not seem inane, politically, or pastorally irrelevant to ask the question: is there a coherent sense in which one could say the Roman world shifted to a “neutral” or “positive” stance with respect to Christian practice and confession before or after Constantine’s Edict of Milan? Is that a question that is relevant to Christian political witness and pastoral practice? Or, again, is there a relevant sense in which we could speak of a more negative stance of society and the state to Christian practice in China before or after the rise of the Communists? Or again, in Soviet Russia, or in post-Soviet Russia (I say that well aware of the state of the RO church and state persecution of non-Orthodox denominations.)
Again, the question is not whether in absolute terms, the potential cost of discipleship is different. The question is whether or not there is a politically and pastorally relevant shift that has occurred in the social conditions, social imaginary, state policy, or what-have-you, that makes the distinction of before and after, this time v. that time, worth noting and flagging in those types of terms (negative, positive, neutral)? Surely the prophets called Israel to fidelity and to keep from the idols which at all times were a threat to the people God, but is it entirely and utterly irrelevant whether it occurs in Israel or in Babylon? Do we think that pastoring our people towards the one, all-important, perennial goal of faithfulness to the Lord Jesus requires us to read the signs of the (admittedly non-eschatological) times, or not?
We might think of it as trying to think through what kind of negative world we live in: positive-negative, neutral-negative, and negative-negative? Does clocking those distinctions matter?
Let me put it another way: a while back I heard a talk by Tim Keller on evangelism in a postmodern age that profoundly impacted my way of thinking through the ministry task. He noted the way that evangelism changed back from the old revival model. Back in the revival days, you could basically go out and preach the gospel to people who basically “already believed it” in a sense—there was a “come home” or “come to your senses” element where you didn’t have to unpack and unbundle a whole bunch of baggage against the Church, or Christianity, and you could assume a fair bit of a baseline Christian ethic and metaphysic in your presentation. But now–after the postmodern turn, or the 90s, or whenever it was that Keller saw the change happen–you couldn’t do that anymore. You had to do full worldview evangelism, engage presuppositions, break down negative stereotypes, and come to understand the very different world your hearers inhabited intellectually, morally, and spiritually.
I think many folks didn’t like that idea because it seemed to give the impression that “people are more sinful now, evangelism is harder now” in some type of uniquely eschatological sense that empties the gospel of its power and accounted for things too much in terms of purely human energy, effort, etc. There is a simplicity to just saying, “people have been sinners for 2000 years and the gospel has been good news for 2000 years, so I’m just going to keep preaching it faithfully and not worry about all of that.”
But I don’t think Keller was saying that “evangelism is harder” in the absolute sense that the Holy Spirit had more work to do or something like that. It wasn’t an absolute qualitative change, but perhaps more of a relative qualitative, or even a quantitative shift that pastors needed to be aware of if they were going to be more effective in reaching postmodern individuals. You might say that Keller was trying to warn us of the negative world that had hit New York 15-20 years earlier than everywhere else. I think much of his success had to do with his ability to recognize something like that.
None of this settles the question as to whether Renn is right in the main or in the particulars, or whether Wood is right about the way to deal with life in negative world if Renn is right. Obviously, Dr. Jacobs is also free to no longer waste his time on it and I’m sure whatever he does turn his attention to will be to our benefit. But I do think it’s worth recognizing that the question is not incoherent, irrelevant, or not worth exploring for those concerned with that very same aim of holding on in fidelity to our Lord Jesus.