Last week I was able to attend Duke Divinity School’s annual Pastors’ Conference. This year’s theme was centered around Resident Aliens – a book co-authored by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon. This year is the book’s twenty-fifth anniversary, and provided a good time to reflect on their work, its impact, and what has happened in the meantime. I enjoyed being back in the Duke environment, revisiting my sacred spaces around the Divinity School, and reconnecting with fellow classmates. While there is much to reflect and comment on, I was struck most by a pervading sense of optimism for the “times” in which we live. Perhaps this will surprise others who attended the conference, as well as my Christian brothers and sisters – particularly United Methodists.
Christendom in the United States is over. American is no longer a “Christian nation.” While this is news to some, it shouldn’t be to people my age. Most of my peers do not regularly attend any religious services – Christian or otherwise. Many who have grown up attending church, no longer consider themselves Christian. Quite a few of my friends and contemporaries are disenchanted with Christian language espoused by warring presidents, “pro-life” politicians who simultaneously favor death penalties and reduced gun control laws, and the disconnect between the “anti-gay” Christian going through his/her third divorce. They are tired of it all, disenchanted with religiosity, and their lives are reflective of the flavorless faith too many profess. The “times in which we live” are increasingly secular, non-Christian. The “American Christian Nation” is no more. Christendom is over.
So what is to be done? Continue complaining and lamenting our cultural and denominational demises? Go on pretending “it is well” with our souls without the difficult work of introspection and accountability?
Is there a way forward? Is there hope? Is there something to be optimistic about?
Willimon told a story – as he is wont to do – of a student he once conversed with while serving as Duke’s Dean of the Chapel. For the student, going to church was an act of rebellion. It was an act of rebellion that told his world, “I don’t want your future.” It was an act of rebellion against a university that was trying to “un-Christian” him (Willimon reassured us that Duke wasn’t just targeting Christians, but Jews, Muslims, and anyone else of any particular faith). Purposefully so or not isn’t the issue. The issue is that it happens – and not just at the university.
This notion of “un-Christianing” is not the narrative of misconceived Christian persecution, but rather witnesses to the American melting pot’s proclivity to mold us into “one nation under (the intentionally ambiguously named) god” – thereby obfuscating our particularities, or what makes us interesting.
The young man was stopped in his hall one day by a fellow student who asked if he thought he was better than everyone else because he went to church. Moreover, he wondered how a person as intelligent as his fellow Duke colleague should be could ever believe in something as archaic and antiquated as Christianity.
Going to church as an act of rebellion against a culture bent toward domesticating the Gospel.
How novel. How…interesting.
Stated by both Hauerwas and Willimon, the world is making being Christian interesting again. The world has restored the wonder of worship’s oddity.
For the young man, going to church was an act of rebellion. Moreover, it was a practice -a way of living – that made him interesting to his colleagues. He was different. He was peculiar. There was something different about him and how he lived.
There is something about the oddity of the Christian faith that offers an interesting alternative to the world. An alternative to capitalism. An alternative to isolation and loneliness. An alternative to war. An alternative to vengeance, grudges, and unforgiving hearts. An alternative to genetically modified organisms, ozone depletion, puppy mills, and mass incarceration.
The Way of Jesus is profoundly interesting – even more so in a post-Christian nation.
How fun, and what an opportunity! The world is making being Christian interesting again! Perhaps our collective journey toward secularism is enabling us to rediscover – one again or, for many, the first time – what is actually good about the Good News!
The world is becoming increasingly bland. What an opportunity to rediscover what makes our God so salty and flavorful. What an opportunity to renew our own interest in the God who
emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself and become obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is LORD, to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2