November 15, 2013

Christendom and the Five Stages of Grief

It is one thing to acknowledge that Christendom is dead. It is another thing altogether to accept it. The health of the evangelical church in the West will be determined, in part,  by whether it has the ability to come to terms with the fact that the past is never coming back.  I liken it to the famous Five Stages of Grief of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ book “On Death and Dying”, in which grief is understood to proceed through five stages: Denial and Isolation; Anger; Bargaining; Depression; and Acceptance. And as in dealing with the death of a loved one, Christians will, depending on where they are on that continuum, respond to the death of Christendom differently.

My observation is that Christians (evangelical and/or traditional) in old Europe and countries such as Australia and New Zealand are further along these stages than our United States counterparts by dint of the vastly enervated Christian landscape in these parts.  The slow rot that has affected the church in Europe these past centuries, and the failure of the Christendom model to take a good deep bite of the Antipodes has meant that Western Christians outside of the US have never experienced Christianity as actively central to their culture.  When roughly two percent of Australians consider themselves evangelical Christians you can be assured that there was no golden age over here, and no likelihood of a resurgence, despite the fear campaigns garnered by the political Left every time a conservative Prime Minister is elected.

And I use the word “resurgence” advisedly. I am writing this post in the light of two recents public comments by Mark Driscoll (love much of his work, btw), one on his blog and one in relation to his new book, A Call to Resurgence: Will Christianity have a Future or a Funeral?.

What Driscoll’s comments revealed to me is that in the USA, the realisation that Christendom is over is yet to be matched by the psychological equilibrium that comes with accepting this, and the subsequent adjustment to what life is going to have to look like from now on. Driscoll’s blog highlighted the case of the UK couple whose decision to allow only married heterosexual couples to sleep in the same bed in their (owner-occupied) guest house resulted in them losing a lawsuit,  when the gay couple whom they refused the right to sleep together under their guest house roof, took them to court. Several acts of vandalism to their guest house, a few death threats, and plummeting bookings later, the couple have challenged the ruling.  (Incidentally I think the manner in which they – the wife in particular – answered questions thrown at them on British television was both brave and beautiful, a testament to a gentle, but convinced, well articulated and theologically competent,  trust in Jesus.)

What struck me about the blog post, however, was that Driscoll, savvy though he is culturally, and living as he does on the liberal North West coast of the US, seems a little shocked that this is coming.  And if someone of his nous, intelligence and reading of culture is a little ticked off, think how Mr and Mrs Average Christian in the Bible Belt would be feeling upon reading it! Incidentally, as an Aussie, I thought that the couple got off quite lightly in the sense that the UK chat-show hosts were trying to be polite (betraying their complete ignorance of Christianity in the process).  Imagine that couple being thrown to the savage wolves of the ABC’s QandA here in Australia. It would have been brutal, bruising and ugly.

Meanwhile, here’s Driscoll speaking about his new book:

“The bus is no longer carrying us, it’s running over us. Christianity is no longer popular and there are no social benefits to waving the Jesus flag. All you are going to get is persecution, opposition, and criticism. That’s the day in which we live. The question is what will we do?”

Welcome to what the rest of the West has known for about thirty years Mark. No longer popular?  Can’t remember a time that it was.  I remember being scoffed at in school quite regularly for going to church, and that was back in the early to mid seventies. The question is not in the future tense, it is present and past tenses for us already.

Whilst I think Mark is further along the Five Stages of Grief spectrum than much of middle American Christianity is, the lag-time he displays is still notable.  The USA Christian culture had better catch up, and fast.

Why do I say this? Because the post-Christendom world is being reflected in key areas of US Federal legislation, and is telescoping the future reality for Christianity in the US. Given that, in Driscoll’s words, ‘the bus is no longer carrying” them, many  American Christians may have a harder time adjusting to this news than many Christians in the other parts of the West, who stood at the bus-stop and watched the bus fly past, oblivious to them and their desire to get on board.

In other words if you are still in the Bargaining stage of grief, thinking that there is a small chance things might return to the way they were,  it is psychologically dangerous for someone else to drag you to the Acceptance stage before you are ready for it.

This struck me when listening to this podcast from Capitol Hill Baptist which maps out the radically altered landscape for traditional Christian beliefs in the USA in the area of sexual ethics.  The Supreme Court, in a majority ruling,  declared that a recognition of heterosexual marriage (as defined by Judeo-Christian beliefs) as normative through time and across space is no longer simply unconstitutional, but is a ruling “designed to be injurious to a political minority” “demeaning” and designed to “humiliate” the children of same sex couples.  

The ruling arose from the case United States vs Windsor, in which the surviving partner of a 40-year-long lesbian relationship, a lawfully recognised marriage undertaken in Canada in 2007, challenged a federal requirement for her to pay estate taxes after the death of her partner, taxes that were exempt for married heterosexual couples. Now bear in mind the traditional view was endorsed by the federal Congress as recently as 1996 through the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA), meaning that in less than two decades the legislative understanding of marriage, signed off by Democrat President Bill Clinton no less, has been successfully challenged by the federal judiciary. That’s a huge shift in less than twenty years.

In dissenting Justice Scalia claimed that the language employed by the majority position sets a dangerous precedent:

It is one thing for a society to elect change; it is another for a court of law to impose change by adjudging those who oppose it hostes humani generis, enemies of the human race. … It is hard to admit that one’s political opponents are not monsters, especially in a struggle like this one, and the challenge in the end proves more than today’s Court can handle. Too bad.

Now I am no legal expert, so if you want to understand it better then listen to the Capitol Hill Baptist podcast because they seem to have constitutional lawyers to spare.  And this is not the time and place to argue the merits or otherwise of same-sex marriage, even though it appears that I have raised the matter.  However I have used this recent ruling to demonstrate how quickly Christendom is crumbling in the place that it appeared to be the strongest. The bar, set so high in the USA, is coming down at a terminal velocity breath-taking to behold.

Justice Scalia is foreseeing a time when to hold a Christian view of marriage will not simply be an alternate, but unpopular perspective, but rather an illegal – and immoral  -position that cannot be given a voice and must be silenced.  It seems ironic that, just when a thinker and writer such as Os Guinness in his new book “Civility” calls for a middle ground discourse to defuse the growing time bomb that is the US culture war, the courts are digging up the middle ground and disposing of it as quickly as they can. Trouble looms it would seem.

However, I am glad to say that the response of many US Christian leaders has been encouraging.  Even the oft-spiky Driscoll is not getting in a lather, but rather pointing people to the new reality, and how to map a pathway through it. And these sentiments quoted in Christianity Today from LifeWay Research’s Ed Stetzer (who is in Australia in a few weeks to speak at The Geneva Push conference) are great to hear:

“I was preaching at Pathway Vineyard Church in Maine on the Sunday after the state of Maine legalized gay marriage, After such a strong statement and shift in the culture around them, what did the believers there do? The same thing they did the week before: loved people, served the hurting, and preached Jesus. Maybe we should follow that example this Sunday. And next Sunday. And the next.”

If truth be told the ruling is simply a jolt to Christian America that they are catching up to the rest of the West when it comes to the post-Christendom reality and what it means for followers of Jesus. And perhaps it will give the rest of the West, so long following the lead of the US church, an opportunity to take the lead, and demonstrate to the “Newbie” how, over time, it’s actually ok to be considered part of the losing side, and that the “Bible For Losers” is an encouraging read.

In a subsequent blog post I will explore what it might mean to live publicly in a post-Christendom setting in which we have to culturally negotiate at a level we have never had to before;  what it will mean for the decisions we make about what to fight and what to let go “through to the ‘keeper” as we say in Australia; as well as how the church can not only grow in such a setting, but actually flourish and offer back something worthwhile to an increasingly confused culture.

A happy ending: Some time next year a French evangelical friend of mine – a writer, academic, swimming/tennis/running buff – will be in town from the south of France for a holiday.  In his Parisian high school he was the only Christian he knew out of 4000 (yes, four thousand) students. France has been a dark place for the faith for many a long year. Yet my friend is one of the most joyous, liberated Jesus-loving, effervescent, infectious, gatherers-of-people I know. He loves Jesus with great passion, prays with great passion, interacts with and writes about French atheists and philosophers with great gusto. Christians and non-Christians alike love him. Post-Christendom can’t be all bad for your health!

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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