Over the past three weeks, I’ve read three excellent books that created new understandings of our religious world and then tested them in real life settings.
I’ve been following David Fitch’s work since attending a Missio Alliance Learning Commons nearly five years ago. His presentation was based on Prodigal Christianity that he co-wrote with Geoff Holsclaw. I have used the book in my sociology capstone class ever since. The book raises questions about the end of Christendom and makes suggestions on how the church could rethink its stance relative to the broader culture. His next book, Faithful Presence, built upon the ideas in Prodigal as they relate to ministry in a particular local context. As I’ve written here before, Faithful Presence is a concept that James Davison Hunter raised in To Change the World but didn’t expand as much as he could have. David’s work begins to flesh that out in concrete terms.
So when I heard that David’s newest book was dealing with the church in conflict with society (also a theme in Hunter’s book), I eagerly awaited its release date. When The Church of Us Vs. Them arrived in my mailbox, it only took me two days to finish it. I immediately bought copies for a long-term friend in Oregon and for my new pastor, now in her sixth week at our church.
Us Vs. Them is a really important book in light of everything we read in the media, in scholarship, and in commentary regarding evangelicalism in modern society. It has echoes of John Fea’s Believe Me, but adopts an even more useful frame than John’s focus on fear. I will undoubtedly oversimplify what is a complex and interesting argument, but I will try nevertheless.
David adopts the language of political theology and communications in considering how the church has often operated. Central to his argument is the idea that evangelical churches have had a tendency to raise “banners” that separate those who are in (and right) from those who are out (and wrong). This process of creating enemies is important because it breeds in-group solidarity and manages to distance the other.
But the important concept in making this work is that the banner is often a signifier without substance. We know this is the case because no one ever explains precisely what support of the establishment position entails. David uses three primary examples: biblical inerrancy, conversionism, and nationalism — particularly interesting as two of these are components of the Bebbington Quadrilateral (and nationalism is getting close — more below).
Each of the banners serves to create antagonism with those outside the camp. This in turn allows one to caricature the other, minimizing their worth and any value present in their position. One is therefore justified in not engaging with those outside.
These banners are nothing new. The Fundamentalist movement developed in opposition to what the Modernists were up to at the turn of the 20th century. Four decades later, the Evangelical Movement tried to split the difference, claiming the Fundamentalist were too conservative and the Mainliners were liberals who believe in nothing. We’ve always relied on negative referents rather than trying to engage the similarities that exist among the various parts of Christ’s Church (looking at you, Eric Erickson) to say nothing of values we might share with out unchurched neighbors.
When the signifier lacks substance, it is adopted as a component of identity. Decades ago I had a friend in a conservative denomination tell me that if all the rules disappeared tomorrow, he wouldn’t know who he was. I tried to gently ask that if the rules didn’t have meaning beyond in-group identity, then what was the point?
We can see this in recent “apostasy” claims about Josh Harris and Hillsong’s Marty Sampson. Both have used language that sounds much more like banners than substance. Harris says “based on everything I thought Christianity was about,” he’s not sure he would consider himself a Christian. Sampson’s language is very similar. They find themselves examining assumptions rather than simply adopting the signifier.
The same thing can be seen in recent excellent writing about the challenges of purity culture two decades later. Following the rules and going with the program had consequences for teens and again as they became adults. [It was also big business, but that’s a different post.] When the impacted women began excavating the assumptions that they had absorbed, it created challenges in their view of the evangelical church, their sense of self, and their relationships.
There’s much more I could write about Fitch’s argument that would be more faithful to his book rather than my reactions to his book. But this post is going to be pretty long, so I’ll leave it for now and move on to Lyz Lenz’s God Land.
Lenz’s book came right after I finished David’s book. Her story is a combination of her own personal journey out of an evangelical church and her marriage and her reportorial treatment of religion in the Midwest. The themes from Us Vs. Them show up but not as explicitly. Her challenge with her evangelical church, including the church plant she was part of, was that she dared to ask the deep questions about what was assumed in the banners of the day. She was then seen as a problem to be fixed. Finding her space on her own terms is part of the personal journey of the book.
But the reportorial part of the book deals with banners and the assumptions of difference as well. Central to the book is people’s belief in small town America, especially “fly-over country” as the real America — the backbone of good values. This is opposed to those other parts of the country — liberal coasts and elites (which causes some leaders to delight in the urban decay of coastal cities while ignoring the infrastructure and economic crises in the small towns). In such a context, church stands in for “community values”. Nostalgia is celebrated as normative, even thought it cannot be recaptured.
In the chapters of Lyz’s book, you can find evangelical opposition on culture war issues, muscular Christianity, and an unreflective self-assurance from religious leaders. In the end, she at least finds a Lutheran church where she can worship on her own terms (even though her former church would likely consider that becoming “one of them”).
Immediately after I finished God Land, Angela Denker’s Red State Christians arrived from Amazon. Angela is a Lutheran pastor and journalist who spent a year traveling to the parts of the country where Christians were most fervently in support of Donald Trump both in 2016 and today.
Her travels took her to a variety of settings, many of them big-name churches. She attended a patriotic service in Texas that managed not to mention Jesus once. She was at Joel Osteen’s church and at Rick Warren’s church. She visited Paula White’s church. She was in Appalachia and Orange County and spent time (which freaked me out) at extremely conservative Catholic Thomas More College.
Denker’s book uncovers some of the same exclusionist patterns that Lenz’s and Fitch’s do. While some people were quite pragmatic in their voting (needing things to be shaken up, dislike of Clinton), others were supporting Trump because that’s what “our people” do. Especially when he’s “fighting for you” as Ralph Reed told Julie Zauzmer recently.
The differing banners that groups are using to organize their members become quite problematic in a complex democracy such as ours. While many argue for the need to pay attention to some “mythical middle” in the electorate, it is hard to see that there is any merit in doing so. The oppositional forces Fitch identifies are too strong.
For all my friends who keep arguing that democrats need to reach out to pro-life moderates, I’d observe that there is no reward for doing so. One of the problems with rigid antagonism is that both side are involved in what Amatai Etzioni called “inverted symbiosis”. They each push the other farther away. Any ground given is a betrayal of the cause. The polling data can be spliced six ways to Sunday. But as long as the right claims that liberals want to abort babies after they’re born and the left claims that the conservatives are doing end-runs around Roe, nobody has any need for a middle.
David Fitch offers hope to move beyond these rigid antagonisms. Consistent with his other writings, it requires us to honestly engage those around us. To avoid the tendency to organize around banners and instead to practice being part of the Kingdom of God unfolding all around us. He closes Us Vs. Them with an optimistic and hopeful challenge:
Can my church be this Jesus in my neighborhood? Gifted with a new practice of reading and preaching the Scripture together, a broader and deeper practice of conversion and mission, a thicker and fuller way of thinking about being his church in the world, can we become his reconciling presence in the world full of strife all around us where we live? Can we make space for his presence in our own lives and in the lives of those around us? Can we be used by God to bring his healing, transforming power into the world? “For he himself is our peace (Eph. 2:14 NIV).