Monday, April 13, 2009

The "Post-Christian" America

Last week,  Newsweek had a really interesting feature on "The End of Christian America".

The author of the article was not the one contending that such a thing was ending (or that it ever existed, which is debatable). The person making the claims was none other than Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. (Side note: every person I've ever met who went to Southern makes sure to say whether they were there before or after Mohler and the fundamentalist takeover of Southern and the SBC)

There were lots of interesting issues raised in the article, but one quote from Mohler near the beginning really stood out to me. "A remarkable culture-shift has taken place around us. The most basic contours of American culture have been radically altered. The so-called Judeo-Christian consensus of the last millennium has given way to a post-modern, post-Christian, post-Western cultural crisis which threatens the very heart of our culture."

Post-modern. Post-Christian. Post-Western. These are three distinct terms that are each in their own way problematically loaded, needing to be examined (perhaps I'll take a stab at doing just that in a future post). And while they are three distinct things, I can't help but wondering if Al Mohler is simply using them to say the same thing three times.

Al Mohler was one of the major forces in the rise of the Religious Right. Along with figures like James Dobson and Jerry Falwell, Mohler was incredibly successful at perpetuating a metanarrative to explain the problems of the late twentieth century. The metanarrative went like this: there was a time when things were good, when people believed and practiced what the Bible taught, resulting in an idyllic, "Ozzie and Harriet"-esque picture of the 1950s (which, of course, never really existed). But then along came the 60s, with its sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and the world went to hell in a hand-basket. The solution? Return to this earlier time and its values, and everything will go back to "normal" (whatever that is).

There are a million different versions of this metanarrative, of course, but it's a pretty consistent message that animates this particular brand of evangelicalism. So I can't help but wonder if Mohler's above quote is another variation on this particular metanarrative?

It's especially puzzling when one considers how Mohler is using the terms in contrast to the "Judeo-Christian consensus of the last millennium". Exactly what was this consensus?

Christianity isn't going away. We may be witnessing the beginning of the end of certain forms of Christianity, which is probably what scares Mohler and his constituency to death. But the birth of new forms of faith and practice is nothing new. A person from the eleventh century (the time in which this alleged Judeo-Christian consensus was formed) wouldn't recognize Christianity as it exists today, and a first century Christian wouldn't have recognized eleventh century Christianity. It's safe to assume that if we got into a time machine and went forward a thousand years we wouldn't recognize the way they practice Christianity.

The good news that Al Mohler and his cohort seem to forget is that God is not dependent on any particular cultural forms. God has spoken to people in every time and every place, and people have found ways to worship God and try to follow God's will for their lives in every society that has ever existed. Perhaps it's time we quit worshipping the idol we've made out of a society that never even existed and started looking for how God is speaking to the world we actually live in.

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