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It can’t be just talk

March 15, 2017

People have been bemoaning the state of the church in the US for some time. The web is overcrowded with diagnoses and an occasional good prescription. After I finally got a Twitter account and started observing conversations there a couple years ago, I found myself wondering occasionally what the new crisis du jour would be, what new insights and ideas would be presented to the church today (I think the book Slow Church was the hot topic then). The quality is mixed. It ranges from the truly insightful to the awful. But flags are raised and people salute them for a little while, and then we’re off to something new. It’s rather like the two men near the end of The Truman Show who cheer Truman as he realizes his true situation and makes his escape, only to then look to see what else is on TV as though nothing important had just taken place. What difference has all the writing and discussion made?

On March 10, the Washington Post ran James K. A. Smith’s article, “The new alarmism: How some Christians are stoking fear rather than hope,” a commentary on new books by Charles Chaput, Anthony Esolen, and Rod Dreher, all three of which raise an alarm over the state of the church in America and its loss of influence in society. They have generated a lot of conversation. Smith’s assessment was that they are all alarmist. I was disappointed with the article because it contained so little in way of supporting arguments. It came across as simple (and unhelpful) name-calling.

On the 14th, First Things ran a response by Mark Bauerlein titled “A Cheap Shot On Chaput, Esolen, Dreher.” He took Smith to task for his tone and lack of substantial arguments (it’s always gratifying to see someone else agree with me; although, of course, that’s no guarantee that we are correct!). Comments on the article came fast and furious, including a few by yours truly. (I suspect that a comment by “Tony” came from Anthony Esolen himself.)

I’m not going to provide any analysis here of either article or of the books in question. Too many people comment on books without reading them (and sometimes only on the basis of others’ comments because the books aren’t available for purchase). I am just starting Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land. The other two I’ll read later. I just want to comment briefly here on these discussions in general.

What counts first about these books (and others like them) is, are these three writers on track in their diagnoses and suggested prescriptions? Do they get it right about the church and the wider society, or are they building straw men to level with a blow? Do their prescriptions for the church make sense? We all know there are things to be concerned about on both levels (church and culture/society). Jamie Smith certainly sees problems in the church, I would think, given the number of books he’s written offering instruction. Since I haven’t read the books he critiques, the verdict is still out for me on them. But there will always be disagreement on certain points in such important matters no matter how insightful the writers are.

What I’m concerned about here is what comes after determining whether the writers got it right. It is whether the thought, energy, and time put into thinking and writing and the reading and discussing that follow will result in something good for the church. In so far as these writers are correct, we need to get up from our computers and get busy and act on it, and encourage fellow believers to think and act on it, too. These matters can’t be confined to people whose first love is to bat around ideas. We can’t, like cheering Truman’s escape and then looking to see what else is on TV, read these books and draw conclusions–whether on our own or in discussion–and then move on to the next issue of interest. There is work to be done to build up, to strengthen the church, whether it will give us a better reputation in secular culture or not. There is no promise that our country will widely reflect Christian beliefs and virtues, but there is the promise that the gates of hell won’t prevail against the church. However, the church’s prevailing in its mission will require hard work on our part, always in dependence upon the work of the Holy Spirit.

So let’s read and debate Chaput and Esolen and Dreher and others, take what is good and leave what is bad (as we do with our own thinking), and get busy. When a car starts running off the asphalt toward the ditch, the driver has to jerk the wheel back hard to get back on the road. This, I think, is a time for hard corrections thoughtfully made.

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One Comment
  1. A good admonition to us in the Church. Thank you for that, Mr. Wade.

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