Is contemporary Christianity in America on the ropes? Have Christians engaged in culture wars and lost? Why are increasing numbers of people identifying as “nones” religiously? And if this is indeed so, what might be done to recover and re-engage, if not in culture wars, in an effort to capture the hearts and minds of the rising generation.
As I’ve written elsewhere, Rod Dreher has stimulated a national conversation with his new book, The Benedict Option, which advocates a kind of strategic withdrawal of Christians into a counter-cultural communal life with practices that shape the beliefs and behavior of their people. James Emery White writes in Meet Generation Z of reaching those born after 1993, and believes the church must embrace a similar counter-cultural model that combines savvy communication with integrity of life and belief. He argues that the faith of the church must be translated, but not transformed into something different. Gregory Alan Thornbury, in Recovering Classic Evangelicalism, contends for those who embrace the evangelical label, that the task is not to try to distance ourselves from our roots in order to be relevant but to recover them. In particular, he considers Carl F. H. Henry, and the model of his carefully argued work on epistemology, biblical authority and cultural engagement as worthy of reconsideration.
One thing each of these writers put their finger on is a contemporary uneasiness about or even active movement from central doctrines of the Christian faith. We associate dogma with dogmatism, which seems to be a cardinal sin–an intellectual rigidity about certain beliefs that seem to be “out of step” with modern times. The image is often of a sterility of belief divorced from a life of compassion. And what often seems now to be advocated is a life of compassionate concern for people and for the creation that mutes discussion of ideas and doctrines that may be “disagreeable” or “cause offense.”
The concern of these writers seems to be that when we make this move out of concern for relevance and not to cause offense, we run the risk of losing our “saltiness.” Salt in a wound may sting, but it also kills bacteria and preserves. The danger of moving away from dogma is that we move away from the faith altogether. Conversely, these authors would argue that it is the dogma that provides life and vibrancy and energizes Christian faithfulness.
Dorothy L. Sayers would agree. The title for this post is drawn from an essay by the same title. In her essay she writes about reaction to her play, The Zeal of Thy House:
“The action of the play involves a dramatic presentation of a few fundamental Christian dogmas — in particular, the application to human affairs of the doctrine of the Incarnation. That the Church believed Christ to be in any real sense God, or that the Eternal Word was supposed to be associated in any way with the work of Creation; that Christ was held to be at the same time Man in any real sense of the word; that the doctrine of the Trinity could be considered to have any relation to fact or any bearing on psychological truth, that the Church considered pride to be sinful, or indeed took notice of any sin beyond the more disreputable sins of the flesh: — all these things were looked upon as astonishing and revolutionary novelties, imported into the Faith by the feverish imagination of a playwright. I protested in vain against this flattering tribute to my powers of invention, referring my inquirers to the Creeds, to the Gospels, and to the offices of the Church; I insisted that if my play was dramatic, it was so, not in spite of the dogma but because of it — that, in short, the dogma was the drama.”
What I think Sayers is saying is that the real story of the Christian faith, embedded in the Creeds and Confessions of the Church, is indeed far more dramatic than anything she, or we, can come up with. True, these things may be presented in a “dry as dust” fashion. But Sayers would argue that the alternative to this is not relevance but chaos. Rather than mere religious sentiments, or inchoate beliefs we affirm, “I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of Heaven and Earth.”
I wonder if the contemporary aversion to doctrine comes in part from either the actual experience of, or more likely, media portrayals of orthodox and yet loveless believers, or the argumentativeness that is a theological form of chest-bumping. Far less common, it seems to me are the models of those who have thought long and deeply and wonderingly on such statements as, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into Hell. On the third day He rose again.” Such things can turn a life upside down, or right side up.
As I write, we are approaching Holy Week, where the Church remembers and re-tells the story of Christ’s most amazing week, from the Palm Sunday entry to Jerusalem to the Last Supper to arrest and trial and crucifixion, the Saturday of waiting and the incredible news, shared first with the women at Jesus grave, “He is not here, He is risen!” It is the story we summarize in the Creed. But it probes us as we wonder, “why did Jesus die? And what do I do with one who undoes and conquers death?” When has anything occurred with greater significance? What could be more dramatic?
The dogma is the drama.