Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society by R. R. Reno

What Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society Is About

R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things, the only magazine to which I subscribe and read regularly. His book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, takes its inspiration from T.S. Eliot’s essay, “The Idea of a Christian Society.” For Reno, this grand idea of the possibility of a truly Christian society has been rejected by, and therefore lost to, American culture, much to that culture’s detriment. This is not to say that America ever was a genuine Christian society, but that the mere thought of such a society has vanished.

At the heart of the American story, one discovers the idea of freedom. But what is freedom? Reno argues that the meaning of freedom has shifted over time, and is now understood as “unimpeded choice and self-definition.” Freedom has become an end in itself, a sort of circular reasoning that never escapes the orbit of its own justification. We understand ourselves as free for freedom’s sake, not to perform a duty or responsibility for some higher good beyond ourselves. This, he argues, is a dangerous misunderstanding that deconstructs social norms upon which the poor and weak depend for stability and livelihood.

The logic of faith runs counter to the cult of freedom. The freedom for which Christ makes us free is quite different from the freedom championed by modern liberal culture, the freedom of self-determining, even self-defining, choice that ends up paradoxically reinforcing our slavery to worldly powers. …Christian freedom grows in proportion to our obedience to Christ and to the natural truths of the human condition. A society encourages human flourishing to the degree that the supernatural authority of God’s revelation is proclaimed and the natural authority of his creation sustained.

-Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, p. 5-6

We need a Christian society because only Christ offers the freedom that is full and true. Apart from him, haunted by the half-truths of post-protestant preaching, a culture’s pursuit of freedom becomes militant to the point of tyrannical. “Securing a total freedom – always only for the sake of freedom – will require us to criminalize nature.” (p. 31) Nothing, even nature itself, can withstand our quest for absolute autonomy. This is seen most clearly in progressivism’s sudden and militant campaign for transgender rights, in which nature’s most basic (and forthright) indicators of gender are despised as oppressive transgressors of the individual’s right to self-definition. But the self is not a reliable telos of freedom. True freedom is discovered only in the service of something beyond the self. “In order to be free we need a higher truth to serve. …Our American dream of freedom will become a nightmare if we do not put it in the loyal service of something greater than ourselves.” (p. 36-7)

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Onward by Russell Moore

What Onward is About

Onward by Russell Moore is a call for American evangelicals to engage the culture in a way that is faithful to the Gospel. American culture has changed. It is no longer allied with Christian values. The Bible Belt is collapsing. In Moore’s view, this is not necessarily a bad thing. For too long American culture has embraced Christian values while simultaneously rejecting the Christian Gospel. This has created a cultural Christianity that is a perversion of the true faith, a moralism that exalts Jesus as right or correct, without submitting to him as Lord. “We ought to see the ongoing cultural shake-up in America as a liberation of sorts from a captivity we never even knew we were in. The closeness of American culture with the church caused many sectors of the American church to read the Bible as though the Bible were pointing us to America itself.” (p. 7)

The demise of the Bible Belt and American Christianity is an opportunity too good for the Church to miss. This allows for a sort of purification of the Church in America, a disentanglement from partisan politics and ethnic nationalism. The end of American Christianity ought to open the eyes of Christians in America that our country is not, and really never was, Christian. Rather than clinging to the last vestiges of political influence, we ought to turn our attention to true Gospel influence, which is far bigger than any political party’s platform. In a particularly prescient passage, Moore writes, “If politics drives the gospel, rather than the other way around, we end up with a public witness in which Mormon talk-show hosts and serially-monogamous casino magnates and prosperity-gospel preachers are welcomed into our ranks, regardless of what violence they do the gospel. They are, after all, ‘right on the issues.'” (p.32) In the wake of the election of President Trump, and the strong evangelical support that helped get him into office, this passage cuts to the core of what is wrong with American Christianity.

Keep Christianity Strange Onward by Russell MooreThe thematic thrust of Onward is made clear in a pithy statement, written in bold letters, on the back cover of the book: Keep Christianity Strange. Calling to mind bumper stickers like “Keep Austin Weird,” Moore urges us to recover the peculiarity of the Gospel. When culture faith become entangled, it is always faith that suffers. The Christian faith lost its peculiar power in America precisely because it became normal. As Moore writes, “The church of Jesus Christ is never a majority – in any fallen culture – even if we happen to outnumber everyone else around us. The Scripture speaks of a world system that is at odds with the kingdom, a world to which we are constantly tempted to pattern our own intellects and affections after, until we are interrupted by the ongoing transformation of the kingdom.” (p. 29) The systems of the world are always antichrist; they are always inimical to the Gospel and the transformative work of the Spirit. This was as true in ancient Rome as it is in modern America.

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Individual Autonomy

When I was in college (1996-2001), the primary cultural issue that Christians were mobilizing against was relativism. We were being called to stand for “absolute truth” in the face of a creeping postmodernism which taught that everybody’s beliefs are valid, and no one person or religion has a monopoly on truth. What’s true for you may not be true for me, but that doesn’t make your beliefs (or mine) any less true. The danger of this teaching, we were told, was that it compromised the unique place of Jesus Christ (or Scripture) as the source of all truth. Relativism reduced the majesty of Christ, robbing him of his uniqueness by placing him on the same level as other teachers of religious dogma. If Christianity was as true as, say, Buddhism, then it wasn’t really true at all.


Americans believe in Individual Autonomy like they breathe oxygen.
What I see now is that creeping postmodern relativism was not the great problem we thought it was. In fact, it was merely an aftershock of the great cultural shift that had been taking place for decades. It was the symptom of something much deeper, something more far-reaching than anything we could have possibly imagined at the time. Fighting for absolute truth, noble as it may have been, was a fool’s errand. We had lost our grip on that long before I entered college, and it was certainly never going to come back, at least not in a form by which we Christians might have recognized it.

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The zombie phenomenon is fascinating. Our culture has become obsessed with the undead, and no show on television is capitalizing off of this phenomenon – or driving it – more than The Walking Dead. At first blush The Walking Dead appears to be nothing more than a serialized monster movie, a sprawling scare fest creeping its way into a fifth season. But I believe that the show is so much more than it appears.

Underneath that scary, monster movie exterior, is a host of deep questions that are being asked with sincerity and earnestness: Questions of the limits of science and the trajectory of society; Questions of God, faith, and the end of all things; Questions of humanity and what it means to be human – and not just to be human, but to also be good.

The zombie phenomenon in general, and The Walking Dead in particular, represents a dramatic shift in our culture toward something I call PostScience. Like postmodernism, PostScience is the belief (or perhaps the fear) that all of our scientific knowledge and technological advancement is either destroying us or will be powerless to save us from disaster. A zombie represents postmodernism’s greatest suspicion that we are doing irreversible damage to ourselves.

Beneath the suspicion of science, technology, and modernism is the terrifying idea that we cannot trust either ourselves or one another. We are postmodern not so much because modernism itself failed, but because we failed to live up to its ideals. We are PostScience not because we don’t believe in science, but because we cannot be trusted with the power science allows us to wield. It is we who have failed, and the subtle message of The Walking Dead and other zombie movies is that, with all of this great power we possess, in the end we have managed only to make monsters of ourselves.

What is the Christian response to this? Find out in my sermon from The Netflix Gospel on The Walking Dead.

This morning we began a new series at Grace Church called The Netflix Gospel. This was an idea I had several months ago, based on a series we did at LifePoint Church last year called Now Playing. At LifePoint, we examined several movies (which were in theaters at the time) for their spiritual insights and messages. In this series at Grace, we’re doing the same thing, but for TV series currently available on Netflix.

The first series we looked at was Fringe, a science-fiction epic (think: X-Files) that ran on Fox from 2008-2013. I first discovered the show on Netflix last fall, and very quickly became a fan. It follows the story of three FBI operatives as they unravel the secrets behind a mysterious sequence of events called The Pattern. The central character, Walter Bishop, is a brilliant but broken scientist trying to make up for a lifetime of destructive choices.

The spiritual arc of the show follows Walter’s journey from atheistic hubris to theistic humility. In the message, I shared two powerful scenes from the second season that demonstrate Walter’s journey into brokenness and, ultimately, a redemptive belief in God. Many folks expressed an interest in the show after the message this morning, and while I highly recommend it to adult viewers, please be aware that it gets very grotesque at times. There is a lot of blood and other disturbing material along those lines. There is also a significant amount of drug content – typically in the context of Walter’s fondness for using LSD in his experiments.

The series continues next week as we look at Breaking Bad. (Yes, I said Breaking Bad.) Then, two weeks from now, we finish out by examining the spiritual elements of The Walking Dead. (I know.) All in all, it was a fun weekend, and I think it’s just going to get better from here!

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