UNDERSTANDING POST-CHRISTIAN CULTURE
Gene Edward Veith’s book Post-Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Crossway, 2020) is more of a State of the Union Address than a call to arms. The topics covered in this book are wide and sweeping; and though Veith provides suggestions to the church sprinkled throughout on how to respond, overall the book is a photograph of the landscape — a statement on where we’re at in Western culture and where the church stands within that culture.
It’s a readable, relatively quick book for the amount of land it covers. He covers trends in modern Western thought, worldview, religion, science, technology, politics, sexuality, our ideas about reality, the body, truth, certainty, and even newer cultural phenomenons like intersectionality, transgenderism, transhumanism, genetic engineering, sex robots, and the loss of community. As I said, he covers a lot of ground!
Veith’s work is insightful and important. As any decent missionary, pastor, or church planter can tell you, Christians need to understand the cultural context of where they’re doing ministry. Post-Christian is certainly a good guide to give us the big picture of the spirit of the age and the challenges facing the church.
Depending on how attuned someone is to the changing culture, some of the information in Post-Christian may be surprising. But perhaps what is most surprising is Veith’s conclusion that we’re not just living in a post-Christian culture, but also a post-secular culture.
He writes that today’s current version of secularism, which is usually marked by a rejection of religion, is only “skin deep because under the surface we find interior spirituality—often vague and poorly thought through, drawing on pagan elements old and new.” God has created us to know him. So, we are — by nature and design — religious creatures, even if we deny it. Thus, when Christian faith is abandoned, other spirituality rushes in to fill the void.
This post-secular religion, the child of Western postmodern thinking, is a cafeteria of pick-and-choose, including things like astrology, reincarnation, nature spirits, and self-deification (seeking the “god within”) but all “wholly internalized, ethereal spirituality” — which, of course, makes no moral or convictional demands on the individual. In other words, they can be the “god” of their own reality; they can be spiritual without self-denial, self-sacrifice, or even inconvenience — a religion based solely on self. So, where God made humans in his own image (Genesis 1:27), humans are making God into their own image — or, at the very least, in their own preferences.
Nowhere is this better seen than in the growing movement of what I call “Technology Cults” — people who are looking to merge biological life with technology (called transhumanism) to achieve eternal life and propel humankind to god-like status (not unlike something you’d see on Black Mirror, the Netflix series.) But all “new” heresies are really just old news. Mixed in with the new is also a lot of the old. For example, as more people return to ancient pagan (or “New Age”) practices, people contacting Christian churches looking for exorcisms have spiked!
Peter Jones in his book The Other Worldview: Exposing Christianity’s Greatest Threat, draws the same conclusions about Western culture not just being post-Christian, but post-secular. He describes it as “the rebirth of ancient paganism, ” a “modern embrace of, principles originally found in the ancient spirituality of the pre-Christian, pagan world.” Jones writes, “Spirituality has become a do-it-yourself life hobby that blends ancient Eastern practices with modern consumer sensibilities.” And so, this is where the modern mantra “I’m spiritual, not religious” grows from.
Based on how things are going — despite what has been assumed (and often proclaimed by ardent atheists) — as “societies have grown more modern, they have not become less religious.” Perhaps much of secular culture has turned away from traditional religions — dreaded “organized religion” — but they’ve traded it in for disorganized religion. Veith concludes, “So scholars no longer accept the ‘secular hypothesis,’ the assumption that as a society becomes more modern, it becomes less religious.” Post-Christian does not mean post-religious.
THE DYING CHURCH?
Unfortunately, at the same time, religious institutions are becoming more secular, and the Christian church is not impervious to such things. This is not surprising as the battle between theologically liberal (mainline) and theologically conservative Christianity has raged for over 100 years.
As another example of the dogged religiousness of humankind, the author writes about the (unintentionally ironic) “atheist church” movement, which has tried to have all the benefits of church without God. In one of Veith’s more humorous insights, he comments:
“Do you reject the existence of God except as a metaphor? Do you deny the authority and truth claims of the Bible? Do you believe traditional Christianity is outdated and oppressive? You might be an atheist. Or you might be a mainline [liberal] Protestant.”
As someone a lot smarter than me pointed out — something that is quite obvious — some time ago: Liberal Christianity and traditional, historical, biblical Christianity are not the same religion. They’re two totally different faiths. After all, as Veith plainly drew attention to, the beliefs of theologically liberal (mainline) Christians differ little from the beliefs of atheists. Therefore, “Post-Christian Christianity needs to be desecularized,” and even theologically conservative churches need to be aware of how the surrounding secular culture affects the thinking of their congregation (and leadership).
It also has to be remembered that churches that have adopted secular or theologically liberal views have usually consciously done so to make themselves “relevant” to the culture, yet these liberal churches are the exact churches that have been in steady decline for decades. The liberal church is not thriving or growing. Think about it: If all the church is is a lousy imitation of the world, what does it have to offer that isn’t already readily available elsewhere?
BUT THE TRADITIONAL CHURCH IS DYING TOO, RIGHT?
So, the culture is growing more pagan. The liberal church is in steady decline. But what about the traditional, historical, conservative, orthodox, Bible-believing church? How is it doing? Isn’t it in decline too? Well, it all depends on how you look at it.
Yes, church attendance is down in general, but what seems to be happening is a “refining of the church.” Looking only at church attendance may be the easiest way to conduct a survey concerning Christian growth or decline, but it also has its limits. Based on the studies of Ed Stetzer, “The percentage of convictional Christians… has held steady over the years.” This may be the most surprising thing one finds in Post-Christian, but Veith (with Stetzer) isn’t the only one making this point. For instance, see Glenn Stanton’s book The Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity Is Actually Thriving in America and the World. (For the record, I haven’t read Stanton’s book yet, but I’ve heard interviews with him — and others — making the same point.)
Now, the thing to note in Stetzer’s assessment is that it is “convictional Christians” who are holding steady. Instead of just making general studies of church attendance or of anyone who labels themselves as “Christian,” Stetzer and Veith consider that calling oneself a “Christian” doesn’t make one a true follower of Christ. There’s a lot of cultural Christianity out there, folks. So, when we look at someone’s commitment to following Christ, church attendance of those who take their faith seriously — i.e. devout Christians — are not decreasing.
In fact, it looks like the more theologically conservative churches are growing steadily. The slight decline in attendance at evangelical churches over the years has to do with the “cultural Christians.” So, it’s not the case that devout Christians are leaving the faith in droves, but church-goers who never were invested much in the first place are coming clean. The growing acceptability of atheism has allowed these people to be honest on where they stand on God and the church:
“The nominal believers are leaving. There is no longer a cultural pressure to be in church, so those who used to attend out of a desire to be socially respectable are no longer bothering… Increasingly, the only ones left in the churches are the true believers. Such defections, ironically, strengthen the church. Just as the refining process burns away the dross to extract the precious metal, the hostility of secularism is purifying the church.”
Mark Twain may or may not have once said, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” It seems Christianity can say the same.
In fact, the church is growing at an alarming — well, alarming to secularists anyhow — rate worldwide. “If the United States and Europe are becoming post-Christian, the rest of the world is rushing into Christianity.” Compare the 286 million Christians in 2010 in North American to the 544 million in Latin America, 493 million in Africa, and 352 million in Asia. Those who claim Christianity is “the white man’s religion” need to look at the global picture. By 2050, says religious scholar Philip Jenkins, only one-fifth of Christians will be “white.” In fact, the most common Christian worldwide today is a brown-skinned woman. Post-Christian even lays out how Scandinavian countries, upheld by many in the U.S. as secular utopias, have a solid, devout Christian presence.
Not only are church numbers growing worldwide, but the Christians in Africa, South America, and Asia take the Bible seriously. They’re theologically conservative. This, ironically, puts them at odds with many Western churches who have liberal leanings. Some theologically liberal denominations are finding their denominational brothers and sisters in other countries aren’t willing to set aside the Bible to conform to secular cultural demands.
This was seen recently when the United Methodists voted to overturn certain policies concerning homosexuality; it was the African United Methodists who kept the church where it has traditionally (and biblically) stood for centuries. (And now it’s looking like the United Methodists, which is considered primarily a liberal denomination in the U.S., may split in two.) Let Veith point out the irony: “Western liberal theologians — whose social gospel praises multiculturalism, denounces Western colonialism, and lauds racial diversity — now find themselves as a beleaguered white minority in opposition to black Africans.”
Veith concludes, “In this vast sea of faith, Americans and Europeans occupy a small island of secularism, like teenagers fixated on their cell phones, oblivious to what is happening all around them. It turns out that this is not a post-Christian world after all.”
*I received a review copy of Post-Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (2020) by Gene Edward Veith Jr. from publisher Crossway.