Rod Dreher, a writer for The American Conservative, recently wrote about an article he ran across describing how many of America’s super-rich are coming up with exit strategies because they fear our society is about to collapse. He notes how Peter Thiel, one of the super-rich, recently acquired citizenship in New Zealand. Others are coming up with alternative plans. Dreher quotes Noah Millman, who says:
“But elite anxiety is not just a gauge of our national predicament. It’s a cause. These are people who have the power and position of societal leaders. They built the plane, they own the plane, and they fly the plane. We are all flying along with them. And they are having serious conversations about bailing out rather than, I don’t know, changing course, preparing for a water landing — anything that suggests a concern for all the other people in the plane as something other than a threat.”
Whether or not you think our society is on the brink of collapse, almost everyone can agree that we have seriously deep cracks in the foundation of our culture. How can we seek to rebuild a broken culture? These are the kinds of questions that need our best efforts and energy as Christians who seek to bear witness to the gospel in our culture. So how do we go about the task of rebuilding a broken society?
First, we need to understand how we got here. In the broadly Evangelical world of America, there is little to no intellectual effort made to truly understand the root causes of our cultural decline. To be sure, there are pockets of people and institutions within this realm that are deeply engaged with this, but at the popular level there is virtually little desire to understand our culture. Just look at the best-seller lists in the Christian Living section of your favorite bookstore. Almost every title is narrowly focused on personal rather than collective questions: “How can I live a better life?” “How can I live a more fulfilled, joyful life?” While these questions aren’t bad, when they are all we are asking they unmask the deep-rooted self-centeredness of our uniquely American expressions of Christianity.
We need instead to be students of culture. What are the ideas, forces, and stories that have captivated and won the hearts of our culture? Why does a book and movie like Fifty Shades of Grey resonate so powerfully with a broad swath of our culture? This doesn’t mean that we have to wolf down these cultural artifacts, but it does mean that we need to be aware of them.
We also need to reflect on what factors have led to our cultural degeneration. This is why a basic knowledge of history, which is becomingly increasingly scant in our STEM-infatuated society, is so remarkably important. We need to be able to understand how we shifted from a culture that valued and prized institutional and communal living to one that now prizes individual expressions of freedom and autonomy above all else.
Second, and more importantly, we need to dig deeper into our understanding of Christianity. We need to learn and immerse ourselves in the biblical, theological story of creation, fall, and redemption. Is our Bible simply a roadmap for personal choices or does it also communicate a story of redemption that has implications for all of creation, including our unique forms of culture? This means that we have to push past our comfortable interaction with parts of the Psalms, parts of the Gospels, and parts of the epistles to a deeper engagement with the entirety of Scripture.
Third, this kind of wrestling with the Christian story will naturally lead us to begin to think about how our own personal lives will contribute to Christian cultural renewal. When it falls in this order, though, our part in the story doesn’t consume us and overwhelm us with uncertainty like it does if we begin and end with ourselves. Our lives were meant to be lived as a response, to overflow with the goodness of the fruit that Christ is working in us.
We don’t need to retreat from culture in the face of its biggest and most concerning problems. But we also don’t need to so marry ourselves to it that we become indistinguishable from it. The life of Jesus is our great beacon. He both engaged with the world and retreated from it, giving us a model for how we can live too. But we absolutely have to go deeper than we currently are. Our culture is a mile wide and an inch deep, but too often, so is our conception of Christianity. We must push further into engagement if we want to rebuild a broken society with the hope of Christ.