A review of David Kinnaman, and Gabe Lyons, Good Faith: Being a Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016).
by Rubel Shelly
Several books have been produced recently by persons who are concerned about the expansive-and-growing divide between Christians and non-Christians. It would not have been shocking to Jesus, Peter, or Paul to think theirs was a minority point of view. After a long period of delusion, however, that America is somehow a “Christian nation”—in spite of our conscious nurturing of racial, economic, gender, social, denominational, and other forms of division and oppression—it has come to the attention of some that things appear to have changed. Christians are outsiders, aliens, and exiles again.
American culture is secular. Religion is more a curiosity of the past for thought-leaders of our time; even those who wish to be thought of as “spiritual” people resent the identification of their spirituality with religion.
American culture is materialistic. Understanding the term both in terms of classic cosmology-ontology (i.e., nothing is real except matter and its movements) and lifestyle (i.e., nothing is important to me except my comfort as measured by possessions and comfort), I fear we are all infected with this sentiment; the immediate pleasures of the flesh are more compelling with the spiritual realities to which we still give lip-service in fewer and fewer contexts.
American culture is obsessed with sex—as I suspect all cultures may have been across time. The difference now is that we have redefined gender, sexual behaviors, and human relationships as mere “social constructs” that have no essential meaning or norms; thus we are open to everything from redefining marriage to choosing an alternate gender to that of one’s birth and DNA.
American culture is narcissistic. The mantra of our culture seems to be “Do what you want so long as you’re not hurting anybody”; the lived reality of that mindset turns out to be “Do as I want and who cares if somebody gets hurt—so long as I can be me!”
And American culture is increasingly violent. In order to defend ourselves from ISIS / ISIL / DASH, we are urged to carpet bomb Afghanistan or to ghettoize and patrol Muslim communities; even presidential candidates offer such “solutions” to cheering audiences—and find predictable and substantial support for their position from “evangelicals” and “born-again Christians.”
In the language of David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Christians are viewed in such a culture as either “irrelevant” or “extreme.” That is, we are seen to be irrelevant because we have nothing useful to contribute to the public dialogue. Or, when would-be spokespersons for the Christian faith step onstage, we are seen as extreme because of the angry and strident tone of the typically judgmental pronouncements made in God’s name.
Kinnaman and Lyons identify and develop three features they believe must characterize Christian life in such a culture: How well we love + What we believe + How we live. Collectively, they argue, these three features yield good faith that is neither irrelevant nor extreme.
Their book explores a number of particular contexts in which this triad of regard for others, orthodox faith, and integrity must function. They look at issues of marriage and family, respect for life, disability and death, racial prejudice, same-sex attraction and lifestyles, and human sexuality in general. They press for Christians to understand the thesis that Miroslav Volf offers in his A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good: “My goal is to offer an alternative both to secular exclusion of religion from the public sphere and to all forms of ‘religious totalitarianism’—an alternative predicated not on attenuating Christian convictions but on affirming them robustly and living them out joyously.” Volf’s excellent book lays a broad theological base for a notion of Christian “flourishing” as a model way of life that commends itself to onlookers as light appeals to those who are lost in the darkness of the Carlsbad Caverns. Kinnaman and Lyons take that thesis and apply it to a number of particular areas of life that can be guided by such a notion.
I find it interesting that Good Faith closes with a biblical scenario and text I have been using recently with students at the university. With the Southern Kingdom defeated by Babylon and many of its people taken to live as aliens in a godless culture, the prophet Jeremiah has been taken to Egypt for his safety. From there the old prophet sent this letter of counsel to the exiles:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jer. 29:4-7 NRSV).
Kinnaman and Lyons close the book with an appeal for the Christian community to be a “counterculture for the common good.” While we both identify and acknowledge the realities of the public square, we must preserve our integrity within it. We neither withdraw from nor seek to force our views on others, but we work constructively for the common good from all the places where God allows his people to be—in hardware, shipping, teaching, coaching, law, or highway construction. We steadfastly resist the idolatries of our culture and demonstrate the qualitative difference only the Spirit of God can make in human personality and behavior.
The outcome of living in good faith will surely be the occasional conversion of someone to Christ. There will also be times of persecution, however, and that should be expected; how we react will be part of the good-faith witness to be shown by Christ’s people.
Embracing the life of an alien and exile will be the Christian posture until Christ returns. Discussions such as the one Kinnaman and Lyons have pressed us to engage will be necessary until then.
Rubel Shelly is professor of Bible and Philosophy at Lipscomb University. He was formerly president of Rochester College in Rochester Hills, Michigan. He is the author of many books, including I Knew Jesus before He Was a Christian (and I Liked Him Better Then).