How Western Culture Undermines Faith

I have been reading a good bit by Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. He has authored over forty volumes, as well as scores of essays. No modern pope has written so much theology. One theme rises to the surface again and again in his writings: the tense realtionship that exists between church and culture.

Following Vatican II, in the 1960’s, Ratzinger argued that the detente that existed between the church and the world was leading the church astray. He wrote:

It is time to find again the courage of nonconformism, the capacity to oppose many of the trends of the surrounding culture, renouncing a certain euphoric post-conciliar solidarity. . . . I am convinced that the damage we have incurred in these twenty years is due, not to the "true" council, but to the unleashing within the Church of latent polemical and centrifugal forces; and outside the Church it is due to the confrontation with a cultural revolution in the West:the success of the upper middle class, the new "tertiary bourgeoisie," with its liberal-radical ideology of individualistic, rationalistic and hedonistic stamp.

He went on to argue that too many theologians learned to take their starting point from "the signs of the times" discovered in the world and not from the church’s tradition and doctrines. In a 1996 interview he added, "We ought to have the courage to rise up against what is regarded as ‘normal’ for a person at the end of the twentieth century and to rediscover faith in its simplicity."

So, what does this have to say to evangelicals? A great deal I believe. We were never inclined to Marxism or the various radical social theories that racked the Catholic Church. Yet we began to take our cues from the world, in a different way, following the 1960’s. We didn’t catch up (we seem to never catch up in the evangelical world) to these trends until the mid-1970’s and 1980’s but catch up we did. We did so in typical evangelical fashion. First, we developed a theology of mission that put unvarnished stress upon numbers. This school of thought, dubbed "Church Growth" thinking, eventually captured a great deal of the emphasis on evangelism among our leaders. I lived through this era. It stiflled deep spirituality and serious liturgy.

The emphasis of this world-affirming culture came to rest, at least for baby-boomers, in the mega-church movement and the great success stories of Willow Creek and Saddleback. A generation of boomers, nurtured on the individualism of the 1960’s and 70’s, embraced what pop-culture saw as "normal" and ran with it. We created an entire sub-culture that included music, books and Jesus junk.

Second, evangelicals did consciously embrace a socio-religious agenda that was radically altered from a culture of the cross. We wanted a culture of fun and pleasure, a culture that fulfilled me. We were consumers and we simply applied consumerism to the church. This led us to look more and more like the world so that what we gave to the world was what they were "looking for." "What’s in it for me?" became the unwritten question. I once wondered, as the pastor of a small church for sixteen years, what would have happened if all the families that left our church, or visited our church and did not return because they were looking for the "what’s happening now" youth group or the "relevant" worship style, had remained and embraced the yoke of discipleship and mission with our committed flock? So many times I heard, "We love the preaching. The content and biblical teaching are great, but we need more for our _________(fill in the blank)" Not much has changed among boomers. They still build all-purpose Mall-like churches in suburbia. My hope now seems to be principally found among the emergent generation.

One of the problems with critical thought is that you will find allies in places you never imagined. Pope Benedict XVI is much more of an ally, for true evangelical soldiers of the cross, than an enemy. Evangelicals could learn a great deal from reading and watching him. I doubt most boomers will even bother. I have some hope for younger believers, however. When the winds of God begin to blow through the church again you can expect many Christians, and various Christian traditions, will have a part to play. This is, in part, a reason for my ecumenism. It is an ecumenism of the cross, not of politics and pragmatics.