Sometimes, us Christians can behave like we’re living in an Avengers movie.
Except, instead of Iron Man fighting off Loki, it’s Rachel Held Evans battling against Mark Driscoll. It’s Roger Olson vs the evil Calvinists. Shane Claiborne vs the Western Church. Maybe a superhero just needs a nemesis?
It’s a tempting thing to define our own identity by what we’re against, or at the very least, by what we’re not. I’ve done it many, many times. And I’m not saying that this is what the above people consciously set out to do. I like and have read them all. Often it’s their followers and fans who fuel that narrative. As well as that, there are occasions when calling out something or someone as just plain wrong is appropriate.
But, however it happens, it just seems to me that so little is argued or stated in Christian circles, without a subtle (and often far from subtle), jab at the nemesis. Maybe I feel it more acutely, because as a dyed-in-the-wool moderate, I never quite fit any tribe enough to want to wholesale condemn another tribe. Increasingly, when I see this happen, it bothers me, and a recent book has helped me to understand why.
The book is To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, by James Davison Hunter. There is so much worth thinking over in this book, but one thing which struck me was Hunter’s contention that many – he has the Christian Right, Left, and Anabaptists in his sights – construct an identity out of resentment, frustration and bitterness towards the other side. They have a nemesis.
(I will say, as a left-leaning person, I would have liked this not to be true. It’s so easy to see in the Christian Right, isn’t it!? But Hunter shows, through extensive quoting of Jim Wallis, no less, that often the nemesis complex is just as strong on the Left).
One of Hunter’s arguments is that in engaging in this way, Christians – Right, Left, and Anabaptists – legitimate the existing political structures in a way that we shouldn’t. We unconsciously give them more credit than they deserve.
It has me wondering if we do the same, not just in the realm of politics, but when we construct our own theological identity partly by defining ourselves by what we aren’t. Raging against the machine is sexy, but it’s not always healthy. I even wonder if it’s possible to develop real spiritual maturity if we become too addicted to the rush of making ourselves feel smarter, hipper, or even more doctrinally correct than everyone else.
Hunter’s solution – or part of it, at least – is what he calls “faithful presence”. It’s a kind of mixture of humility, faithfulness to God, and a desire for everyone’s flourishing.
I find that so compelling.
As a pastor I get to spend time with a bunch of young adults. I know from my own experiences that people in our generation have a ton of questions about the way we do church, many of them very good ones. I’m not suggesting that we avoid these questions, or that we try to pretend everything is fantastic in the church today. But I am thinking about a different kind of engagement in solving these things; one that is more about faithful presence and humble engagement. I think this would be so much more healthy and helpful than the kind of hipper-than-thou nemesis-bashing that often seems to take place.
We have some really amazing young adults in our church, and one of the biggest blessings in ministry has been seeing many of them engage with their questions about church in just this way. It’s a maturity that I find inspiring. It’s something I pray will catch on.