In these days of mistrust and ‘fake news’, I’m trying to glean information from a wider range of sources. Previously I was guilty of lazily sticking to my favoured news silos, but recently I’ve been challenged to be less lethargic. Essentially this means engaging with other voices alongside the BBC.
One trend that has caught my attention is people that don’t profess Christian faith speaking favourably about Christianity. For example, Tom Holland’s view of the role of Christianity in Western Civilisation or until recently some of Jordan Peterson’s statements. I say ‘until recently’ because youtube is full of videos indicating that Jordan Peterson may now be a follower of Christ. Incidentally, I recently heard an interview where Jordan Peterson commented that if pastors are making the bible boring, we are doing it wrong!* Guilty as charged, but let’s save that for another day.
In other interviews and podcasts, I’ve heard people who profess to be atheist or agnostic claim that the problems they perceive in society come from the ‘death of God’ or that religious faith might be better for society. Interestingly, one of my geography lecturers said something similar a quarter of a century ago; perhaps this is not a new phenomenon.
Most of these comments come from a philosophical perspective and from people that are conservative about particular cultural changes. These are not, necessarily, people converting to Christian faith. But they appear to lament a perceived void in society which is being filled with other passions and ideologies. What stands out, is that these commentators value faith, theism and sometimes historic Christian belief in contrast with the values and practices of contemporary society.
In the interview mentioned earlier, Peterson also stated that the church may be losing young people because we don’t offer them a challenge; “[the church] demands too little.” I find this particularly significant. The reason being, many voices within the church propose making Christianity more accessible rather than more challenging. For example consider the recent article on Premier about a Taylor Swift tribute at Southwark Cathedral.** It’s the comments rather than the article which suggest that Christians need to make it easier for younger people (and Taylor Swift fans) to enter a church building.
In many mainstream and established churches there appears to be a shift towards making Christian faith less demanding and more similar to the wider culture. Often this is framed as being in the interests of inclusion and justice. But sometimes it’s simply to remove general barriers to people coming in.
This leaves me wondering what the Spirit might be saying to the church today? Should we be making it easier to participate in Christian community by contrasting less with wider society? Or should we be holding on more strongly to our distinctives? And might our answer vary depending on whether we are speaking of cultural practices, ethics and morality or aesthetics? Is it possible that atheists and agnostic cultural critics have more to say to the church than major voices within the church?
And finally, if Jordan Peterson is right that young people seek challenge, might the established churches’ increasing acquiescence to popular culture and beliefs lead to the unintended result of speeding our demise?
*The Jordan B Peterson Podcast, The Spiritual Void and the West with Rav Arora.