A century ago Christian churches in Europe were—despite the ravages of WWI— reasonably strong. Now they are little more than empty sanctuaries with poorly-attended services and posturing prelates. Across the “pond,” half-a-century ago, American churches were thriving; both Catholic and Protestant services, seminaries, and schools were doing well. With Billy Graham and Fulton J. Sheen serving as spokesmen, churches in the 1950s promised to soar and succeed in coming decades. But during the past two decades things in America have changed. Indices of various sorts portend a European-style collapse in the 21st century. Only 64% of Americans now identify as Christians; only 47% belong to a religious congrgation; one-third of Gen-Z claim to be atheists.
Consequently, serious thinkers have appraised the situation and proffered significant suggestions. In Deep Church Rising: The Third Schism and the Recovery of Christian Orthodoxy Eugene Oregon: Cascade Books, c. 2014; Kindle Edition), Andrew G. Walker and Robin A. Parry call for the recovery of an historical orthodoxy equipped to effectively address modernity, following Lesslie Newbigin, who “was dismayed at the way in which so many churches had thrown in the towel to modernity” (#65). Prophetically, in 1952, C. S. Lewis wrote: “To a layman, it seems obvious that what unites the Evangelical and the Anglo-Catholic against the “Liberal” or “Modernist” is something very clear and momentous, namely, the fact that both are thoroughgoing supernaturalists, who believe in the Creation, the Fall, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Second Coming, and the . . . Last Things. This unites them not only with one another, but also with the Christian religion as understood ubique et ab omnibus [lit. everywhere and by all]. The point of view from which this agreement seems less important than their divisions . . . is to me unintelligible. Perhaps the trouble is that as supernaturalists, whether ‘Low’ or ‘High’ Church, thus taken together, they lack a name. May I suggest ‘Deep Church’; or, if that fails in humility, Baxter’s ‘mere Christians.’”
Following Lewis’s lead, a series of meetings of concerned Anglicans, evangelicals and charismatics, met and acknowledged that what Lewis feared has in fact become a “Third Schism.” Unlike the divisions between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism in 1057 A.D., or between Protestants and Catholics in 1517 A.D., the current schism severs virtually all Christian communities and “undermines the very basis of Christian faith in its denial of the Trinity, incarnation, and the resurrection, and in its treating Scripture as an object of scientific inquiry rather than as a sacred text” (#72). It is the most ominous development in the history of the Church. It began in the medieval era when Duns Scotus subtly undermined the traditional understanding of God’s transcendence. Then William of Occam helped shape the nominalism which became dominant in the following centuries. In time the “scientific revolution” eliminated Mind from the cosmos. Responding to the resulting world he faced at the dawn of the 19th century, Friedrich Schleiermacher, “the father of modern theology,” made personal experience the key to faith, and his “influence on Protestant theology has been colossal, and is directly linked with sophisticated and ingenious interpretations of Scripture” (p. 32). Consequently, theological truth became “person-relative”—autonomous individuals shape their very own “truths”—and nicely-designed to insure personal comforts. “My truth” trumps “your truth” and has little concern for the “wisdom of the ancients” or for historical Christians creeds or confessions.
To Walker and Parry it’s clear that “Christianity is now on sale in multiform shapes and sizes.” Shop around and surely you can find a version compatible with your inclinations. While acknowledging how this was probably inevitable in a consumer culture, they insist “that the Christian gospel has a central core of truth that has an objective character about it. Christian faith is not like a lump of clay that we can reshape however we see fit” (p. 4). We obviously must deal with modernity and we cannot mindlessly repeat historic creeds. We must retrieve what’s eternally true and recontextualize it, presenting “a fresh improvisation of the faith that is both deeply rooted in Scripture and tradition but also alive to the worlds we now inhabit” (p. 43). There are “living traditions” anchored in the “Deep Church” (deep in both history and Gospel truth) that “can survive the wound of the third schism and navigate the rapids of modernity and postmodernity” through “anamnesis, by remembering, by recovering deep church” (p. 44).
Such recovery involves what C. S. Lewis called a regress, embracing “the Latin sense of regressus—of returning or going back to a former place” (p. 49). This means fusing “right belief, right worship, and right living. All three are of the essence of faith in Jesus, of knowing God” (p. 66). They can be distinguished but not separated—they are all of “faith.” Right belief (orthodoxia) nourishes itself in what the early Christians called the gospel (evangerlion), which “was a story about what the God of Israel had done for Israel and for the world in Jesus, the Son of God.” The New Testamernt tells the “story of Jesus—in whom YHWH was uniquely manifest—crucified, buried, raised from the dead, and ascended into heaven. That was the very heart of the Jesus movement and it has remained such to this very day” (p. 69). What was believed about Jesus was condensed into the Nicene Creed in 325 A.D.—the creed clearly “affirmed by Orthodox, Catholic, and mainstream Protestant churches to this day. It was the line in the sand that the churches drew in their attempt to defend the gospel story. Our contention is that it remains such today” (p. 77). This Creed the leaders of the Third Schism have denied, contributing to the collapse of the churches.
Right worship accompanies right doctrine. In our consumer culture entertainment flourishes, driven by man’s innate human hunger for beauty, one of the great “transcendentals.” Art and music appeal to what’s deepest in us—though the ways they do so vary dramatically. Some art is subjective, pragmatic, self-indulging, requiring little thought or discipline because it mainly appeals to our senses and is, consequently, superficial. Thus young people instinctively flock to rock concerts rather than classical symphonies. Trying to attract them, many churches have embraced entertainment as the answer to outreach. “And making worship entertaining does draw crowds—it works. At least, it works if we think that big numbers of people feeling good for a while is the goal. But do we have a congregation or an audience? Do we have worship or a performance? Are we forming disciples or keeping our customers happy? Are we honoring God or pleasing ourselves?” (p. 98). So the Deep Church must always ask whether our worship is shaped by the gospel or by pop culture. Right worship is “offered to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit. If it is, then it brings ‘right glory’ because Christ’s worship does” (p. 99). It focuses on God and Christ, not on ourselves. Still more: to worship well Christians need cross-shaped sanctuaries—not fan-shaped entertainment centers—reminding us of Calvary.
Right practice (orthopraxia) primarily engages us in doing well, being ethical persons. Long gone is the natural law ethos of traditional Christianity. Replacing it is an ethical emotivism that normalizes feelings. If it feels good do it! To which the Deep Church needs to recover a gospel ethic, a Christian way of living fully evident throughout 20 centuries. Questions as diverse as abortion and compassion for the poor, property rights and just war, have been fully discussed in the past and give clarity for moral behavior today. We simply need to “regress”—to recover the way of virtuous behavior.
Deep Church rightly identifies the “third schism” impairing the contemporary Church. It sets forth convincing reasons to explain it. And some, if not all, of its injunctions might very well help serious Christians work to preach the gospel and do the work of the Kingdom.
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James P. Shea is the president of the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota—one of a score or so recently-established, deeply traditional Catholic colleges determined to chart different courses from those taken by prestigious “Catholic” universities such as Boston College and Notre Dame. Shea recently published From Christendom to Apostolic Mission: Pastoral Strategies for an Apostolic Age (Bismarck: University of Mary Press, c. 2020), a short and very insightful analysis of current conditions and helpful proposals to equip the Church for coming challenges. In brief, he says Christian churches in the West have, for more than a thousand years, relied on a rich culture within which they could rather easily proclaim the faith and disciple believers. In my childhood, for example, the public schools openly supported Christianity and assisted students to follow their faith and adhere to biblical ethics. That world is fast fading away and will probably never return. Fulton Sheen saw it coming and in 1974 and said: “We are at the end of Christendom. Not of Christianity, not of the Church, but of Christendom” (p. 4).
This means, Shea says, that: “We are dealing with the first culture in history that was once deeply Christian but that by a slow and thorough process has been consciously ridding itself of its Christian basis.” Growing numbers of people have turned away from the Faith. “We are therefore not attempting to make converts from pagans; we are attempting to bring back to the Church those knowingly or unknowingly in the grasp of apostasy, a different and more difficult challenge. C. S. Lewis once described this difference as that between a man wooing a young maiden and a man winning a cynical divorcée back to her previous marriage. The situation is made yet more complex in that many who have abandoned Christianity and have embraced an entirely different understanding of the world still call themselves Christians” (p. 7). Apostasy is primarily intellectual—a matter of changing beliefs, denying the reality of God and then rationalizing such things as adultery and sodomy, infanticide and theft.
Giving up on reestablishing Christendom would enable us to recover what Shea labels the “apostolic mission.” The Early Church, working within a pagan culture, reached people with the Gospel. A small group of believers, facing much hostility, found ways to build and sustain the church. “They had great confidence in their Lord, in their message, and in the creativity and fertility of the Church. They knew that their task was to be used by the Holy Spirit to grow the Church, and they knew the graced means by which it was to grow. And grow it did” (p. 29). What they did we too must do, embracing an evangelistic task best understood as presenting “the Gospel in such a way that the minds of its hearers can be given the opportunity to be transformed, converted from one way of looking at the world to a different way” (p. 48). Preaching in an apostolic manner must be theological rather than ethical, aiming at a transformation of the mind (“a conversion of mind to a sacramental vision of the world”), before prescribing righteous behavior.
In a remarkably succinct statement regarding our situation, Shea says: “We receive from Christ both the times in which we are to live and the grace to engage our world as it is” (p. 24). Consequently we rightly believe that: “The Holy Spirit is at work in every age, ours included. If it is true, as we are assured by Saint Paul, that grace is more present the more that evil abounds (cf. Rom 5), we might expect an especially abundant action of the Holy Spirit in our own time. Our task is to understand the age we have been given, to trace out how the Holy Spirit is working in it, and to seize the adventure of cooperating with him. May we be given the wisdom and the courage to rise to the challenge of the new apostolic age that is coming upon us and to prove faithful stewards in our generation of the saving message and liberating life given us by Jesus Christ” (p. 65).
This wise, readable, reassuring treatise provides one of the most balanced and valuable analyses I’ve read dealing with the Church confronting our troubled world.
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Eric Metaxas first came to my attention when I read his wonderful biography—Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Invoking his knowledge of Bonhoeffer, Metaxis recently published Letter to the American Church (Washington, D.C.: Salem Books, c. 2022; Kindle Edition), thinking “the American Church is at an impossibly—and almost unbearably—important inflection point. The parallels to where the German Church was in the 1930s are unavoidable and grim” (p. ix). The same forces of evil are alive and well, and the American Church needs to combat them. They “have an atheistic Marxist ideology in common,” and operate under the banners of Critical Race Theory, “radical transgender and pro-abortion ideologies,” and wage “war with the ideas of family and marriage.” Demonic ideologies have “infiltrated our own culture in such a way that they touch everything, and part of what makes them so wicked is that they smilingly pretend to share the biblical values that champion the underdog against the oppressor” (p. xii).
German Christians remained remarkably silent when the Nazis took charge of their country. American Christians, Metaxas asserts, are doing the same, failing to defend the unborn, ignoring persecuted believers, saying nothing about “the deadly perniciousness of Marxist atheist philosophy,” or “criticizing the great evil of Communist countries like China.” “How dare we be silent about such things?” (p. 5). We do so, in part, because in 1954 Senator Lyndon Johnson “introduced an amendment to the U.S. tax code prohibiting churches—and any other nonprofit organizations—from taking a public stand on political candidates” (p. 8). Subsequently, pastors have felt muzzled—unable to denounce evil lest their churches be taxed. They also failed to speak out because many of them felt a compulsion to be constantly kind and easily aligned with our deeply therapeutic, entertainment-craving culture. All too often they resemble corporate leaders “who have become especially cowardly and seem willing to say and do whatever someone advises them is necessary to avoid trouble and keep them from being ‘cancelled’” (p. 10).
Pastoral cowardice was on display, Metaxas thinks, during the recent Covid pandemic. Bureaucrats, governors and mayors cavalierly branded churches “non-essential” while allowing marijuana dispensaries and strip clubs to remain open! Getting supplies at Costco was fine, but finding spiritual nourishment in church was forbidden! Rather than do their homework and defy the despots, church leaders (with remarkably few exceptions) quietly submitted to the mandates and endorsed useless practices such as “social distancing” and masking up! “This was a deeply disgraceful moment for the American Church” (p. 12). Caving into the Covid frenzy promoted by the likes of Anthony Fauci and Joe Biden was certainly less noxious than acquiescing to Hitler, but the same kind of cowardice was on display.
On Reformation Sunday in 1932, a few months before Hitler took over, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached a prophetic sermon. At the age of 26 he wanted to awaken Lutherans to the threat posed by those who recruited Luther to support the kind of nationalism embodied in the Nazis. Many hearers thought it a “jeremiad” exaggerating problems in their country. Few heeded its warnings, for they failed to discern the signs of the times, wanting to stay safe and hope Hitler would prove innocuous. Within a year the German Church would divide into the pro-Nazi Deutsche Christen and the Confessing Church, led by Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemöller and Karl Barth, who in 1934 drafted the Barmen Declaration. Of 18,000 Lutheran pastors, only 3,000 dared support the declaration; 3,000 openly supported the Deutsche Kristen. But 12,000—a huge majority of pastors—took no position! They waited cautiously, hoping to avoid trouble. Some even displayed the swastika—rather like some American churches recently putting up “rainbow banners or BLM flags.” Given the “silence and compliance” of these 12,000, the Nazis soon began arresting dissident pastors. Within years, as WWII began, the Holocaust erupted.
It all happened, Metaxas things, because German Christians failed to speak out against evil. And he fears todays American Christians are equally cowardly. Comforted by the “cheap grace” Bonhoeffer condemned, they fail to be true disciples of Jesus, speaking the truth in love. Our world is not Bonhoeffer’s, but we should ponder some of the issues we face in the light of his life. Take, for example, “the cultural Marxism that talks about systemic racism, or the transgender madness that says the Bible’s view of human beings and sexuality is completely false.” We don’t live in a country that imprisons dissidents, but its ruling class certainly champions “the ideology of atheist Marxism” which is manifestly anti-Christian, and serious Christians are increasingly silenced and punished by corporations, universities, and governments. So we must continually ask: “What would God have us do?”
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Douglas Groothuis teaches philosophy at Denver Seminary and recently published Fire in the Streets: How You Can Confidently Respond to Incendiary Cultural Topics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, c. 2022). Reminding readers of the scores of cities set ablaze by rioters in the summer of 2020 following George Floyd’s death, Groothuis says: “This fire in the streets stemmed from the fire in the minds of many about race, class, and gender. This fire is strange fire, not holy fire. While many are rightly concerned about racial justice, economic opportunity, and the fair treatment of LGBTQ people, the leading philosophy behind these protests is CRT [Critical Race Theory]” (p. xix). An offshoot of Marxism, CRT is currently taught in hundreds of schools, mandated by the military, and endorsed by countless churches.
As neo-Marxists, devotees of CRT embrace doctrinaire positions, including atheism, class struggle, revolutionary strategies and utopian aspirations. To understand it one needs to study Herbert Marcuse, whose student Angela Davis now serves as a “mentor to a mentor to Black Lives Matter leaders” (p. 12). Marcuse was frequently invoked by the radicals of the ‘60s, when he “expanded the base for social revolution to include not only oppressed workers (an economic factor), but also those considered to be sexual or social deviants no matter what their economic class (a cultural factor), and those in minority groups (a racial factor). Thus, he called for homosexuals, lesbians, bisexuals, and those in other nontraditional sexual categories to join the revolution against the capitalist-traditional-family status quo” (p. 12). Marcuse endorsed “polymorphous” sexuality and encouraged the counterculture “with its motto of ‘sex, drugs, and rock and roll’” and simple slogans such as “Make love, not war.”
As the radicals of the ‘60s successfully marched through America’s institutions, “the fires of revolution” were banked “in the minds of academics and activists.” Given the opportunity in the summer of 2020 these ideological fires took shape in actual fires throughout America’s cities. “A turning point was the presidency of Barack Obama who, while he presented himself as a moderate, was in reality an advocate of CRT and black liberation theology as taught in his church by his pastor, Jeremiah Wright” (p. 19). He was significantly helped by William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, who were part of a band of ‘bomb-throwing Marxists’ called the Weather Underground, that terrorized America” (p. 20). Within a few years Obama’s Democrat Party turned radically leftward and openly supported socialistic notions and promoted class struggle, especially between whites and “people of color.” Seeing American history through the lenses of the oppressed, leftists determined to bring into being a new nation—to “fundamentally change” the nation as Obama envisioned.
Following thoughtful chapters analyzing both the roots of CRT and its current implications, Groothuis sets forth what he thinks are the best ways for Christians to address it. We must fight fire with fire! Countering the fires in the streets we need to respond with the fire of the Holy Spirit. Responding to the fires of hate we need to stoke the fires of love. Countering the messianic pretensions of so many politicians we need to proclaim the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We should also insist: “(1) Objective truth is knowable through reason and evidence, (2) individuals have moral value and human rights as opposed to making group identities based on gender and race definitive, and (3) insuring and protecting free speech is better than silencing people” (p. 153).
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