This morning I read the following passage in Justin Whitmel Earley’s excellent new book, The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction:
One of my favorite cultural critics, Ken Myers, argues that the kind of atheism we experience in America today is not a conclusion but a mood…If secularism is not a conclusion but a mood, we cannot disrupt it with an argument. We must disrupt it with a presence.
The truth is that we live in a culture where most people are remarkably resistant to hearing verbal proclamations of the gospel. What’s more, it seems some of them really can’t hear it. We not longer share a common vocabulary for communicating whether truth exists, what can be called good, and what love means. But that is okay. God is not alarmed. Our secular age is not a barrier to evangelism; it is simply the place of evangelism.
Ever since returning from China, I’ve had an abiding interest in asking this question: “How is it that the West can be re-evangelized?” One of the reasons I’m so compelled by the life of habit is that I see habits as a way of light in an age of darkness. Cultivating a life of transcendent habits means that our ordinary ways of living should stand out in our culture, dancing like candles on a dark mantle. As Madeline L’Engle once wrote, “We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe . . . but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
Though I think this passage risks short changing the value of intellectual argument, the overall point being made is, I believe, extremely important. Christians sometimes talk of the West’s being secular as if such secularism is happening in an existential vacuum. Modern life continues apace, except arrogant scientists and millennials don’t think they need God anymore. But this is certainly a false representation. What’s most interesting about our secular age is not primarily that it’s happening but that it’s accompanied by a garden of spiritual, emotional, and social maladies: Epidemics of loneliness, isolation, suicide, despair, polarization, workaholism, family disintegration, etc etc. It’s too easy to focus on the worldview element and miss the obvious crises facing millions. But a myopic preoccupation with worldview completely misses just how ripe modern society is for the claims and practices of Christianity.
A couple hours after reading that passage in Earley’s book, I came across this NYT piece on the trend of married couples’ spending their honeymoon apart. Yes, apart. If a honeymoon spent apart sounds like an oxymoron, consider the way one “online dating expert” helpfully describes this trend as a natural “evolution” of marriage: “Given the recognition that for most couples today, marriage and partnership is considered all-consuming, with the partner needing to fulfill every role — physical, spiritual, emotional and sexual — perhaps separate vacations is a recognition among some couples that all expectations cannot be met by a single person.” How did spending the first few days of your marriage vacationing by yourself become a corrective to an unrealistic view of marriage?
The article cites the testimonies of “unimooning” (yep) couples. He went to France to watch soccer; she went to Canada and took selfies in front of Niagara falls. One bride stayed home during the honeymoon to work. When the groom calls her while standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, she doesn’t pick up: “Busy in a meeting.” One unimooning woman is admirably transparent about the whole thing: “We had been together for eight years before getting married, so we didn’t need to be in bed all day.”
The arc of the sexual revolution is long, but it bends toward dating yourself.
I just can’t read this and see anything but despair. Economic despair, the kind that justifies working through your honeymoon while your new spouse tours Paris. Relational despair that uses extreme “self-care” to balance out the disappointed expectations of total marital fulfillment. What does it mean when the articles documenting new trends in honeymoons can be written without using the word “love” once?
It brings me back to Earley’s book. Yes, we need to understand the secularism of the West in ideological terms, but we also need to understand it liturgically. Practices shape us. The practices of the contemporary West gravitate around isolating ourselves as closely as possible for maximal autonomy. We need to protect ourselves from even our marriages so that we can make more money and take more selfies.
How these habits of despair wither in the presence of a shared table, an open door, and a sanctified marriage bed! If anything, shouldn’t we evangelicals rethink our embarrassment over Christian ethics and our attempt to hide those ethics behind trendy, reductionistic evangelism strategies? What if those ethics are themselves some of the brightest lights to a lost world?
We certainly shouldn’t ignore the intellectual character of unbelief. Critics of apologetics who argue that all we need is relationship miss the fact that no one wants to befriend someone they think is lying to them, nor should they. There’s a prominent place for thinking about evangelism and culture philosophically. But Earley and Ken Myers are right that the kind of unbelief emerging in our time is a not a carefully considered rejection of theology but a heartfelt embrace of practices that deliberately put Christ outside the margins. Practices that recenter Christ and recenter the things of his kingdom are alluring to a generation hopelessly enslaved to decadent political systems or Silicon Valley’s tyrannical algorithms.
Our public life is littered with symbols of our spiritual civil wars. Porn destroys sex. Social media molds friendship. Careerism breaks the spirit. From this world, Christians welcome any who are weary and heavy laden to the hopelessly antiquated practices of shared meals, chaste faithfulness, simplicity and sharing. Eat, drink, and really be merry.