Last week in Salon.com, an article written by Edward L. Rubin appeared entitled “‘50 Shades’ of Confederate grey: Why the Christian right is losing power over Southern morality.” In it, Rubin discusses the fact that the salacious film “Fifty Shades of Grey”—a film anyone with any sort of worldview that derives from a traditional religion would describe as pornographic—has done so well in the South, becoming a “smash hit in the heavily Republican, mega-churchgoing Southern states of the union.”
My initial gut reaction when I read the article was to dismiss Rubin’s analysis, but the more I read, the more it seemed to be on-point. Rubin argues, correctly I think, that:
“Traditional morality, which maintained that sex was only moral if it served the higher purposes of procreation (thus condemning homosexuality and abortion) and social stability (thus condemning divorce and female promiscuity), is crumbling throughout the Western world. Cultural conservatives are quick to see this process as evidence of an overall moral decline. . . . [T]he old morality of higher purposes is being replaced by a new morality, centered on human self-fulfillment. According to this rapidly advancing worldview, the purpose of sex is pleasure, and fulfilling sex is an important element of most people’s general life experience. Self-fulfillment is a real moral system.”
I think he’s dead-on. Think about what he’s saying: The “old morality of higher purposes is being replaced by a new morality, centered on human self-fulfillment.” This gets to the heart of our predicament in our current post-Christian cultural milieu. Our culture is in the process of abandoning a “morality of higher purposes” and replacing it with one of “human self-fulfillment.” No Christian preacher could have said it better.
But the more I think about this, the more I wonder about the very question Rubin raises (but doesn’t really answer): why the so-called Christian right is losing power over Southern morality. Reading an article like this brings to the surface fears I have about the current state of popular evangelicalism, what Rubin describes in his comment about the “heavily Republican, mega-churchgoing South.”
It makes me concerned that the reason evangelical Christianity is losing influence over the moral direction of our culture is that it has lost its stark, prophetic difference from the world in its quest to attract the world by being as much like the popular culture as it can be.
An article like this provokes the question in me: Could it be that mainstream American evangelicalism, in the way it conceives of the church and spirituality, has become more about religious “self-fulfillment” than about “higher purposes”?
In a course I teach here at Welch College, we were recently discussing the need to structure the lives of our churches, not on the trends of this present age, but on the teaching and example of Christ and his apostles. I explained that the church’s “DNA” is biblical and apostolic, and we should seek to structure our congregational lives and our spirituality in a way that naturally grows out of that biblical-Christian-apostolic “DNA.”
But what we see too often in evangelicalism is a substituting of the values, priorities, and methods of the present age for the patterns we have available to us in our inheritance in Scripture and in the Christian tradition.
We as evangelicals are too often so unsure of ourselves. We have such an inferiority complex that we don’t really believe the inner resources we have received from the Spirit—the Word and the Church—are sufficient to get the job done. We immediately think, “Surely there’s something we need to add to the mix that will really get the job done.” And that extra “something” is usually what is trending at the moment in the secular culture.
But as I once heard Mark Dever say, that extra something that we tack on to the sufficiency of Scripture and the gospel to attract people to church is the same thing that cults and false religions could use to attract people to their gatherings. When we do this, we’re despising the very means of grace that God has given us—that built-in DNA—for the life and health and growth of the church.
We’re biting our fingernails, deeply afraid that the Spirit’s resources are not enough, and that we must find something in the secular world that is—whether it’s entertainment, marketing, pop psychology, secular models of leadership, or whatever.
American evangelicals are emphasizing “self-fulfillment” too much in the way we think about what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be the church. But we will never experience renewal—and we will never be able to be salt and light in our culture—until we draw on the resources the Spirit has given us in Christ’s Word and Gospel and Apostles and Church. These are the “higher purposes” that we need to return to—not the religious “self-fulfillment” we seem to be currently pursuing.