Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Reactions to the Political Implications of the Book, The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America
Xavier Pickett, Nate Barksdale
November 12, 2010
Editor: Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman provoked a season of soul searching among many evangelicals with their book unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity and Why It Matters (2007), which quantified the negative perceptions many young Americans have about Christians. Building upon this work, Lyons has published The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America (2010), offering reason to hope in the face of such troubling data. For the next three weeks, this column will feature a series of reactions to the political implications of the book, followed by a response by author Gabe Lyons himself.
Will the Next Christians Bear Fruit?
It is quite possible that the end of Christian America may be, in part, due to the gospel rhetoric of Christian America no longer being able to carry the weight of our political reality. This then points to the ways in which Lyon’s book could impact political discourse in our pluralistic society. Lyon argues, “Unconcerned with outcomes, Christ’s followers must get back to the heart of their faith—recovering, relearning, and rebuilding from the core first, and then out.”
In a complex political climate where issues ranges from Wall Street Reform to the record high poverty figures of 2009 to the “take back my country” Tea Party movement, we should be suspicious of any group of citizens who are “unconcerned with outcomes.” If we as ordinary democratic citizens are to take seriously the Christian vision that Lyon offers, can we really afford to turn our cheek to the outcomes of his vision? Every Christian vision must be held accountable to the type of fruit (or the lack thereof) that it bears.
The fact of being any type of Christian does not guarantee prudent or productive political payoffs for all Americans. What this political moment needs is fewer Christians focusing on settling matters of theological dogma. Instead, our country needs more ordinary (Christian) citizens courageously testing the claims that we all make in public in order to determine whether they bear good fruit.
—Xavier Pickett is the Founder and President of Reformed Blacks of America, a Philadelphia based think tank, and Ph.D. candidate in Religion & Society at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Next Christians? Or Next Evangelicals?
We could all do well to practice the cultural values, traits and disciplines modeled by the people Gabe Lyons describes in "The Next Christians." But though I often agree with Lyons' suggestions—being provoked rather than offended, creating new culture rather than just critiquing or co-opting the old, reengaging with the Christian disciplines—I often found his arguments disappointing and a little too steeped in American evangelical aspiration and lore.
As he describes the “next Christian” trait of pursuing callings in the thick of the secular world (rather than in traditional ministry), Lyons describes "seven channels of cultural influence" (media, education, government, etc.) where next Christians are working to steer the culture towards the things of God. Lyons takes the seven channels theory from, of all places, an account of the "gay movement,” which he bizarrely states got its start in 1988 at a secret meeting of media influencers in Virginia.
Historicity aside, I fear Lyons' analogy echoes a certain American evangelical dream: if we just get the right influential people together in a room, we can change the world in the ways we want to. Treating cultural power so simplistically exaggerates the power we hope to attain, overlooks the power we already have, and often keeps us from noticing the less-powerful we are called to faithfully work alongside.
Ultimately the problem with this book isn't that its vision is overstated or its means too facile, but that its horizons, though perhaps wider than those of some in its target audience, still seem obliviously narrow. The title and oft-repeated phrase "the next Christians" is, of course, just a hook on which to hang Lyons' stories and observations, but I couldn't shake the feeling that it could nearly always be more accurately rendered "the next white American evangelicals."
—Nate Barksdale writes about cultural artifacts for Comment Magazine, and is curator of Cullture-Making.com.
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