Influencing the World

Influencing the World November 1, 2016

Summarizing Russell Moore’s 2016 Erasmus Lecture, Rod Dreher writes: Moore is “saying that the best way to influence the culture for Christ is to stop trying to ‘influence the culture for Christ,’ but rather to be deeply and thoughtfully Christian, and to allow your countercultural life to be your testimony.”

I haven’t listened to Moore’s lecture. From Dreher’s account, it sounds as pitch-perfect as most everything Moore has been saying and writing of late. But I want to register an objection to Dreher’s statement about trying to influence the culture. (I can’t tell whether I’m responding to Dreher or Moore or both.) My objection may sound like a quibble, but it’s not. It’s a friendly amendment, but a fundamental one.

The claim that Christians affect the world when they forget about trying to affect the world rests on a particular understanding of the gospel and the church’s mission. On this understanding, the gospel isn’t essentially about the world or its destiny. It’s about the destiny of souls, or the destiny of the church. The church has only a secondary interest in the world.

If that sounds too harsh a reading of Dreher’s comment, think about it back-to-front: If the gospel is a message about the world, then Christian couldn’t give up trying to influence the world, or culture, without giving up the gospel. If the gospel is about the acts of the Triune God to transform creation, we couldn’t give up trying to transform creation without calling a halt to mission.

Dreher seems to invert the perspective of the Religious Right whose “eulogy” Moore pronounced in his lecture. The Religious Right said: If we want to do a course-correction on America, believers have to become politically active, we have to do more than preach the gospel and live faithfully. Dreher is saying: We should devote ourselves to preaching the gospel and living faithfully, and not worry about doing a course-correction on America. He appears to agree with the Religious Right that influencing culture is something we do in addition to living Christianly. Dreher’s comment implies the same kind of dualism that distorted the agenda of the Religious Right: There’s Christian living on one side, and influencing the world on the other. He’s turned the dualism upside down, but hasn’t renounce the dualism itself.

But the gospel isn’t just about the salvation of souls or the future of the church. It’s the good news of the kingdom; it’s the announcement that Jesus is Lord (and hence, Lord of lords); it’s good news of the fulfillment of promises to Abraham and David; it is, as Leslie Newbigin had it, public truth through and through, all the way to the ground. The church’s message and mission are inherently a political: The Lord has enthroned His Son; pay homage to Him. We’re commanded to pray for kings and all others in authority; aren’t we trying to influence them? We sing Psalms that call on God to draw near to judge and correct; isn’t that a prayer for God to change the world? The aim to “influence the culture” is internal to the church’s mission, not a tangential “political” application of the gospel.

This isn’t a slam against the Benedict Option. I have a great deal of sympathy with Dreher’s diagnosis of American culture and with the specifics of the BenOp. But we’ll end up with more of the same if the BenOp is motivated by a truncated gospel that misses the cosmic and political scope of Christian mission.

I doubt that Dreher (or Moore) actually believes we should give up trying to influence the culture. They call Christians to carry on a testimony with a countercultural lifestyle. But testimony to what? And to what end? Surely they both want our testimony to have some effect. The question to pose to the Religious Right is not whether we try to influence, but how. And there Dreher and Moore are exactly right: We influence the world (and should try to) by living faithful lives of prayer and witness, worship and service, by discipling our kids and loving our neighbors, living out the kingdom we proclaim.

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