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In his August 2009 ministry letter, Dr. R.C. Sproul began with this sentence: "Clearly, the influence of Christianity in America has declined dramatically over the last twenty years." I'm sure that you have heard other Christian leaders make similar statements, maybe you've even made them yourself. It seems to be something of a self-evident observation: this "fact" that the influence of the Christian Church on modern society seems to be waning, even "declining dramatically." I would like to suggest that R.C. Sproul is only half-right though. I think that he is absolutely right that the influence that most of us in the Church would like to have on the culture is declining, however, I also believe that Christianity, as an institution, is still as influential as it has always been. In other words, the problem is not how much influence Christianity is having, but what kind of influence it is having.
Last week, we discussed the intellectual responses being submitted by academic Christians to the atheistic challenges of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and the other "new atheists." I want to be clear that these responses are necessary and are actually helpful to a few, but for the most part, they are falling on deaf ears. Why is it that when Dawkins and Co. release a new book they sell millions of copies, but the Christian response to the bestseller is lucky to sell tens of thousands? I believe the primary reason is that when the new atheists write their books, they are not aiming them at the Christian elite, but the masses. It is not as though the culture is somehow surprised when Christian leaders speak up and give intellectual answers to the challenges of atheism, it is just that they are not interested in listening. For them, the New Atheists ARE the response to what they perceive as fifty-plus years of Christian domination. To the majority of unchurched or moderately-churched individuals, the New Atheists are something of a breath of fresh air after decades of "Christian oppression." Whether this perception is right or not is beside the point, it is how the New Atheists have positioned themselves and many millions of readers apparently identify with it. A tightly-argued response from a brilliant Ph.D. scientist about the intellectual virtues and viability of the Christian worldview is nothing more than "white noise."
I have claimed previously that modern Christianity has two public faces: highly intellectual (which we have already discussed) and highly anti-intellectual (which we are preparing to discuss). I have also previously recommended that you take a field trip to the local Barnes and Noble bookstore and have a look-see at the religion section to find a representative sample of these two extremes. Now, I recommend that you make another trip, this time to the local Christian bookstore (if your community is lacking one, consider yourself lucky). If you can make it through the store without being choked by the perfumy scents that are inexplicably permeating the air, past the greeting cards, past the music CDs, past the jewelry and breath mints, past the t-shirts, and past the Bible covers and car-bumper ornaments, you will actually find a few books...kind of. At this point, you are literally trapped in the store, so you might as well take a look and wait for one of the ladies that work there to ask if you are looking for anything in particular (they're always ladies and they're always really nice). This is where it gets fun (and sad). Ask for a copy of any of the Christian responses to the New Atheists. Blank stare. Ask for a copy of a conservative commentary on the book of Acts. Another blank stare. Ask for anything by C.S. Lewis and when she brings you the Chronicles of Narnia tell her that you meant one of Lewis' nonfiction works. A really blank stare. Now ask for a copy of Joyce Meyer's newest book and her eyes will light up. She'll take you to a shelf containing every Meyer book written in the last ten years. She'll further tell you that she can order any of the other 453 books that Joyce has written and that she can have them by Friday. At this point you can thank her for her time and walk briskly to the exit, leaving without guilt and any intention of ever returning.
Such is the state of Christian "bookstores," bastions of anti-intellectual drivel and highly emotional, experiential trinkets to encourage you on your "Christian journey." It is this type of nonsense, which is being substituted for biblical Christianity, that is having the "influence" that R.C. Sproul rightly laments. Christianity is influencing America, but it's the wrong kind of Christianity that's having the influence. It is a feminine one. Most Christian bookstores are not designed with men in mind because it is women who do the majority of the buying. It has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Any man that unwittingly enters a Christian bookstore will quickly find his way out, thinking that he must have entered the Hallmark store instead. This would be funny if it wasn't so serious. The anti-intellectual, public-face of Christianity is a feminized, pastel-colored wall-hanging with a witty saying (maybe even a Bible verse) embroidered on it. It is a religion of feelings and emotions. It has nothing to offer besides happy thoughts. It is an emasculated, man-centered gospel of warm-hearted niceness...just like Grandma's cinnamon rolls.
This gospel of niceness did not just appear on the scene out of nowhere. It was a conscious response to the intellectual beating the church was taking. The intellectual Christians were issuing good enough responses, but the pew-dwellers weren't getting them. They were too busy sending their "Christian" sons and daughters off to the university, and getting them back as humanists. How could this happen? Hadn't they done everything that was expected of them as parents? Hadn't they taught them to say their prayers and have their "quiet time" every morning? How could this magical formula fail? They even bought a leather-bound Young Adult Study Bible with their child's name stamped in gold foil for an extra measure of protection. Grief-stricken parents vainly searched their back issues of Our Daily Bread for answers, but none were to be found.
The anti-intellectual movement responded by ignoring the problem, pretending like it wasn't there. The books that began to roll out were reflective of the general disregard for reality. Health and wealth became the order of the day. Being a Christian was like an insurance policy that guaranteed success. Jesus wanted you to be happy, healthy, wealthy, and well-liked. Devotional books began to fill the shelves. The culture was having a heart attack and Christian publishing houses were turning out band-aids. The culture learned quickly that the church was no longer a hospital but a convalescent center. No longer was the church actively fighting the war, it had given up and was now distributing lollipops to anyone who stopped in. Sugar-coated feel-goodism replaced the gospel of dominion and discipleship. The church had lowered its Christian flag and raised a plain white one instead. The humanist revolution was complete.
That's where the "influence of Christianity" is today—highly intellectual or highly anti-intellectual. You can have your books with either footnotes or flowers, but neither one will tell you what's really needed: a call to action. Any regular reader to this site will no doubt recognize this term: presuppositional apologetics—but it is about time that we actually begin to learn and implement it. I gave a hint at the end of last week’s article about Jason Lisle's book, The Ultimate Proof of Creation. This book is a great place to begin studying presuppositional thinking—which basically says that if the Christian worldview is not true, nothing is true. Simple as that; no Ph.D. required. As Dostoevsky famously put it in The Brothers Karamozov, "without God, everything is permissible." It really is this easy. In order to argue against God's existence, the atheist must presume God's created order. The atheist wants to live in a world where the Ten Commandments are obeyed, but they don't want to have the Writer of the Commandments anywhere around.
The presuppositional argument is neither intellectual or anti-intellectual. Anyone can learn it and begin to use it rather quickly, but like chess, there are countless strategies and ways that it can be used. A vast brainful of facts and figures is not necessary, but it certainly helps. Most people have never encountered anything like it in their daily activities, so don't be surprised when people call it foolishness. In fact, it is foolishness to those who are perishing; biblical truth always is. God said that fools will say "there is no God." Our task is to show that the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men (1 Corinthians 1:25-27). The presuppositional argument will stop ANY objection that an unbeliever can raise, because it is simply using God's own method. God never once tries to prove His existence, and neither should we. The proof of God's existence is that without Him, nothing makes any sense and "truth" becomes nothing more than mere opinion. After reading Dr. Lisle's book, you will be ready for the next level: Doug Wilson's response to New Atheist golden boy Sam Harris. In his short book, Letter from a Christian Citizen, Wilson expertly uses the presuppositional argument to destroy Harris' anti-God rhetoric and expose it for what it is—foolish whining.