Trading the Culture War for the Kingdom: A Review of A Faith of Our Own

Jonathan Merritt grew up a child of the Religious Right. His father is a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and he attended Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. Growing up, he says, he assumed that being faithful to Jesus meant defeating liberals. As he grew into young adulthood, however, he realized that there were Christians on the Left who saw things differently. Instead of switching from one political side to the other, he concluded that “[b]oth sides had accepted a faith that seemed more shaped by American culture than by the Christ I kept encountering in the Bible” (5). He set out to discover what it means to follow Jesus “beyond the culture wars,” and his book, A Faith of Our Own, is a record of his journey and the journey of others like him.

In this highly readable book, Merritt critiques both the Christian Right and Left. He rightly says that those Christians who are most actively engaged in fighting culture wars “take the Bible’s teachings on God’s kingdom and shrink ray it to fit their specific purposes” (17). Those on the Left, he says, focus on a “social justice” agenda that depends on government intervention, ending war, and defeating the Christian Right. Those on the Right focus on voting Christians into office, opposing abortion and gay marriage, restoring prayer to public schools, and posting the Ten Commandments in courthouses. He writes,

Many on both sides lack a biblical framework for healthy engagement with the political process. Worse, few seem to consider the implications of their decisions. They know what might be accomplished by aligning their faith with a particular party, but they don’t realize the price that must be paid, the sacrifices that must be made (31-32).

These shrunken understandings of God’s kingdom, leading to the reduction of the Bride of Christ to a voting bloc, constitute the failure of Christians of Merritt’s (and my) parents’ generation to engage the public square as Christians, rather than as the tools of some political ideology. As a result, Merritt notes, young people brought up in the Church are fleeing in alarming numbers, and those outside the Church are repelled by the marriage in many churches between faith and conservative politics.

Not surprisingly, considering the movement’s influence and his personal background as part of it, Merritt spends more time critiquing the Christian Right than the Left. He memorably captures the dissatisfaction that many Christians in his generation feel about how the Church ought to act in public: “The culture-warring Christian… rushes off to fight the ‘war on Christmas’ and force the employees at Target to quit saying ‘Happy Holidays.’ A gospel-centered Christian says, ‘Christmas in America has very little to do with the incarnation of Christ anyway. Let’s focus our energies on what’s really important'” (133).

Though he talks about “focusing on what’s really important,” Merritt doesn’t have much in the way of concrete proposals. His book seems intended more to capture the mood of the shifting evangelical culture than it is to chart a way forward, though in the second half of the book he does talk about the need for change to come from the bottom up, and the change he has seen in newer churches like the one he is a part of. I hope that perhaps in a future book he will be able to shed a more focused light on what post-culture-war Christianity ought to look like.

I enjoyed this book, and flew through it in just a couple of days. Partly it was because Merritt’s message resonated with me. Neither of my parents have ever really had a “culture war” mentality, but growing up as part of the evangelical subculture in the South, it was hard to avoid. I have long since decided that it has done more harm than good to the Church of Christ in the United States, distracting people inside and outside the Church from the real work of the kingdom of God. I also appreciated that Merritt ended the book on a note of humility: he knows that his generation will make, and already has made, mistakes, the way every generation does. I hope he continues to document our successes and failures in such an engaging way.

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Cultural Identity and the War on Christmas

I’ve been thinking about the War on Christmas recently. The War on Christmas, in case you are blessed enough to have not heard of it, is the debate over whether to have a specific celebration of Christmas or a generic celebration of various holidays this time of year. It includes the question of whether to say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” whether to have a Christmas parade or a holiday parade, and whether nativity scenes should be permitted on public property. I wrote a satirical post on it last year, but this time around I’d like to take a more serious look at it.

First, I want to say that I don’t think there is anything wrong with wishing one another a merry Christmas. After all, if you celebrate Christmas, there is no reason why you shouldn’t say “Merry Christmas” to one another. The only possible reason why I wouldn’t like saying “Merry Christmas” at this point in the liturgical year is that we are still technically in the season of Advent.

But the War on Christmas is not about wishing one another a merry Christmas; it is about preserving cultural identity. We don’t say “Merry Christmas” because we want people to have a merry Christmas; we say “Merry Christmas” because WE CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS AND WE’RE NOT GOING TO LET ANYONE TELL US WE CAN’T TALK ABOUT CHRISTMAS IN PUBLIC. See the difference? I mean, besides the capital letters. In the first case, we are celebrating what Christmas means for us: the Incarnation, the fulfillment of long-ago promises, the hope that Jesus will come again. In the second case, all of that is shoved to the background. What takes center stage is our identity as Christmas-celebrants as opposed to celebrants of other holidays.

This is ironic, because Jesus clashed with those Jews who made much of their cultural identity. They stressed that they were descendants (sperma) of Abraham and disciples of Moses (Jn 8:33, 39; 9:28). Jesus acknowledged that they were Abraham’s descendants, but that wasn’t enough for him. He stressed instead that if they were really Abraham’s children (tekna), they would be doing what Abraham did (Jn 8:39-40). Cultural identity as Abraham’s descendants was not enough; they needed to be Abraham’s children, which meant doing what Abraham did. John the Baptist, likewise, told the Pharisees and Sadducees who came out to see him that cultural identity was not enough (Mt 3:7-10; Lk 3:8-9). People needed to produce fruit in keeping with repentance.

I have sympathy for folks who want to be the kind of people who say “Merry Christmas.” The media tells us that this is an important battle to fight, and after all, being a person who says “Merry Christmas” is a lot easier than being a disciple. But let’s not fool ourselves; it is the latter which is required of Christians.

By all means, wish people a merry Christmas. But don’t do it because you want to be the kind of person (or church) who says “Merry Christmas.” Do it because Christmas is a joyous season – a time to celebrate God’s faithfulness – and you want others to share in that joy. The moment when saying “Merry Christmas” becomes less about a joyous celebration of what God has done and more about the preservation of our cultural identity, we have become Pharisees: religious people who are more focused on their religion than on the reasons behind it.