I am a diehard football fan, which is only amplified by still living in the town of my alma mater. My wife, by contrast, grew up in Australia and does not share my enthusiasm. Until last year, my children took after her and had not shown much interest in the sport, but I distinctly remember the game where it all changed.
One of my daughters started watching a game with me and gradually learned the rules during the first half. By the second half she started to understand the game. Baylor had a great season and this particular game was competitive and had implications for the conference championship. It eventually went into overtime in a back-and-forth thriller.
I was on the edge of my seat and looked over to my daughter and saw that she had a blanket over her head. She was so into the game that she couldn’t bear to watch. Though I felt the same way, I started to laugh—she literally did not understand the sport at the beginning of the game. A few hours later she was watching under a blanket; this was a relatively brisk four-hour conversion into Baylor athletics.
I started reflecting on this experience and realized this is just a small example of how we are shaped by our social environment. My daughter didn’t choose to become a Baylor fan; she was shaped. However, she will not question this reality for a long time. Everywhere she goes—her church, her interactions with friends, trips around town, and certainly at home with me—reinforces her Baylor identity and values. It’s the subject of small talk, it’s the graphics we see on billboards and t-shirts, it’s the common knowledge our community shares.
If she had grown up in Austin then her social environment would have shaped her into a different sort of fandom (albeit, a far less fulfilling vocation). If she had grown up in the United Kingdom, then she would be a fan of a different type of football.
This goes far deeper than sports. Humans are necessarily social. We cannot understand the world apart from what we learned from our social environment. I written about this previously but it’s important enough to review.
Peter Berger, in his book The Social Construction of Reality, explores the origins of what a culture considers “reality,” stating that “everyday life presents itself as a reality interpreted by men and subjectively meaningful to them as a coherent world.”[i] But this “reality” is in fact a social construction that first originated in social activity between humans. Even our language originates in culture and consistently reinforces this “reality” so that it is incredibly difficult to conceive of alternative understandings of the world.[ii]
This creates a significant difficulty for modern Christians. Believers do not just embrace a different set of doctrine and ethics from their surrounding neighbors, they attempt to live within what Berger calls “a deviant reality.” The strength of the dominant culture will continually call into question the entire ontological foundations necessary for Christian faith.
What in earlier eras was logical or ethical may now be seen as backwards or even immoral. If knowledge is indeed social, individual Christians face a nearly impossible task of living within a Christian construction. Their host culture will eventually define their reality (or at least that of their children) so that belief does not fit within the dominant plausibility structure or is reduced to a compartmentalized form of spirituality within the broader nova of spiritual practice.[iii]
It’s difficult to overestimate just how big of a challenge this is for American Christians. We are accustomed to a socially defined reality that provides justification for our beliefs, and a civil religion that, even if unstated, defends us in the court of public opinion. I worry we are not prepared for their eventual erosion and the implications of living as a true minority community.
Despite the difficulty, there is a viable solution. Let me explain with another football illustration. I am a diehard Kansas City Chiefs fan (Google my last name and you’ll understand).
This identity is more difficult to maintain and transfer to my children. The problem is that I live in the land of Dallas Cowboys. I am a pilgrim and an alien attempting to shine like a star amidst a crooked and depraved generation. All of the things working to support our allegiance to Baylor work against us in following the Chiefs. The ontological foundations are consistently under attack (ok, that’s a bit dramatic but you get the point).
But my children are Chiefs fans nonetheless. How do we do it? The answer is simple: the culture of my family is stronger than the culture of my city. If we Steadmans held a relatively weak allegiance to the Chiefs or if we only maintained weak social bonds as a family, then eventually my kids would convert to the dark side. But if we stay together then we have the internal strength to resist external pressure.
I am convinced this is the only way the Church will thrive in the West. We can no longer rely on the privileges of Christendom and we do not have much hope of restoring it to its previous place (and I’d passionately argue that we should not try!)
James Davison Hunter says “as a community and an institution, the church is a plausibility structure and the only one with the resources capable of offering an alternative formation to that offered by popular culture.”[v]
Stefan Paas, a Dutch missiologist reflecting on his experience in post-Christian Europe agrees, stating, “from a purely sociological point of view it is highly doubtful that serious Christians can flourish in a secular culture without being embedded in a form of community, spiritual practices and a liturgical tradition. Every study in this field proves otherwise.”[iv]
You are being shaped by someone. The question is who is shaping you? If you cannot readily answer the question, then it is likely the default culture of our society. More than models, structures, or polity, I believe we need churches that re-establish identity through a strong and healthy culture. We are the Body of Christ, the household of God, the temple of God, and God’s chosen people. This must go beyond a intellectual affirmation and instead become our lived reality.
[i] Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, (Kindle edition, New York, NY: Open Road Media, 1966), 19.
[ii] James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, (Kindle Edition, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010), 32.
[iii] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, (Kindle edition, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).
[iv] Stefan Paas, Pilgrims and Priests: Christian Mission in a Post-Christian Society, (Kindle edition, London: SCM Press, 2019), Kindle Location 4800.
[v] Hunter, Change, 282.