Yesterday I stumbled upon a magnificently-written article analyzing why American evangelical Christians have largely decided to go to bed with Donald Trump, a man whose life is so obviously contrary to the high biblical standards of Christian living. And then last night I couldn’t sleep. I woke up this morning after a fitful night, realizing that everything that I had been feeling about American Christianity towards the Trump campaign just lined up with my own experience of growing up in church in NYC.
The independent Chinese church that I grew up in wasn’t technically evangelical, and in a lot of ways, it would have looked similar cosmetically to GracePoint or any CPC/CCC in Sydney. But in a few keys areas like cultural conservatism and its church members’ emotional feelings towards social issues like gay marriage, it aligned squarely with the sentiments of more Bible-belt, Baptist churches.
The damning words of this article resonate so strongly with my own experience of church growing up in the U.S. that when I read it, I also felt at fault for the type of cultural retreat that Christians made in the public sphere. So much of church culture was about building a wall and hermetically sealing itself off from the corrupt, outside, non-Christian world. I was taught implicitly through the songs that we sang and the activities we did in youth group that the purpose of being a Christian wasn't to preach the gospel of saving grace to the lost but to have a safe place to go to on Friday nights where uptight Chinese parents who are obsessed with their children's future worldly success could be assured that their precious kids aren't being subjected to bad influences like drinking or smoking or partying or swearing. And I 100% sh** you not, I'm not exaggerating because I just had a PTSD style flashback of the time angry Asian parents stormed into youth group when I was in year 10 to complain to my youth leader (who actually did care about reaching the lost) about rumors that there were actually kids attending church who SMOKE CIGARETTES. Seriously I didn’t even realize I still had that memory buried deep down somewhere.
Jonathan Edwards likes to use the metaphor of sun and shadow to describe the difference between worldly pleasure and joy in God. Just as God is the sun, worldly idols are like shadows of the reality. I think that could be an apt metaphor for secular art and the embarrassing Christianized facsimiles that cropped up to appropriate it. Everything we sang at church, from Chris Tomlin’s edgeless, flavorless, pseudo-alt rock, to those yearly WOW Worship releases, were pale, shamelessly derivative imitations of truly beautiful and groundbreaking things that non-Christians were doing from the big bad outside. Every now and then we would watch the latest awful, awful, low-budget, heavy-handed, moralizing Christian movie that was always either about the end times (pretty much the only part of the Bible where you can drum up any Hollywood-worthy drama) or the good Christian kids getting through to their gangster school friends with the Bible in scenarios so laughably unrealistic that I would call it evangelism porn.
We American Christians are one hundred percent at fault for the mess we made when we chose the wide road of political power and cultural wall-building over the messy, narrow path of cultural engagement. We forgot that God called us to do evangelism and cultural renewal in the trenches of daily life and faithfulness in all the little areas of life. Instead, we choose to believe the far simpler lie that if we could just win a few key battles, then the West would once again be ours. Think Roe vs Wade, Obergefell vs Hodges, righteous Mitt Romney (Mormons count as Christians, right? Ah, he's close enough for our purposes) versus Barack "Antichrist-wasn't-even-born-here" Obama.
As an American Christian, I repent and take responsibility for the part that I had in creating the current political quagmire where millions of people who profess to love Jesus feel that they have to, for the sake of their nation, throw their lot in with a clueless, thrice-married, arrogant, disrespectful, egomaniacal, compulsive liar.
I think that the way forward now is to acknowledge that we now have a beautiful, if scary, opportunity to be witnesses from the margins of society. We have a chance to shape culture from where Jesus himself was, as socially irrelevant, politically powerless outcasts whose mindbogglingly selfless way of life won over the elect even while eliciting scorn from the damned, just as the recipients of the Apostle Peter’s letters did. And we do it by rejecting the notion of being a Moral Majority and embracing what Russell Moore called the Prophetic Minority. It won’t be easy. It will be risky, costly, and sometimes infuriatingly unfair. That last part is what gets me the most; just how unfairly we will be represented in popular culture and the media, but that’s part of the calling to be foreigners and aliens in this world, and to have our citizenship in heaven.