An Arrow Has a Telos: Strategy in the Negative World

If you’ve not yet heard of Aaron Renn’s three worlds framework, here’s the quick version: once upon a time, being a Christian was a net social good in American society. Whatever was going on behind the scenes in elite institutions, the general rank-and-file perception of Christianity was positive. That was the Positive World. Over time (circa 1994), society came to a more neutral stance on Christianity – it was no longer a positive, but regarded as essentially harmless, like being a serious model train enthusiast or a local history buff. This Neutral World also passed away (circa 2014), and we are now living in a Negative World, where being a Christian is viewed with suspicion: “She seemed like a nice lady at first, but then I found out she’s a Christian.” 

I first encountered Renn’s framework in his newsletter, and used it more recently in last year’s Theopolis Conversation on proclamation. Various quibbles are possible – Doug Wilson’s observation that Roe v. Wade came in the middle of the positive world being one of the more telling – but I’ve found it a generally helpful framework that tracks with my experience. 

So what do we do about it? Renn argues that the church has not really developed a strategy for dealing with the negative world. He’s obviously right in one sense. It took centuries to Christianize the Mediterranean world, working out key ingredients like the hypostatic union along the way; what are the odds that we have developed The Killer App For The Negative World in a mere eight years? On the other hand, we’ve been living in this world for nearly a decade, and there’s a lot of us. Surely we’ve come up with something? 

I believe we have. I see two popular trends emerging among evangelicals, and a third one that I hope will become more popular still – things that Renn sometimes comments on, but I’m not sure he’s grasped the significance of what he’s seeing.

The Benedict Option: Fundamentalism Redux

The Benedict Option (as propounded in Rod Dreher’s book of that title) happens when a group of believers put their focus on developing and maintaining their own Christian community. They’re willing to be a blessing to the world around them, of course, but they’re not much interested in engaging the world. The world is gonna do what the world is gonna do, and that’s not a battle they expect to win in the short run, so they spend their time and energy caring for their own, raising their kids, pursuing personal holiness, and other pursuits that are largely internal to the community of believers. 

Dreher’s book on this strategy was criticized rather widely at the time of publication. Many early readers found it “alarmist,” and events of the past few years have vindicated Dreher on that point. As far as I can see, most of the remaining reservations boil down to a hypocritical aversion to admitting what we’re actually doing. In practice, the actual day-to-day realities of the Benedict Option – spending your finite time, effort, and money within your Christian community and letting the outside world pass you by – seem to be getting more popular all the time. But nobody wants to say, “We’re losing, so let’s just retreat” out loud. It makes emotional sense, but it also sounds a little too much like what we did in the early 20th century, and that didn’t take us good places. 

The Chamberlain Option: Social Gospel Redux

There’s another group of people – many of them formerly very successful in navigating the neutral world – who also see the battle for the broader culture as unwinnable in the short term, but who focus their energy into service and charity in the public square. They do a lot of really great work – homeless shelters, blood drives, various big holiday events for the community, and more. They’re active on a carefully curated list of currently-popular social issues: immigration, sex trafficking, clean water, racism. In today’s climate, they’ll never get a positive op/ed in the New York Times, but in their own neighborhoods and their cities, they are often very well regarded. 

Renn describes these folks as executing an outmoded neutral-world strategy, and he has a point – the things they’re still doing are part of what made their operations successful in the neutral world. But they have adapted to the negative world, and you can see that in what they don’t do. Even though many of them are (in private, on paper) theological and social conservatives, they will never say anything in public that might get them in trouble on Twitter.   The only time you hear one of these folks saying something “edgy” on social media is when the target is somewhere to their political right – or, (as Renn rightly observes) when they address the aforementioned “causes where they are 100% in agreement with the elite secular consensus.”

“Maintaining a good testimony” is a high value in these circles, and the functional definition of “good testimony” is maintaining the secular truce (an arrangement wherein Christians get to be active in the public square by behaving as if all religious claims are only matters of personal, private conviction, and have no claim on public life.) They’ve temporarily carved out a little positive world for themselves at a municipal level, and all it cost them is letting the pagans choose the ever-shrinking list of what they can do and say in public – which is to say that they lost their soul, and gained far less than the whole world. 

The Boniface Option?

Both the Benedict and Chamberlain Option camps actually do quite a bit of good, and I have friends in both of them. The problem with both of those options is the crucial missing ingredients. There’s little advantage in having troops on the battlefield if you refuse to move them to the places the enemy is actually attacking. Happily, there’s a better approach available. I will join C. R. Wiley, Doug Wilson and others in calling it the Boniface Option. 

Renn has noticed folks like us, but he takes us to be executing a very outdated positive-world strategy that can’t possibly work in the current environment. He makes that mistake because he lumps all culture war approaches together, seeing them all as Moral Majority style culture warriors. That’s not what’s happening.  

The operative word in the Moral Majority-style approach to culture war was majority: they assumed that elites hostile to us were hijacking a culture that was largely friendly to us. All we needed to do was expose their agenda, and the Christian-friendly majority would shame the elites off the stage. Arguably, those culture warriors understood the Long March and its implications correctly, but they were decades too late: the pagan triumph Jerry Falwell was trying to avoid was already accomplished by the time Machen was defrocked.  

We have no such illusions. The fix is in; the vast majority have taken the bribes and are no longer even slightly Christian. Whether they’re falling before the altar of the elitist bitch goddess of high-end career success or worshiping in the far more accessible temples of internet porn and legal weed, idolaters are the clear majority. They’ve got us surrounded…poor bastards. 

The Boniface Necessity: Not Your Granddad’s Culture War

We have read the end of the Story, and we know something the other two options seem to have forgotten: we’re gonna win. So we act like it. Unlike the Benedict Option folks, we play offense. Unlike the Chamberlain Option folks, we don’t mind giving offense in the process. We know that the world – like the flesh and the devil – was always an enemy of God. We understand that the seed of the serpent doesn’t like it when we win, and the crooked refs will call a foul every time we score a point. So what? Let’s just decide to be offensive in both senses of the word, and get on with following Jesus. So on second thought, let’s not call it the Boniface Option. Let’s call it the Boniface Necessity. 

Jesus did things Chamberlain Option people would approve of, like going into a village and healing all their sick. He was winsome, but counterintuitively so: he didn’t refuse to offend people in the public square, and neither should we. He told the woman taken in adultery to sin no more; He condemned the vast majority of divorces; He treated Genesis like it was true; He used a racial slur with the woman from Tyre; He called respectable people names and made fun of their giving and their prayers and their clothes. He told little stories at dinner parties that made the country-club set want to kill him. I could go on, but the point is, He didn’t let the tastemakers of the day dictate what was acceptable to say and do in order to “maintain a good testimony.”

Likewise, the Benedict Option folks have hold of something important. The church is an alternate politeia, a city on a hill that rebukes and disciples the cities of man. Intentional cultivation of our Christian communities and attentive education of our children is a very high priority. Put another way, force protection is a valid part of military strategy, but it’s not an end in itself. We don’t fill the Psalm 127 quiver just to have a full quiver; an arrow has a telos. The whole point is to have a lot of weapons

Our communities, our children, our healthy marriages are all tools to provoke the world to jealousy when they see sanity bearing fruit. Whether we’re feasting at a communal beer-brew, hosting a Friday morning coffee bar, or holding a church service in the front yard in the middle of a pandemic, we invite our unbelieving neighbors to join in, the better to be provoked to jealousy. “No one dared join them, but the people esteemed them highly” (Acts 5:12-13) is a goal worth aiming for.

So what do we actually do day to day? We invest heavily in making disciples. We know that there is no solution to our nation’s social problems apart from widespread repentance and reformation. You must – you, personally – be born again, and you must take up your cross and follow Jesus. A discipled nation is not made up of opportunistic pagan officials cutting deals with a big Christian voting bloc. A discipled nation is made up of disciples, making the kind of nation that disciples make. There’s no shortcut to that: we make disciples the same way Jesus did, a few at a time. 

To that end, we sing Psalms. We have long Scripture readings in church (this past week, Psalm 7, Zecharaiah 13, Philippians 3, and Luke 11). We bless and pray with the mayor, the city manager, the chief of police. We mock the city government when they beclown themselves by christening the last 11 days of April “Diversity Month.” (No kidding. You really can’t make this stuff up.) We help people get out of addictions and off the streets; we try to keep those who will never get out of their addictions and off the streets from freezing to death. We love and serve all our neighbors, including the transient ones. We remove a city council member who launches unprovoked assaults on local ministries to the homeless, and we replace her with someone more friendly. 

We tell the truth in the public square: Jesus is King, and all of you are accountable to Him. It is Jesus, not the governor or the county health department, to whom you will answer for refusing to feed the hungry, visit the sick, or serve the sacraments to Christ’s flock on the flimsy excuses we were served up in 2020. More generally: your 401(k) cannot save you. Your wokeness cannot save you. A mask and a shot will not make you a good person. Facebook without works is dead: reposting a meme is not the same thing as tangibly loving your literal neighbor. Your zoning code forces poor people onto the streets, and a night at the soup kitchen does not absolve you. We say these things loudly, publicly, to people who can see our lives – to whom our lives function as part of the rebuke. 

Weaponizing our lives and households for the kingdom of God is only the beginning, of course: not all problems can be resolved at the micro level. If your basement floods because your hot water heater sprung a leak, you can fix that yourself; if your basement floods because a storm sewer pipe is clogged half a mile from your house, you’ve got a bigger problem. We have to think in terms of bigger political theology as well as personal piety. The goal is discipled nations; you can’t neglect your front porch, but you can’t do it all from your front porch either. Jesus is king of kings, lord of lords, CEO of CEOs, president of presidents. All earthly powers can kiss the Son voluntarily now or get kneecapped with a rod of iron later. We want our national government to live subject to Jesus, our corporations to live subject to Jesus, our healthcare and financial systems to live subject to Jesus, and we know that in the end, they will be. Because they will be made of disciples.

Tim Nichols is a pastor-at-large with Headwaters Christian Resources and coauthor with Joe Anderson of the Victorious Bible curriculum and the forthcoming book Boniface in the Front Yard. He lives, ministers, and operates a massage therapy practice in Englewood, Colorado.

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