From Barna stats to mainstream headlines, it seems as though the discordant nature of this last year has taken such a toll on churches in the United States that, for many, the injuries have been fatal. It has become a regular occurrence to hear about a congregation that continues to only interact virtually or that has closed its doors for good. But this is not the only news being reported.
There is movement in the other direction as well. People are leaving atheism and the New Age for traditional Christianity. They are joining militias. They are organizing themselves around shared causes with new vigor. They are losing decades-long relationships but simultaneously forging new and deep ones. In short, things that can be are being shaken loose. One trend continues to be central to all of these plots of myriad unraveling. As literacy deteriorates more and more into image-based communication, there is not only a natural movement towards an oral culture, but simultaneously a new kind of tribalism is emerging as well. The orality is an inevitable consequence of the tribalism. Whether this shift is acknowledged or not, people are intuitively recognizing that, all of a sudden, there is a profound shortage of chiefs.
Last month, Michael Cuenco published an article in Palladium entitled “America’s New Post-Literate Epistemology”. Borrowing a framework from Marshall McLuhan, Cuenco reminds his readers what the prophet of the digital age foresaw our post-visual, post-literate society. In addition to polarization and irrationality, McLuhan saw a return to orality and touch as a primary characteristic of post-literate tribalism. If only he had lived long enough to see a world in which professional cuddle sessions would be formed as a way to foster non-sexual and non-violent interaction between polarized groups.
There are many, no doubt, who are excited at such a prospect as new tribalism. They are sick of their computers and are grateful when the power goes out. They like cooking over a fire. They are always saying to their family that they need to spend more time outside. Their favorite movie is Braveheart. Yahoo! Finance has counted nearly 4 million people in the US alone who identify as “preppers.” This multi-billion dollar industry makes a post-economic collapse look like the truest of humanity’s origin stories, especially in the hands of beautiful Hollywood actors and matte-finish survivalist magazines. But new tribalism is not necessary the same thing as old tribalism. Post-literacy does not equate to Post-apocalypse. In fact, in many ways, the new tribalism has already taken over and yet its presence is not seen because we continue to have cellphone reception.
There is an allure to it all that makes a major regression of sorts somehow meaningful. So what if people become more superstitiously faithful to their group? So what if they return to chanting mantras that are strong on conjuring but weak on meaning? This kind of tribalism may move us, inevitably, in a direction of re-enchantment, but, unless the Church is crucially involved, it will possibly do so at the hands of breaking not only science but society as we know it. Since the literate world was one in which cause and effect were clearly marking time and inhabiting space, it should not surprise us if more aspects of time are to be the next casualties in the anti-racist witch hunts. The anti-racists are a powerful tribe. History as well as cause and effect have already been marked for death. An intact family is seen as an icon of hate. It is the graffiti of a gang who once ran this territory. The 1619 riots are peaceful and silent prayer outside an abortion clinic is violent. Iconography abounds. The Christian ought not read this premonition as foreboding news from the future. We are talking about a meaning crisis. But it is in just such a famine that the Christian has the potential to be used by God to save the nation.
When Joseph was pulled from a hole in the ground in order to stand before the king, and eventually be used to preserve Egypt and beyond from destruction, it was an event that centered on the national absence of men who had the ability to determine meaning. Daniel, a man similarly pulled from a hole in the ground, was not only called upon to stand in the interpretation gap, but he had to tell the dream in addition to its interpretation. This was a deep meaning crisis. Because he was a man of God, he was capable of both telling and interpreting. Subsequently, the wise men of the nation were rescued from extinction. And that was how the academy of Daniel’s day recovered from their own version of meaninglessness having marched through its institutions. Men of God are not simply meant to be able to interpret, but to tell as well, especially when the meaning crisis is deep. And ours is a deep crisis. And here enters the high calling and yet the low supply of chiefs for this new tribalistic era. It just so happens that the job description of a new tribalism chief pairs perfectly with the Biblical job description of a minister of the Gospel. Why then, with so many preachers at our disposal, are we in a meaning crisis?
The chief is a man who has not only the ability to tell, but the ability to interpret as well. Like Joseph, when men in authority appear to know, but do not actually know, a true chief will be named as reliable by those who have encountered him. This is part of the epistemology of the new tribalism. Authority begins to be established locally, since the meta-narratives are no longer trustworthy. Something like legends will inevitably emerge from amongst the tribes. But men of renown are not the same thing as men who know, and a minister of the Gospel must not rely on reputation. And this is the reason for an inflated market of preachers. There are plenty of men who can’t differentiate between their capacity for knowledge and their capacity for being known. The minister must be constantly desirous not to be known, but to know God and to rejoice that He is known by God. This man is capable of knowing others and being known by them. But trustworthy knowledge is moving in smaller circles now. It is in just such an epistemic relationship that right telling and proper interpretation are born.
The Church in the West is a disenchanted princess. She has grown up too fast, eager to exchange the simplicity of youth for the sophistication of maturity. Perfect faith, unfortunately, was a casualty of the transition. It is time for the girl to be re-enchanted, not in a way that eschews her maturity, but in a way that incorporates it. In order to lead, she must be capable of a complexity that contains both myth and math. Cuenco dares to yearn for a day in which a kind of baseline lineal awareness can co-exist with mythic thought. He is not asking for too much. This is simply a partial description of a healthy Church. It is from this stock that chiefs must emerge.
Families are now willing to move en masse to another state if that state possesses a strong governor, regardless of the weakness of national leaders. I spoke with a member of a local church recently, here in Maine, whose weekly attendance often pushes 200 people. He said that within the last year, their church had seen 60 people move to other states. It is almost as if everyone’s ears are being opened. They are listening for the sound of someone worth following. If they find him, they themselves will learn the ways of telling and interpreting. Stephen Webb once said, “Freedom begins in the ear before it reaches the mouth.”
Churches are not only closing, but they are also thriving, and this for the simple reason that if ministers of God can tell the people what is happening around them and interpret the story for them in light of the Word of God, the hungry will rightly believe that they have found a people with wine and bread to spare. We are entering an era of preaching . . . not an era of celebrity preaching, or internet preaching . . . but of local preaching. It must not simply be an expository analysis of a text, but a deep understanding of the Word and a proclamation of the cross of Christ in the event of eating. We must be men, not only of math, but of myth. Is there a chief in the house? There is a story that needs interpreting, but first it needs a telling.
Garrett Soucy lives in Maine with his wife and nine children where he is the pastor of Christ the King Church in Belfast. He is also a writer and musician.
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