Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Defining Post-Christendom

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'
     -- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
While it may seem the heights of hubris to define words purely according to our own desires, it is nonetheless the case that, however we have defined a word in our own minds, that (and only that) definition is the one that is at play whenever we see or hear the word used, to say nothing of when we use that word ourselves.

It is with this understanding that I consider the term "post-Christendom."  Like so many "post-" words that have apparently become a trend in recent years ("postmodern" being perhaps the most well-known), an agreed-upon definition seems to be elusive, at best.  The word doesn't even appear in either of the dictionaries I keep in my office (although, to be honest, the newer of those two dictionaries is still nearly 30 years old).  As the Post Christendom blog puts it: "Although the term 'post-Christendom' is used more often now, it is generally not used with great precision and is frequently confused with postmodernity."

There are ways to find "dictionary" definitions, of course ("Christendom" appears in both of my office dictionaries, after all), but in light of this confusion, and at the risk of sounding as arrogant as Humpty Dumpty, I'm going to offer my own:  "A culture or people affected by Christendom, but no longer primarily defined within Christendom."

That we in modern America find ourselves in precisely this kind of phenomenon can be demonstrated by a recent blog entry by Jana Reiss, in which it is noted that...
...the fraction of Americans who disclaimed religious identity until 1990 had been essentially flat for a very long time -- as long as we have records, actually. It was flat at about 5 or 7 percent.

But then, especially among young people, that has grown very rapidly since 1990. I think there's a misunderstanding by all sides that it's somehow to do with atheism. But it actually isn't to do with atheism hardly at all. Most of these young nones say they believe in God. Most of them were raised in a religious home, and indeed most of them went to Sunday school or religious education of some sort. These are not people who have no exposure to religion, and they're not people who reject the whole idea of religion. Many of them say that religion is important to them personally. A significant number of them even attend church occasionally.
Post-Christendom, whatever else it may mean, is less that people aren't Christian (although many aren't), and more that they do not choose to be defined as Christian, having already had a deep understanding of what "Christian" should mean (this definition may or may not have to do with what Christianity actually is, but the point here is that the definition is borne out of actual experience with churches and other people who claim the "Christian" label). 

This has important implications for those of us who consider ourselves Evangelical.  We often talk about reaching the "unsaved" or the "unchurched" as if the people we would reach have never heard about Christ before.  This assumption is completely unfounded in most of the world today (and certainly here in America).  If it is true that we live in a "post-Christian" society, then whatever else it means, it means that we live in a society where people have been affected by Christianity.  People may indeed be misinformed about Christ and about Christian ideals, but it is supreme folly to suggest that they've never heard about these things. 

As the article suggests, much of the blame for why people are rejecting Christianity can be laid squarely at the feet of many Christians.  I am not equipped to take on the specific issue that Reiss raises (I even left a comment there indicating that some terms need unpacking yet), but at the very least, we do need to recognize that the problem is not just informational.  It's not a matter of "informing" people about the "good news."  Indeed, it seems to me that the disconnect comes at the very point of the fact that many Christians--through their actions if not their words--make Christianity seem like it isn't "good news" at all.  In such an understanding, why should the outsider follow Christ?

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