We Westerners live in a post-Christian world. But don’t worry. It’s not what it sounds like.
What it means is that Christianity as a cultural force is no longer the power it once was. What it doesn’t mean is that Christianity itself — the global family of those who follow Jesus and love the world he loves — is dead. On the contrary, getting past the protection of power and privilege is a healthy thing for faith.
While I am no Flannery O’Connor scholar, the sharp-penned Catholic writer is one of my favorites. Her stories are witty, poignant, and shockingly violent. By using violence in surprising ways, she jars her characters out of well-constructed and self-satisfied approaches to the world. Thus stripped, they become vulnerable not just to suffering, but to God and grace.
The Church is always at its best in its Flannery O’Connor moments. Shaken from our false self-sufficiency and open to grace is when we are stripped to the simplicity of following Jesus.
That simplicity is reflected in Paul’s first letter to the the Thessalonian Christians, the first of the New Testament books to be written. In 1 Thes. 4:1-8, Paul writes that these new followers of Jesus should live lives characterized by a holiness — an otherness — that is distinguished by the holiness of God and not conditioned by the lives of their neighbors. And then he writes this:
Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders …. [1 Thes. 4:11-12]
It’s not the noise of our protest that leads others to respect us. It’s the quality of our day-to-day lives that earns respect.
Thankfully, the initial outrage against Starbucks’ Christmas-free red cups has led to a surprising response: No Christian I know feels that outrage. Rather, I think we’re starting to come to terms with our post-Christian context. And that means engaging in our faith in a way fairly similar to those Thessalonians in their pre-Christian context, but without the blank slate those early Christians had.
Where those early Christians had neighbors who knew nothing of the faith of this brand new Jesus community, our neighbors often have negative baggage associated with the way Christians have practiced our faith over the centuries. And similarly, those of us who are Christians have our own baggage associated with expecting a certain degree of respect and privilege within our culture. These are messy slates, but neither are impossible to deal with.
The rejection of the red cup outrage, as I mentioned above, is a step toward accepting our post-Christian reality. Unfortunately, the initial outrage reinforces the current stereotype of Christians as angry people who want to suck the joy out of life, especially the joy of people other than ourselves. But hopefully, the rejection of that outrage helps undermine that stereotype.
Sometimes, living the quiet lives Paul called the Thessalonians to isn’t enough. Rather, as Flannery O’Connor knew, the quality of our characters as we suffer reveals a surprising measure of hope that our observers don’t expect from anyone. Peter points to this in 1 Peter 2:11-3:18.
In 1 Peter 2:12, he writes, Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
He continues (when talking about how we deal with government authorities) in 1 Peter 2:15 — For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people.
And when dealing with unjust masters/employers, he continues, For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. [1 Peter 2:19]
And since the early Church included women who followed Jesus and remained married to harsh husbands who didn’t follow Jesus, Peter points to the quality of their character under unpleasant circumstances as more convincing than their words (1 Peter 3:1-7).
All of these quiet lives in the midst of suffering leads others to question what it is that keeps us going, which Peter addresses in 1 Peter 3:15-18 —
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.
Notice in all of these passages a call to “live quiet lives,” “live such good lives,” “doing good,” “bearing up under the pain of unjust suffering,” no retaliation, no threats, purity, reverence, being considerate, repaying evil with blessing, “eager to do good,” gentleness, respect, and good behavior.
These are the qualities that were required of followers of Jesus in a pre-Christian world. And they are the same ones required of us living in a post-Christian world.
In Flannery O’Connor’s stories, she takes aim at two kinds of self-satisfied snobs. The self-righteous Christian and the contemptuous progressive each looks down on everyone around them, believing that they are the best kind of person. But through violent circumstances, the hypocrisy of each of them is revealed. The Christian is shown to be hardly Christ-like at all. And the progressive is shown to be a self-deluded fool. By being so unmasked, the Christian is given the opportunity to become truly Christian instead of living with the facade of Christianity, and the progressive is given the opportunity to become a lover of all people instead of a lover of his or her superiority.
This move into a post-Christian context is Flannerian, violently stripping away the facade of Christianity and giving us the opportunity to discover the simplicity of following Jesus.
May those of us who follow Jesus find ourselves exhibiting the characteristics called for from us in 1 Thessalonians and 1 Peter. May we actually live our hope and do it so thoroughly that it surprises our neighbors, who feel compelled to ask us about it and give us the opportunity to answer with gentleness and respect.
It will probably be painful, but this new post-Christian era has a good potential upside.