Horizontal Faith

Michael Metzger

Thinking horizontally
You’re smart to take Labor Day lying down. Being horizontal is holy, since God tells us to periodically kick up our feet and take a break (Leviticus 23:3). But there’s another reason to ‘go horizontal.’ Today’s teens, twenty- and thirty-somethings think horizontally. Those who communicate a horizontal faith will connect better with younger Americans who appear to be increasingly resistant to Christianity, but not to spirituality.

Thinking horizontally is one example of a cultural divide between geeks (those under 40) and geezers (boomers over 40), according to Warren G. Bennis, a professor at the University of Southern California and Robert J. Thomas, Executive Director of the Accenture Institute for High Performance Business in Boston, Massachusetts. For instance, geeks are more “willing to talk about bringing their faith to work… However, they speak of ‘spirituality’ and ‘meaning,’ not ‘religion’ and ‘God.’”1 They don’t look vertically for truth, they look horizontally to shared stories.

Younger Americans embrace “plane” truth because they’ve grown up in what Charles Taylor calls a “secular age.”2 It defines morality by looking sideways rather than looking up. Most teens, twenty- and thirty-somethings are saturated in this secularism and flinch at a faith that looks up. Yet geeks forget that all horizontal activities (i.e., a society) used to be ordered by a vertical authority (i.e., the sacred). Our modern age has become a “deathwork” because it denies an absolute morality and makes it impossible to say, ‘Thou shalt not,’” wrote sociologist Philip Rieff.3 For example, when you say, “The Bible says…” – a vertical authority – younger people will retort: “Who made you God?”

This, however, could be good news. For too long, geezers have been infatuated with vertical proofs and PowerPoint presentations. This includes Christians. Geeks, on the other hand, are open to patterns. The “four chapter” gospel teases out patterns, not proofs. It turns the Bible horizontally to the landscape orientation and stitches together stories stretched from Genesis to Revelation. Work and rest is a good one for Labor Day. Work was designed in creation as a good thing, along with rest. Yet our default, because of the Fall, is that we often feel guilty when we rest. The Sabbath reminded the Jews that, when they never rested in Egypt, they essentially became pack animals. What can you do to enjoy work and rest? Turn your Bible sideways, “…there was evening and morning, a day” (Genesis 1:3, 6, 13, 19, 23, & 31). Catch that? Every day begins at sunset, when we go to sleep. God created us to first enjoy rest. It’s our destiny in eternity.

What if you told your geek friends a horizontal story explaining why we like to kick back and look forward to Labor Day? There’s nothing wrong with thinking vertically. But Baby Boomer Christians (geezers) have made it an art form, which might be why younger Americans are becoming more resistant to Christianity, according to Barna Research Group president David Kinnamon. “The nation’s population is increasingly resistant to Christianity… the aversion and hostility are, for the first time, crystallizing in the attitudes of millions of young Americans. A huge chunk of a new generation has concluded they want nothing to do with us. As Christians, we are widely distrusted by a skeptical generation. We are at a turning point for Christianity in America. If we do not wake up to these realities and respond in appropriate, godly ways, we risk being increasingly marginalized and losing further credibility with millions of people.”4

I think a horizontal faith is an appropriate, godly way to connect Sunday to Monday. When you point out that people live by a common code of ought, is, can, and will – or design, default, do, and destiny – you’re starting with a horizontal authority. It’s a short step from there to the “four chapter” gospel of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.

On May 7, 1963, in Cambridge, England, C. S. Lewis gave his last interview before succumbing to cancer. He said that his faith was most helped by his studies of the literary men of the Middle Ages, and by the writings of G. K. Chesterton – storytellers all.5 Perhaps this is why younger people continue to enjoy reading Lewis. “I suggest that we should also do what C. S. Lewis did so very well,” writes Catholic commentator Richard John Neuhaus.

[W]e should tell better stories that winsomely, even seductively, reintroduce the Great Story; being confident, as Lewis was confident, that the pagans then and now, in the fine phrase of Edward Norman, got it “broadly right.” We must help them to tell their story, for, whether they know it or not, their story is the story of God’s ways with His creatures, the story of salvation.6

When Jack Nicklaus won the 1965 Masters with a record-breaking score of 271, Bobby Jones, the Masters’ patron saint, remarked, “He plays a game with which I am not familiar.” If you’re not familiar with the “four chapter” gospel, don’t worry. It might be easier to see while you’re lying down this weekend. Turn your bible to the landscape orientation and discover a horizontal faith that connects with young and old alike.

1 Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas, Geeks & Geezers: How Era, Values, and Defining Moments Shape Leaders (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2002), p. 57.
2 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).
3 Philip Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority, Kenneth S. Piver, General Editor, Volume I, Sacred Order/Social Order (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2006).
4 David Kinnamon, unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity… and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), p. 39.
5 www.cbn.com/special/Narnia/articles
6 Richard John Neuhaus, “C. S. Lewis in the Public Square,” First Things, Vol. 88, September 1998, pp. 30-35.


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  1. Mike,

    You say, “When you point out that people live by a common code of ought, is, can, and will – or design, default, do, and destiny – you’re starting with a horizontal authority.”

    I’m not convinced that your logic flows here as smoothly as you imply – especially concerning your use of the word “starting.” Is that really your starting point?

    I think I know what you’re trying to say but I don’t think you’ve said it convincingly. Just because people see that they live by an ought-is-can-will framework doesn’t mean that they are the authority behind such a perspective. (although that is what they think – and that is precisely what we will need to challenge – sooner or later).

    We need to be very careful that we don’t “give away the store” on this authority issue. If we cater to their “horizontal” perspective (i.e. “I am the source of truth”) we may not be able to ever get them to look vertically.

    Now, perhaps I am misunderstanding you. If so, that should be important feedback for you as you seek to communicate these things to others who might not be as close to you at your starting point as I am.

    Your faithful friend (who would still love to grab lunch again sometime),


  2. This geezer looked at this passage:”Younger Americans embrace “plane” truth because they’ve grown up in what Charles Taylor calls a “secular age.”2 It defines morality by looking sideways rather than looking up. Most teens, twenty- and thirty-somethings are saturated in this secularism and flinch at a faith that looks up.” and flinched at the relativism that has engulfed our youth, I mean, geeks.
    I interpreted this, perhaps incorrectly,or metaphorically,that when the geeks do wrong, they look sideways to make certain they’re not being watched. They fail, as we all fail, to remember the Watcher Himself above us in all omniscience knowing our actions long before they’re committed oreven thought out.
    Once again Mr. Metzger, the doggie head tilts. Sideways. Confound it!

  3. I’m wondering what you mean by horizontal instead of vertical.

    Stories? Sure, stories are good and effectual, but stories aren’t horizontal, they are vertical.

    Life? Yes, the way of life which Jesus taught us includes the horizontal dimension.

    Truth? No, the truth is vertical. Christianity is not about a group-will-to-power, with our congregation or denomination being the group.

    The proclamation of the Gospel is Iaesou ho Kyrios kai Soteros. That is a political as well as soteriological statement. It is the same phrase used to announce a new Roman emperor.

    We have a King, a king over all the kings of the Earth, over the principalities and powers. He has a new law, He is our new High Priest of the New Covenant in His Blood.

    This is euangelion even more than the proclamation of Octavian or Tiberias was called a “euangelion.” For our King is Just. He is Fair, He loved us so much that He laid down His life for the sheep, for He is the Good Shepherd.

    Even more, when we break this new law – and we do so daily, He provided at an unimaginable cost for the forgiveness of our sins, and in a way that justice and fairness are not violated.

    That is the Gospel.

    Proclaiming a Franco-esque fascism where the Church is the Group is no answer, it is a false gospel. We must proclaim the true Gospel, including the reality of objective truth, and trust God the Holy Spirit, joining Himself to the words of Scripture, to work regeneration and repentance. We plant and water, But God brings the increase.

    Should we tell the Story, including in parabolic form? Yes. But we may not alter the Story so that it is only horizontal, or not objectively true, but rather a pleasant metanarrative for our group and its will-to-power. If we did that, we would be faithless, preaching an idol in the place of our rightful King, and preaching a false gospel that is no gospel at all.

    Whether that is what you mean to say or not, I do not know. But the impression is given.

  4. Randy:

    If you’re buying lunch, I’m in. I think you misunderstand the idea of “starting.” Starting means just that: starting… not closing the deal. It’s telling that you assume this approach means we have to “challenge” people to look vertically. It’s been my experience that starting a conversation with a friends by pointing out a universal pattern yields a more irenic conversation where friends are more willing to consider looking up. As Augustine said, the soul delights more in what it learns indirectly. Starting horizontally is simply pointing out patterns, not proofs. There’s no store being given away. Just as Paul started the conversation on mars Hill by citing their poets, and not his prophets, I begin by pointing out where people get part of the story correct.

    To John’s point, it’s not so much that geeks look sideways when they do wrong, it’s that there is no longer any ‘vertical’ to address, period – regardless if they do good, bad, better, or worse.

    To Steve’s point, the funny thing is that I agree with him (even though I’m lost on the foreign language). Steve’s right – at the end of the day, all stories depend on a vertical and are, in fact, ultimately vertical. But that’s at the end of the day – not the beginning of a conversation. Perhaps we simply live in different worlds, but if you launch the conversation with “The Bible says,” most of my neighbors and colleagues head for the hills.


  5. Ever hear of ” So Heavenly minded that we are no earthly good” ? I agree that we should approach the Younger generation from “Their ” starting point —– and end up at ours +

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