The Real Deal
From a distance, the curved glass china cabinet in our dining room looks like the Real Deal. Friends admire it, so it surprises them to learn it’s a reproduction. It might surprise you to learn that much of modern Christian faith – our message, method, and mindset – is a reproduction. Yet serious seekers, like novelist Anne Rice, want the Real Deal.
Let’s cut to the chase scene and then go back and view three vignettes. Would it surprise you to learn that today’s most popular gospel message is 200 years old, our method for sharing this gospel is 500 years old, and our mindset – our traditions and outlook – is about 1,000 years old? They’re all reproductions and, at the end of the day, not authentic. Serious people seek a more ancient faith – like, say, 2,000 years old.
If you go back a thousand years, the scene unfolds with Islam as the predominant faith in the Western world. “Christians had become second-class citizens enclosed within the confines of the Millet system and precluded from any active evangelism. And the Western church itself had become something of a large ghetto, dominated and largely surrounded by the superior culture and military power of Islam,” wrote Lesslie Newbigin, an expert in church history and missions.1 A great deal of the substance of the Western Christian tradition – our liturgy, theology, and church order – was formed while Christians sought sanctuary from a hostile culture. This is why our mindset, our liturgy and traditions, is larded with language about the church as a “sanctuary” or a “safe place” from the big, bad world. It became us versus the world.
When Islam and its oppressive culture eventually receded, a movement emerged seeking to forever bracket the influence of religion from society. This was a major watershed period in the early 17th century called the Enlightenment, whose principle project was “the construction of a state and a body of law that brackets the church from direct influence,” according to John Witte, Jr., director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University.2 Excluded from everyday life, our method morphed to “outreach,” which ironically and implicitly recognizes that the church is no longer in there – in the warp and woof of daily life. It became us versus the “secular” world.
It’s just a short hop and a skip to a message divorced from everyday life. In the 1800s, many Christians adopted a “two chapter” gospel focusing on saving souls over improving society. This message made sense, since the world was hostile and we had been kicked out of culture. But this two-hundred-year-old message is a shrunken version of the ancient gospel. It lacks “any essential bearing upon the individual’s life as a whole, especially upon occupations or work time,” writes Dallas Willard.3 It became us in our own private world. The good news is that this doesn’t have to be the closing scene. But reclaiming the Real Deal might call for the creative destruction of the modern church.
Albert Einstein said no one could solve a problem using the same set of assumptions that created the crisis in the first place. Yet many Christians don’t have any other assumptions – that is, any other message, method, or mindset. It’s like the cartoon where the older fish swims by younger ones and asks, “How’s the water, boys?” Several moments later, one minnow mutters to the other, “What the hell is water?” Fish only discover water when they’re yanked from it. It feels like death. In the same way, Christians often dread discovering these three assumptions because it can feel like death. It is. And it isn’t.
Several decades ago, economist Joseph Schumpeter introduced the idea of creative destruction. Healthy capitalism, he wrote, “incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.”4 It’s why you use a mobile phone rather than a phone booth. We still communicate, but a cell phone is a better conduit. The church needs the ecclesiological equivalent of Schumpeter’s economic creative destruction. This doesn’t mean blowing up everything. But it does mean replacing a 200-year-old message, 500-year-old method, and 1,000-year-old mindset with ancient ones conveyed in a contemporary voice. This way, the Real Deal reemerges. Yes, this is radical… but “radical” means “from the root.”
Getting back to roots was the road that led novelist Anne Rice to Christ. Long known for the dark, supernatural elements in her novels such as Interview with the Vampire, Rice recently described her return to Christianity. “Without ever planning it, I’ve been moving slowly backwards in history, from the nineteenth century, where I felt at home in my first two novels, to the first century, where I sought the answers to enormous questions that became an obsession with me that simply couldn’t be ignored.”
Ultimately, the figure of Jesus Christ was at the heart of this obsession. More generally, it was the birth of Christianity and the fall of the ancient world. I wanted to know desperately what happened in the first century, and why people in general never talked about it.5
The good news is that some people are talking about what happened in the first century. Journalist Colleen Carroll Campbell says a growing number of young people – serious seekers – are embracing the ancient Real Deal.6 But this development includes a degree of creative destruction in the modern church. If you’re a Christian, does this make you feel like a fish out of water? Are you happy about that? Or are you horrified?
1 Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978), p. 4.
2 This is an excerpt from an engaging interview with Witte that can be heard on Mars Hill Audio Journal, Charlottesville, VA, Volume 91 (June/July 2008).
3 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 54.
4 Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York, NY: Harper, 1975) [orig. pub. 1942], pp. 82-85.
5 Anne Rice, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2005), p. 323.
6 Colleen Carroll Campbell, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Chicago, IL: Loyola Press, 2002).