My summer reading list has included Russell Moore's Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel. It was named book of the year by Christianity Today editors. Moore leads the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The book is a call to the Church to move beyond the Bible Belt and Moral Majority thinking that has dominated evangelicals. Culture Christianity is dead. Instead, our future is more of what Moore labels a "prophetic minority." It's important to face the reality that our historic faith is no longer seen as a social good, but instead as socially awkward or even illegal and subversive.
I read the book in the context of this terribly dark season in which we live. Our national politics is full of ugly name-calling much more than rational debate of the issues.
Our economy is widening the gap between the haves and have-nots in a way that is causing pain and anger. Violence by and against our police is nothing less than frightening.
And just when Christians should be a voice of peace in the midst of all this darkness, we find ourselves in our own struggle seeking to maintain our religious liberty.
Recent developments in California point to the very question of whether Christian higher education will survive as we know it (more on that in a later message).
How should Christians go onward in this time?
"We ought to stand then with conviction and contend, as the prophets and apostles did before us, against injustice," Russell writes. "But we must do so with voices shaped by the gospel, with a convictional kindness that recognizes winning arguments is not enough if one is in a cosmic struggle with unseen principalities and powers in the air around us."
I have grown weary of the "culture war" label (the war is over and evangelicals have lost.) But, Russell argues that we should continue to understand a war is underway. Not, a cultural war but a war against good and evil, the supernatural struggle that is described in our faith.
The way forward is what he calls "convictional kindness." Recognizing that we are called by our God to be kind to all, not just fellow believers, we must show kindness even as we disagree and even as we may feel under attack. Russell says we can be kind because we understand that the enemy is not the fellow child of God in front of us, but instead the demons of evil who rule this fallen world.
It's an important distinction. "When we don't oppose demons," he writes, "we demonize opponents."
I come from an evangelical tradition that is not comfortable talking about demons and devils. But there is no question that our Bible confirms their existence and describes even how Jesus interacted with these agents of an unseen spiritual war. Russell calls it targeting the right enemy: "We speak with kindness and gentleness and with conviction and with clarity because we are targeting the right enemy."
Overall, I find the book realistic but hopeful, and that's what I want for LETU. Even as we adjust to a post-Christian culture, I see that Moore's conclusion about the church extends to Christian higher education: "I think the future of the church is incandescently bright. That's not because of promises made at Independence Hall, but a promise made at Caesarea Philippi - "I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." (Matthew 16:18)