And, boy, was Briner mad--at Christians. "Rarely, if ever, in the annals of human history have so many with so much to give to their society, actually given so little and done it so maladroitly as have American Christians over the past fifty years. Speaking as only one Christian, I feel the need to apologize." These opening sentences of the book pretty much summarize both the appeal and the problem with Briner's jeremiad.
Part of the enjoyment of reading Briner is to hear him righteously raging on about things I only mutter about. For instance, he thinks it is "shameful" how Christians ghettoize themselves. We write and publish, sing and produce records, produce and broadcast TV and radio, paint and sculpt, and start scores of businesses all to reach other Christians. We are to be the world's salt, its preservative. And if we lose our saltiness, Briner reminds us that Jesus says we "should be thrown out and `trampled under foot' (Matthew 5:13)." Briner wants to extend the movement that led evangelicals out of the fundamentalist camp.
Since '20s, when fundamentalists lost the war with linerals, they "came out of the world" and created their own culture, including schools, seminaries, camps, publishing programs, and so on. After World War Two, many of these fundamentalists became frustrated with this retreat and wanted to engage the wider church and culture. Calling themselves "evangelicals," they emerged from their cultural exile ready to dialogue or fight, depending on the issue, with Billy Graham as their leader. Briner thinks evangelicals have stalled, and even grown comfortable, in their ghettos.
He thinks American Christians have become "self indulgent and self absorbed." We are too preoccupied with "end times" prophecy as an end in itself, and we stampede "to all kinds of therapy and to so-called `recovery' endeavors." He hated it when the leader of the Christian Coalition boycotted the National Prayer Breakfast because Yasser Arafat was attending. Boycotting Disney, let alone Mapplethorpe or Serrano, sends entirely the wrong message. Counting the number of swear words and nude scenes in movies does not count as engagement with popular culture.
Charles Colson and James Dobson, furthermore, need to be called to account when they stray from their prison and family ministries. Lionizing "home-schoolers" makes heroes of those who are avoiding the mission field. Working to elect particular politicians or a party is a waste of religious energy, and publishing "Christian Voter Guides" is shameless hucksterism that poses as Christian witness. Even lobbying Congress about China policy is out of bounds for Briner, since Christians disagree with each other about what side to take.
All the problems we evangelicals moan about--secularism, relativism, the coarsening of pop culture, bad schools, the persecution of Christianity in America, liberal politics--are all our fault. We have vacated the corridors of cultural power and retreated into our comfortable enclaves. The other side is winning because we dropped our weapons and walked off the battlefield.
The whole book has the feel of a half-time speech by a coach trying to inspire a team down by three touchdowns. Few specifics are cited and shrewd observations and good points never add up to a sustained argument. Never mind historical context or facts. Briner gets the blood flowing, the adrenaline pumping. He inspires us to get out there, to get me do my best, to . to do what, exactly?
To give to "those within our spheres of influence a clear cut Christian alternative as [people] make the important choices in life." We are to perform our "very best" and "demonstrate genuine caring for our coworkers," and thereby win a hearing and be positioned "to make compelling offers of truth as we see it taught in the Bible." We are to write "well thought-out, carefully crafted, biblically sound" letters to the editor when famous Christians do something stupid. We are to participate in public education. Have strong Christian college alumni programs. Develop "the very best thinking and language skills possible." Briner also advocates a return to "careful living," which is "doing everything right, or making things right when we don't." And most of all, we are not to work in the Christian ghetto. That's it. That's the game plan for the turning the world upside down.
With these kinds of instructions, I am going to find it hard to make my way back to the bench, let alone score some touchdowns. But let's give the coach another shot. What organizations and individuals does he lift up as role models? There's Young Life for ministering to teens, Moms in Touch for praying for public schools, InterVarsity and Campus Crusade for reaching college students, Jack Kemp for earning a place at the political platform, Os Guinness for insightful publishing, The Fellowship for ministering behind the scenes to politicians, Chuck Norris for "Walker Texas Ranger," Martha Williamson for "Touched by an Angel," Ken Wales for "Christy," Bud Paxson for starting PaxNet, and Steve Taylor for pushing the boundaries in Christian music. In other words, we need more and better parachurch ministries and some successful individuals. It seems that the institutional church and its local ministries cannot roar like a lamb.
The Achilles heel of Christianity has always been Christians. We fall far short of Jesus' ideal of the new community. Bob Briner has every right to be embarrassed by the American evangelical church over the last 50 years (though if he thought we were bad, he should have read up on the Renaissance popes). But the church has always progressed at a three-steps-forward-two-steps-back rhythm. God has to work with sinners, and it's a wonder he still manages to get the work done.
And developing a healthy subculture has certainly not hurt us. The success of the "ghettoized" Christian music industry has made it possible for new and better talent, like Jars of Clay, to emerge that can crossover to mainstream venues. The rise and success of Christian colleges and seminaries has allowed a rebirth of conservative Christian scholarship. This, in turn, is sustained by a robust Christian publishing industry that has experienced more and more success in getting books in Borders and Barnes and Noble stores. In fact, the best penetration of culture has been accomplished by those enterprises that are sustained and supported by the evangelical subculture.
Yes, evangelicals hurt themselves in the political realm, but so do all the other players. And while many of us disagree with the tactics of James Dobson and Pat Robertson, they have nevertheless become major players in rough sport. Probably the arena needing the most work is TV and movies, but it looks like the future crossover stars may already be at work on the latest "Veggie Tales" video or Focus on the Family's radio theater.
While Briner misses out on historical nuance, and commits the sin of overgeneralization often, he is at least mostly right on most everything he talks about. We can thank him for inspiring us to do better, to not settle for our comfort zones. And we can enjoy someone giving voice to the embarrassments and anger we feel when the church goes astray. But I am afraid we will have to wait for another prophet to take us across the River Jordan and move more fully into the heart of America's cultural mild and honey.