One of the interesting consequences of writing a Christian book is that you end up doing a lot of interviews with Christian media. I enjoy almost all of these conversations. For one thing, I love the voices of people who work in radio! And I consistently find that my interviewers are intrigued by the topic of my book and genuinely eager to talk about it.
Still, there is one pattern to my interviews with Christian media that perplexes me, and that is my hosts’ relentless sense of pessimism about “the culture.” One of my favorite Christian radio hosts, a super-bright guy with whom I’ve talked several times, said in our most recent interview, “When we were in high school [I think he’s maybe a few years older than me] it seemed like the culture was a mixed bag. But now doesn’t it seem like it’s just gotten worse and worse?”
I had to answer that honestly, that’s not how it seems to me. For example, when I was in high school I remember hearing about the horrifyingly high incidence of drunk driving. But a mother named Candy Lightner, whose daughter had been killed by a drunk driver, started Mothers Against Drunk Driving. (People my age will remember yellow ribbons tied to car antennas, inspired by MADD—come to think of it, people my age will remember car antennas.) Two decades later, the cultural horizons have shifted decisively on this issue. As Frederica Mathewes-Green has pointed out, films from the “innocent” 1950s regularly portray drunkenness (and its corollary, violence against women) with a lightheartedness that we now find inconceivable. Overall, it seems to me that culture, like Wall Street, is a random walk—improving in some ways, declining in others. The Christian job is simply to assess our current moment and cultivate and create within it. But when I express this on the air, I’m almost always greeted with disbelief, even when my hosts find the idea appealing.
What accounts for this Christian-radio pessimism about “the culture”? It occurs to me it’s strikingly similar to something documented by Dave Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons: the culture’s pessimism about “the Christians.” In their book unChristian, Gabe and Dave show just how negatively most secular Americans view Christians when they are asked to characterize them as a group—even though the same people will report that their personal encounters with Christians have been much more positive. While some of this pessimism can certainly be traced to the way we Christians are presented in mainstream media, some of it seems to come from that media filling a vacuum of experience. People just don’t have enough encounters with self-identified Christians who are not wildly judgmental, homophobic right-wingers to realize that their stereotypes are untrue. When they meet an actual Christian who doesn’t fit their expectations, they are more likely to dismiss him or her as an exception than to revise their rule of thumb.
And that, it seems to me, is exactly what Christians—especially those who by vocation spend a lot of time immersed in the Christian subculture—are doing with the culture itself. In the absence of sustained encounters with our neighbors who don’t share our faith, cocooning in our own media and social groups, we fall into pessimistic stereotypes about “the culture” out there. When we happen to actually get to know an unbelieving neighbor and find that they are not wildly permissive, atheistic left-wingers, we just file them in the “exception to the rule” category.
The most basic solution to the challenge posed by unChristian, it seems to me, is for a lot more of us to get involved, as Christians, in the structures and institutions where our neighbors spend their time. But perhaps that will change more than just our neighbors’ attitudes. We, too, may discover that “the culture” is full of grace and heartbreak and beauty and folly—not so different, after all, from the church herself.