by Jonathan Parnell
America is a very religious country, no matter what you might hear. If you look at any of the new surveys, or simply ask the people you encounter most days — depending on where you live — the majority have some belief in a higher being. Most of us “believe” in “God.”
And that doesn’t really mean much.
Practical atheism makes a much bigger difference than generic theism — and practical atheism is what’s going on around here. It’s been called many different names by contemporary thinkers — this post-Christian mindset embedded within a secular age that prohibits God from having a voice in anything that impacts how we live. One reason it’s so acceptable is because even many Christians have settled not for less religion, but for bad religion. We’ve become content with “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (as it has been called).
This basically means that, at the societal level, we have hacked away at any true notion of the divine. And it wasn’t a smooth cut, but more like a rigid, gnawing tear, piece by piece, like how you might imagine cutting your own arm off with a pocket knife, right at the elbow, because your hand got wedged under a rock while hiking, and because the sun is going down and it’s getting cold and you’re desperate. That’s what we’ve done.
And that’s the sort of thing that doesn’t come through on the surveys. We’re cool with “god” for the most part, so long as he stays out of our bedrooms. But as for the God who actually cares about what happens under the sheets, for every reminder that he exists, we reach again for the pocket knife. And although it’s been called a few different names, I just think of it as the new normal — that is the practical atheism that surrounds us.
New, Stupid Normal
Because Psalm 14:1 says that it’s the fool who doesn’t believe in God, I think this new normal is foolish — or stupid. We live surrounded by the stupid normal.
It’s being shoved in our faces, too, beckoning us to buy in, and at so many different levels. And the reason it’s so insidious is that our “buying in” hardly feels like a transaction at all. It’s like we’re subscribed unless we cancel. We buy in by doing nothing. And the great challenge of our generation is not to do nothing. I believe our calling as Christians — and especially important for Millennials in the coming years — is to never settle for this stupid normal.
Now what in the world does that look like?
First, I think it means we must engage in the work of “remythologizing” everyday life — we remythologize a demythologized landscape that has banned God’s authority but is still haunted by his presence. In other words, we must reawaken our souls and senses to the realness of God in our little moments. And that starts by taking a few steps back so we can remember the basics. We’ll be no good at doubling down our faith in the cracks unless we’re freshly awed by the Christian story as a whole — or better, freshly awed by the God to whom it testifies.
Don’t Do Nothing
Practically speaking, this means a couple things.
First, we need to be freshly overcome by the story of Scripture. What is the meaning of it all, again? Why are we here? What is God doing? We are not left to scratch our heads over these sorts of questions. God has told us! And he has told us, not in a book of detached admonitions handcuffed to an ancient language but in a story — one told over thousands of years and wondrously translatable — so that I can sit in my North American home, at my twenty-first-century desk, and when I read English words, I hear the voice of God. And I’m mesmerized by the beauty. As John Piper has said,
It is the beauty of “that strange mixture of unbearable sternness and heartbreaking tenderness,” the beauty of a loving, mighty, yet lowly person offering himself for the glory of his Father on our behalf and being raised again to indestructible life. It is thus a beauty of a person’s acts and attitudes seen in a particular human context of sin and hostility. It is a story. A magnificent myth come true in an indescribably glorious hero.
Second, we need a new dose of retrodoxy — that is, the kind of orthodoxy Chesterton called a “whirling adventure.” This means that when it comes to recounting the richness of redemptive history, we need more exposure, not less, to the Great Tradition. And we need it in both our corporate worship and our prayer closets. We need to read some very old books, sing some very old lyrics, and recite some very old creeds.
Gimme That Old Time Religion
As much as it is good and fitting to newly articulate Christian doctrine for today (theology matters!), our task is not mainly creative, but recitative. We’re not left here to make stuff up, but to guard the good deposit entrusted to us (1 Tim. 6:20) and cherish “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). And that means leaning on the rich history of Christian pilgrims who have persevered before us, learning from their creeds and prayers, their stories and songs.
Tell me again, please, and again and again. Tell me with the Bible, and tell me with the faithful saints of centuries past who lived in times worse than these, but who never settled. God is real and he is at work, right here and right now. We believe this along with the cloud of witnesses, and we believe it all the way down. “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” (Heb. 11:16).
Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at Desiring God.