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Life in the Negative World: 
Confronting Challenges in an Anti-Christian Culture

by aaron m. renn
zondervan, 272 pages, $26.99

On June 2, 1987, the National Enquirer published a photograph of Donna Rice sitting on the lap of Gary Hart. When, earlier that spring, rumors surfaced of an affair between the actress and the Democratic Senator, the backlash had been strong enough to end Hart’s promising campaign for president. The photograph captured Hart wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Monkey Business”—that unfortunate phrase being the name of the yacht on which he and Rice had sailed on an overnight trip from Miami to Bimini. Hart’s political career was over. Later that fall, Gail Sheehy was to publish a long expose of the scandal in Vanity Fair. Sheehy wondered, “How could a man so dangerously flawed come so close to persuading us that he was fit to lead a superpower through the perils of the nuclear age?” Sheehy was dismayed that so many people failed to grasp the real issue. “The key to the downfall of Gary Hart is not adultery,” Sheehy wrote. “It is character. And that is an issue that will not go away.”

To read Sheehy’s article today is to visit a foreign land. Written decades before the #MeToo movement, the article refuses to turn Rice into a victim, focusing instead on “the world of Donna Rice [that] is much darker than it seemed.” (It should be said that Rice later returned to her Christian roots and championed, among other causes, the opening of the Museum of the Bible.) As for Hart, Sheehy paints him as a man torn apart by an unhealthy, almost devilish obsession with sexual escapades. Sheehy takes for granted that a president devoid of basic integrity and self-control is a danger to himself, to the country, and to the world. “If character is destiny,” Sheehy opined, “the character issue predicts not only the destiny of one candidate but the potential destiny of the United States he seeks to lead.”

By contrast, when news broke in 1998 of Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, much of the country wasn’t convinced that private sex acts had much bearing on whether the president could do his job or not. And in 2016, in the wake of the leaked Access Hollywood tape, most conservatives concluded that Donald Trump’s sexual sins did not disqualify him from holding the highest office in the land.

These three sex scandals are mentioned in the first chapter of Aaron Renn’s new book, Life in the Negative World, and they highlight what he has labeled “the three worlds of evangelicalism”—the transition from a society that retains a positive view of Christianity (1964–1994), to a society that takes a neutral stance toward Christianity (1994–2014), to a society that has an overall negative view of Christianity (2014–present). The different political fallouts for Hart, Clinton, and Trump illustrate well how things have changed.

In the positive world, having an affair or being part of any sex scandal could be a career or campaign killer, even well past the era of the sexual revolution. In the neutral world (Clinton’s time), it would be damaging but probably survivable. In the negative world, violations of traditional Christian moral norms are no big deal unless they involve transgressions of one of the ideological taboos of the new public moral order, such as a feminist stance toward gender relations.

Renn’s argument is not that America used to be Christian or lived faithfully by Christian norms. Critics of Renn’s framework have been quick to point to America’s poor record on race, even when the country was much more “Christian.” But Renn’s “three worlds” thesis isn’t a way to grade the overall Christianity of the country. It’s a framework for understanding how society views the reasonableness of Christian truths, the validity of Christian arguments, and the obligation we all have to live up to a basic standard of Christian virtue. Renn claims that we are living in a negative world, one that is deeply suspicious of Christianity (especially when it comes to issues of sexuality). He makes a persuasive case.

I started following Aaron Renn—listening to his podcast, reading his articles, getting his newsletter—several years ago, a little before his article “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism” was published in First Things. He’s different from the usual pastors, theologians, and historians I follow. When he veers into theological or church matters, I take his insights with a grain of salt (as people might do when I veer outside of those lanes). But I listen to Renn because he is a serious Reformed Christian layman. With experiences and expertise different from mine, he invariably has opinions and insights I hadn’t considered before.

For example, Renn argues that none of the familiar models of Christian engagement works in the negative world. The “culture war” strategy, as he calls it, specialized in decrying the erosion of our moral character. This strategy is truly effective only if our views are in the majority. In the positive world, it might be possible to raise the standard of Christian virtue and hope that a winning coalition will rally to our side. By contrast, the “seeker sensitivity” strategy argued for maximum personal and ecclesial flexibility so as not to turn off the suburban would-be churchgoer. This strategy often functioned as if aesthetic style and personal relationships were all that stood in the way of non-Christians’ embracing Christianity. Meanwhile, the “cultural engagement” approach sought to alleviate the concerns of educated city-dwellers: a kind of seeker sensitivity for skeptical cosmopolitan elites. Today’s cultural engagers, Renn believes, have morphed into another form of culture warrior, except that their war is not against the world but against other evangelicals. Renn acknowledges that all three approaches have something to teach us (insofar as courage, kindness, and understanding the people we mean to reach are Christian values); but as all-encompassing strategies, they are outdated.

I was also helped by Renn’s observation that Trump and wokeness are two key polarizers at work in re-sorting evangelicals. At least, if you take “Trump” to be less about voting for Trump (which some evangelicals may do while holding their noses) and more about an aggressive, populist, the-old-rules-don’t-work-anymore approach to cultural transformation, then Renn has hit upon an important point. Evangelicalism is being scrambled along those two axes: Are you opposed to wokeness, and are you opposed to Trumpism? It’s relatively straightforward to be opposed to one and for the other (or at least not terribly bothered by the other); the difficult space for Christians and churches is when you are opposed to both.

At the heart of Life in the Negative World is practical advice for individual Christians and for Christian institutions as they seek to be faithful in a changing cultural landscape. Renn groups his advice into three parts: living personally, leading institutionally, and engaging missionally. The outline is easy to follow, and the advice is down to earth and full of good sense.

On the personal side, Renn begins by stressing the need for faithful Christian obedience. Before we do anything else, we must ask whether we are serious about doing what the Bible says, whether we are ready to take up our crosses and follow Christ. Refreshingly, Renn calls Christians to be “antifragile”—a term he borrows from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book of the same name. The idea is that in a disordered and volatile world, we need to learn to be more resilient (both financially and emotionally) and less defined by the negative events and negative opinions that come our way. Renn also stresses the importance of pursuing vocational excellence. Though he is sometimes too dour in his assessment of evangelical excellence on this point (I know lots of Christian lawyers, doctors, and businesspeople at the top of their professions), Renn is right to warn against a popularizing streak, as well as a pietistic aversion to ambition, which can hamper evangelicals’ ability to exert leadership in key cultural areas. For example, evangelicals have had almost no intellectual influence in movement conservatism, and conservative inroads in the legal world have been almost all due to Catholics.

Renn’s institutional advice is also useful. As a local church pastor with a foot in the seminary world and some involvement in Christian K–12 education, I appreciated Renn’s call for institutional integrity. Anyone who follows him online knows that he cares about politics and about involvement in cultural matters, which makes his warning against mission drift and the dangers of linking everything to politics all the more striking. Renn urges Christians to pursue community strength (developing a counter-catechetical strategy as cultural minorities) and to pursue personal ownership. They should develop their own digital platforms and run their own privately held, medium-sized businesses, which employ people in good jobs, engender goodwill in the town, and don’t get caught up in the PC causes that can dominate publicly traded companies. These two strategies can help our Christian communities be more decisively Christian and less dependent upon those who may loathe our Christian commitments.

In the final section of the book, Renn turns his attention to the Christian’s outward-facing posture. With admirable Presbyterian order, Renn encourages us to be a light, to be a source of truth, and to be prudentially engaged in society. Of particular note in these closing chapters is Renn’s contention that conservatives need a new way to talk to men and a new way to relate to the Republican Party. With both critiques, Renn doesn’t provide many answers, but he is right to highlight (concerning the former) how traditional complementarian discourse was tailored to second-wave feminism. Regarding the Republicans, he argues that evangelicals have gotten little for their political loyalty except pro-life judges. As he points out, the base of the Republican Party is increasingly made up of non-Christians and post-Christians, and gathers its energy from the dissident right—and from the growing ranks of “barstool conservatives,” who embrace coarse language and a locker room bro culture as much as they oppose left-wing hectoring and nanny-state conformity. This presents a challenge for conservative evangelicals who will never vote for Democrats, but who may find themselves in a party that pays lips service to the Religious Right while becoming more irreligious.

I imagine there will be two main critiques of Life in the Negative World: first, that the book isn’t theological enough; second, that the world isn’t as negative as Renn imagines. Let me say something about each.

First, it is certainly true that this is not a robustly theological book. Renn discusses some Bible passages, but he admits several times that he is not a pastor, a Bible scholar, or a theologian. He stresses that his “Three Worlds” framework is not a theological or scientific model, but more like a tool that a consultant would use to help a client. I, for one, am glad that Renn didn’t try to write a theological treatise or try to baptize his proposals with a thin layer of proof-texting. With a background in the world of think tanks and consulting, Renn writes about what he knows. He is to be commended for staying in his lane. His is not the only book we need on the challenges of our present day, but it is a book we need. I’m glad he didn’t try to write a different one.

Second, it is also true that Renn doesn’t engage in a scholarly or statistical analysis to prove that, say, in 2014 we decisively entered the negative world. Again, his analysis is more impressionistic. Depending on where you live and the vocation you have, the world around you may still seem neutral or even positive toward Christianity. Just the other day I got a political mailer boasting that the candidate “loves her husband, loves her kids, loves Jesus.” Visitors from Great Britain are often amazed by how often and how openly our famous athletes thank God and talk about their Christian faith. There are, no doubt, many ways in which American culture is more pervasively Christian than we think. The left, with horror, certainly thinks so.

And yet, I hardly ever talk to anyone, Christian or non-Christian, who doesn’t believe that something has changed and is changing. No Christian today is likely to call our political coalition the Moral Majority. No one thinks that quoting the Bible before your local school board is going to win the day. Christianity is no longer our public truth, certainly not in the way it once was. Christian assumptions are not normative, and those who live out a Christian life and believe Christian truths—especially in the elite corridors of government, education, media, entertainment, and business—are not “normal.” If you want to shock young people, inform them that in 2008 the state of California passed an amendment banning same-sex marriage. That was a different world.

In the end, Renn’s book is full of good advice even for those who think the world is less anti-Christian than he does. It is one of the great strengths of the work that Renn doesn’t try to convince the reader that the sky is falling or that all the old rules should be broken now that the barbarians are at the gates. Renn clearly thinks that our society has changed, and that Christians should expect new opposition and new challenges. He is concerned, but he is neither pessimistic nor alarmist. One might even say he is hopeful—cautiously optimistic that because authentic Christianity has always been countercultural, today’s Christians can learn to be salt and light in the dark and decaying corners of post-Christian America. Far from being shrill or stirring up anxiety, Renn’s book helpfully lays out a positive vision for the negative world.

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina.

Image by Jace Miller, public domain. Image cropped.

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