Furrowed Brows Inc.

The culture war’s biggest casualties may be Christian joy and hope.

This article originally appeared in Christianity Today, April 2006 (vol. 50, no. 4), p. 100.

Not long ago I attended a strategy session for the culture war.

Participants examined the decline of marriage, the cheapening and flattening of human sexuality into contextless pleasure, the exploitation and destruction of unborn human beings. Speeches were given. Brows were furrowed. Resolutions were made.

War, I was reminded, does terrible things to the warriors.

Everywhere Jesus went, life blossomed.

In the room were veterans of a conflict that has simmered for decades, with few victories for the conservative side. All were earnestly committed to the cause. And most, to be blunt, were not having a very good time.

I support many, if not all, of their aims. There is a time for concerted action and forceful advocacy when a culture is beset, as ours indisputably is, with violence against the weak and the disintegration of our deepest promises.

There was violence and disintegration in the day of Jesus, too. Jesus was hardly shy about confronting the patterns of sin in his culture—though he was consistently harder on the pious than he was on the pagans.

But everywhere Jesus went, life blossomed. The sick were healed, lepers were touched, daughters and sons were plucked from the mouth of the grave. Jesus left behind him a trail of leaps and laughter, reunited families, and terrific wine, as well as dumbfounded synagogue leaders, uneasy monarchs, and sleepless procurators. His witness against violence, amidst a culture in rebellion against the good, was neither withdrawal nor war. It was simply life: abundant, just, generous life. And, ultimately, a willingness to let the enemies of life do their worst, confident that even death could not extinguish the abundant life of God.

Jesus’ spirit is evident in some prominent figures in the culture war. I take hope in merry warriors like Princeton’s Robert P. George, who combines a lawyer’s rapier sense of disputation with a puckish grin that is never far from the surface; Eugene Rivers, a Pentecostal intellectual who will talk your ear off and raise the roof, if not the dead, with his preaching; and Frederica Mathewes-Green, the most delightful pro-life grandmother on the planet, who radiates Christ to her allies and opponents alike.

But many lieutenants in this war, notwithstanding the happy exceptions, bear countenances etched with some combination of depression and derision. It is hard to believe someone who speaks of love through clenched teeth. I would not have wanted to bring a gay friend, or even just a committed Democrat, into that room.

So it was to my great relief (and perhaps my fellow participants’ relief as well) that I had to leave the meeting early. I took a train to a very different sort of meeting. In a row house on a West Philadelphia street, the leaders of a small church were gathering for a weekend of study and prayer.

Their pastors are a young couple, gifted and winsome and bright, who freely admit that they have little idea what they are doing, but who have a vision for a thriving church in the heart of the city. The church’s neighborhood, a bit like our culture, is a bewildering mixture of gleaming affluence and grimy neglect.

In a cozy living room furnished with well-worn sofas, we munched on Kentucky Fried Chicken and quaffed Yellow Tail merlot. Candles were flickering. The leaders were laughing, talking, catching up on one another’s stories: young mothers and grandmothers, thin graduate students and amply proportioned social workers, neighborhood lifers and newcomers, their skin many different hues, drawn to one another by the gospel.

I took a deep breath. I sank into the scruffy couch. The conversation died down, and we began to pray, soaking in a comforting, empowering silence. Then we talked about their church’s abundance of ministries and shortage of finances, the dizzying array of needs to be found just by going a few blocks in any direction, and the biblical stories of God’s people in exile, agents of peace in the midst of pagan cities.

I left that night feeling a tremendous sense of hope, the hope I have found over and over again in the most unlikely places, in war zones both figurative and literal where Christ’s followers worship and serve. There is nothing that can break your heart like the church, but neither is there anything that can so restore your heart as being among a few people whose love is transparent, tenacious, and utterly not their own doing.

I do not know how, or whether, the culture war can be won. Human culture, like human nature, is too incorrigible, too intractable, for unambiguous victories. I suspect we have consigned our armies to a conflict that is unwinnable by definition, and by making disciples into warriors, we have risked robbing them of the hilarious high calling that is the new birthright of every Christian: to be an agent of improbable, impossible life in the midst of the world.