As Western culture continues in its post-Christian trajectory, with growing hostility to Christian values and biblical orthodoxy, how can communities of Christ-followers stay faithful? This is a question of immense importance and much debate, especially for a community like Biola University. Several recently released books have tackled this question and sparked broad discussion, none more than Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, released in March.
Now, two Biola professors — Richard Langer, professor of biblical and theological studies at Talbot School of Theology, and Tim Muehlhoff, professor of communication — are proposing their own “option” for effective Christian influence in a post-Christian culture. They detail their approach in a new book, Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian World, published in June by IVP Academic. Biola Magazine sat down with Langer and Muehlhoff to discuss the book, the culture and “the counterpublic option.”
What is a “counterpublic” and how does it relate to a strong public or the dominant culture?
MUEHLHOFF: A counterpublic operates as a subversive force within the mainstream culture. It’s simply a group of people who seek to challenge the dominant culture’s beliefs, understandings or practices. So, for example, William Wilberforce organized a counterpublic that sought to challenge slavery and the slave trade in the British Empire in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Counterpublics offer an alternative to the dominant culture.
You suggest that a counterpublic is defined by three characteristics: opposition, withdrawal and engagement. Can you briefly describe what each means and might look like for a Christian counterpublic in today’s world?
LANGER: Oppositionality refers to the perception that a counterpublic is excluded from or marginalized within mainstream or dominant publics. Our book argues that in recent decades, many of the social values that Christians hold dear have become not merely questioned by certain elites, but actually marginalized or excluded from mainstream culture. Traditional Christian views are objects of derision within our prevailing culture.
Withdrawal refers to a practice that counterpublics use to sustain themselves in the midst of opposition. Without moments of retreat, regrouping, reflection or rejuvenation, a counterpublic cannot sustain its identity and its ability to speak to the dominant culture will ultimately be exhausted. In the midst of today’s argument culture, we need regular times of spiritual rest and rejuvenation.
MUEHLHOFF: Engagement means that in order for counterpublics to effectively challenge the dominant culture and its policy-makers, counterpublics must speak in a way that the public understands and finds credible. In short, a counterpublic must speak the vernacular of the public, but at the same time offer a compelling contrary vision. A counterpublic that speaks in a language that only makes sense to members of its own group will simply fail to engage the dominant culture and consequently fail at the task of being a counterpublic.
How would you say your notion of a Christian counterpublic compares to what Rod Dreher is proposing in The Benedict Option as a posture for faithful Christians in a post-Christian culture?
LANGER: Rob Dreher names his “option” after Benedict of Nursia, the founder of Western monasticism. In effect, he is arguing that our dominant culture is so far gone that the only sensible thing for us to do is to strategically retreat from the mainstream to strengthen our Christian commitments, and our church communities. Dreher is picking up a suggestion first made by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue, suggesting that we may need to construct “local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages.”
I should begin my response by clearly stating that I am not opposed to the Benedict Option as one of a set of responses to an ever-darkening culture. I strongly agree with much of what Dreher affirms about our cultural moment. However, even in Benedict’s day, the “Benedict Option” was exercised by the few rather than the many. We suggest the “Counterpublic Option” as an alternative to the Benedict Option because it emphasizes strategic engagement rather than strategic retreat. The Christian voice may have hit a wall in terms of political activism and cultural influence, but there are so many other ways to engage a culture. As we mention in our book, as a response to slavery, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a novel! In our day, many churches have done wonderful work creating what might be called micro-cultures — enclaves of grace within needy communities. Rather than a mindset of withdrawing from the prevailing decadence, these churches adopt a mindset of service toward the victims of a decadent culture.
These responses may be as simple as an after-school program serving disadvantaged students in a broken neighborhood, or as expansive as Windsor Village Church’s 200-plus acre redevelopment project in southwest Houston. If our only options are prophetic protest or withdrawal into autonomous communities of faith, I’m afraid we will lose a host of creative, constructive and loving responses to the deeply problematic practices of contemporary society.
One of the tensions raised in your book is the role of “getting our own house in order” as Christians on important issues (like marriage and sexuality) within our larger call to seek the flourishing of the world. Are there times when the “getting our own house in order” part must be prioritized over engagement so that our long-term mission is more effective?
LANGER: We both cringe when we talk about “getting our house in order” as if it is a strategy for effective cultural influence. We need to get our house in order because judgment begins with the household of God, as Peter puts it. We get our house in order to please Jesus, not to “influence our culture.” That said, it is certainly true that we cannot offer an alternative vision of marriage and sexual ethics if our own vision and practice of marriage and sexual ethics is indistinguishable from our non-Christian neighbors. Specifically, Christians tend to follow our culture in making marriage primarily about personal happiness and fulfillment. When marriage is no longer making us happy, we abandon our vows with a frequency that is comparable with our prevailing culture. Language of duty, fidelity to a vow and self-sacrificial service is as foreign to Christians as it is to our secular peers.
What are some practical ways that a Christian counterpublic can engage, in productive ways, in the public square?
MUEHLHOFF: There is almost no limit to the creative and positive ways in which we can engage in culture-building activities that promote the common good and are conducive to authentic human flourishing. Indeed, it would be great if each and every church asked itself what it could offer by way of a positive cultural good that would serve their community, and then set about to do just that. It might mean offering art or music classes in school districts where those had been eliminated; or serving immigrant populations by offering resettlement resources; or organizing a mentoring program for helping families with financial, marriage or parenting needs. We need to be transparently Christian when we do these things, and we also need to be clear that we are promoting God’s vision for human flourishing, not simply accommodating the prevailing whims of our culture. Specifically, we explore how Christian groups can forge “loose connections” with non-Christian groups to tackle social problems. Our book tells how a conservative group like Focus on the Family can partner with a liberal newspaper such as The Independent to address Colorado’s flawed foster care system. The ancient writers of the book of Proverbs state that when our “ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies be at peace with him” (16:7).
You note how Christian counterpublics can tend to be pessimistic, prone to focus on the “encroaching darkness.” In seasons of discouragement, how should Christians regain hope and a renewed vision of shalom?
LANGER: One of the things we would suggest as a spiritual discipline is to intentionally cultivate gratitude and practice affirmation. Affirming authentic goodness, whenever and wherever it may be found, not only lifts our spirits but it also cultivates an eye for recognizing that which is good. We are often struck by how easy it is to point out something that is wrong but how hard it is to imagine what would be better. Identifying and acknowledging the good, when we find it, helps develop an imagination and a vision for doing good things. Similarly, God gives grace to us on a daily basis in a thousand different ways. It nurture hope and strengthens resolve to stop and praise God for good things which are genuinely present even in the midst of dark or difficult seasons.
You argue that the credibility of a counterpublic is key to its effectiveness. What are specific ways that a Christian counterpublic can gain credibility?
LANGER: A big part of credibility is character. If we say we are loving but appear to be judgmental, people are likely to dismiss us as hypocrites rather than listen to our arguments. Simply being faithful exemplars of the fruit of the Spirit goes a long way toward establishing credibility. That said, the quality and nature of our arguments is also important. Our credibility is often hampered not because we offer biblical arguments, but because we are nonconversant with other arguments. We are unaware that there are nonbiblical arguments that support many biblical positions, and we are also unaware of reasonable objections to our positions. In both cases, we simply seem ignorant, and that is devastating to our credibility.
Why is it important for Christian and non-Christians to work together for the common good?
MUEHLHOFF: Exactly because it is a “common” good! There are a thousand things that are good for us simply because we are all human beings. People always gather around what they have in common, whether it is an allegiance to a football team or a commitment to a common cause. We automatically build bridges rather than walls when we work on projects together with others. What often keeps groups from forming loose connections with each other is the mistaken idea that if we partner on one issue — addressing a broken foster care system, or co-sponsoring a blood drive — that we are condoning the entire agenda of the other group. In the book we use the ancient city of Antioch as a test case where Christians and non-Christians alike linked arms to address overcrowding and poor sanitation. The result is not only more humane living conditions, but the cultivation of social capital and goodwill that earned these early Jesus followers the label Christians, or “little Christs.”
Richard Langer (M.Div. ’85) is a professor of biblical and theological studies at Talbot School of Theology and director of Biola’s Office for the Integration of Faith and Learning. He has a Ph.D. from the University of California, Riverside. Tim Muehlhoff is a professor of communication and director of research at Biola’s Center for Marriage and Relationships. He has a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.