Part of a Christian's Job is to Point Out that Modern Life Stinks
Things are bad. Cultural apologetics should say so.
The most controversial thing I wrote in 2023 was “The Church in a Time of Gender War,” a piece that generated a lot of feedback to me personally, and I suspect partly inspired other posts like this one. Some people thanked me for it. Some people gently pushed back. A handful got angry. But interestingly, almost no one (that I saw) disputed the piece’s most important presupposition: That tensions between men and women in the West seem to be high right now, and that the declines in marriage, birthrate, and even sex are probably connected to that. It’s possible that the conversation around singleness and evangelicalism boils down to whether you believe lack of marriage creates alienation or alienation creates lack of marriage. My argument was the former (though not to the exclusion of the latter). But I can see the contrary argument, and it could be right.
What I find harder to understand is how someone could look at 1) the data showing birthrates and marriage at historic lows, 2) the evidence of ideological polarization between men and women, and 3) the shockingly pornographic and self-serving spirit even in places of elite leadership, and conclude that the best way for Christians to respond is to…shrug? Again, it’s possible that my theories as to how to fix the current crisis are wrong. Is it possible there’s no crisis at all? No, I don’t think that’s possible.
I think there are some evangelicals who can see the evidence of a major cultural flashpoint between men and women, but talk themselves out of taking it seriously because something in them resists the practice of pointing out that modern life in the secular kingdom is actually kinda bad. This could be because their intellectual diet consists of articles and podcasts and Instagram feeds where people project endless self-satisfaction. Or it could be because they carry a resilient suspicion that their non-Christian friends really are happier, sexier, more confident, etc., and part of carrying their cross is reconciling themselves to this fact. Or it could be that they take “judgment begins at the house of God” to mean that they may never criticize anything about secular society as long as there are any churches or any Christian ministries anywhere guilty of sin or scandal.
It could be due to a lot of things. But in any case, I do think Christians need to recognize three things, and be willing to say them out loud:
Many, many people who are “liberated” by the sexual revolution are actually quite miserable, alone, and unlikely to improve.
Many, many people who have thrown off traditional gender stereotypes are unhappy with their choices.
There does not appear to be any serious plan coming from elite secular spaces—higher education, government, medicine, etc.—for dealing with these problems.
There’s been a lot of dialogue about the mental health of young liberal Americans, and why it appears to be measurably worse than that of more conservative people. I don’t have any cutting edge evidence to back me up on this; I just think it’s self-evident that a contemporary liberal—who thinks the genders are liquid, that consent is the closest thing to happiness that people having sex can hope to achieve, and that there is no intrinsic value to the nuclear family—is building for themselves a very lonely, very ugly reality. Sex without the sacred is just masturbation. And we have a word in our cultural dictionary for people whose primary sexual function is masturbation: incels. The fact that “incels” is a gendered term for a particular kind of alienated man misses something important about the whole of American society. There are a lot of incels running around. Some of them complain about movies starring women; some of them make those movies.
Things are rough out there. Consequently, it seems to me that part of being a cultural apologist in the 21st century West is being able to look at all of that and say, looking everyone in the eye, “This is bad and there is a better way to live.”
Some evangelicals listen to this and think, “Well sure, but there’s so much hypocrisy, scandal, and compromise within church culture, that we’re just not being honest if we talk about anything else.” I agree with the premise and disagree with the conclusion. Yes, there are many dysfunctions in evangelical church culture: Many places of hidden sin, harm, and dishonesty. And we do need to address these things. But I think this response either underestimates just how bad things in the secular world really are, or else, equivocates in a destructive way between the sins of that which is truly Christ’s kingdom, and the sins that are standing between people and Christ’s kingdom.
Again, I think a lot of well-read evangelicals simply do not think that secular society is in that bad of shape. They watch the Best Picture nominees, they listen to NPR, they read The Washington Post, and day over day they suspect that things among non-Christians would be pretty OK if it weren’t for [insert outgroup here]. Alternatively, in their moral imaginations, they may weigh the failings of the church so much heavier than the brokenness of the outside world that it just feels foolish to talk about anything but the former. This is a miscalculation. The Bible never indicates that unbelief is better or preferable to belief which stumbles. The task of cultural apologetics is the task of shining light on the things that keep people out of the church altogether, and exposing them for what they are. This light should shine, consistently, on the church itself. But there is never a reason to reconcile ourselves to society’s “bulwarks of unbelief” because the body of Christ has unfinished repentance, any more than a Christian who still sins should recoil from sharing the gospel with an unbelieving friend.
Part of the evangelical witness right now should be to point out that modern life stinks. Its technology makes us lonely. Its sexuality makes us empty. Its psychotherapy makes us self-obsessed. Many people are on the brink of oblivion, held back in some cases only by medication or political identity. We struggle to articulate why we should continue to live. Evangelicals should jump in here.
We should jump in to say that technology is not community, and that the human person is not a simulated consciousness but a divinely designed creature which needs the physical world and the physical people that populate it. We should say that friendship doesn’t mean followership.
We should jump in to say that sex is not porn, that consent is not enough, and that marriage is not a straitjacket. We should say that if having as much sex as you want with whomever you want was key to self-fulfillment, our world would look much different. We should say that men need women to be women, and women need men to be men, and both need each other.
We should jump in to say that modern therapy culture is shallow, politicized, self-contradictory, and paralyzed to make moral judgments. We should jump in to say that politics is not religion, that classifying half the world as victims and the other half as oppressors is not politics, and that utopia is not walking through that door.
Every addict says they’re fine, and most will never realize otherwise on their own. So it is the contemporary West. Somebody should intervene.