Resident Aliens: Chapter 1, The Modern World: On Learning to Ask the Right Questions, Part 1

We’re working our way through Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony by Stanly Hauerwas and William H. Williamson, published in 1989.

You know, it occurred to me the other day that most of the really good books weren’t published yesterday. Rather than serving the interests on the publishing industry and talking about the newest books, it might be more helpful to work through some great books. And most of the new books aren’t great. Some will be, God willing, but most of the great books aren’t brand new. Some aren’t even still in print.

Resident Aliens: Chapter 1, Part 1

The authors begin the book with some history, beginning with Constantinianism.

Ever since Constantine legalized Christianity, Christianity has been something of a civil religion, supporting and supported by the state. They begin by noting that Constantinianism died “sometime between 1960 and 1980.” As an example, consider the decision made in nearly all towns to allow the movie theaters to be open on Sundays. Until then, society had concluded that Sunday was for church and not for business, and therefore by law nearly all businesses were closed. Closing businesses made it easier for Christians to attend church and removed the temptation to go to the movies rather than Sunday night services. But this all died. The state stopped serving the church.

We believe the world has been changed but that change did not begin when the Fox Theater opened on Sunday. The world was fundamentally changed in Jesus Christ, and we have been trying, but failing, to grasp the implications of that change ever since.

Ponder that quotation for a moment. For people my age (57), it’s easy to be nostalgic for a time when children’s sports teams didn’t practice on Wednesday nights, much less schedule all-star games for Sunday morning. It was easier when pornography wasn’t available on the Internet and the TV provided shows with innocent humor that didn’t make fun of Christians. But times have changed.

However, the authors don’t bemoan the loss of a Constantinian culture. Rather, they celebrate the victory we have in Jesus, and urge us to return, not to the 1950s, but to 33 AD. The goal isn’t to reinvent the culture of our grandparents but to return to Jesus.

What we are saying is that in the twilight of that world, we have an opportunity to discover what has and always is the case — that the church, as called out by God, embodies a social alternative that the world cannot on its own terms know.

The demise of the Constantinian world view, the gradual decline of the notion that the church needs some sort of surrounding “Christian” culture to prop it up and mold its young, is not a death to lament. It is an opportunity to celebrate. The decline of the old, Constantinian synthesis between the church and the world means that we American Christians are at last free to be faithful in a way that makes being a Christian today an exciting adventure.

Wow. While much of Christianity has been bemoaning the lost of the government as best friend, the authors celebrate the separation of church and state, because we can now more easily see that the world is the world and the church is the church — and they are not the same. When the city closed the theater on Sundays, we thought they were helping the church by taking away the competition — but a church that can’t compete with the world isn’t really the church. It’s just the only choice allowed.

If our children only attend church because the theater is closed, then they aren’t really converted to Jesus. In fact, they are frustrated worshipers of the movies who pick their second choice because they have no other choice. When church membership is compelled by the state, by the removal of all other choices, much of Christianity ceases to be commitment. Rather, you go to church because there’s nothing else to do and everyone you know goes to church. But this sort of church may not change you in any way that matters.

Pastors who listen to their members, particularly to young parents, will hear them saying to their own children, with increasing regularity, “Such behavior is fine for everyone else, but not fine for you. You are special. You are different. You have a different story. You have a different set of values. You are a Christian.

And we believe that recognition signals a seismic shift in the world view of our church, which makes all the difference in the world for how we go about the business of being the church. Now our churches are free to embrace our roots, to resemble more closely the synagogue — a faith community that does not ask the world to do what it can do for itself. What we once knew theologically, we now know experientially: Tertullian was right — Christians are not naturally born in places like Greenville or anywhere else. Christians are intentionally made by an adventuresome church, which has again learned to ask the right questions to which Christ along supplies the right answers.

Parents (I have four children), of course, don’t like the idea of raising children in a sinful society. Children struggle to live up to Christian values when their classmates and neighbors live to other standards. It’s hard. It’s tough to celebrate a world where sex education is necessary in the fourth grade because girls become sexually active in the fifth grade. But this much is true: it’s sure easy to tell who is and isn’t serious about their Christianity and to see where the church has utterly failed.

When we take our children to the public schools, we are astonished that so much of society is violent, rude, and self-interested. But these children have grandparents who went to church. It used to be that nearly everyone went to church. What changed? Why did the church fail these children so miserably?

Since we can’t count on the schools to raise our children as Christians for us, we now have to figure out how to do it ourselves — which is a good thing. It’s an awful thing not to know how! And many of us are having to re-think and re-learn how to be parents in a worldly world. But we never should have left it up to the schools in the first place. The schools didn’t do that good of a job even when they were allowed to lead prayers on the PA system. Just look at how the grandchildren of those kids turned out!

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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2 Responses to Resident Aliens: Chapter 1, The Modern World: On Learning to Ask the Right Questions, Part 1

  1. Emmett says:

    My dad envisioned and helped found a private school. I heard his sermon about parental responsibility many times. It was clear to me that he recognized the private school as a good alternative to the public schools, but absolutely not as a substitute for parental nurturing and guidance. Forty-plus years later I have seen it firsthand. I have seen children who went to public schools grow into active, genuine Christians, and some who went to private schools all their lives who long since turned their backs on Christianity.

    I now hear parents talk about the public schools needing their children more than ever to be salt and light. And I hear parents insisting that they’ll home school their children to keep them out of the cesspool that many of the schools have become. The fundamental message that I heard from my dad so many times has not changed. Parents are ultimately responsible for the nurturing of their children, and no matter what advantages they try to provide for their children, the one thing above all else must be their own commitment as Christian parents.

    The world has not changed spiritually in the 20 centuries since Jesus walked the earth. It’s the same battleground it always was. Human nature is still the same. The devil is still on the prowl for our souls. We’re in the battle, we have no choice in that. Perhaps the loss of social support for the religious institutions of Christianity will result in the revitalization of some who have lost their focus. It seems to have always been true that the more difficult it is to profess Christianity the more real it gets…

  2. Some challenging thoughts! It is certainly easy for “the world to press us into its mold” (Romans 12:1, JB Phillips Translation).

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