Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
This famous poem by Irish poet and Nobel Prize winner William Yeats captures the anxieties he felt as he scanned the social horizon of his day. The forces of division seemed so much greater than the forces holding his world together. Good people lacked conviction–passion was reserved for the bad. He was writing in the shadow of World War I and under the fear of the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, but he strikes a chord that has resonated throughout this past century and up to the present day. The newly released summer issue of Christian Scholar’s Review attempts to find a Christian voice to speak to the needs of a world in which things are falling apart, and the center cannot hold.
The crisis in our public discourse is hard to deny. As noted in our “Editors’ Preface,”1 Ninety-three percent of Americans feel incivility is a problem, and over two-thirds think it is a major problem. Incivility is not just a matter of how we talk to each other; it also keeps us from talking to each other at all. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say the political climate these days prevents them from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive. Reasons for self-censorship are not hard to find. Almost one-third of Americans are worried that they will lose employment or advancement opportunities if their political opinions become known–a percentage that increases based on education level to 44 percent of those with post-graduate degrees.
It is a rational fear. The same survey found that 31 percent of the respondents favored firing business executives if it became known that they privately donated to the Trump campaign (the number was lower for Biden at 22 percent, but still disturbingly high). Things will not be getting better soon: the demographic breakdown revealed that those under thirty were far more likely than their older counterparts to support firings based on political donations. We are also losing basic trust in our society’s defining institutions. Mainstream media, including Christian media, feed off our ideological division—and we grow weary of it. As French sociologist and lay Christian theologian Jacques Ellul explains, media are priestly propaganda: they tell already-loyal audiences what they want to believe more than they try to prophetically challenge or change their beliefs. Groups on the Left and Right practice their own brand of tribal correctness by “preaching to the choir.” Commercial media, argues Ellul, are not interested in speaking truth as much as they are concerned with economic gain.
Meanwhile, most viewers prefer programs or magazines that confirm their group’s perceived or superior position over another. The results of such practices are as inevitable as they are disappointing: fragmentation, sloganeering, and demonization. When it comes to civic affairs, Pew Charitable Trust reports that in 1958, about three-quarters (73 percent) of Americans expressed trust that the government would do what’s right. That number is down to 17 percent today. Declining trust increasingly marks our view of our fellow citizens, not just the government. About 60 percent of adults now say that they have little or no confidence in the American people when it comes to making political decisions, a dramatic increase in distrust from the 42 percent expressed in 2007. Perhaps most disturbing is that our decrease of trust parallels an increase in mutual animosity and affective polarization. Our overall political communication climate is well-summed up in these words from the Pew Charitable Trust report:
In the U.S. and abroad, anxiety over misinformation has increased alongside political polarization and growing media fragmentation. Faith in institutions has declined, cynicism has risen, and citizens are becoming their own information curators. All of these trends are fundamentally changing how people arrive at informed opinions that can drive effective governance and political compromise.
A democratic and pluralistic society cannot assume all of its citizens will agree with each another. We have to be able to talk to one another–it is the only way we can find common ground. As former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt put it, “We have to face the fact that either all of us are going to die together or we are going to learn to live together, and if we are to live together, we have to talk.” Christians appear to be as susceptible to polarization and incivility as the rest of our society. Disagreements over the 2020 presidential election, Critical Race Theory, immigration, and mask mandates—to name a few—have splintered churches, para-church organizations, and, not least, Christian universities. To make matters worse, our disagreements are often made public via social media platforms. As Christians, and particularly Christian academics, we must consider our role in healing the divisions that threaten to tear our society apart. We need to become public advocates for “the wisdom from above [which] is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17; ESV). As public advocates, we must embrace the role of small-p prophets. Unlike capital-P prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, and others in the biblical record who relayed a direct, supernatural word from God, small-p prophets—all Christians—are called to interpret events from a biblical perspective. We are to tell it like it is—or how it should be. We are to speak truth, call for accountability, and champion justice. The role is too important to give up in light of the global and local crises we face. Being an “everyday prophet” is part of the “prophethood of all believers;” it is a call to demonstrate what C. S. Lewis describes as “resistance thinking”—that is, thinking that resists the dominant forces of our culture while simultaneously helping others imagine alternative hope-filled ways of thinking and being.
The interviews, articles, poems, and art included in this issue are offered to stimulate us toward these ends. The issue includes two interviews with respected public intellectuals. The first interview is with Russell Moore, who was the President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention at the time of the interview, and currently is the Director of the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today. Moore is one of the most influential voices of evangelical political thought in the public square today. Our second interview is with Theon Hill, a communications scholar at Wheaton College who has done important work on the relationship between rhetoric and social change, particularly regarding race, culture, and American politics.
The articles offer a deep dive into the character, virtues, and disciplines required for loving discourse in the face of conflicting convictions. Elizabeth Hall, Jason McMartin, and Timothy Pickavance (Biola University) bring psychology, theology, and philosophy to bear on the challenge of loving public engagement in their article, “Speaking the Truth in Love: The Challenge of Public Engagement”. Nathan King, a philosopher at Whitworth University, in “How Intellectual Virtues Can Help Build Better Discourse,” considers the importance of intellectual virtues as a way to build better discourse. And finally, in writing about “Navigating the Double-Edge Sword of Moral Conviction in Politics,” Kristin N. Garrett (Wheaton College) considers the interface of political science and psychology as she examines the psychology of political polarization. Poetry (Philip Aijan, and Scott Cairns) and art (Wayne Forte, Kip Henderson, John Henry, and Shawn Michael Warren) are interspersed throughout this issue reminding us that essays, while valuable, are not the only way to address the important concerns of the day. We have included poems, photos, and paintings that offer insights and make statements in ways that prose never could. These works largely speak for themselves, but we include some brief background and commentary with each piece.
In closing, the kind of conversations we encourage in this themed issue offer hope for peaceful discourse that engages honest questions without assuming a single outcome or identical personal convictions. The varied forms we present—whether interviews, articles, poetry, or art—probe deep questions about the human condition but also give wisdom for those who choose to engage others across ideological divides. Such engagement is difficult and fraught with peril, but faithfulness demands that we be less concerned with evoking applause from our audiences than provoking thoughtful, sometimes uncomfortable, reflection. If we cannot find a way to speak needed truths to both the church and our culture, we will not merely have inadequate public discourse; we will have failed to serve the purpose of God in our own generation (Acts 13:36).
In addition to a significant number of book reviews, we offer review essays by Craig E. Matison (Trinity Christian College), and Chan Woong Shin (Indiana Wesleyan University) focused on recently published books examining winsome Christian conviction and Evangelical Humanitarian work, respectively. More than mere reviews, both offer critiques of Christian engagement with topics at the heart of today’s evangelical Church. We are also pleased to publish a review and responses as Katie Kresser (Seattle Pacific University) reviews Makoto Fujimura’s Art + Faith: A Theology of Making with a reply by Fujimura and further response by Kresser.
Over the summer, we published our individual book reviews as blogs. Here is the complete list of the reviews.
Mark W. Hamilton (Abilene Christian University) reviews Refuge Reimagined: Biblical Kinship in Global Politics by Mark R. Glanville and Luke Glanville.
Karen R. J. Murphy (Fuller Theological Seminary) reviews Women in the Mission of the Church: Their Opportunities and Obstacles throughout Christian History by Leanne M. Dzubinski and Anneke H. Stasson.
Stephen N. Bretsen (Wheaton College) reviews Christianity and the Laws of Conscience: An Introduction, edited by Jeffrey B. Hammond and Helen M. Alvaré.
Caleb Wesley Southern (Southern Wesleyan University) reviews The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought to Preserve White Supremacy by J. Russell Hawkins,
Hunter Baker (Union University) reviews Survival: A Theological-Political Genealogy by Adam Y. Stern.
Christopher Metress (Samford University) reviews White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America by Anthea Butler.
Clara Gerhardt (Samford University) reviews Handing Down the Faith: How Parents Pass Their Religion on to the Next Generation by Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk.
Josh Reeves (Samford University) reviews Science and the Doctrine of Creation: The Approaches of Ten Modern Theologians, edited by Geoffrey Fulkerson and Joel Thomas Chopp.
Derek Schuurman (Calvin University) reviews The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir by Sherry Turkle.
Timothy D. Hall (Samford University) reviews The Course of God’s Providence: Religion, Health, and the Body in Early America by Philippa Koch.
- All references and citations in this introduction can be found in the “Editors’ Preface”. https://christianscholars.com/introduction-to-the-theme-issue-conviction-civility-and-christian-witness/
If I may add more perspective to Yeats’ poem. The period 1918 was a time of rising tensions between Irish nationalists and the British government. The Irish War of Independence broke out in 1919 and would last until 1921. From Yeats’ point of view, this war was a civil war within the then United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Yeats would later serve as a Senator in the independent Irish Free State, a key defender of Protestant rights.
Liberals, progressives, Democrats self-censor for fear of reprisal at their jobs? Where? Please be specific. No? Right. Conservatives are the targets. Therefore defense of them should be a matter of social justice, right? Why or why not? Progressive Christian leaders need to pretend that an equivalence prevails in the division in the country so that they can call for civility. But if the Democrats say all blacks or all gays or whoever are oppressed then the same Christian voices call for redress according to social justice demands. So no. What is needed just now is not to pretend there is some equivalence prevailing. What we need is social justice for the actual targets of those in power.
“Things Fall Apart” is the title of Episode 6 of the Ken Burns documentary, The Vietnam War, and is also taken from the Yeats poem. It spans the period from Jan – July, 1968 when things were falling apart in the US and in South Vietnam.
We kid ourselves if we expect life to be like “Sesame Street”. “Sunny day, everything’s A okay, friendly neighborhood, that’s where we play”. I am from Canada, and despite the belief that we’re nice, we are definitely not. Social media during the COVID pandemic proved it. Politicians, the media, universities, organizations are full of agendas, and those agendas aren’t even intended to be fair. They are for fulfilling a self-centred cause, all too often to demonize and “punish” a particular target group.
I feared that America had lost a great hero when Fred Rogers died, and, if anything, my fears weren’t as dire as the current social climate. In the 1060s, when blacks were being banned from public pools, Fred Rogers aired a scene on his show in which he invited a black man in the role of a police officer (Officer Clemens) to cool his feet off in a foot pool, and Mr. Rogers offered him his own towel to dry off his feet to boot. Looking into the camera, Fred Rogers stated something like, “Sometimes just a moment can make a big difference”. He wasn’t talking (just) to the children, that is for sure. Fred Rogers applied the Golden Rule in a beautiful and courageous way, and if we Christians in Canada and the US do not follow his example in how we relate to those who disagree with us, then we are failing our Lord.
The best translation I’ve read of James 3:17-18 is in the Message. Peterson nailed these two verses for us here, in 2022, with his version:
Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.
We cannot expect grace from the world. But we can be agents of grace ourselves, and we need to be.