Rick Langer is the Director of the Office of Faith and Learning at Biola University where he is also Professor of Biblical Studies and Theology and the co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project. His publications have focused on applying theology to a wide variety of disciplines including business leadership, disability, suffering, bioethics, and most recently, public discourse. Tim Muehlhoff is Professor of Communication at Biola University. He serves as the co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project and co-host of the Winsome Conviction Podcast. His most recent books include “Winsome Conviction: Disagreeing without Dividing the Church” (co-written with Rick Langer) and “Eyes to See: Recognizing God’s Common Grace in an Unsettled World.” Robert H. Woods, Jr. served as Professor of Communication at Spring Arbor University for twenty years. He currently serves as the Executive Director of The Christianity and Communication Studies Network (www.theccsn.com). His most recent books include “Everyday Sabbath: How to Lead Your Dance with Media and Technology in Mindful and Sacred Ways” and “Ethics and Religion in the Age of Social Media: Digital Proverbs for Responsible Citizens.” He is the former president of the Religious Communication Association.
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.1
This famous poem by Irish poet and Nobel Prize winner William Yeats captures the anxieties that he felt as he scanned the social horizon of his day. The forces of division seemed so much greater than the forces that were 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. This themed 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. Ninety-three percent of Americans feel incivility is a problem and over two-thirds feel it is a major problem.2 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.3 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.4 It is 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.5
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.6 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 2007.7 Perhaps most disturbing of all 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 fragmentation of the media. Faith in institutions has declined, cynicism has risen, and citizens are becoming their own information curators. All of these trends are fundamentally changing the way people arrive at the kind of informed opinions that can drive effective governance and political compromise.8
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.”9
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;”10 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.11
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 as related to 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. Nathan King, a philosopher at Whitworth University, considers the importance of intellectual virtues as a way to build better discourse. And finally, Kristin Garrett (Wheaton College), considers the interface of political science and psychology as she examines the psychology of political polarization.
And the poetry and art interspersed throughout this issue remind 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 special edition 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).
Cite this article
- William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming,” in The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (Stansted, UK: Wordsworth Editions, 2000), 158–159.
- “Civility in America 2019: Solutions for Tomorrow,” (Weber Shandwick, Powell Tate and KRC Research, June 6, 2019), https://www.webershandwick.com/wpcontent/uploads/2019/06/CivilityInAmerica2019SolutionsforTomorrow.pdf.
- “Poll: 62 Percent of Americans Say They Have Political Views They’re Afraid to Share,” Cato Institute, July 22, 2020, https://www.cato.org/survey-reports/poll-62-americans-say-they-have-political-views-theyre-afraid-share.
- Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (New York: Knopf, 1971).
- How Americans View Trust, Facts, and Democracy Today,” Pew Charitable Trusts, accessed December 29, 2021, https://pew.org/38gSYyx.
- Emma Harrison, “Mrs. Roosevelt Explains a Tea; Says Khrushchev’s Hunger and Her Politeness Made Engagement Desirable,” The New York Times, October 15, 1960, https://www.nytimes.com/1960/10/15/archives/mrs-roosevelt-explains-a-tea-says-khrushchevs-hunger-and-her.html.
- Tracey Mark Stout, “Would That All Were Prophets,” in Prophetic Ethics, ed. Robert B. Krus-chwitz (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2003), 15.
- “Resistance thinking” is adapted from Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, who introduced the idea in an essay titled “Christian Apologetics,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 89–103. Lewis sees the Christian faith as a “resisting material” and demonstrates how Christians might speak against modernity and the fiction of progress by practicing an alternative and latent form of argument. This essay and ones on “Bulverism” and “Before We Can Communicate” in the same collection are wonderful introductions to Lewis’s ideas on communicating Christian convictions. (We would like to thank Terry Lindvall, Virginia Wesleyan University, for his help with this note.)