“‘Passive evangelism’ goes both ways, and you don’t look winsome to the abyss without it looking winsome back to you, or, more importantly, to your kids.”
The epigraph comes from a review of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (2017) by the intermittent but invariably impressive blogger known as Handel. I strongly encourage you to read the whole review here, but advise you to first brew a very large coffee, since it is very long. For those who are too harried or impatient for that, it may be enough to know that Handel says to Dreher what Aragorn said to Frodo after the calamity at the Prancing Pony.
“Are you frightened.” “Yes.” “Not near frightened enough. I know what hunts you.”
Dreyer’s book says that Christianity is in a bad way, that we must expect the environing culture to grow more rather than less hostile, and that Christians are in no way prepared for the existential test their faith is about to undergo. Handel’s says that, for all his gloomy foreboding, Dryer is still a Pollyanna whistling past the graveyard, and “not near frightened enough.”
In his effort to stiffen Frodo with salutary alarm, Aragorn said that the Black Riders were hunting him, Frodo; but the true object of the Nine was, of course, not Frodo but the Ring of Power that he carried. We may suppose that the Black Riders would have let Frodo return to his little house in Buckland if he would only surrendered the Ring. Of course the Shire would then have one day fallen under the dominion of the Dark Lord, but capitulation to the Nine is one way Frodo could have saved his skin.
It is much the same with later day Christians. We can prepare for persecution (which means to be harried and chased), or we can capitulate. And capitulation under persecution will be swift for those who do not prepare. That is Handel’s basic point in the line I quote above.
According to Handle, “passive evangelism” prepares Christians for apostasy because, in these late days, the heathen world will swallow any Christians who tarries in it. The doctrine of passive evangelism denies this and encourages Christians to mix with their heathen neighbors, lead mostly normal lives, and stand apart from the mainstream only by a silent witness to Christian faith. The doctrine of passive evangelism assures Christians that their heathen neighbors will be attracted to Christ when they notice how normal, well-adjusted, and nice Christians are. What the doctrine ignores is that these heathen neighbors are also bearing silent witness, are also practicing an evangelism (and this not merely passive), and are, by the standards of our times, even more normal, well-adjusted, and nice.
If it comes down to a head-to-head contest of winsomeness, Handle says the heathens are going to win. The “abyss” of heathenism has always had its charms and these charms are nowadays made even more glamorous by artful and flattering portraits in the media, and by the high social status of the heathens. Humans in general are more imitative than rational, and their allegiance therefore naturally flows in the direction of prestige. The inertia of large numbers should not blind us to the fact that, even in America, Christianity has about as much prestige as bass fishing or stock car racing.
This is not an unqualified disaster, since a default religion will always be disfigured by the worldly conformists that bloat its rolls, and by the worldly pageants that commandeer its sacred spaces. Christianity will be in many ways better when the heathens do not expect to use its churches as stage sets to dignify their worldly weddings, and when politicians do not feel a need to feign a semblance of Christian piety. This is something the Puritans understood, and ridding the Church of these accretions was a large part of what they meant by purification.
Every military commander knows that retreat is the most difficult maneuver. This is because falling back before the enemy feels like losing, even when it improves the strategic position of the army. This is why we find this among Napoleon’s maxims of war:
“Whatever may be the resources of an army, it will be found that a retreat will degenerate rapidly into a rout unless the general-in-chief shall succeed, by combining boldness with skill, and perseverance with firmness, in restoring the morale of his army.”
I know there are Christians who will object to military analogies, although I must note that this is not a scruple they share with the authors of the Old or New Testament. For my part, I expect a retreat but fear a route, and therefore anxiously await a display of boldness, skill, perseverance and firmness by our commanders.