Why Unbelievers Are Probably More ‘Christian’ Than They Realize
Article by Joshua Chatraw, Theologian and Author
At one time in the West, Christianity seemed plausible because elements of the Christian story were woven into the fabric of everyday life. Leading institutions, daily practices, and common communication assumed realities such as a heavenly realm, a transcendent moral code, sin, divine judgment, and the possibility of ultimate redemption. These formed the tacit background of much of the culture’s everyday stories, the tapestry of meaning by which people lived. At the very least, belief in God—and, more specifically, the God of the Bible—seemed a viable option for most and was generally viewed as a positive influence on society. For many believers, Christianity had an assumed credibility that allayed doubts. The critiques were still there; they just didn’t feel as weighty.
Now the cultural narratives that seep into our psyches have changed, and with this shift, what people view as “common sense” has changed as well. Things like an invisible heavenly realm, divine judgment, a good God who would also call us to die to self, and an exclusive way to salvation, now seem much less plausible. In many cases, the gospel is presumed to be not only false, but also an oppressive leftover from the past. No wonder many of us are anxious about the thought of engaging our neighbors with the gospel! The playing field has rapidly changed.
Yet this isn’t the first time the church has faced a destabilizing cultural shift that led to collective fear and confusion. While many of his fellow church leaders and congregants who had pinned their ultimate hopes on a powerful Christianized empire were panicking over the sack of Rome, Augustine responded without caving to reactionary fears. In City of God, he cast Rome’s fall within the bigger picture of God’s story. This gave him the confidence and calm to approach the massive societal shifts and respond to the charges against Christianity. His approach was to address the real pressures, not just as challenges to be put down, but as opportunities. For buried within his pagan challengers he recognized aspirations that only the story of Christ could fulfill.
No wonder many of us are anxious about the thought of engaging our neighbors with the gospel! The playing field has rapidly changed.
Augustine’s steady theological hand in the face of serious cultural challenges brings me to our current situation in the West, and to one of my favorite Walker Percy quotes:
It is for this reason that the present age is better than Christendom. In the old Christendom, everyone was a Christian and hardly anyone thought twice about it. But in the present age the survivor of theory and consumption becomes a wayfarer in the desert, like St. Anthony; which is to say, open to signs.
Cultural Traces of the Gospel
Now is the time to look at not only the challenges, but also the opportunities within a post-Christian West. For even—or better yet, especially—in societies where Christianity has been relegated to an out-of-date relic of yesteryear, people are surprised to find that what they love about their favorite stories is that in them they encounter traces of the gospel.
To give just one example, the success of the Harry Potter franchise is illustrative of how gospel echoes persist in many of our culture’s most beloved stories. Although many factors have contributed to making the series a worldwide phenomenon, Constance Grady and Aja Romano observe that the driving force of the series’ success is straightforward: “The Harry Potter series is a phenomenon because it tells a story that millions of people loved, and it introduced the world to an enormous and magical world that millions of people have dreamed of escaping into.”
But it’s not just magic spells and quidditch matches that make this story so enticing. As author J. K. Rowling explains about her story, “To me [the religious parallels have] always been obvious.” She comments on two biblical citations—“The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:26) and “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:21)—found in the final book on the tombstones of Harry’s parents and Dumbledore’s mother and sister: “I think those two particular quotations he finds on the tombstones at Godric’s Hollow, they sum up—they almost epitomize the whole series.” The story is, after all, framed by two acts of sacrificial love—a mother who gave her life to save her son, and the son who willingly goes to his death so that all those he loves would live. The savior of the story is, of course, Harry Potter, the young wizard whose life had always been leading to the moment he would allow himself to be struck by evil unto death—only to live and return to defeat evil.
Once the gospel has entered the bloodstream of a culture, even skeptics and doubters can’t help but at times be taken by the story. For all the talk of repressive Christian ethics and the confidence in our ability to reason and use common sense to guide how we should live, the reality is the Western world’s moral sensibilities are still living off the fumes of the Christian story. This is why Friedrich Nietzsche, the scathing critic of Christianity at the end of the 19th century, also turned his sights on the atheists of his day. For he realized that even these “secular” men weren’t free from the story. Still today, fully escaping it proves elusive.
Western (Christian) Mind
The historian Tom Holland, a longtime secular progressive, recently wrote that despite his faith in God fading during his teen years, he now realizes his most fundamental instincts about life only make sense as an inheritance from the Christian story. Holland’s book Dominion is a journey through Western history to narrate how our culture’s moral ideals derive “ultimately from claims made in the Bible: that humans are made in God’s image; that his Son died equally for everyone; that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” Human rights, a universal concern for the vulnerable, human equality, sexual restraint, reverence for humility, and the notion of moral progress itself are just a few of our common ideals that have developed in light of the Christian story. Holland can’t get past the irony: “The West, increasingly empty though the pews may be, remains firmly moored to its Christian past.” (Listen to Collin Hansen’s Gospelbound interview with Holland.)
For all the talk of repressive Christian ethics and the confidence in our ability to reason and use common sense to guide how we should live, the reality is the Western world’s moral sensibilities are still living off the fumes of the Christian story.
Simply put, your unbelieving friends are probably more “Christian” than they realize. That is, they embrace certain Christian ideals and beliefs, but these assumptions don’t make much sense within their current script. They need a better story.
Holland himself recognizes how much the Western civilization’s future depends on our coming to grips with the history of our shared ideals. As he puts it, since our modern moral aspirations are “not from reason or from science, but from the distinctive course of Christianity’s evolution—a course that, in the opinion of growing numbers in Europe and America, has left God dead—then how are its values anything more than the shadow of a corpse? What are the foundations of its morality, if not a myth?”
This is the right question. As Holland goes on to suggest, though, not all myths are untrue. But what if the “myth became fact”?
Gripped by the Christian Imagination
Despite the cries of those who claim we as modern enlightened people should come of age, story remains our lingua franca. And more than just stories in general, our culture continues to be captured by imaginative stories that point to our inherent longing for another world. The stories we love to tell and hear—from liberal humanism’s moral tale of universal love to Rowling’s story of sacrificial death and resurrection—remind us that, even in post-Christian cultures, we can’t seem to escape the echoes and, at times, the allure of the gospel story.
Why do themes of guilt, moral courage, sacrifice, redemption, and resurrection remain palpable in even the most secular corners of our contemporary world? The work of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien help us answer this question. As Tolkien says, we are “sub-creators” subconsciously mirroring our Creator and even echoing the ultimate story that broke into history. Human potentiality is reached not by giving up on stories, but by embracing the world’s true story—the one that elucidates all the others. The good news is that there is something in the human heart, even amid the culture shifts and our disordered fallen condition, that longs for the better story—the true story of the gospel.
The good news is that there is something in the human heart, even amid the culture shifts and our disordered fallen condition, that longs for the better story—the true story of the gospel.
The secular storylines on offer today have too many holes in their plotline to survive the long haul. I once heard the atheist philosopher John Gray tell a secular humanist—who was searching for a way to ground high moral ideals, such as human rights—that the humanist myth was borrowing from religion, wasn’t very old, and likely wouldn’t last long. Hearing a leading atheist intellectual acknowledge the likely short shelf-life of present-day secular myths, I couldn’t help but feel a little hopeful.
Be Ready to Give the Story
And yet, we shouldn’t be unprepared. We have some difficult challenges ahead, but fear isn’t a Christian option. For we have the true story—the greatest story ever told—and we know how it ends. It has lasted long past the prevailing pagan stories Augustine faced 1,500 years ago, and it will outlast today’s rival secular myths.
With faith, hope, and love, our calling is to learn an invitational apologetic, which welcomes others to “come, taste and see” the true story of reality. I’ve written Telling a Better Story to provide a practical framework called “Inside Out” to help the church do just that. For, as Percy reminds us, the plot holes in today’s secular stories have left many in search of something beyond the shallow scripts of secularism; these people are now “open to signs.” So just maybe the collapse of Christendom isn’t all bad. Our late-modern opportunity is to dig out the gospel from underneath the rubble and tell Christ’s story as the fulfillment of what these signs have been pointing to all along.
Joshua Chatraw is the director of the Center for Public Christianity and theologian-in-residence at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. Some of his books include Telling a Better Story, Apologetics at the Cross (co-authored with Mark Allen), and The History of Apologetics (co-edited with Alister McGrath and Benjamin Forrest).