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The new alarmism: How some Christians are stoking fear rather than hope

Archbishop Charles Chaput celebrates Mass on Sept. 26, 2015 during at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul during a papal visit to Philadelphia. (EPA)

When did Christians start stealing scripts from home security commercials?

We’re all familiar with the canned tropes of the alarm system advertisement: the female resident alone in a darkened house; the ominous threat lurking outside with a crowbar; the horror-flick music rising to a crescendo as the intruder approaches the door—but then repelled by the sight of the ADT sign in the window. Whew! Crisis averted. Cue bright sunshine and smiles and a three-course breakfast with the whole family around the table. Secure.

The home security industry trades on a combination of fear and idylls. In fact, they depend on swelling the idyllic in order to heighten the fear. The more you have to lose, the more you feel the threat.

A spate of recent books from Christian leaders and intellectuals seem to have stolen this script, swelling the jeremiad shelf. We might describe this as “the new alarmism.”

In Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput’s “Strangers in a Strange Land,” it is a character named “Obergefell” from the Supreme Court case legalizing gay marriage that lurks outside the door in a black knit cap. Do you know where your children are?

In “Out of the Ashes,” Providence College professor Anthony Esolen reaches back beyond the home security commercial to replay the end-of-civilization script. Sensing his own exaggeration, he doubles down, writing, “Sometimes entire civilizations do decay and die, and the people who point that out are correct.” (That’s all in italics in the original, by the way.) The surest sign of alarmism is when they tell you: “This isn’t alarmist!”

And in his much-anticipated book, “The Benedict Option,” blogger Rod Dreher has seen the apocalypse: “There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization. By God’s mercy, the faith may continue to flourish in the Global South and China, but barring a dramatic reversal of current trends, it will all but disappear entirely from Europe and North America. This may not be the end of the world, but it is the end of a world, and only the willfully blind would deny it.” Note, again: if you’re not alarmed, you’re not seeing things, a circular reasoning to help work yourself into a froth of fear.

Christians have lost the culture wars. Should they withdraw from the mainstream?

These are books intended for choirs: they are written to confirm biases, not change minds. They are not written to be overheard. If you’re not part of the alarmist choir, reading these books will sometimes feel like watching video smuggled out of secret meetings in underground bunkers.

This critique is not a progressive dismissal. For nearly a decade I have been trying to diagnose the causes of Christian assimilation to culture in books like “Desiring the Kingdom” and “You Are What You Love.” The church certainly needs to have a conversation about how it fosters the faith in each generation and a new intentionality about Christian witness in a secular age. And like these authors, I think the future of Christianity will look ancient.

But the new alarmism is something different. It is tinged with a bitterness and resentment and sense of loss that carries a whiff of privilege threatened rather than witness compromised. When Dreher, for example, laments the “loss of a world,” several people notice that world tends to be white. And what seems to be lost is a certain default power and privilege. When Dreher imagines “vibrant Christianity,” it is on the other side of the globe. He doesn’t see the explosion of African churches in the heart of New York City or the remarkable growth of Latino Protestantism. The fear seems suspiciously tied to white erosion.

But beyond this narrow fixation of their fear, there is a more serious theological concern. “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind,” as author Marilynne Robinson put it. It is a refusal of hope. And despite all their protests to the contrary, what sticks with you when you walk away from these books is a bunker mentality. It’s what sells the security system.

The new alarmism seems to have bought the nonsense about the “right side of history,” just in the negative. Hunker down for a decline. But I’m reminded of a line from one of John Updike’s early short stories: “The churches of Greenwich Village had this second-century quality. In Manhattan, Christianity is so feeble its future seems before it.” Count me one of the “willfully blind” perhaps, but I would never count out a savior who rose from the dead.

James K.A. Smith teaches philosophy at Calvin College and is the author of “You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit” from Brazos. His new book, “Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology,” will be published this year.