Why Christians are Arrogant (when discussing religion)
In a fairly recent book, researchers from the Barna Institute show why Christianity is rejected or just plain ignored among younger Americans. There are a lot of issues the author brings up, but the one I’d like to focus on is the perception that Christians are arrogant. (Here’s a link to two of the most useful negative reviews of the book, Unchristian. One reviewer is not a Christian, and has a lot of important insights. The other reviewer is a Christian with his head in the sand.)Lately, Americans are discussing spirituality & religion more openly. You may have noticed this in your work place, school, or in the media. I think this is great. When it was taboo to talk about religion, it made it rude to talk about Christianity. However, many Christians find that religious conversations can discuss the religion of any other participant, the spiritual beliefs of anyone else in the room, except themselves. When a Christian tries to express their views, she is promptly ignored or shut down. Now, to be fair, I’ve only heard of this anecdotally, but I’m confident it happens fairly often. I’d like to discuss why.
Let’s get an overview of the history of Christianity and Western Society. 500 years ago, the church spoke with authority. When the Church had something to say, people listened. In fact, much of the time, when the church spoke, that was the end of the discussion! Some people exaggerate this in discussing the Medieval period, but there is no doubt that the Church was one of the most important voices in European society. Over time, this has diminished radically. First there was the Reformation, then the religious wars in Europe which gave us the Peace of Westphalia (1648). The Enlightenment was devastating to the authority of the church. On and on it goes; everybody knows this.
The issue is that Christianity is fighting to go back to when we had more authority, when people listened to the Church. Christians believe truth is found in Christianity, and Christianity is generally found in the Church. Discussions of evangelism among Evangelicals usually have this sort of idea behind them. I don’t think my assertion here is particularly controversial, but I think it’s possible most Evangelicals have never noticed it before. We’re trying to increase the influence of the Church. Pay attention next time you hear someone talk about anything vaguely related to this. About half the time the speaker will talk about the good old days when the Church had clout. We’re trying to go back to when people listened to the Church, to when Christianity was an authority in society.
But evangelicals don’t want to go back to the 1500s. No, they’re well aware of the problems that would come with that. However, they do wish to go back to maybe the first half of the 20th century, “Back when saying ‘the Bible says’ was enough to settle an argument!” Christianity was a trusted authority then. To be clear, I don’t mean all Evangelicals wish to return to the 1950s. Many have noticed that the 1950s were hardly the high-point of American faith. I just mean that most of us are actively trying to return society to a place where it listens to the church like American society did in the 1950s, for example. We learn behaviors from those older than us, who grew up in an America where Christianity had a trump card.
What that means, in practice, is that we assume authority in the Church that the rest of society no longer acknowledges. Particularly for people who grew up in Evangelicalism, this is hard. We grew up thinking the way the rest of society thought 60 years ago (regarding this issue, at least). However, our neighbors, the good people we meet every day, do not believe in the authority of Christianity at all.
When we join polite spiritual conversations in progress, our coworkers do not assume any sort of authority. That’s what makes these conversations work! Each person will talk about their own experience, and their own views, not pushing the idea that their views may be universally true very hard. Then the Christian pipes up, in the context described above, assuming that her belief system has some authority. To those who don’t recognize that authority, it seems pretty damn arrogant. This, my friends, is much of why Christians are perceived as arrogant. Many of us still act as if our faith has an authority others do not recognize.
I’m not saying whether this is good or bad–but it’s a little of both–I’m just trying to describe the reality of the situation.