Culture As Report Card – Part I

A pithy observation has tucked itself away within my memory. Though I can’t recall who said it (else I’d provide proper attribution), the comment begs for reflection and due consideration, especially as our social norms face new challenges almost every day.

Culture is the Report Card of the Church

Over the years, the terminology for a Report Card has morphed into something meant to sound less ominous:  Progress Report … Student Assessment … Quarterly Evaluation. Still, whatever it’s called, this periodic report often causes unnecessary dread for the person (or organization) being evaluated.

One particular Report Card from my childhood stands out as unforgettable. It was a disturbing report because my teacher provided my parents with a true and accurate description of what she deemed my unacceptable behavior. To this day, the teacher’s comments sting. I included a picture of her assessment in a June 16, 2014 post.

This Report Card is dated 1958 but even after so much time has passed, I wince recalling my shame … and most painfully, my dad’s disapproval. After reading my teacher’s assessment, he promptly responded in the 4″x4″space (see below) allowed.

I’m happy (relieved!) to say this was the last time my conduct was judged to be a problem in the classroom! (And yes, that’s really my dad’s handwriting. He had an excellent penmanship teacher.)

Suffice to say, Report Cards (or whatever the current term is) can be a good thing. In addition to being used for praising noteworthy behavior, they can also remind us of poor conduct or unacceptable performance. Each Report Card acts to remind us there’s a specific standard we’re expected to meet! I think that’s good news, given today’s general lack of enthusiasm for absolutes.

It’s been a while since my last post in this space. During that time, I’ve been busy as usual, but instead of posting, I’ve spent the months reading, reflecting and writing. (I’m grateful for friends who’ve checked in regularly. Thanks!) Because of my personal faith in Jesus Christ and my close affinity to the Church, the pithy quotation with which I began this post has weighed heavily on my mind.

“Culture is the report card of the Church.” This statement troubles me! Is it an accurate statement? Is it arguable? Should the inferred condition of the Church (as dismal and shameful) cause Christians concern? I have pondered these questions and more.

Earlier this year, a friend recommended I read a book from 2020, Jesus and John Wayne. The subtitle seemed especially designed to provoke both thought and controversy:  How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Whoa! Now that’s a loaded accusation requiring serious consideration! The book garnered plenty of praise:  “a tour-de-force indictment,” “a page-turner,” “brilliant and engaging.”

Regrettably, my personal assessment (report card) won’t offer the same level of applause. More than a handful of Amazon 1-star reviewers reflect my reluctance to praise.

The book’s author, Kristin Kobes DuMez, is a professor of history and gender studies at Calvin University. I’m told she identifies as a Christian. Nevertheless, in my view her book (which appeared on the New York Times bestseller list) is an unfortunate and condescending diatribe. (I think it fits C. S. Lewis’s description of “chronological snobbery.”) The book was craftily marketed as the work of “a leading scholar of American Christianity” (the latter quote came from the book’s back cover).

Lest anyone wonder, I’ve never claimed (at any point in my life) to be a scholar. No, no, no, not me. I’m not opposed to scholarly works either. However, this “history” (mostly a summary of 20th century Evangelicalism) DuMez recounts is an era about which I have reasonable familiarity. I’m old enough to have been something of an eyewitness to the people, places and events about which she expresses considerable antipathy!

In my opinion, the author’s viewpoint seethes with disdain, especially for white evangelicals” against whom she repeatedly rails. In the Preface alone (6½ pages in my paperback volume), there are 22 paragraphs (by my count) peppered with 21 instances of the word white as a modifier:  white evangelical(s), white masculinity, white Christians, white manhood, white patriarchal power, etc. Once I finished the Preface, I stopped counting but the remainder of the book continues her use of white as a derisive modifier.

It’s not until paragraph five of the Preface that I experienced the definitive Aha! moment. Delivering her initial blast at random targets (John Eldredge, Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Driscoll and the “retrograde Christian masculinity” of men on television’s Duck Dynasty), she targets her specific fury at one person:  Donald J. Trump. Indeed, her venomous screed seems indistinguishable from haters of every stripe.

If not for the significant animus DuMez holds against Trump, I might have judged as fair some of the book’s legitimate critiques of certain high-profile Christian evangelicals. (Christian leaders should not be exempt from censure when it’s due.) Further, she excoriated many of today’s high-profile Christian evangelical leaders who heedlessly climbed aboard the Trump-train, come what may. Should these leaders have been more circumspect about expressing their views on politics? Probably, but once more, it seems the author’s open hatred for Trump earns her no points as an unbiased observer.

There’s more that could be said about the incredibly broad brush with which DuMez paints. No doubt, the kudos she’s earned from establishment elites will help her sell future books in fashionable literary circles. Because certain people are already inclined to look down their noses at fundamentalist Christians and evangelical types, those actual (!) Bible-believing Christians, this book will help justify their scorn.

The sonnet above offers a different view. Speaking for myself, I’m grateful to be identified as a Christian who happens to be evangelical. The various Christian leaders named in DuMez’s book are people for whom Christ died. They’re imperfect people. They’ve made life decisions which (on occasion) may have been ill-advised and far more public than my sins.

Next post, I’ll cover Part 2 of my reflections of Culture as a Report Card. Unfortunately, it’s not a pretty picture, but I continue to find comfort knowing God is still on His throne.

Comments Are Always Appreciated!