The BBC series Downton Abbey has taken Western Civilization by storm with a period piece soap about the lives of British nobility. I will admit I'm all in. My favorite character is Carson, the burly butler who harrumphs from scene to scene, scolding the household staff as he serves the needs of the fictitious Grantham family. Carson provides a handy metaphor for illustrating the health of the Christian culture in America today.
There are many teachings and practices within the Christian church in America that I believe are the result of superintending American culture over an authentic biblical world view. Certainly every generation and locale of Christians see the world through lenses influenced by both the Bible and aspects of the culture into which they were born and live. But to what extent are they influenced biblically and what extent culturally?
Ten years ago in 2005 sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton published their book "Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers". Based on the results of a study funded by the Lilly Endowment, and followed up with additional surveys by the National Study of Youth and Religion at Notre Dame University, the authors concluded that American youth collectively had cobbled together a spiritual worldview from moral principles found across several religions not particular to Christianity. Among protestant rooted homes, teens who came from households involved in conservative Christian denominations tended to hold more to traditions inherent to Christianity than those from more mainline protestant or from Catholic and Orthodox, but no group was completely free of mixing beliefs.
What emerges from the study is a patchwork belief system where God is the creator of all, wants us all to be nice to one another but otherwise doesn't put many expectations on us--can't risk hurting self-esteem--and who is available to help us with needs for which we ask. The authors coined the term "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" to describe this belief system. Moralistic: it posits a God who is himself good and wants us to be generally good. Therapeutic: God wants us to be happy and feel good about ourselves. Deism: God generally doesn't meddle in our lives other than to help us with the needs we put before him.
Which brings me back to Carson of Downton Abbey. Carson, like any well trained butler, must maintain a delicate balance of dedicated service to the family, yet remain detached and discrete. He is a faithful presence never far away, standing just to the side of the dinner table or downstairs in the servants' work areas, where he orchestrates the necessary household duties to satisfy the needs of each member of the Grantham household. He oversees a staff of cooks, maids and valets there to accommodate the smallest whim of the family members. He holds strong opinions and occasionally shares them with Lord Grantham when asked, but only when asked. He grumbles at the new fangled ways of the changing times but is powerless to stop them. Carson is the portrait of the God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
Blend the ingredients of fierce individualism, ebbing influence of traditional Christian values, unbridled materialism and "look at me" narcissism of the social media era and you have the recipe for an Americanized cultural theology where God is but the Cosmic Concierge to our demands. We have reduced God to little more than the purveyor of our capricious desires.
Were we to glance back into ancient history when people carved idols to display in their homes, idols of fertility gods, rain gods, ancestors and other talismans meant to please a pantheon of deities so as to grant favor to the worshipers, we would find such superstition mildly amusing in our modern sophistication. Yet in our imaginations we have done the same: we have carved a mental image of the one true God as a deity reduced to what we suppose Him to be, Carson at our service, and not what He is in reality.
Yet this reductionism did not originate in the Millennial Generation. Rather, it's roots lie in the "Me Generation" of their parents...my generation, born after the sacrificial generation of the Great Depression and World War Two. We built this mighty economic engine but also plunged headlong into materialism, consumption and debt. With our fierce work ethic we provided well materially for ourselves and our children, but along the way we tapped into private and public debt to such a degree that any hiccup in the economy is magnified inordinately by debt obligations falling into default.
My generation fought for civil rights, opposed unjust wars, faced down communism, built some of America's greatest businesses. But we also piled government debt obligations on our children and their children to a shocking and shameful degree.
We went all in on a feel good, sexual revolution that now has borne bitter progeny: abortion, the "hook up" culture and rapidly disintegrating marital relationship boundaries.
So shall we preach to our millennial kids about their vapid projection of God as a valet to their whims when it is we who sowed the seeds of that world view?
From all of this sowing of the wind a whirlwind is stirring, although the changes wrought will be wrenching before they becomes redeeming. The financial and economic shanty we have erected teeters every closer to collapse. We just simply cannot sustain the debt path down which we have been careening financially and economically, so many notable experts are predicting unprecedented financial reckoning. Yet from the rubble a responsible economy can be rebuilt. The SCOTUS decision on same sex marriage will bring with it real, not supposed, persecution of biblical orthodox (small o) Christians, and also even more bitter social fallout, yet will force the Body of Christ in America to return to their mission to win people to the gospel of Christ, not win arguments on volatile issues. The Obergefell decision may be the best thing that could have happened toward restoring the church to the gospel mission driven force it was meant to be.
America is headed for dramatic change and the way will be perilous and painful. There is no way to avoid it. But painful change can either bring destruction or rebirth. There is a roll to play for my generation not only in national but generational and individual redemption. It will start with admitting our faults, then learning and turning from them. But then the virtues that produced good during our generation...work ethic, resourcefulness, traditional family values...will fuel and sustain the rebirth.
Our children who followed our example into decadence have a role to play in the redemptive work as well. The millenials harbor a virtue toward standing up for the oppressed and needy, even while seeking their own self gratification, and in that budding virtue lies the seeds of rebirth, the chance to turn fully toward selflessness and personal sacrifice.
Sitting sovereign over it all is not Carson, the grumbling yet powerless butler, but El Shaddai, the omnipotent YHWH God, Author of all things who will bring the discipline in order to bring the redemption. The disciplining hand of God is meant to bring repentance and restoration, not simply retribution.
Ultimately comes the fulfillment of that which the Bible calls the Kingdom, God's restoration of things as they should be, a Kingdom that brings glory to Him. The road between here and the ushering in of that Kingdom is the rocky ride that lies just ahead.