Shades of Secularism (Joel Belz)

Speech delivered at the closing banquet of the World Journalism Institute (New York City, N.Y., June 1, 2007)

Author Joel Belz founded World magazine, a Christian interest weekly, in 1986. He served as editor and publisher until late 1994. Before that, Belz was managing editor of The Presbyterian Journal, a magazine of theological interest started in 1942. In 1997 Belz was elected president of the Evangelical Press Association. In 1994, he received the James DeForest Murch award from the National Association of Evangelicals. Belz focuses now on editorial tasks for World magazine, having written the lead column for more than 20 years. He also speaks across the country. He is an active churchman, having served in 2003 as moderator of the highest assembly of his denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America. He has been a member of the board of Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, for most of the last 25 years. He has a B.A. from Covenant College, an M.A. in mass communications from the University of Iowa, and a doctor of humane letters from Geneva College. In 1978 he was chosen alumnus of the year by Covenant College.

By Joel Belz

Bob Case and I have known each other for most of four decades. Together, we are the products of an era of evangelicalism that when we were younger men honestly didn’t quite know what it thought about the so-called secular world that is out there. In many ways, we evangelical Christians were urged to avoid that world, to keep our distance from it, and to make sure we weren’t tainted by it.

We come from an era that was taught there was nothing better for us to do with our lives than to commit them to so-called “full-time Christian service.” The highest form of commitment was to offer our lives for ministry in the church, perhaps to serve in Christian education, or certainly—best of all—to become foreign missionaries.

But Bob Case, you see, took a wrong turn way back somewhere in the 1960s, and came under the radical personal teaching and influence of a man by the name of Francis Schaeffer. Somewhat oddly, Schaeffer himself was something of a missionary, but he taught that there is no such thing as a two-story view of the Christian life. There is no upstairs that is spiritual and sacred and religious, elevated from a downstairs that is secular and earthly and profane. It is all one room; life, as God has created it, is like a magnificent atrium.

Schaeffer did his study and teaching in the Alps of Switzerland, not so very far from where half a century earlier a Dutchman by the name of Abraham Kuyper had done his work. Kuyper—and if you want to know just how much this man means to me personally, you should know that I carry a picture of him in my wallet—Kuyper is most famous, or at least should be most famous, for saying something like this: Kuyper said that God looks out over all his vast creation just as an artist looks out over the landscape he’s about to paint. God sizes up that cosmic perspective, and he holds out his thumb as an artist does to get his perspective, and he says with justifiable satisfaction: “There’s not a thumb’s width of it that doesn’t belong to me.” Kuyper lived out that conviction with a breadth of interest few people have ever demonstrated. He was a minister and theologian; he was an educator, and founded the Free University of Amsterdam; he was prime minister of the Netherlands; most important, of course, for those of us gathered here tonight, he was editor of a daily newspaper whose circulation covered his nation.

Now keep that radical perspective in mind, if you will while I tell you a little less dramatically about how my own boyish ruminations had just been similarly invaded by a parallel sacrilege. My father, a minister of the gospel who had loyally given his life on a full-time basis to the church and its work, was tainting his own children’s thinking, including mine. Dad wasn’t a reader and scholarly thinker in a league like Francis Schaeffer. He was given instead to a remarkably practical philosophy of life. So I remember him best for the many mornings—June mornings like today’s among them—when he would fling open our front door, stand on the front step of our house (which, incidentally, was also our school, our church, and our printing business), and then Dad would say with gusto: “Just look at the beautiful day the Lord has given us!” It was never just another day; it wasn’t even just another beautiful day. Every day in Dad’s life was another day, another beautiful day, but most specifically another day that was a specific gift from the God who had created the universe. For Dad, as for Francis Schaeffer, there was no line of demarcation between what he said as a preacher in the pulpit and his first natural exclamations when he got up in the morning and saw the sunshine. He regularly and consistently and without affectation tied it all together. There was no spiritual upstairs and secular downstairs. Dad knew, almost intuitively, I think, what Abraham Kuyper meant when he quoted God as saying: “There’s not a thumb’s width of it that doesn’t belong to me!” And Dad and Mom taught that perspective to their eight kids.

Now you all need that bit of personal background about Bob Case and me to know also how significant it was just about 10 years ago when he and I started discussing the possibility of creating something like World Journalism Institute. When we launched WJI in 1998 and 1999, I must confess there was little global vision on my part through which I pictured you—and the several hundred WJI graduates who have gone out before you—heading into the newsrooms of so-called secular journalism. No, I was still just a little over a dozen years into the launching of World magazine, and our able but very thin staff was running regularly into the reality that no one out there was producing the kind of young journalists we needed to produce our magazine every week. World had (and still has) its own appropriate niche in American journalism, seeking regularly in a winsome way to put a biblical spin on each week’s news. Could World Journalism Institute produce one or two able young men and women every year for that cause? That, very frankly, was what I asked my long-time friend Bob Case to come and do.

Bob started off faithfully fashioning a curriculum for WJI that was crafted to produce such a steady flow of reporters and writers for World magazine. While my main focus may have been on World, I knew that a first rate journalism program would equip writers for other Christian publications and the mainstream press. And it didn’t take long for us to run into a problem. Every year, WJI attracted several dozen increasingly competent students. No way was World magazine going to be ready to absorb all those people. We were growing, it’s true, but just the same we were fortunate to have positions for even one or two new staffers on an annual basis.

So I think it was about then that Bob Case’s vision proved itself to be bigger than we first envisioned—and it had something to do, I think, with those ideas he got from Abraham Kuyper and Francis Schaeffer. Bob said we had to do more than preach to the choir. We had to equip ourselves to prepare students—like you who are here this evening—and give you some of the leverage you need to go out and find roles with the secular newspapers and magazines and radio and TV outlets across the country and around the world.

And tonight, most of you are not dreaming of or headed for work in the comfortable and friendly confines of Christian organizations; you’re not planning on doing reports from the mission fields or newsletters for pro-life organizations or magazines for the Evangelical Theological Society. Your intention instead is to jump into the fray and to prove your mettle and show your stuff—yes, as a believer in Jesus, but a believer who wants to demonstrate your faith in the nitty gritty of the so-called secular workplace. And we’re here tonight to applaud you for that commitment, to cheer you on, and to remind you not to lose sight of your goal along the way. We think you’ve made a courageous, a gutsy, and an admirable decision—and one, incidentally, that is both biblical and faithful to your calling as a Christian. Go for it—and don’t lose heart! Now having said all that by way of a pretty extended preface and background, I also want to remind you tonight of what you are likely to face when you get “out there.”

Specifically, I want to remind you that “out there” is by definition a very secular place. And for my purposes tonight, I am going to define “secular” quite simply by calling everything that is “secular” “godless.” I’m not using “godless” in this sense in a pejorative way. I’m not using it as a put-down—not in the sense that for a couple of generations we would have referred to “godless communism” or to “the godless Soviet Union,” or to some individual as a “godless criminal.” No, I mean it in a more even-handed analytic or descriptive way. The essence of secularism is that it isn’t religious, that it describes and sees things in a naturalistic rather than a supernaturalistic way. So we’re not being mean-spirited when we refer to secularism as godless. We’re just agreeing with the secularists that that’s the way it is. Secularism, by definition, just doesn’t make room for God in the whole equation of things. Secularism doesn’t think he’s all that significant or important.

So my first reminder to you tonight as you head out for your work as a journalist in one setting or another is that the world you are heading into is so very remarkably godless. In the past, it may not have been so deliberately or viciously so. But it is now. For example, in its view of origins, its understanding of where everything that’s here originally came from, the world out there just assumes that the evolutionary explanation is correct. There’s just simply no place for God in that whole scheme of things. And when you ask what has gone wrong with the world’s order of things, it’s not a question of the world’s somehow being in rebellion against God, because he’s not really part of the picture, you see. And when you ask what the best answer is for putting all these broken pieces back together again, well, even to mention the redeeming work of Jesus is to change the subject, because if God doesn’t have creator’s rights in the first place, and if our problem isn’t really a sin problem but more a matter of our having gotten things temporarily out of adjustment, then certainly the solution is something we can also take care of ourselves. Can’t we?

One of the big differences between the America I grew up in and the America you have inherited is that 40-50 years ago, there was room at least to pretend that the God of the Bible was part of the whole scheme of things. Not for a minute am I arguing that America used to be a Christian nation; I think the evidence for that is skimpy at best. But we at least pretended that it was so, and so we were not a god-less society in the same way then that we are now. I think in many ways we were a god-less nation even then, but we had enough trappings of religion—even in education, in the media, and in the world of entertainment—that we didn’t have to face up to the reality of our secularism. We used enough god-sounding words that we neither had to refer to ourselves or think of ourselves as total secularists.

But you don’t have that luxury, because you really are in a secular world. And one characteristic of that secularism is that it speaks a totally different language from that of the Christian. The professional colleagues you will work with will have different reference points when you talk about concepts like “church” or “Sunday” or “charitable giving”—and you may well need to resort to a translator, right in the newsrooms where you are doing your work, to make sure you mean the same thing with a number of words that are quite natural for you but quite foreign for others. I remember about 40 years ago a professor of mine in grad school, a man with a Ph.D. and experience around the world, had no idea what an “evangelical” Christian was. I told him that Time magazine had estimated a few months earlier that there were as many as 40 million evangelicals in the United States, and this professor scoffed in disbelief. “You mean,” he said, “that there are 40 million little Billy Grahams running all over the country? I just don’t believe that.” The problem was that he was such a secularist he hadn’t bothered to keep up on one important aspect of the society in which he was trying to be a journalist. He literally did not know there was a dictionary difference between an evangelical and an evangelist. I doubt if he thought of himself as a god-less man, but so-called religion just didn’t occupy a very big part of his consciousness. And if it was slightly bad 40 years ago, that secularism—that god-lessness—is much, much more severe now. And don’t think it represents an easy gulf to bridge; don’t suppose you will casually bluff your way across this chasm. For most of your fellow journalists, faith is something like superstition. They cannot imagine anything like a real and serious linkage between Christian thinking and issues of modern science, issues of economic justice, issues of foreign relations, or even of local community development. When you even allude to such connections, your colleagues will wonder why on earth you want to drag religious ideas into such a discussion. Practically speaking, they are god-less people; they’ve just never had opportunity to think of things any other way, and it’s both unnatural and a little uncomfortable for them when you even suggest thinking about things in that new way.

The alternative, of course, is to remain silent—and never, ever, even in a meek manner, to suggest that there are dimensions here worth exploring. But remaining silent in such a manner is to stamp yourself as a god-less person—and your very presence here tonight is testimony to your commitment never to allow that as an option. The god-lessness that is out there is a challenge to you. You want to be salt and you want to be light. You’re not quite sure how all that will work out, but silence on your part will not be an option.

Well, then, I need to ratchet up my warning a bit. If my first main point this evening is that both the world at large and the professional world in particular for which you are headed are incredibly secular settings, even if only passively so, my second main point is that those worlds are right now in the process of becoming more hostilely secular.

Here I want both to agree with and to take some small issue with my colleague, Gene Edward Veith, who wrote a few months ago in World magazine: “We Christians need to get something through our heads: Secularists do not like us. This is perfectly understandable. But the case against Christianity has now degenerated into paranoid bigotry. The old argument against Christianity was simply that it is not true. [But now] instead of arguing simply that Christianity is not true, the more popular argument today is that Christianity is evil.”

Veith then went on to point to specific examples—like the fact that the book by Sam Harris entitled Letter to a Christian Nation reached No. 10 on the Amazon bestseller list and No. 6 on the New York Times nonfiction list. Harris’s book gained notoriety in that it leapfrogged the old argument that you simply can’t look out and see all the suffering in the world and still believe in a loving, all-powerful God. Harris argues instead that belief in God CAUSES the world’s suffering. As Harris puts it, “That so much of this suffering can be directly attributed to religion—to religious hatred, religious wars, religious delusions, and religious diversions of scarce resources—all this is what makes atheism a moral and an intellectual necessity.”

The slight difference I would note with Mr. Veith is that I’m not sure how much secularists over the last generation have disliked us. I don’t think frankly they’ve bothered much thinking about us one way or another. Their god-lessness has been mostly a passive thing. I think they’ve disdained and dismissed us more than they have disliked us; we simply haven’t mattered to them.

But we’ve begun mattering to them now, and those of you who aspire to work in the context of the secular media need to be increasingly prepared for that conflict. Don’t assume that the polite standoff of the last generation holds for what lies ahead. Get ready not just for polite kiss-offs and pointed ignorings, but for professional rejection as well. If you have doubts and think I’m just scaremongering, get ahold of Prof. Guilleremo Gonzalez, a professor of astronomy at Iowa State University, and talk to him about his current effort to gain tenure there. Dr. Gonzalez, you see, has done just about everything you might ask an academic professional to do these days, including writing a textbook on astronomy that was published three or four years ago by Cambridge University Press. But Dr. Gonzalez has also been identified, in his spare time, mind you, as part of a group testing some of the claims of intelligent design as an explanation for the origins of the universe—and that is not an acceptable kind of behavior any longer in higher academia. So Dr. Gonzalez is on the outside looking in—and I say that is a picture you shouldn’t forget as you aspire toward being part of the secular journalistic world. Count the cost, if you will. Make sure you’re willing to sit out there in the hallway with Guillermo Gonzalez and other faithful warriors. It’s fun to be in the inner sanctum, yukking it up with the gang, being accepted, winning some top inside awards—and honestly, we hope some of you will do exactly that. But if your faithfulness to Christ means you sit on the outside, hoping your appeal for reinstatement might possibly be heard, and knowing that most of those on the inside are putting you down with ugly and demeaning jokes, yes, that may be your highest calling of all. I hope you are ready for that too.

Keep in mind as well how little evidence there is that we’re winning this particular battle. Negativism and hostility toward supernaturalism in general and Christianity in particular are almost certainly growing, not shrinking. We are not helped, to be sure, by the advent of Islam, for it becomes all too easy for a cynical and lazy world to lump us with other fundamentalists. What a radical Shiite would do, our critics carelessly imply, isn’t all that difficult to expect from a radical evangelical Baptist or a radical Bible-believing Presbyterian. What’s the difference, they ask, between someone who takes the Koran seriously and someone who says he or she takes the Bible as the literal word of God?

So I say that your own historical setting isn’t all that conducive to prompt you to think that just by being extra smart and extra polite you are likely to be Big Guy in the Newsroom next year at the New York Times or even at the Podunk Post-Gazette. Political correctness is pretty well established both places, and everywhere else in between—and it’s probably getting worse, not better.

But having said all that, let me move on to my final thought. Let me tell you that the real god-lessness you need to fear is neither the god-lessness of passive secularism like that which has pretty much characterized our society throughout its history, nor even the god-lessness of the much more hostile and virulent secularism that characterizes our present day. The god-lessness that will ultimately do you in will never be a god-lessness from outside, but the god-lessness that stalks your own heart. Yes, I will suggest straightforwardly that we ourselves may be the godless people we ought most to fear. Which is why the subtle distinction between the two kinds of godlessness—that blatant outside kind and this subtle inside kind—is so important. For there aren’t very many even of our critics who would say of the people in this room that we are vile and godless people. But the fact remains that to such a large and pitiful extent, we really are just that. And I’m not judgmentally singling out any of you; I’m talking about myself. We are people who wear God’s name but have so little of him within us. And that is precisely the making of our defeat. It is there more than anywhere that we will fail to win the battles in which we engage our culture. In other words, the problem is not that a secular culture is god-less. We should expect it to be just that. That’s exactly what it means to be secular. We should be startled if the pagans around us were anything but god-less.

No, the problem is that we who call ourselves God’s people are so without the DNA imprint of his heredity within us. But at this point, let me depart just a bit from where you might think I am going. I’m not headed for an altar call. I’m not going to chide you once again for not loving the Lord your God with all your hearts, with all your souls, and with all your minds. Instead of doing that, I want to look at our own god-lessness from a slightly different perspective.

My own passion in life, both in the work of education and in the work of publishing, has been that we believers in Christ develop with gusto that worldview that so entranced me as I got to know Abraham Kuyper, Francis Schaeffer, and others like them. I wanted to see a worldview, lived out day by day, that focused the lens of God’s revelation in Scripture on whatever activity we take up and attempt then to do that activity with all of God’s own perspective that we can possibly discover.

So while I understand what might be called a sort of pietistic approach to godliness, where we tend to renew our hearts and the spiritual side of our beings in a sort of re-dedication service, that’s not what I have in mind.

I want instead right now to focus on what I call this other sense of godliness—the sense that Paul had in mind when he said, “Whether therefore you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God.” Paul didn’t tell us, mind you, that no matter what activity of the mind we took up, or whatever area of study, or whatever kind of self-reflection we engaged in, to do that reverently and with God in mind. No, it was the practical issues of life like eating and drinking “and whatever else you do” where we are to keep God’s centrality in mind. That is the ultimate in godliness. It doesn’t have so much to do with what you feel about God as it does with how you honor and obey him in the nitty gritty of life. The older I get, the more I’m persuaded that is where we have lost what we might call our grip on godliness. And it is where we have become the slaves of our increasingly post-Christian culture rather than enjoying the liberty God has intended us to enjoy. In simplest terms, I’m suggesting that we should stop working so hard to tell the world what it means to be God’s people in theoretic terms, or even, may I say, in spiritual terms—and focus a good bit more, by God’s grace, on just being God’s people. Let’s stop telling everybody how ungodly the culture around us is, and ask God’s Spirit to help us, however modestly, construct a godly culture. That may happen in the confines of our own families, or our own local churches, or even within your little cubicle at the newspaper where you get your next job. Until we do that, we are the truly “godless people” who will, by our very failure to incorporate God’s character in our daily living, continue to be the most deficiently godless people of all.

Let me offer a simple illustration. Here is no horror story of Christians being beheaded by Muslim terrorists, or even of Christian professors in Midwestern universities being turned down for tenure. My illustration represents not so much the stealing of our liberties at gunpoint as it does their quiet embezzlement while no one is watching.

My illustration comes from cultural statistician George Barna, the sort of George Gallup of evangelicalism. My understanding is that Mr. Barna’s organization has several times, after discovering that something over 80% of all Americans call themselves Christians, gone on to find that close to half of those, or 40% of the whole, would even call themselves evangelicals or “born again.” But of those 40%, or about 120 million people in the U.S., when they’re asked quite simply, “Can you think of something you’ve done quite recently, a fairly major decision or choice you’ve made in your life, where your Christian faith has made a difference in how you made that decision or choice?”—only 8% or so were able to identify any behavior of that kind in their own recent experience. So out of 300 million Americans, 240 million call themselves Christians and 120 million say they’re evangelicals or born again. But fewer than 10 million can think of a single thing they’ve done recently that’s different because they are God’s people. Keep in mind that they weren’t being asked to become missionaries or to go preach on a street corner out here at Broadway and 42nd St. All Barna asked was: In terms of your family life, your vocation, your education, your finances, your leisure time—in fact, you name it—is there one fairly important thing you’ve done differently because you are a Christian? Only 8% came through.

May I suggest as a journalist that it is precisely at this point of the 8% you will find some wonderfully fascinating stories to write. It is at the intersection of people’s faith and their real life decisions that human interest stories may actually be at their peak—even in so-called secular outlets. Probe these issues, and you’ll find stories that will involve your readers.

But based on Barna’s figures, they may be hard stories to find—just because so few even of the people who call themselves Christians have such stories to tell. They are risking so little and daring so little in the practice of the faith they profess. Are we overstating things to argue that out of 300 million people, we have 290 million who are in practical terms god-less people?

I suppose many of the people who were polled saw themselves bound and inhibited in our culture by a stubborn enemy—but the enemy was not out there. The enemy, as Pogo relentlessly argued, is us. I take it you are not tonight godless in an openly rebellious sense. But are you godless in the same sense that an empty gas tank is gasless?

So I’ll end with that same figure of speech. Prepare yourselves, I say, in every way you possibly can to interact competently and compellingly with the culture of secularism you find out there. And prepare yourselves not just to challenge that culture, but to be challenged and even assaulted by it. But prepare yourself especially always to tend your own affairs, to be energized by God’s Holy Spirit, to be a regular part of his church, to be fed by his people, and never to ignore the means of his grace by which he builds you up as his child. Don’t think you can do all this on your own.

I applaud what you are doing. It is a critically important assignment. And its very importance is why it would be so desperately tragic if ever you were caught in a dark and lonely place with your own fuel gauge sitting perilously close to empty.