Relevant Scrabble tiles on table

Against Relevance and Niceness —OR— Why Ancient Dogma is the Most Relevant Thing

David Wilmington, YTI Professor of Theology and Philosophy

April 12, 2019

In a previous blog entry, I noted that some commentators believe relevance must be a primary concern and goal for any kind of revival in Christian education. Of course, this is just one of the small, niche territories of Christian life that relevance has conquered in its decades-long campaign to become a major—or practically the only—virtue. In fact, let’s capitalize it as “Relevance” in order to make clear that I am talking about a runaway or viral sense of the term that elevates it far beyond its rightful importance. (And, let me be clear that I am all for a limited, prudential kind of relevance that makes clear how Christian claims touch and can transform the lives of every person in any culture.)

Conquered by Relevance

The voracious, conquering Relevance that I’m talking about is the one that labels ancient, hard-won, orthodox Christian language as unwelcoming “Christian-ese” that must have its strangeness translated away (disregarding or ignorant of the historic struggle to find precise and strange words that would define and protect language and ideas describing God and God’s work rightly).

Similarly, this same elevated Relevance also demands that the music and style of Christian worship is only “passionate” and “Spirit-filled” if it sounds, musically, exactly the same as the simplest pop song formats. Yes, the words may be Christian (or at least Christian-adjacent), and the immediately familiar verbal and melodic tics of Christian Worship-Radio may allow it to be superficially distinct, but the music itself and its presentation can—or increasingly, must—follow the same emotionally manipulative algorithms that generate non-Christian pop songs.

And these things, we are told, are necessary for a retreat, a school, a church, or a denomination, to be Relevant.

On one hand, this attitude about Relevance is a quiet admission of failure by the church: we have offered or defended so little that is compelling and distinct from modern, mass-produced culture and simplistic language that we now seek attention by mimicking the non-church sources of taste, ideas, and style. Relevance is determined by the entertainment/media outlets, and therefore the church must follow (and loudly claim this lack of leadership or creative distinctiveness as a virtue).

Even Seekers Want a Creed

If we are to begin thinking about how we might escape this colonizing Relevance, we need to consider Dorothy Sayers’ prophetic words of 70 years ago (published in Letters to a Diminished Church, when she saw this problem metastasizing in 1940’s England) :

“Theologically, this country is at present in a state of utter chaos, established in the name of religious toleration, and rapidly degenerating into the flight from reason and the death of hope. We are not happy in this condition, and there are signs of a very great eagerness, especially among the younger people, to find a creed to which they can give wholehearted adherence.”

I believe that whenever “the younger people” seek passionately for a creed to believe in, they always find one. The danger lies in which creeds they are exposed to—because they can only choose among the ones they hear, and the ones pitched to them most convincingly may in fact be quite dangerous: vicious political ideologies, vicious libertinism, vicious nihilism, etc.

Sayers goes on to cite the popular slogan (even in the 40’s but still ubiquitous today, especially from voices claiming to represent The Relevant): “Take away theology and give us some nice religion.” The poignant thing about this demand today is that it frequently comes from those who claim to be against “religion” in favor of “pure relationship” or, you guessed it, “Relevant and Practical Principles,” etc. The new “nice religion” is frequently synonymous with “happy feelz” and the promise of non-confrontational self-righteous goodness as determined by the realm of popular culture/media/ideology.

“Let us, in Heaven’s name, drag out the Divine Drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction.

It is the dogma that is the drama—Show that to the heathen, and they may not believe it; but at least they may realize that here is something that a man might be glad to believe.”

—Dorothy Sayers

Being Right About Reality is Always Relevant

When Sayers lays her cards on the table, they are outrageously bold and counter-cultural: “the reason why the churches are discredited today is not that they are too bigoted about theology, but that they have run away from theology.”

Often this takes the guise of the claim that serious learning about doctrine and dogma is “irrelevant to practical life and/or ministry.” However, rightly taught, explained, and lived, “religious dogma is in fact nothing but a statement of doctrines concerning the nature of life and the universe.” Just as philosophy, rightly understood, is eminently practical because it is aimed at the best ways of understanding and living the Good Life, Christian theological doctrine is a 2000 year conversation about how we should understand and live the Good Life as revealed by the Incarnate Good Himself.

Sayers continues her sharp-tongued attack with a salvo, aimed, we should note, not at the pop culture hucksters, but at churches themselves: “It is not true at all that dogma is hopelessly irrelevant to the life and thought of the average man. What is true is that ministers of the Christian religion often assert that it is, present it for consideration as though it were, and, in fact, by their faulty exposition of it make it so.”

And then, her “Mic Drop” zinger: “If the average man is going to be interested in Christ at all, it is the dogma that will provide the interest. The trouble is that, in nine cases out of ten, he has never been offered the dogma.” Now this was bad enough in Sayers’ time, when she was concerned that instead of dogma, people were being offered a “set of technical theological terms,” which, while perhaps accurate, were left unexplained, misunderstood, and unpracticed. How much worse then is our contemporary situation? — when the replacements for teaching dogma or doctrine are almost never given in terms used by Scripture or Church Tradition but in recent faddish slogans and phrases lacking even basic theological or historical perspective?

We, especially Protestants, and most especially evangelicals of many denominational homes, have in fact invented and spread substitute “technical terms” in search of Relevance and “authenticity” rather than pay attention to—much less teach, explain, and live out—the true grammar, logic, and rhetoric of the theological language and practice that has sustained and developed the Christian faith for the first 1,900 years of its existence. The stories, promises, surprises, prophecies, and poems that make up God’s Gospel message describe and persuade mankind concerning the Truth about God, Creation, and ourselves. And since there is nothing more relevant or edgy than a strange language that tells the strangest and truest of all strange-but-true stories, winsome, counter-cultural dogma beats Relevance at its own rigged game.