It is unfortunate when I pick up a book that looks interesting and realize it is totally not written with me in mind. The Diversity Culture by Matthew Raley is that kind of book which is written to evangelicals who find themselves increasingly feeling isolated and incommunicable to the diversity of contemporary society. Given that (a) I do not identify with evangelical culture, and (b) I have many avenues into contemporary society, then this was not the book written for me.
However, it was a book written ABOUT me, in a sense. From the words of the back cover: a new culture of “spiritual openness, moral flexibility, and social diversity” is what the author writes about. Though I am Christian, I am clearly immersed in that kind of culture and as such I must contend with some of the claims in the book of which I disagree with. I decide on a daily basis what eternal “tenets” of Christianity I am gonna bend or seek to integrate better in my ever-changing relationship with the culture around me. Raley helps me feel “examined” in a helpful way in three movements he makes in the book.
First, Raley talks about the practical way that contemporary society tries to navigate cultural differences. Raley identifies this as “street postmodernism” where there’s no rhyme or reason to people’s beliefs: they just follow what gives them meaning and keeps them from getting hurt. This was a helpful analysis of the cafeteria-style culture that Christians are called to be relevant to. Further, Raley calls out evangelicals who call this culture simply “relativism” ie. people who assert there is no Truth. In actuality, Raley states that they know there is a truth, there is right and wrong, but they don’t have a method to integrate eternal Christian truths into lifestyles full of change and rapid escalation. Again, I don’t identify as evangelical, but this was a breath of fresh air that Raley “got” a key understanding of this culture.
Second, Raley talks about crucibles, or understanding that people have negative experiences in which they are formed into the people they are today with strong understandings of some truth. This truth is not always positive about Christianity! The evangelical’s typical response has been either reject-correct (reject the conclusions they found) or accept-affirm (accept the conclusions and agree with them). Raley seeks a third path which seems to be compassionate engagement which both affirms truth but challenges assumption from a position of weakness. A power-narrative this isn’t. I found Raley’s compassionate response and affirmation of people’s crucibles to be an interesting illustration of how typical evangelical engagement of culture is off-base but not fatally flawed.
Finally, Raley shares a prejudice with me (well, his may be simply good analytics while mine is clearly a prejudice) against mega-churches. He helpfully articulates why mega-churches are successful: they offer everything to everyone via market segmentation. In my town, if you are young working class you probably attend X church, if you are older upper class you attend Y church, etc. Demographics seek out similar demographics, perhaps. But mega-churches are able to offer young adult ministries, seeker services, elder outreach, all the various “storefronts” that make people feel a part of the church, even though it is huge.
Raley’s critique, however, is that such “variety of demographic storefronts” feeds the personal autonomy more than collective discipleship. If you can choose the inputs and the segment of the church life that you want to participate in, then you don’t have to stretch as a person. As Raley says, “the body of Christ has become a customizeable package offered by an industry.” As I write often on this blog, the echo-chamber is present in mega-churches simply because of the choice of the worshippers to only attend and pay attention to what is relevant to them and ignore the rest. It’s a helpful critique from the “inside” that I appreciated.
In short, if you are evangelical, The Diversity Culture would be a good read. If you are a non-evangelical-identified pastor, it is an interesting read. If you are part of the cafeteria culture…then you might not get much out of the book but it could help with gentle correction of wayward evangelicals who seek you out in less-than-helpful fashion that Raley critiques as well.