Amish romance novels are a thing. No, I haven’t read one. But this intentionally lackluster genre is apparently a hot seller. Another interesting phenomena (for being so uninteresting) is Hallmark movies. Some people find their predictability irresistible. I’ve heard flip phones are coming back into style (and not just from the uncle who refuses to give his up). It’s stylish to be minimalist in your home décor.
Ah, the allure of simpler times.
From time to time, many of us feel that way about our faith. Maybe you miss the times when you knew all the church songs by heart and didn’t have to learn a new one every couple Sundays. Or maybe when theology felt less complicated. Say, before you knew about the dozens of different scholarly takes on a particular passage. Or before you learned about the schism that led to the schism that led to the schism that led to your branch of Christianity—which you grew up thinking was simply “Christianity.”
So, is a return to simpler times realistic? Is it worthwhile to try? My own theological floating “plank” to which I cling is one of the branches of the “Restoration Movement.” This is an American theological movement based on “unity in truth that the world may know Jesus,” as described by church historian Rick Cherok. The founders of this movement believed, rightly I think, that it is worthwhile to aim for a simpler view of church based on unity around important and essential biblical teachings and on gracious disagreement when it comes to nonessentials. Easier said than done, sure, but worthwhile to aim for.
“Maybe you miss the times when you knew all the church songs by heart and didn’t have to learn a new one every couple Sundays.”
And yet, the more I think about it, the less convinced I am that a return to simpler is always better. Consider some examples. The first-century church may very well have experienced nostalgia for simpler times—back when the church was Jewish and unbothered by the influx of issues that came with Gentile inclusion in the church. Ah the days when they didn’t have to deal with the complications brought by meat sacrificed to idols, head coverings in worship, table fellowship with Gentiles, uncircumcised Christian men, and so on. Gentile inclusion complicated the church’s earlier simplicity.
In the same way, counting decisions made at revivalist meetings feels a lot simpler than entering discipling relationships with real humans. We’re messy. It also feels simpler to have churches full of smiley people fluent in small-talk, who look the same and vote the same. But we know that that kind of simpler isn’t at all better.
“Simpler times” can remind us of our childhood, when many of the most important decisions were made for us by our parents. In that sense, simpler was better, but it’s not better the more you grow. As Christianity grows—as its “yeast” works its way into and through the “dough” of culture—its leaders are forced to ask questions they didn’t used to have to. And that’s not a bad thing.
“‘Simpler times’ can remind us of our childhood, when many of the most important decisions were made for us by our parents.”
I’ve been wrestling with ideas from a Christian classic called Christ and Culture by Richard Niebuhr. Fantastic book. In it, Niebuhr describes two opposite ways that Christianity can relate to the surrounding culture (before explaining three middle paths that avoid either extreme). First, there’s the extreme he calls “Christ against culture,” according to which the surrounding culture opposes Christ, so true Christians need to reject and withdraw from it. Then, there’s the extreme of the “Christ of culture,” according to which a sculpted Christ is made to fit into the values and beliefs of the surrounding culture.
What’s interesting about both of these opposites is that they share a similarity: simplicity. Both the culture denouncer and the culture chameleon have the luxury of giving the surrounding culture a simple answer: yes or no. The middle options force you to wrestle with both the offense of the gospel toward human cultures and the inescapability of living in and being shaped by a human culture.
Even when simpler is better, that doesn’t mean it’s easier. When Constantine converted to Christianity, he remade his empire into an environment that was hospitable to Christians. When professing Jesus as Lord went from dangerous to expedient, many fourth-century Christians withdrew into monasticism so that they could practice a simpler faith—often in the desert. Even when no one was trying to martyr them anymore, they could self-mortify through asceticism. For them, that satisfied a nostalgia for simpler—but far from easier—times. Dying for Jesus involves a clear, stark decision. Living for him involves thousands of multiple-choice decisions each day.
“Dying for Jesus involves a clear, stark decision. Living for him involves thousands of multiple-choice decisions each day.”
Simpler doesn’t even always feel simpler. Simplifying your schedule in order to make room for God is clearly one of those times that simpler is better. I’m thinking of Dallas Willard’s pursuit of the “ruthless elimination of hurry.” And yet, when you try to get alone with God, stuff comes up. I don’t mean “stuff” as in events cluttering up your schedule (although that happens, too). I mean ugly stuff from deep down inside that lies low for a reason. It feels simpler when you coast through life feeling like a basically good person.
In other words, simpler is more complicated than we figure. On the one hand, simpler can mean a step backward, not just in time, but in maturity. On the other hand, simpler can mean a step forward into maturity—and into the growing pains and the ethical dilemmas that come with it.
So, what should we do with our nostalgia for simpler times? When is it good, when is it a temptation, and when is it a distraction?
Assuming that the nostalgia you feel is for a simpler that is better, it’s probably a bit like the hobbits’ nostalgia for the Shire, in Tolkien’s epic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. They left behind their home, the Shire, in order to destroy the ring of power and save Middle Earth. As they got further from home and deeper into danger, it became tempting to turn back. In one of the movies, Pippin told Merry in resignation, “It’s too big for us. What can we do in the end? We’ve got the Shire. Maybe we should go home.”
“It’s too big for us. What can we do in the end? We’ve got the Shire. Maybe we should go home.”
And yet, evil and destruction were spreading and would soon overtake even the goodness and beauty of their green, glad homeland. Merry answered, “There won’t be a Shire, Pippin.”
Simpler, better times are within reach for the follower of Jesus. But we’ll get there not through time-traveling backward or pausing the stopwatch on our year. It’s on the horizon. In the meantime, we journey through clutter and complication by keeping our focus on the One who calms the waves he calls us to walk upon.