Stanley Fish on Christian Worldliness

My interpretive community prefers to read this paragraph as a partial but excellent defense of Christian fundamentalism’s separation from the world (in the Rom 12:2, 1 John 2:15–17 sense). My interpretive community prefers to read this as a spot-on description of mainline Protestantism:

If we are worried about obsolescence and the loss of relevance, the surest way to court both is to become so attuned to the interests and investments of other enterprises … that we are finally indistinguishable from them. If there is nothing that sets us apart, if there is nothing distinctive about our task or the criteria for accomplishing it, if there is nothing that marks our work as ours and not everyone’s, there will be no particular reason to support us by giving us a room … of our own. We will be … a wholly owned (and disposable) subsidiary of something larger. Distinctiveness is a prerequisite both of our survival and our flourishing. Without it we haven’t got a prayer.

—Stanley Fish, Save the World on Your Own Time (Oxford, 2008), 100.

My interpretive community has to admit, however, that Stanley Fish actually wrote this about the university. But any organization has to maintain distinctiveness and value if it wishes to survive. We happen to know that the church will survive (Matt. 16:18). But individual churches may not. And for just the reason Fish mentions.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

4 thoughts on “Stanley Fish on Christian Worldliness”

  1. Sorry, I’ve been living in Stanley Fish world for two weeks (writing a paper) and I forgot that most other people have not… An “interpretive community” is one of Fish’s central concepts. A rough analogy might be the groups defined by their allegiance to dispensationalism and those defined by covenant theology. In Fish’s view, the assumptions of each respective community generate and therefore determine the interpretations they make of any given text. The “authority of interpretive communities ” is the subtitle to Fish’s main work in literary theory, “Is There a Text in This Class?”

  2. Interestingly, Tulian Tchividjian, grandson of Billy Graham, treated of this same subject in a great book of which I have read a substantial portion (my habit with books). He proposed that the church has observed the world’s success with inducing the attention and interest of people, esp. young people, and followed this thought process: Whereas, the world is attractive to our young people; whereas, church attendance and interest in things religious is declining; therefore, we must do something to capture and maintain the interest of young people. Whereas, what we’re doing is not working; whereas, what the world is doing apparently is; therefore, let’s do what the world is doing, but in a way that is compatible with our Christian beliefs.

    One result in my community (not my interpretive community, I mean the town I live in) was a large banner on a busy street advertising a series of sermons on “The Real F Word,” and in small print under that large caption, the word “forgiveness.” It was provocative, it was meant to be, but in my humble estimation it was am over-the-top degradation of things. That, coupled with several other similar tactics (such as their youth pastor calling Jesus a “pimp” and a “stud,” I mean “he’s cool, man.”

    Those tactics speak to me of either desperation, or worse, a lack of desire to be different than the world – a way of saying to them, hey, we’re just like you. Or as one of the pastors in my interpretive community states it, “What you win them with, you keep them with.” Or as my assistant pastor once said, “The theology of today’s church – come as you are, stay as you are.”

    Tchividjian maintains that the church has created a parallel universe, and overlaid the trappings of the world with Christian lyrics, essentially spreading a veneer of religion over worldliness (not a word I hear all that often outside of my interpretive community).

    Trite, maybe. But no less true. In the ivory towers we have to constantly find new ways to say true things. Out on the farm, generations-old cliches brim with wisdom despite their age and signs of wear.

  3. Follow up to the former:

    The name of the book is “Unfashionable”

    And the motto of the church I referenced is “Real People. Real Faith.” Unfortunately, real in the context means “just like you.”

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