In this series of book recommendations, we have bounced around across time and across genres. We started with some classic theological works which will hopefully serve to open the door to other great theological reading from church history. We moved on to some educational, political, and historical works, books which are worthy of lifelong meditation in themselves but which also propel the thoughtful reader to deeper study. In the last couple installments we touched on great children’s literature and epic poetry.
There is a method to this madness. We want to become well-formed and well-filled creatures. In fact, I believe this attitude is crucial to becoming a conservative. If your reading habits consist exclusively of leading contemporary evangelical authors, even those on the conservative end of the spectrum, you will not be well-equipped to be a conservative. With all due respect and gratitude to the John MacArthur’s of our day, such reading will not “take you out of the comfortable Western world, over the edge of the Wild, and home again,” to quote Tolkien. No, if you wish to stay at Bag-End, Under-Hill, do not take up the quest by reading these books. It is dangerous business.
But most intentional conservatives I know are on a quest. And so, in that spirit, I offer a foray into sociology entitled The Quest for Community. Originally published in 1953 by a professor at UC-Berkeley, this book achieved a place of prominence among conservative thinkers that it has maintained for sixty years. George H. Nash summarized its main point well when he said, “The weakening or dissolution of such bonds as family, church, guild, and neighborhood had not, as many had hoped, liberated men. Instead, it produced alienation, isolation, spiritual desolation, and the growth of mass man.” Nisbet sought to demonstrate that “the real significance of the modern State is inseparable from its successive penetration of man’s economic, religious, kinship, and local allegiances, and its revolutionary dislocations of established centers of function and authority” (from the preface).
Nisbet argued that Americans felt increasingly cut off from meaningful community because the functional relevance of small traditional associations was being transferred to the centralized State. In this kind of a State, mere democratic structures did nothing to stop despotism. When all men look to the State for the “basic needs of education, recreation, welfare, economic production, distribution, and consumption, [and] health, spiritual and physical,” then the State has become totalitarian, whether there are benevolent intentions or not.
Nisbet’s pointed analysis still draws blood today. At several points, conservative Christians will want to challenge or deepen his analysis with biblical truth. Nevertheless, the insights are well worth the read.
Religious Affections and the Recovery of the Church
Of the many lessons that can be drawn from Nisbet, I would like to mention one which has particular relevance to the efforts of this ministry. Without a recovery of the structural coherence and functional significance of the church to men’s relationship with God, we will never develop the religious affections necessary for reverent worship. Nisbet observed that “the intensity of men’s motivations toward freedom and culture is unalterably connected with the relationships of a social organization that has structural coherence and functional significance.” He goes on, “[T]he discipline of values within a person has a close and continuing relationship with the discipline of values supported by human interrelationships.”
We commonly decry the consumer mindset of Christians today with the juvenalization that it brings. But it may be that before we taught professing Christians to be immature, we lost any sense of the church as a Spiritually and functionally significant organization with authority. We teach people that “going to church has nothing to do with being a Christian,” and then we are befuddled when they believe us and act on what we taught them. In a household, when a father fails to fulfill his leadership role, that authority does not just go away. It will be picked up and exercise in twisted form by someone else. So it is when the church fails to exercise her role in the world. Her authority does not just go away. Someone will make a power grab for it, and Nisbet’s analysis suggests that the State now exercises the spiritual power in men’s hearts that ought to be reserved for the church. The State calls for the kind of loyalty that goes far beyond its proper due, but men willingly give it because they look to the State for spiritual significance.
We do not see the church as the public manifestation of the fact that Jesus is Lord, thus relativizing all claims that the State makes upon our lives. We do not see the powerful public significance of reverent corporate worship, which says to the world that the “Jesus in my heart” is also the “Jesus to whom you must bow the knee.” A church dissolved in the acids of individualism can be swallowed up by the State without so much as catching in its throat.
The early church stripped the Roman Empire of its claims to sacredness by being a meaningful community where Jesus was Lord. May God give us the grace to do the same today.