The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture, and the Church, R. Albert Mohler Jr.. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2020. Hardcover, 223 pages.
Albert Mohler has a well-deserved reputation as one of Christianity’s best culture critics. He has a daily radio program (The Briefing) with thoughtful worldview analysis. His blog (AlbertMohler.com) is on my must-read list. When Mohler speaks or writes on a topic, you can be sure of two things: 1) he’ll be starting with the Bible as his foundation and 2) he’ll be aiming for the glory of God through the advance of the gospel.
He does it in this book on our contemporary cultural challenges too. Here he’s addressing the overarching problem of secularism. At the outset, I should say he’s writing as an American for an American audience. I read it as an ex-pat Canadian living in Australia. Some of the material in the book may seem irrelevant to people like me — the Appendix, for example, deals with the American Supreme Court and the role it plays in political decision-making. You may have to stop and think about how that transfers to the Canadian or Australian situation (I think it does). That said, Mohler does pay attention to developments elsewhere in the world. He writes about situations in British Columbia, Alberta, France, and elsewhere.
The book contains both description and analysis. If anyone has been paying attention, a lot of the descriptive material is going to be familiar. He describes how secularism is a threatening storm in regard to civilization, the church, human life, marriage, family, and gender/sexuality. Mohler’s analysis of these trends is where I found the real value for money in this book.
Let me share a few points of appreciation that might whet your appetite.
Already in the Introduction, Mohler explains that secular doesn’t mean “irreligious” or “non-religious.” It means “that Christianity, which forged the moral and spiritual worldview of Western civilization, is being displaced.” In the first chapter, he elaborates:
Secular, in terms of contemporary sociological and intellectual conversation, refers to the absence of any binding theistic authority or belief. It is both an ideology, which is known as secularism, and a consequence, which is known as secularization. The latter is not an ideology; it is a concept and a sociological process whereby societies become less theistic, and in our context that means less Christian in general outlook. (pp.4-5)
Elsewhere in the book he illustrates how secularism and secularization have religious and theological values.
The second chapter is entitled “The Gathering Storm in the Church.” Mohler notes how the prophets of theological liberalism predicted that churches would need to adapt to the culture in order to survive. He quotes a Baptist minister and lawyer, Oliver Thomas: “Churches will continue hemorrhaging members until we face the truth: being a faithful Christian does not mean accepting everything the Bible teaches” (p.30). However, the truth is quite the opposite: “it was actually liberal theology that lead to the evacuation of these churches” (p.19). Mohler doesn’t discuss this, but I’d note that we heard the same canard from the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands about women in office. Some from the RCN argued that the church can’t survive and grow while restricting the special offices of the church to men. I wonder how that’s going for them. If you look at the Christian Reformed Church in North America, after their decision to allow women in office in 1992, they’ve been on a steady downward trend in membership. Adapting to the culture is not a recipe for growth.
That same chapter also issues a cry for the need for creeds and confessions. Says Mohler, “Churches and denominations that have no confession of faith, or have a confession in name only, disarm themselves doctrinally” (p.36). Quite right! Historic Christian confessions which faithfully summarize the Bible are indispensable for keeping our doctrinal heads screwed on straight as the storm of secularism starts blowing in.
The chapter on gender and sexuality discusses the infamous Revoice Conference of 2018. This conference was held to support, encourage and empower “gay, lesbian, same sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.” This illustrates “the revolution’s demand on the church of Jesus Christ.” One thing Mohler doesn’t mention is the fact that this conference was hosted by a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America. In fact, the epicentre of the Revoice controversy has been in the PCA and how the church and its courts respond to it.
One of the troubling things about the Revoice Conference was the idea that a Christian can identify himself/herself in terms of being gay or lesbian, etc. In other words, you can be a “gay Christian.” Mohler dissents. The most significant problem “is the idea that any believer can claim identity with a pattern of sexual attraction that is itself sinful” (p.108). Some associated with Revoice argue that the attraction itself is not sinful. Mohler’s response to this is worth a careful read:
The issues here are bigger than sexuality. As Denny Burk and Rosaria Butterfield rightly explain, we confront here a basic evangelical disagreement with Roman Catholicism. Ever since the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the Roman Catholic Church has insisted that involuntary incentive to sin is not itself sin. In the most amazing sentence, the Council of Trent declared: “This concupiscence, which the apostle sometimes calls sin, the holy Synod declares that the Catholic Church has never understood it to be called sin.” Don’t miss the acknowledgement that the doctrine of Trent is contrary to the language of the apostle. (p.109)
That was new to me; both the connection to Roman Catholicism, and how explicitly the Council of Trent repudiated biblical teaching on this point.
Finally, Mohler has a great chapter on the challenges facing our young people. Again, the description is good, but the analysis is better. But best of all is the way Mohler lays out a way to “apply the gospel power in order to engage the storm gathering over the coming generations.” He argues that Christian parents have to lay hold of three things:
- Because it’s where the gospel is preached, church has to be the utmost and highest priority for Christian families.
- Christian parents need to both understand the challenge of technology, screen time, and social media and rise to meet that challenge.
- Christian parents have to disciple their children through family worship and quality family time. (pp.140-141)
If I could add one item to this list: recognizing the need for and value of Christian education. After all, public education is one of the primary ways secularism seeks to indoctrinate our children.
I first became aware of The Gathering Storm through its promotion online through Mohler’s blog and other sources. However, what really led me to buy it and read it was a friend and colleague from Canada who was doing a course for Christian school teachers on the biblical worldview and contemporary challenges to it. I’d say that it is a must-read for Christian educators. But no less so for parents and far more so for office bearers in Christ’s church. I do wonder whether the storm is still gathering or whether it is upon us. Whatever the case may be, none of us can be doing the ostrich thing. We need to see what’s going on and then also realize that if we’re truly Christians, we have the solid foundation under our feet to weather it — and even see the gospel advance despite it.