Life in the Negative World: Confronting Challenges in an Anti-Christian Culture 
By Aaron M. Renn.
Zondervan, 2024.
Hardcover, 272 pages, $26.99.

Reviewed by Jason Jewell.

Since his viral article “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism” was published in the February 2022 issue of First Things magazine, newsletter writer and podcaster Aaron Renn has influenced much of the conversation about the relationship between Christianity and mainstream American culture. His “three worlds” framework for understanding the church and society has entered the Christian lexicon and is regularly referenced in both scholarly and popular commentary. With the publication of Life in the Negative World, Renn moves from diagnostics to prescription, offering suggestions for how the evangelical church can navigate its increasingly hostile environment. Judged by any reasonable standard, the book is a welcome and helpful contribution to a conversation in need of a fresh perspective.

The first quarter of the book lays out and expands Renn’s three worlds thesis, which many readers have already encountered. Since the mid-1960s, American Christianity has been in institutional and cultural decline. Renn divides this era into three parts: the “positive world” (1964-1994), the “neutral world” (1994-2014), and the “negative world” (2014-present). During the positive world, Christianity still carried positive connotations in public life; for example, being known as an upright, churchgoing man conferred respectability and could aid one in business dealings and the like. In the neutral world, Christianity no longer conferred these advantages, but mainstream secular culture still acknowledged the Christian life to be a valid lifestyle choice, albeit one among many. By contrast, in the negative world, mainstream culture, and particularly elite culture, increasingly views historic Christianity as aberrant and even a threat to the emerging moral order it wishes to establish.

Evangelical churches developed different strategies to navigate the positive and neutral worlds. During the positive world, pastors such as Jerry Falwell employed the rhetoric of a “culture war” and took combative public stances as part of an effort to stem the decline of Christian influence in society. Another positive-world strategy was “seeker sensitivity,” which pastors like Bill Hybels used to evangelize suburbanites and build influential megachurches. After the transition to the neutral world, Tim Keller and other pastors developed the “cultural engagement” model to evangelize resurgent cities and gain a hearing in elite cultural centers.

Renn notes that the relatively rapid shift to the negative world during Barack Obama’s second presidential term made life particularly difficult for high-profile cultural engagers such as Keller and Russell Moore. These pastors and pundits came under tremendous pressure to accommodate “wokeness” and the like in their public messaging, but making such accommodations often sacrificed their standing with rank-and-file evangelicals, who often came to regard them as sell-outs. The cultural engagers, in turn, “keen to show the world they’re not at all aligned with the Trumpist culture warriors,” now spend much of their time critiquing the evangelicals to their right. The divisions have become so serious that they are “ripping churches and other evangelical institutions apart.”

One of Renn’s major contentions is that all three of these strategies—culture war, seeker sensitivity, and cultural engagement—are ill suited to the negative world, and that the church must develop new strategies that both protect it from further undermining by secular culture and reposition it to evangelize in its new cultural context. Renn credits Rod Dreher with articulating the first negative-world strategy in The Benedict Option (2017). Evangelicals by and large had a negative reaction to that book, in part because (Renn says) they were still reluctant to confront the reality of the negative world. However, increasing numbers of Christians have recognized “what time it is” and are willing to consider new strategies for the church. Because the American church is now in uncharted waters, it needs to adopt a mentality of exploration and embrace its status as a “moral minority” within the broader culture.

Renn’s three-worlds framework has provoked a wide variety of responses from Christian commentators. Many cite their exposure to it as an “a-ha” moment that allowed them to make sense of social trends they had previously understood only in an inchoate fashion. Some others find fault with it, claiming that it understates the challenges faced by those attempting to live faithfully at any point in history; “hasn’t it always been the negative world?” It’s certainly possible to find anecdotes of evangelical Christians’ suffering negative sanctions for publicly professing or acting on their faith prior to 2014, especially in some corners of academia and government. However, merely noting that Christianity always has opponents somewhere does not disprove Renn’s thesis, which is about the degree to which those opponents have amassed cultural and institutional power. By dismissing Renn’s framework entirely, these critics would deprive us of a vocabulary that could help us toward a clear-headed assessment of our present moment. No doubt one can quibble with elements of the three-worlds framework, such as the start and end dates of each period, but categorically denying its usefulness as a heuristic increasingly seems pedantic or obtuse.

The remainder of the book lays out Renn’s suggestions for life in the negative world. These suggestions are organized into three broad categories of life: personal, institutional, and missional. Unsurprisingly, Renn urges evangelicals to rededicate themselves to lives lived in obedience to Scripture and not to allow the negative world to pressure them to realign their doctrine to its standards. This is standard evangelical boilerplate, but Renn follows it with chapters on the necessity for excellence and resilience, two topics not broached nearly as often in evangelical churches. Intellectual excellence, he argues, is sorely needed in a Protestant environment where the sharpest minds and best leadership potential often get siphoned off to mainline denominations or the Roman Catholic Church. Evangelicals need to create their own culture of excellence to develop the intellectual resources needed to evangelize social and cultural elites and to champion ideas like natural law that mainstream culture has abandoned. Renn invokes the ideas of Nicolas Nassim Taleb to argue that evangelicals need to become “antifragile” and put themselves into a better position to respond to “black swan” events through discipline in their personal finances and family choices. Pastors in particular need ways to handle the heightened levels of stress the negative world brings, levels that have resulted in unprecedented rates of burnout over the past few years.

Americans’ trust in institutions is at an all-time low across the board. Not surprisingly, then, Renn urges churches and other evangelical organizations not to take their own trustworthiness and competence for granted. Instead, they ought to take conscious steps to cultivate these qualities. Additionally, he writes, they must focus on maintaining their missional focus and to guard against hostile actors that often attempt to lure or force them into changing course. Now that evangelicals can no longer count on mainstream cultural institutions to reinforce or support their values, Renn suggests that they study ways other religious minority groups, for example, Mormons or early-twentieth-century Roman Catholics, took steps to ensure their own communities’ health and continuity. He recommends the development of a “counter-catechesis” and the “repairing of our sexual economy” to help the church withstand the hostile influences arrayed against it. Finally, Renn urges that evangelicals pursue ownership of assets such as businesses and real estate that can reduce the risk of cancellation while also creating cultural space friendly to Christians.  

Finally, Renn devotes three chapters to missional engagement, always an area of emphasis for evangelicals. He argues that recommendations from earlier chapters such as building healthy communities and trustworthy enterprises will aid in preparing people to hear the Gospel. Furthermore, evangelicals should commit to being a “source of truth” on controversial social issues. Here Renn takes as an example how prominent evangelicals talk about gender in ways that are unlikely to offend progressive sensibilities but that also paper over important realities about attraction, dating, marriage, and divorce. When it comes to electoral politics, Renn recommends avoiding both culture-war partisanship and calls for political disengagement in favor of a “prudential engagement” model emphasizing careful picking of battles that are winnable and that will have a bearing on the church’s ability to meet the challenges discussed earlier in the book.

Whereas most authors of books of this type come from a pastoral background, Renn is a management consultant and urban analyst. Although he does quote scripture and refer to Christian doctrine in several passages, Renn sticks mostly to his strengths of cultural analysis and strategy. This orientation will seem disorienting to some readers accustomed to pastoral writing about the church and society and refreshing to others.

Most of Renn’s recommendations to individuals seem in line with the advice evangelicals often receive from other sources. One can always find exhortations to upright living among Christian writers, although a slight difference here is that Renn leaves aside the usual pastoral encouragement to personal prayer and Bible study to focus on ethical behavior. His discussion of personal finance is compatible with that of figures like Dave Ramsey or Larry Burkett. Even some of his edgier recommendations seem well timed for an audience that is waking up to the realities of the negative world. For example, he insists that evangelicals be willing to disengage from mainstream institutions such as public schools when those institutions have turned against their values and there is no plausible strategy for influencing or recapturing them. With the rapid advance of school choice legislation in numerous states in the past few years, more evangelical families than ever are likely to consider this a viable strategy.

But where Renn’s ideas have the potential to turn more heads is in the area of institutional focus. For example, Renn suggests that medium-sized businesses owned by Christians become a “potential safe temporary landing place for anyone who loses a corporate job” in the local area. Judging from the state of the current public conversation on Christianity and culture, it seems safe to say that not one in ten church leaders has considered coordinating such a plan with their entrepreneurial congregants. However, the potential for this strategy to provide economic security and peace of mind to white collar employees under ideological pressure in their workplaces could be significant. Similarly, Renn’s recommendation to seek protection from cancellation by finding employment and building businesses in critical, essential sectors, for example, electrical infrastructure, is an idea I’ve seen referenced by only one other Christian writer in the past twenty-five years.

Of course, Renn’s argument could be improved in some ways. Several chapters are heavy on anecdote and light on data. Some points get repeated unnecessarily in two or three different chapters. In a few places, Renn misses what seem like obvious opportunities to bolster his case by engaging with prominent writers working in an overlapping area; the example of Yuval Levin’s work on institutions comes immediately to mind.

These quibbles aside, Life in the Negative World is probably the most important book on the church and society published in recent years. It gives Christians tools to read the cultural terrain. It makes a strong argument that evangelistic and discipleship tactics must be updated to account for current conditions. And it offers outside-the-box suggestions for strengthening evangelical households and institutions. Many local churches would do well to add the book to their educational curricula and begin discussing how his ideas might apply to their local situations. More generally, anyone with an interest in the relationship between Christianity and culture will gain new insights from Renn’s arguments. 

Jason Jewell is a professor of humanities at Faulkner University, where he directs the Center for Great Books and Human Flourishing, and a fellow of the American Studies Institute at Harding University. He was a Wilbur Scholar at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal in 2019.

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