Book Review: “Life in the Negative World”

Life in the Negative World: Confronting Challenges in an Anti-Christian Culture. By Aaron M. Renn. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2024. 272 pp. $26.99 (hardcover).

The past several years have seen multiple releases in the “everyone hates us, what do we do now?” subgenre of Christian cultural commentary, with no fewer than three such titles being published in 2017 alone.[1] Given that the situation has not changed much for Christians since then, books of this kind are still popular, with Aaron Renn’s Life in the Negative World being the latest entry.

Renn’s book is a fleshed-out exploration of a framework he previously formulated in a 2022 First Things article.[2] The basic idea is that Christians in America have lived in three different cultural environments over the past seventy years or so: “positive world,” “neutral world,” and “negative world.” In the positive world, “Society at large retains a mostly positive view of Christianity. To be known as a good, churchgoing man or woman remains part of being an upstanding citizen in society.” In the neutral world, “Society takes a neutral stance toward Christianity. Christianity no longer has privileged status, but nor is it disfavored.” In the negative world, “Society has an overall negative view of Christianity. Being known as a Christian is a social negative, particularly in the higher status domains of society” (6‒7, italics original). Renn’s thesis is that American Christians currently inhabit the negative world, meaning that “fresh strategies and approaches need to be developed to respond to the new and difficult challenges” this cultural environment poses (xv). Although the book “may be useful for Roman Catholics or those from other Christian traditions, it’s primarily written with evangelicals in mind” (xviii). Notably, Renn defines “evangelical” broadly—using “a sociological rather than a theological approach”—with “any Protestant who is not mainline or from the black church tradition” qualifying as an evangelical (xviii).

In Chapters 1‒2, Renn briefly surveys various causes that contributed to the rise of the negative world (such as the sexual revolution and the end of the Cold War), as well as the strategic approaches of engagement that were cultivated by evangelicals in response to these societal developments, e.g., “culture war” and “seeker sensitivity” (22). Chapter 3 discusses what strategies for engagement in the negative world might look like broadly speaking, with Renn asserting that Christians in America are now a “moral minority” (47) and need to act like it, which should involve “a shift in emphasis away from relevance and transformation toward being a counterculture” (48). That said, he also believes evangelicals should “continue to be as relevant as possible to carry out the Great Commission and pursue transformation when there’s an opportunity to do so” (48‒49). The rest of the book lays out specific strategies to help fortify evangelicals as a group, with respect to both internal culture and external pressures. Examples include becoming financially independent, assuming greater ownership (e.g., in real estate and economically productive businesses), and “repairing our own sexual economy” (127) by restoring a Christian culture of chastity and fruitful marriages.

Renn’s assessment of American Christians’ current circumstances is accurate—they are indeed a moral minority, and as such they need to start living and understanding themselves as a robust counterculture. A number of Renn’s suggested strategies are sound as well, particularly his recommendation that Christians attain financial and economic independence whenever possible. However, it is not clear to me whether an aspiring counterculture can be concerned with “relevance” and still succeed at being truly countercultural. This question becomes acute in light of some of the suggestions Renn makes about how evangelicals can continue to be relevant. For instance, he maintains that “while restricting access to technology can be appropriate for some age groups, at some point children need to be equipped to responsibly use smartphones and social media. As adults they will be on at least some social media platforms” (123). Smartphones and social media are treated here as unavoidable fixtures of contemporary life, with only a passing acknowledgment of the ways in which both of these technologies can and do undermine the sort of vital Christian counterculture Renn promotes.[3] More broadly, “relevance” is a relative term, and what it means to be relevant is defined by the dominant culture. If the dominant culture is anti-Christian, why should Christians accept its definition of what it means to be “relevant,” especially when some of those ways of being relevant would negate their own efforts to sustain a Christian counterculture?

The same question could be raised with regard to Renn’s belief that Christian voters should “seek laws, policies, and political leaders who support their values and way of life in ways that respect the rule of law in a liberal democracy” (197). Renn apparently takes it as a given that American Christians must think and function within a liberal framework because America is a liberal polity—as he observes elsewhere, “liberalism” in an American context can effectively be equated with “the American cultural and political tradition.”[4] Yet other commentators have argued that liberalism itself undermines traditional Christianity,[5] and, moreover, the idea that America is at present truly liberal in any meaningful sense is questionable, as some of Renn’s own anecdotes in the Introduction attest.[6] In light of these doubts concerning the compatibility of liberalism and traditional Christianity, it is notable that Renn does not engage the issue in his book.

Nonetheless, Renn performs a valuable service by clearly stating a simple truth that many Christians have not absorbed: in contemporary America, traditional Christianity is a detriment to one’s social and economic status rather than a benefit, and Christians therefore need to adjust how they navigate these new circumstances. This basic understanding must be reached on a wide scale before coordinated responsive action can be taken, so any work that communicates this reality to a larger audience is to be appreciated.


  1. Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel, 2017); Charles J. Chaput, Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2017); and Anthony J. Esolen, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (New York: Regnery Publishing, 2017). See also Gerald L. Sittser, Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019).
  2. Aaron M. Renn, “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism,” First Things, February 2022,
  3. Dreher, for his part, writes that “moms and dads who would never leave their kids unattended in a room full of pornographic DVDs think nothing of handing them smartphones. This is morally insane” (Benedict Option, 229). There is no reason to believe such moral danger is limited to the young, either.
  4. Aaron M. Renn, “What Do You Mean By Liberalism?” Aaron Renn, 26 October 2022, See also Aaron M. Renn, “Americanism Is Their Religion,” Aaron Renn, 4 May 2023,
  5. See Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018), and Ryszard Legutko, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, trans. Teresa Adelson (New York: Encounter Books, 2016), 145‒76.
  6. See also Mary Eberstadt, It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies (New York: Harper, 2016).


James Clark

James Clark is the author of The Witness of Beauty and Other Essays, and the Book Review Editor at The North American Anglican. His writing has appeared in Cranmer Theological Journal, Journal of Classical Theology, and American Reformer, as well as other publications.

'Book Review: “Life in the Negative World”' has no comments

Be the first to comment this post!

Would you like to share your thoughts?

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

(c) 2024 North American Anglican