Posts tagged ‘Culture’

Christ, Culture, and Witness

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A perennial question of Christianity asks:  How should a Christian relate to and interact with broader culture?  In his classic work, Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr outlines what has become the premier taxonomy of the relationship between the two as he explores five different ways that, historically, Christ and culture have corresponded:

  • Christ against culture: In this view, Christianity and broader culture are incompatible and Christianity will inevitably be at odds with and should retreat from the rest of the world.
  • Christ of culture: In this view, Christianity and broader culture are well suited for each other, and Jesus becomes the fulfiller of society’s hopes and dreams.
  • Christ above culture: In this view, broader culture is not bad per se, but it needs to be augmented and perfected by biblical revelation and the Church, with Christ as the head.
  • Christ and culture in paradox: In this view, culture is not all bad because it is, after all, created by God, but it has been corrupted by sin.  Therefore, there will always be a tension between the potential of culture and its reality as well as between the brokenness of culture and the perfection of Christ.
  • Christ the transformer of culture: In this view, because Christ desires to ultimately redeem culture, Christians should work to transform culture.

The categories Niebuhr outlines and the tensions he teases out in his taxonomy are just as salient today as they were when he first posed them in 1951.  Indeed, they are perhaps even more so as America slides into what many have christened a “post-Christian age.”

In my view, the first two categories won’t do.  To pit Christ against culture, as the first view tries to do, overlooks the fact that there is much good in culture.  It can also easily lead Christians into a self-righteousness that spends so much time trying to fight culture that it forgets that Christians are part of the problem in culture, for they too are sinners.

Conversely, to team Christ with culture and to use Christ to endorse your zeitgeist of choice also will not do.  As Ross Douthat explains, when this happens:

Traditional churches are supplanted by self-help gurus and spiritual-political entrepreneurs. These figures cobble together pieces of the old orthodoxies, take out the inconvenient bits and pitch them to mass audiences that want part of the old-time religion but nothing too unsettling or challenging or ascetic. The result is a nation where Protestant awakenings have given way to post-Protestant wokeness, where Reinhold Niebuhr and Fulton Sheen have ceded pulpits to Joel Osteen and Oprah Winfrey, where the prosperity gospel and Christian nationalism rule the right and a social gospel denuded of theological content rules the left.

Though I would take issue with Douthat’s characterization of Reinhold Niebuhr and Fulton Sheen as torchbearers for Christian orthodoxy, his broader point about what happens when Christ is made to mindlessly cater to culture is absolutely true.  Culture, it turns out, is a much better line dancer than it is a two-stepper.  It likes to dance alone and will humor Christ only as long as it needs to until it can find a way to leave Him behind and strike out on its own.

In my view, Niebuhr’s category of “Christ and culture in paradox” best explains the difficult realities of the Church’s interaction with culture and the biblical understanding of how to relate to culture.  In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul opens by writing:

When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.  For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. (1 Corinthians 2:1-3)

The Corinthians prided themselves on being enlightened and educated.  Paul sardonically jibes the Corinthians for their arrogance, teasing, “We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong!  You are honored, we are dishonored” (1 Corinthians 4:10).  To a church that prided itself in being intellectually and socially elitist, rather than engaging in rhetorical and philosophical acrobatics to impress the Corinthians when he proclaimed the gospel to them, Paul came to them with the rather unimpressive, as he put it, “foolish” message of Christ and Him crucified.  Paul cut against the culture of Corinth.

And yet, at the same time he cut against the culture of Corinth, he also declared his love for broader culture and even embedded himself into broader culture in an effort to proclaim the gospel:

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.  To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.  To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Corinthians 9:19-22)

Paul was not afraid to appropriate culture in service to the declaration and proclamation of the gospel so that as many people as possible might be saved.

So there you have it.  Paul eschews cultural sensibilities at the same time he employs them.  Because Paul knows that Christ and culture live in paradox with one another.

We would do well to follow in Paul’s footsteps.  As Christians, we must not be afraid to cut against culture’s sinfulness and brokenness.  But at the same time, we must also not be afraid to embrace culture’s creativity and respect its sensibilities as often as we possibly can.  And we must have the wisdom to know when to do what.  Otherwise, we will only wind up losing the truth to culture or losing the opportunity to share the truth with culture.  And we can afford to lose neither.

Let us pray that we would faithfully keep both in 2019.

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January 7, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Stopping Sexual Assault

Kevin Spacey

Credit: Netflix

Roger Ailes.  Harvey Weinstein.  Kevin Spacey.

These are just a few of the more recent names that have turned right-side-up the seamy underbelly of sickening sexual power-plays for the world to see.  Charges that these men sexually assaulted people with whom they worked have sparked a social media movement among countless victims of sexual assault, who are now declaring, #MeToo.  These men’s alleged sexual crimes have been roundly condemned, both in word and deed.  Roger Ailes, who has now passed, was ousted from the powerful cable news network he founded.  Harvey Weinstein was likewise booted from his own company.  Production on Kevin Spacey’s hit show “House of Cards” has been suspended.

Sexual assault is one of those issues on which all people with any moral center can agree: it should never happen.  So, why does it?  From a theological perspective, sexual assault can be said to be a result of humanity’s fall into sin, a fact to which the many gruesome stories in the Bible of sexual assault attest.  And no inexorable march of human history toward increasing moral enlightenment seems to be able to arrest the problem.

So, what can make a change, or even a dent, in the tragedy of sexual assault?

Our modern sexual ethics have, in many ways, been reduced to the word “consent.”  As long as people consent to any kind of sexual activity, any kind of sexual activity is permissible and, yes, even moral.  Indeed, in our sexually indulgent culture, it is considered immoral to restrain and contain one’s sexual desires, for sexual desire is considered to be at least a window, if not the window, into a person’s core identity.  But, as David French points out in an article for National Review:

The practical result of consent-focused morality is the sexualization of everything.  With the line drawn at desire alone, there is no longer any space that’s sex-free.  Work meetings or restaurants can be creative locations for steamy liaisons.  Not even marriage or existing relationships stand as a firewall against potential hookups …

 When everything is sexualized and virtually every woman is subject to the potential “ask,” scandals like those that rocked Hollywood, Fox News, and – yes – the Trump campaign become inevitable. And they’re replicated countless times on a smaller scale in schools and workplaces across the land. Desire is elevated over fidelity and certainly over propriety, so bosses bully, spouses stray, hearts break, and families fracture.

Mr. French is precisely right.  Sexual assault is a huge problem.  It is a huge problem in and of itself, which is why we must stand with the women – and the men – who are victimized by it and declare, “No more!”  But it is also symptomatic of another huge problem – a sexual ethic that has become so attenuated that it amounts to little more than a “yes” or “no” answer to an ask.

Andrew T. Walker, the Director of Policy Studies for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, tweeted last month:

So much cultural & personal hurt due to sexual sin.  Maybe the church should see its sexual ethics as a gift of common grace to the world.

 – Andrew T. Walker (@andrewtwalk) October 10, 2017

Mr. Walker packs a lot of profundity into 138 characters as he invites us to entertain a wholly different, and certainly a more robust, sexual ethic than that of our culture’s as the remedy to our sexual assault problem – a uniquely Christian sexual ethic.

The Christian sexual ethic is wholly different from our culture’s not only because its content is sweeping, as any glance through Leviticus 18 will quickly reveal, but because its very trajectory is countercultural.  In a culture that approvingly trends toward the permissive, Christianity vigilantly trends toward the restrictive.  This is why Jesus says things like: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).  In sexual ethics, Jesus goes far beyond consent.  He cuts straight to the heart.  Even what happens in one’s interior life can be an opportunity for sexual immorality.

Why would Jesus trend toward the restrictive with regard to sexuality?  Is He a prude?  Or a prig?  Or a Puritan?  Hardly.  He simply knows that with great power comes great responsibility.  And sex does, in fact, carry with it great power.  So, Jesus is inviting us to handle with care.  To quote David French again:

It virtually goes without saying that the sex drive is incredibly powerful.  Sex is also a remarkably intimate act that often has a profound emotional impact.  An ethic that indulges that drive while also denying the emotional significance of sex will inevitably wreck lives. The wise person understands that desire – even mutual desire – can be dangerous. 

It is time for us to take a step back and recognize this reality.  In a culture that lionizes consent when it comes to sexuality, Christians have something much more profound to protect and prosper sexuality – a conviction that sex is best when sex is contained, not so that joy in sex may be decreased, but so that joy in sex may be released.

November 13, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Herod, John the Baptist, and Sharing Our Faith

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St. John the Baptist before Herod, by Mattia Pretti (1665)

In Mark 6, we are treated to a fascinating flashback.  The chapter opens with Jesus teaching and then quickly turns to Him sending out His twelve disciples to preach, drive out demons, and anoint the sick.  The chapter then shifts again, this time to a ruler named Herod Antipas.  Herod Antipas was one of the sons of Herod the Great, the ruler who tried to kill Jesus when He was just a toddler because he considered the lad a threat to his throne.  Herod Antipas, however, was not so hostile toward Jesus as he was curious about Him, especially when he heard a rumor that Jesus was “John the Baptist…raised from the dead” (Mark 6:14).  Cue Mark’s flashback.

In his flashback, Mark recounts how John the Baptist died.  It turns out that Herod Antipas had thrown John in prison because he had preached against Herod’s marriage to his sister-in-law, Herodias.  But it was not just Herod who was upset with John.  It was also his new wife, Herodias.  In fact, Mark says that she “nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him” (Mark 6:19).  And one day, she saw her opportunity.  When Herod was throwing a party, Herodias’s daughter came and danced for Herod and his inebriated guests.  Herod was so pleased by her performance that he offered this girl anything she wanted, including up to half his kingdom.  Prompted by her mother, the girl asked Herod for John the Baptist’s head on a platter.  Interestingly enough, Herod, instead of being delighted that he would finally be able to get rid of this man who had preached against his marriage, was devastated.  Mark 6:26 explains that “the king was greatly distressed.”  The Greek word used for “distressed” is perilupos, a word that Jesus Himself uses the night before He goes to the cross when He says to His disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:34).  The Greek word used for “sorrow” is again perilupos.  Clearly, Herod was deeply grieved, even to the point of death, by this girl’s request.  But why?

As it turns out, Herod had what might be called a “love-hate relationship” with John.  Mark describes their relationship like this: “Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him” (Mark 6:20).  The same man who threw John in prison also protected him, because he knew there was something different about him.  He knew he had a righteousness and holiness that went beyond anything he had ever encountered before.  Moreover, he liked to listen to John, even though he had a hard time understanding what he was talking about and, obviously, did not always heed what he said.  Herod, even as he was offended by John, was also attracted to John.

Herod’s relationship with John can serve as a model for what the world’s relationship with us, as Christians, can look like.  When people watch you, do they see a righteousness and a holiness beyond anything they have ever encountered before because, instead of your righteousness and holiness being merely meritocratic, it is Christocentric?  And when you speak about your faith to others, even if they are puzzled by what you have to say, do you leave them wanting to hear more?

Just as Herodias hated John, there will be some who hate us simply because we are Christians.  But there will also be others who are intrigued by us.  May we never forget to engage these people, model Christ for these people, and speak the gospel to these people.  For what they are puzzled by today may just be the very thing they believe in tomorrow.

August 7, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

God and Country in Order

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In his book, Destroyer of the gods, Larry Hurtado writes about why the Christian claim that there is only one God was especially offensive to those in the ancient Roman world.  His analysis is worth quoting at length:

In the eyes of ancient pagans, the Jews’ refusal to worship any deity but their own, though often deemed bizarre and objectionable, was basically regarded as one, rather distinctive, example of national peculiarities… 

The early Christian circles such as those addressed by Paul…could not claim any traditional ethnic privilege to justify their refusal to worship the gods.  For, prior to their Christian conversion, these individuals, no doubt, had taken part in the worship of the traditional gods, likely as readily as other pagans of the time among their families, friends, and wider circles of their acquaintances…

Of course, a pagan might choose to convert fully to Judaism as a proselyte, which meant becoming a Jew and ceasing to be a member of his or her own ancestral people.  By such a drastic act, proselytes effectively changed their ethnic status and so could thereafter try to justify a refusal to participate in worshipping the pagan gods as expressive of their new ethnic membership and religious identity.  But this was not the move that Paul’s pagan converts made… 

Indeed, Paul was at pains to emphasize that his pagan converts must not become Jewish proselytes.  For Paul saw his mission to “Gentiles” as bringing to fulfillment biblical prophecies that the nations of the world would forsake idols and, as Gentiles, would renounce their idolatry and embrace the one true God.  That is, unlike Jewish proselytes, Paul’s pagan converts did not change their ethnic identity.[1]

Categories of ethnicity and faith were not clearly delineated in the ancient world.  Instead, they were broadly interchangeable.  To be a part of the Jewish nation was to adhere to the Jewish faith.  To be a Roman Gentile was to be a worshiper of the Roman gods.  There was no concept of religious freedom like we know it today – where a person can worship and live out their convictions freely quite apart from their nationality.  Thus, part of what made Christianity so offensive to the ancient pagans was that it began to decouple a presumed synonymy between ethnicity and faith.  A person’s ethnicity, in the Christian conception, no longer informed ipso facto a person’s faith.  A person could be a Roman Gentile and a Christian monotheist.

Not only did Christianity decouple ethnicity from faith, it actually claimed that a person’s ethnicity was subservient to faith!  Again, to quote Hurtado:

Paul writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28)…Whether you were Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, this was now to be secondary to your status “in Christ”…Irrespective of their particular ethnic, social, or biological categories, therefore, all believers were now to take on a new and supervening identity in Christ.[2]

According to Paul, Christ comes before clan.

Like the ancient Romans, we too have a tendency to couple our ethnicity with our faith, or, to put it in another, more recognizable, way, to couple our country with our God.  When this happens, however, it is almost always our God who winds up serving our country.  When it appears particularly expedient or reassuring in the midst of a dangerous and changing world, we can be all too willing to sacrifice fidelity to our faith for the prosperity of our nation.  Hurtado offers us an important reminder:  though we may retain our ethnicities and citizenships and still be Christians, ethnicities and citizenships are subservient to faith.  Faith cannot be sacrificed for the sake of the State.  Furthermore, as we are learning our increasingly secularized society, faith is often at odds with the goals of the State.  Everything from the legal enshrinement of the sexual revolution to the often raucous and raunchy rhetoric of our most recent presidential campaign demonstrates this.  So let’s makes sure we keep the State and our faith straight.  Faith comes first.  After all, the God of our faith will continue to stand, long after the State has fallen.

_______________________

[1] Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods (Waco:  Baylor University Press, 2016), 53, 55.

[2] Ibid., 55-56.

March 20, 2017 at 5:00 am Leave a comment

Christianity, Culture, and Comparison

ChurchThere can be little doubt that Christianity is losing its place of primacy in American culture.  According to a survey conducted last year by the Pew Research Center, Americans are becoming increasingly less religious and less willing to affiliate themselves with any particular religious tradition.  As The Washington Post reports:

The “nones,” or religiously unaffiliated, include atheists, agnostics and those who say they believe in “nothing in particular.” Of those who are unaffiliated, 31 percent describe themselves as atheists or agnostics, up six points from 2007.[1]

A six-point increase of the religiously unaffiliated in eight years is not only statistically significant, it is an irreligious coup d’état.  Consider this, also from The Washington Post: “There are more religiously unaffiliated Americans (23 percent) than Catholics (21 percent) and mainline Protestants (15 percent).”

Even among those who self-identify as religious, identifying as a faith does not necessarily correlate to the practice of that faith.  One of the most striking demographic factoids of this presidential election cycle has been how evangelicals who attend church more frequently differ substantially in their candidate preferences from those who attend church less frequently.

Clearly, the religious terrain of America is experiencing tectonic shifts.  What was once America’s so-called “moral majority” is now an apprehensive minority.  So what is the way forward?

Myriads of options have been proposed and tried.  Some people want to fight the secularizing spiral of American culture while others are more amicable to bargaining with and even capitulating to it.  Still others, such as Rod Dreher, argue for a limited withdrawal from American culture, eschewing what they see as the culture’s inherently dangerous facets and foci.  In many ways, these tensions and postures toward the broader culture are nothing new, as a read through H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous book, Christ and Culture, will reveal.

As worthy of discussion as all of these options may be, in this post, I would propose that it is just as important that we look at what we should not do as it is that we look at what we should do.  Here’s why.

At the root of our anxiety over shrinking Christian cultural influence is our penchant to compare.  We look at the political arena and we notice that we don’t wield the power we once did.  And we compare the influence we had to the power we have.  Or we look at demographic studies and we begin to notice that non-believers are on the increase while we’re on the decrease. And we compare the assembly of the despisers to the flock of the convinced.

Martin Luther has some great guidance when we are tempted toward comparison:

They surpass us by so many thousands, and all that we have seems to recede into nothing. But do not compare yourselves with them. No, compare yourselves with your Lord, and it will be wonderful to see how superior you will be … They would easily overcome us, but they cannot overcome that Christ who is in us.[2]

Comparing ourselves with the world as a starting place for responding to the world is dangerous business.  It can lead us to an arrogant triumphalism if the world seems to be persuaded to our side.  But it can also lead to an angry despair if the world rejects us.  It is little wonder that the apostle Paul once wrote, “We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves” (2 Corinthians 10:12).  If we are to compare ourselves with anyone or anything, it should be with the One who reminds us that even if we are a “little flock” in this age (Luke 12:32) – with little power, little influence, and little prestige – we are a “multitude that one one can count” (Revelation 7:9) in the next.

What strikes me about so many of our responses to Christianity’s diminishing cultural influence is not that they are wrong per se, but that they flow from the wrong place – they flow from anxious comparisons that grumble over Christianity’s diminishing cultural capital rather than from faith in Christ’s commandments and promises.

Perhaps it’s time to work less out of fear and more out of faith.  Perhaps it’s time to stop comparing and start trusting – not because the decline of Christianity isn’t sad, but because the victory of Christ is certain.

_________________________

[1] Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion,” The Washington Post (5.12.2015).

[2] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 30 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1967), 289

March 21, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

A Little Lesson on Divine Providence

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Credit: SeniorLiving.org

Last week, in my personal devotions, I read through Numbers 26, which recounts a census taken near the end of Israel’s 40 year wandering through the wilderness. Here’s a taste of the bean counting:

The descendants of Gad by their clans were: through Zephon, the Zephonite clan; through Haggi, the Haggite clan; through Shuni, the Shunite clan; through Ozni, the Oznite clan; through Eri, the Erite clan; through Arodi, the Arodite clan; through Areli, the Arelite clan. These were the clans of Gad; those numbered were 40,500. Er and Onan were sons of Judah, but they died in Canaan. The descendants of Judah by their clans were: through Shelah, the Shelanite clan; through Perez, the Perezite clan; through Zerah, the Zerahite clan. The descendants of Perez were: through Hezron, the Hezronite clan; through Hamul, the Hamulite clan. These were the clans of Judah; those numbered were 76,500. (Numbers 26:15-22)

I won’t blame you if you found yourself skimming over these verses. Biblical censuses and genealogies are items we tend to skip so we can get to the good stuff. Names we don’t know and numbers we don’t care about can quickly lull us to sleep. But as snooze inducing as these stilted sections of Scripture might sometimes feel, my commitment to the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible still calls me to see God’s merciful hand at work. And God’s merciful hand is indeed at work in Numbers 26.

Numbers 26 represents the second census in this book. The first one is in Numbers 1, near the beginning of Israel’s wilderness wanderings. From Numbers 1 to Numbers 26, approximately 38 years have passed. These years, it should be noted, have not been particularly pleasant ones. There has been grumbling (Numbers 11:1-6; 14:1-4), dissension among Israel’s leaders (Numbers 12), a refusal to enter the land God had promised to Israel (Numbers 13), defeats in battle (Numbers 14:40-45), rebellions (Numbers 16), and plagues (Numbers 21:4-9; 25). This is in addition to the natural and normal difficulties that come with camping out in a desert for decades on end. Yet, by the time all is said and done, the population of Israel between the first census in Numbers 1 and this census in Numbers 26 has remained remarkably stable. The population has decreased by only .3 percent. It turns out that for all the hardship Israel experienced and for all the sin they committed, God, out of His providence, took good care of His people. They endured even when, by all accounts, they should not have.

As remarkable as God’s providential care for Israel over 40 years of wandering in the wilderness was, it pales in comparison to God’s providential care for His Church. Through persecutions, hostilities, scandals, and political and intellectual assaults, the Church has not only endured, it has grown. As this map elegantly visualizes, what began as a band of twelve now claims nearly a third of the world’s population. Forget a .3 percent decrease. How about an 18.3 billion percent increase?

I realize that in our day and age, the remarkable story of Christ’s Church can sometimes be hard to recognize and remember. I was talking to a friend just the other day who wanted to know what we, as Christians, needed to do to beat back the encroachment of secularism. I understand his concern. If you’re not at least a little unsettled by the state and trajectory of our culture, you’re not paying attention. Still, I think secularism has a lot more to worry about than Christianity. After all, secularism can’t claim the history, the increase, or, for that matter, the truth that Christianity can.

In Luke 4, Jesus is preaching in His hometown of Nazareth. His text for the day is from the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on Me, because the LORD has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent Me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor. (Isaiah 61:1-2)

The Jews of Jesus’ day understood Isaiah’s words eschatologically. The believed God would set right what was wrong with the world on the Last Day. This is why, immediately after Isaiah talks about “the year of the LORD’s favor,” he speaks of “the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61:2). Judgment Day, Isaiah says, is coming. But Jesus, when He preached on these words, interpreted them in a way no one expected.  After reading from Isaiah, Jesus announces, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Huh? How could this be?  Judgment Day had not yet come.  The world had not yet been set right.  The poor had not been made rich. Broken hearts remained. Israel was still under captivity to the Romans. Prisons were still open. And the Lord’s favor, though it may have been touted by the Jewish religious leaders as a theological truism, still felt distant as a practical reality. How could Jesus say Isaiah’s words had been fulfilled right then and there? Because Jesus knew the census numbers from Numbers 1 and Numbers 26. Jesus knew that God was taking care of His people even when life felt like a wilderness wandering. Jesus took the long view of history and saw God’s fingerprints all over it. Jesus knew God’s providence. And Jesus knew the setbacks and sin of this world are no match for the promises of God.

May we know what Jesus knew. After all, what Jesus knew not only gives perspective when the world feels tempestuous and hostile, it gives hope.

August 17, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Thoughts on Christianity and Secularism

Old ChurchIt’s hard to deny that secularism is on the ascendency in America. Indeed, even if one points to the fact that roughly the same number of adults believe in God now as did in 1947, secularism’s intellectual and cultural capital in broader society has steadily increased. As James Davison Hunter deftly notes, the raw numbers of a thing don’t always indicate the influence of a thing. He explains:

With cultural capital, it isn’t quantity but quality that matters most. It is the status of cultural credentials and accomplishment and status is organized between the “center” and the “periphery.” The individuals, networks and institutions most critically involved in the production of a culture operate in the “center” where prestige is the highest, not on the periphery, where status is low.

And so, USA Today may sell more copies of newspapers than the New York Times, but it is the New York Times that is the newspaper of record in America because it is at the center of cultural production, not the periphery, and its symbolic capital is much higher.[1]

Secularism’s proponents may not be large in number, but a great number of them are certainly at the center of our cultural production. And they are working hard to move Christians to the periphery. Even more, secularists are working hard to shift the center of Christianity itself to something that is closer to their way of thinking, even if it is not in perfect alignment with it. This is why there are great numbers of what could be called “secular Christians” who, though they may pay certain homage to the artifacts of their faith, are largely either politely mute or openly in disagreement with much of what historic Christianity confesses.

So how are Christians who are more traditionally orthodox in their confessions to respond?

In my sermon two weeks ago, I outlined three ways that Christians have sought to respond to secularism’s inroads over the past few decades. They are worth rehearsing here.

The first is that of capitulating. There are some Christians who, be it happily or reticently, capitulate to many of secularism’s tenets. These are the “secular Christians” of whom I spoke above. So, for example, one of secularism’s primary tenets is tolerance, or, stated more forcefully, relativism. In secularism’s creed, one religion’s claims cannot be truer than another religion’s claims unless, of course, that religion’s claims conflict with the claims of secularism. Christians who capitulate to the secular tenet of tolerance may speak of their personal path to God as through Christ, but will deny that Christ’s claims are exclusively true for everyone. There must be other, equally true, paths available to these people. These Christians thus capitulate to secularism’s tenets of tolerance and relativism.

The second response to secularism’s inroads is that of cloistering. There are some Christians who, horrified at secularism’s ascendency, immerse themselves in a Christian culture that breezily and probably unknowingly separates itself from broader culture with its many secular entailments by creating its own subculture. The Christians listen to Christian music, read Christian books, and frequent Christian businesses while looking with skepticism at what they perceive to be the irreversible corruption of broader cultural trends. They cloister themselves off in hopes of maintaining more “traditional” values.

The third response to secularism’s inroads is that of conquering. Christians who conquer are fully engaged in what is popularly known as “the culture wars,” launching a virulent apologetic against everything from abortion to gay marriage to Hollywood. They hope that if they can just take these institutions – as well as their sympathizers – down, usually by political means, a sanctified sanity will be restored to the culture-at-large.

I must say that I am largely disappointed by all three of these strategies for stemming secularism’s tide. I think each of these strategies, though they may have certain useful elements that should be retained, are largely ineffective and theologically anemic. Indeed, Scripture already outlines a strategy for engaging secularism in all its forms and with all its tentacles – that of converting. Simply stated, Christians are to seek opportunities to present Christ’s claims to as many as possible so that as many as possible – including secularists – may come to faith.

One of my favorite insights concerning secularism and conversion comes from Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote:

The world and Christianity have completely opposite conceptions. The world says of the apostles, of the Apostle Peter as their spokesman, “He is drunk,” and the Apostle Peter admonishes, “Become sober.” Consequently the secular mentality considers Christianity to be drunkenness, and Christianity considers the secular mentality to be drunkenness. “Do become reasonable, come to your senses, try to become sober.” Consequently the secular mentality considers Christianity to be drunkenness, and Christianity considers the secular mentality to be drunkenness.[2]

Here, Kierkegaard uses Peter’s speech in Acts 2 as a case study in just how far apart secularism and Christianity really are. Somewhat hyperbolically, Kierkegaard says they “have completely opposite conceptions.” So how does Peter counter the “completely opposite conception” of the secularism of his day? In Kierkegaard’s paraphrase, he admonishes the secularists, “Become sober.” In the Bible’s text, he says:

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:38-39)

Peter calls for conversion. And “those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (Acts 2:41).

Peter’s call to conversion, it seems, worked. Perhaps his call still ought to be our strategy – no matter how secular our age.

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[1] James Davison Hunter, To Change The World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 37.

[2] Cited in Lee C. Barrett & Jon Stewart, Kierkegaard and the Bible: The New Testament (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2010), 89, ftn. 62

March 2, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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