Worldviews Through History – Compared to a Christian View

Kerby provides a summary of how mankind has viewed the world from the Romans until today. This summary provides us a perspective against which to compare and contrast a Christian, biblical worldview based on New Testament principles.

Roman Worldview

On the Probe Web site we often talk about worldviews. I want to explain how the worldviews we talk about developed through history. We will be using as our foundation an excellent book written by Professor Glenn Sunshine whom I have met and also had the privilege of interviewing. His book is Why You Think the Way You Do: The Story of Western Worldviews from Rome to Home.{1}

Glenn Sunshine is a member of the church that Jonathan Edwards attended when he was at Yale. Professor Sunshine gave a lecture about Jonathan Edward’s worldview at a conference they held, and Chuck Colson invited him to teach with the Centurions program. He gave a talk about “How We Got Here” and then later turned it into Why You Think the Way You Do.

Since we will be talking about worldview, it would be good to begin with Glenn Sunshine’s definition. “A worldview is the framework you use to interpret the world and your place in it.”{2} You do not need to be a philosopher to have a worldview. All of us have a worldview.

Although Glenn Sunshine begins with the worldview of the Roman world, he quickly takes us back to neo-Platonism. It was the religion and philosophy based upon Plato’s ideas. Neo-Platonism was the belief that the fundamental ground of reality is non-physical. Instead it is found in the world of ideas (and is known as idealism). These ideas cast shadows that cast other shadows until they arrive at the physical world.

According to this worldview, the whole universe exists as a hierarchy. The spiritual is superior to the physical. This provides a scale of values for the world, but also provides a scale for humanity. In other words, those who are superior should rule over those who are inferior because they have demonstrated their ability to rule or conquer.

This view of hierarchy led to the idea of the father having superiority over all members of the family. It led to the idea that men are superior to women. It led to the idea that the emperor should rule and be worshipped. And it led to the idea that slaves are inferior to free people and nothing more than “living tools.”{3}

This explains not only the success of Rome but also its ugly underside. Essentially there are two pictures of Rome: “the glittering empire and the rotten core.”{4}

In Rome, human life did not have much value. While it is true that Romans abandoned human sacrifice, they engaged in other practices equally abhorrent. “They picked up the Etruscan practice of having people fight to the death in games in honor of the dead.”{5}

Slavery provided the economic foundation for the empire. Abortion and infanticide were regularly practiced. “Roman families would usually keep as many healthy sons as they had and only one daughter; the rest were simply discarded.”{6} And Roman law required that a father kill any visibly deformed child.

Transformation of the Pagan World

How did Christianity transform the pagan world? In AD 303, the Roman emperor Diocletian began a severe persecution of Christians. But because Christians were faithful and even willing to go to their deaths for their beliefs, their credibility increased. Eventually they were accepted and allowed to exercise their faith. Constantine even legalized the Christian faith by AD 313.

Once that took place, Christian ideas were allowed to percolate through society. One of the most important ideas was that human beings are created in the image of God. This idea has a profound impact. First, it meant that people are fundamentally equal to each other. No longer were there grounds for saying that some people are superior to others. In fact, “Christians were the first people in history to oppose slavery systematically.”{7}

Christians (who believed that all are created in the image of God) treated the sick differently. They believed that even those who were deathly ill still deserved care. Dionysius of Alexandria reported that Christians (often at great risk to their own lives) “visited the sick fearlessly and ministered to them continually.”{8} They would rescue babies abandoned in an act of infanticide. They would oppose abortion.

In economics, we can also see the influence of Christianity. The idea that God created the universe and then rested showed that God worked. That would mean that human beings (made in the image of God) are expected to work as well. God gave Adam and Eve intellectual work (in naming the animals) and physical work (in tending the Garden). Contrast this with the Roman world where physical work was seen as something that only slaves would do. Christians saw labor as something that was intrinsically valuable.

Labor is good; drudgery is bad. Drudgery is a result of the Fall (Genesis 3). So Christians were the first to develop technology to remove drudgery from work. Other civilizations had technology, but the West uniquely applied such things as water power to make work more valuable and worthwhile by eliminating the drudgery and repetitive nature of certain tasks.

Property rights were also well-developed during this period. “The medieval world under the influence of Christianity has a much stronger emphasis on property rights than other cultures had.”{9}

These ideas come from a biblical worldview and began to be developed during the Middle Ages. This led to a complete transformation of western society and set it on a trajectory to our modern world.

Christianity and Politics

Glenn Sunshine points out that in the West, the dynamic between church and state is unique. Christianity was originally a persecuted minority religion. Even when Christianity was declared a legal religion, the church did not depend upon the state. So the question of the relationship between church and state has been an open question.

During the Middle Ages, two men helped shape political thinking. The first was Augustine, who described two realms: the City of God and the City of Man. He argued that human government is the result of sin. He believed that it is based upon selfishness. Government itself is corruption. In the absence of government, anarchy reigns. So government is a necessary evil.

The City of God is different in that it is not based upon force or coercion. It is based upon love, charity, and repentance. That doesn’t mean that the City of Man and the City of God cannot work together. But overall, Augustine had a more pessimistic view of government.

Aristotle had a different view of government. As people in the Middle Ages began to rediscover Aristotle, they began to develop a different view of government. They saw government as a necessary institution that God has placed in the world. It had positive and legitimate functions.

Aristotle believed that government had a more positive role in society. But the Christian theologians had to also deal with the problem of original sin. They wanted to find a way to prevent original sin from corrupting the government. The tension between these two views is what drives the discussion of western political theory.

Sunshine notes that “another check on civil government involved the idea of rights.”{10} We normally associate the idea of rights, especially inalienable rights, with eighteenth century political theorists. However, John Locke’s idea that we have inalienable right to life, liberty, and property is already found in the writings of medieval theologians. The basis for this is a belief that all are created in the image of God. Therefore, all of us have a number of natural rights that the state cannot remove. Natural law was the idea that God wove moral laws into the fabric of the universe.

There also was the belief that there should be limitations on the jurisdiction of civil government and church government. One example is the Magna Carta, that stated that the English church was to be free and its liberties unimpaired by the crown.

The Renaissance and Enlightenment

What about the transformation into the modern world? In the early modern period, starting with the Renaissance in the fifteenth century to the seventeenth century, there are a whole series of events that shook the worldview consensus that developed in the Middle Ages.

Previously there were certain beliefs about truth: (1) that truth was absolute, (2) that truth is knowable to the human mind, and (3) that truth is necessary for society (a society could not be based upon a lie). The best good guide for truth would be the great civilizations of the past that lasted for so long and thus must have been based upon truth.

The idea was to go to the past to find truth. During the Renaissance scholars were very successful in collecting manuscripts and finding ancient sources. Unfortunately, they found so many sources that they discovered there was not a coherent perspective. The ancient writers disagreed with each other. In a sense, the Renaissance was a victim of its own success. There was too much information. The more ancient sources they found, the less likely they would find agreement in the perspectives. Once it became obvious that this grand synthesis was not possible, the entire purpose of intellectual activity was thrown into question.

Then there were the wars of the Reformation in which various factions fought over who was the true follower of the prince of peace. The devastation of the religious wars left many people wondering if there really was religious certainty. No longer was the question “is Christianity true” but rather “which Christianity is true?” Now you had a multiplicity of options that left people confused. This also generated questions about the role of religion in society.

Then you also had the discovery of the New World and whole people groups that had never heard the gospel. Some began to ask questions like: Is it fair of God to send them all to hell because they had never heard of Christianity? Or, in light of biblical history, where did they come from? How do these people fit with the story of Noah? These discoveries called into question biblical morality and biblical history.

Also, people started using a new way of looking at knowledge. They began to use the scientific method to evaluate everything. This begins a significant shift in how we understand the world. There is a movement away from certainty toward probability. There is also a movement away from studying ancient authors toward scientific experimentation.

In the modern world, therefore, truth is not found in the past but in the present and future. With this is also questioning of biblical authority.

The Modern World and Christianity

Let me conclude by talking about our modern world and how Christians should respond. Sunshine concludes his book with chapters on “Modernity and Its Discontents” and “The Decay of Modernity.” Essentially the modern world has left humans with a loss of truth, certainty, and meaning in life. “Materialism provides a ready answer to the question of the meaning and purpose of life: there is none.”{11} From a Darwinian perspective, our only purpose is to pass our genes on to the next generation.

This rejection of spirituality and meaning has ushered in various other worldviews as alternatives. These would be such worldviews as postmodernism, neo-paganism, and the New Age Movement. Sunshine argues that in many ways we have been catapulted back to Rome.

Like Rome we value toleration as the supreme virtue. Rome believed that toleration was important because it kept the empire together. If you go beyond the lines of toleration, you are persecuted. This is similar to the mindset today. The highest value in a postmodern world is toleration. Toleration so defined means that we will embrace any and all lifestyles people may choose.

The Romans lived in an oversexed society.{12} So do we. Rome practiced abortion. So does our society. Rome was antinatal and made a deliberate attempt to prevent pregnancy. They focused on sexual enjoyment and did not want to bother with kids. In our modern world, birthrates in most of the western democracies are plummeting.

Western civilization is a product of ancient Roman civilization plus Christianity. Sunshine argues that once you removed Christianity, modern society reverted back to Roman society and a recovery of the ancient pagan worldview.

So how should Christians live in this world? Of course, we should live out a biblical worldview. Every generation is called to live faithfully to the gospel, and our generation is no exception.

This is especially important today since we are facing a society that is not willing to accept biblical ideas. In many ways, we face a challenge similar to the early church, though not as daunting. From history we can see that the early church did live faithfully and transformed the Roman world. Christians produced a totally new civilization: western culture. By living faithfully before the watching world, we will increase our credibility and earn the respect from those who are around us by living in accordance with biblical principles.

Notes

1. Glenn Sunshine, Why You Think the Way You Do: The Story of Western Worldviews from Rome to Home (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009).
2. Ibid., 13.
3. Ibid., 31
4. Ibid., 20
5. Ibid., 30
6. Ibid., 33-34
7. Ibid., 43
8. Ibid., 44
9. Ibid., 76
10. Ibid., 91
11. Ibid., 177
12. Ibid., 33

© 2010 Probe Ministries




Prometheus, God and Film: 10 Science Fiction Movies with a Theological Theme

Dr. Terlizzese looks to see if we can find a Christian worldview perspective or, at least, questions which need theological answers in a number of popular science fiction movies. He finds some good themes and bad themes and offers advice on how to view movies of all types.

Sci-fi films have never been more popular than they are today. Witness this summer’s offerings: Prometheus (see below), Chronicle, The Hunger Games even the comic book–inspired Avengers and the romantic comedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World feature elements of science fiction. And like most arts and literature, they contain elements of theology. This genre borrows a basic aspect of the Christian worldview concerning the value and meaning of individuals in a world of technological conformity.

Sci-fi combines a somewhat biblical understanding of mankind with an almost religious belief in technological progress. This fuels the popular fear that technology will rob people of their souls or individuality. The modern technological worldview is rooted in materialism: it affirms that people are basically machines who can be objectified, categorized and manipulated as any other object in nature. One film scholar notes this connection:

Scientism opened the doors for a mechanical view of mankind. . . . We are no longer special, no longer sacred – neither the form (body) nor the mind. “Let us conclude boldly then that man is a machine, and that there is only one substance, differently modified, in the whole world. What will all the weak reeds of divinity, metaphysic, and nonsense of the schools avail against this firm and solid oak?”[Le Mettrie]. [Sci-fi] arises out of the tension between this kind of “rude” scientism and the Christian cosmology. Scientism “robs” humans of their very humanity and makes them out to be biological machines, much like the alien children in Village of the Damned. {1}

Reaching a Popular Audience

The sci-fi genre asks, What is human nature?{2} In light of technological advance, how we define humanity becomes more crucial as technology changes not just the natural world, but humanity itself. It has become imperative not only for philosophers, but for everyone to ask, how is technological advance transforming human nature? The failure to perceive change caused by new technology creates a serious problem for an age so enormously influenced by it. Sci-fi movies serve as a philosophical treatise for average people who are not professionally trained, raising questions and issues that would otherwise be lost on the common person because of their intolerable abstraction.

The movies speak the common language of our times. When teachers want to make an idea concrete or illustrate a point, they grope for an example from a popular movie. Most people love movies and to be able to relate abstract concepts through such a relevant medium will certainly create a profound effect.

We normally think of sci-fi as promoting innovative technology that holds out optimistic promise for the future of mankind. This is generally true of print media produced by popular writers like Jules Verne, H. G. Wells or Isaac Asimov. However sci-fi film has taken another tack by appealing to commonly held suspicions of technological progress. An optimistic view of progress views new technology as a liberating force destined to lift the burdens of work, cure disease, improve communication and free humanity from natural limits. A pessimistic view takes the opposite direction; instead of liberation it fears that new technology will create a new form of enslavement and dehumanization that will rob people of their individuality or their very souls.

Given the popularity of movies and the latent theological premise of many sci-fi films, the following list presents an incomplete, but important sample of theology in sci-fi movies. It is intended to help Christians read the movies from more than a literalist perspective by paying attention to the metaphors and symbols that constitute their meaning. These movies may contain objectionable material, but more importantly, resonate with redemptive themes worth analyzing.

Movies are cultural day dreams, serving as modern folklore and morality tales. They signify a shared message of hope or fear not always transparent without analysis. So let’s get started!

Prometheus, 2012

Humanoid aliens seed earth with their DNA that creates humanity. They leave clues behind on how to find them in a distant galaxy. When earthlings discover their origins they uncover a plan for human extinction, revealing that the gods are hostile towards their own children. The movie raises classic theological and philosophical questions such as, Where did we come from? Why are we here? And, where are we going? Though never distinguishing between wishful thinking or religious truth claims, it presents faith as a choice for meaning, even in the face of the most hostile conditions. The cross remains a prominent and enduring symbol of hope and human redemption. Humans are worth saving and are not genetic mistakes that deserve extinction.

The Terminator, 1984

Robots represent both hope and fear of technological aspirations. They symbolize the incredible potential of technological capability and human replacement. Robots are mechanical people that embody the fears of extreme rationalization. Cartesian philosophy identified reason as the definition of human nature, which takes its final form in the computer. Robots are nothing more than embodied computers. Sometimes the movies picture them as our slaves and protectors. Robots enable people to live work–free lives as with Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet (1956) who undoubtedly depicts the most iconic and loveable of all movie robots. However, most robots represent something evil and ominous as in The Terminator.

The premise states that computer intelligence Sky Net became self-aware and immediately perceived humanity as a threat and initiated a nuclear strike. Some people survived to fight back and achieved ultimate victory led by the messianic figure John Conner sent to rescue humanity from techno–enslavement and termination. Human victory over the machines necessitated that Sky Net send a robot agent back in time to eliminate the mother of the rebel leader. Commentators read the plot as loosely based on the story of the Birth of Christ.  The Terminator encapsulates the abiding fear that mankind will one day destroy itself through the use of its own technology. That which was meant to enhance human life will one day annihilate it. The need for salvation remains paramount as the last installment Terminator Salvation (2009) indicates.

The Matrix, 1999

In the not too distant future Artificial Intelligence (AI) becomes self–aware and identifies humanity as a threat and initiates a war, a common theme in science fiction. Humanity burns the atmosphere to create perpetual darkness in order to block the sun and deny the machines a power source. The machines respond by turning people into batteries and growing them in a huge incubator, kept alive in a vegetative state through feeding them the blood of the previous generation and by sending false impressions to the brain that simulate a normal existence. Billions of people are given fabricated lives in a huge computer–simulated world called the Matrix. Zion, the only surviving human city, awaits deep underground for their savior Neo, rescued from the Matrix and believed to possess the power to fight the machines within the Matrix and free mankind.

In addition to the obvious messianic overtones the series presents a complicated patchwork of different religious ideas from Christianity and Buddhism to Greek mythology as a counterpoint to the Cartesian philosophy that reason alone ultimately defines human nature. The computer best embodies the logical conclusion of rational thought and the loss of human freedom that results from the universal acceptance of rationalism.  The Matrix demonstrates an acute historical irony in rejecting rationalism and looking to premodern religious ideas to define human nature and provide meaning to life, even though these ideas are considered anachronistic in a secular and technological age.

The Book of Eli, 2010

The Book of Eli presents an explicitly Christian message of obedience to the voice of God in describing the spiritual journey and act of faith by the blind nomad Eli. Set in a post–apocalyptic world of the near future, a drifter finds his purpose in life through committing to memory the King James Bible, then spending thirty years traveling across the wasteland to an unknown destination. Along the way Eli encounters a ruthless mayor seeking the power of the book for his own political ends.  In addition to the spiritual journey the movie depicts the dark side of faith when used to control and manipulate others.

The Invasion, 2007

The Invasion is an excellent remake of the original science fiction masterpiece Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1979) in which spores from outer space take over human bodies by emptying them of free will and any unique qualities as individuals, making everyone soulless and identical. The message is clear: that a world without free will may be more peaceful and happy, but would be horribly inhuman. What price are we willing to pay for peace, security and harmony? If these qualities are not derived from love then we do not have a world worth living in.  In the absence of freedom, a nightmarish world of automatons pretending to be humans assumes control. They are bodies without souls. In the chilling words of the original movie, “Love, desire, ambition, faith—without them life’s so simple.”{3} This may be life in unison, but it is more like the life of a grove of trees all getting along rather nicely. This movie franchise argues for the idea that love and choice are essential aspects of our humanity without which life loses it purpose.

Planet of the Apes, 1968

This 1960’s protest film decries the potential genocide of nuclear war. Astronauts find themselves stranded on a strange planet where apes rule humans. The movie has several themes including the debate between evolution and creation, science and religion, church and state relations as well as racism and offers an accurate commentary on humanity as a creature that wages war on all those around it including himself. It is rare to find any movie that weaves so many themes into its message, while not revealing its main point until its climactic surprise ending.

The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951

We do not need to see films based on the Gospels in order to find Christ at the movies. The presence of a Christ–like figure is usually signified when a heroic character with extraordinary powers dies and comes back to life, such as in the case of Klatuu, the representative of a galactic alliance who visits earth during the Cold War and warns that we must turn our efforts to peace or face annihilation because earth poses a threat to the rest of the galaxy. Humanity’s technical abilities now exceed its self–control, which will end in disaster if it does not turn to peaceful ends.

Star Wars, 1977

Science fiction generally focuses on the power of reason and technology. Star Wars follows a different tack, making faith and religion central. The movie sets the action in the familiar device of good vs. evil, but adds the dimension of faith being more powerful than technical ability in the promotion of both good and evil. The Star Wars franchise contrasts with that other perennially popular space melodrama Star Trek, which often belittles notions of God, faith and religion. Based on the secular humanism of its creator Gene Roddenberry, technology or human potential trumps faith and religion. In contrast, Star Wars derives from the ecumenical ideas of George Lucas, where faith represented by “the force”—for better or worse—is more powerful than raw technological ability.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977

Everyman Roy Neary experiences a close encounter with a UFO that sends him on a journey to discover its meaning. In the process he acts erratically, causing his wife Ronnie to leave him with their three children. The further he delves into the mystery, the more he discovers the truth behind his encounter: that extraterrestrials have visited earth and are seeking him out along with a select group of others. The movie vaguely resembles John Bunyan’s famous allegory of the Christian life, Pilgrim’s Progress. Aliens often represent transcendence in the movies, either as angelic messengers or demonic powers. Close Encounters may be interpreted as a spiritual journey that seeks out a higher purpose in life beyond mundane existence.

2001:  A Space Odyssey, 1968

2001 lives up to its reputation as the greatest science fiction movie ever made. The movie begins with a tribe of hominids on the brink of starvation. An extraterrestrial force endows them with the gift of technology in the form of animal bones used to hunt for food and murder their opponents. The action then moves to outer space when the murder weapon is flung into the air and transforms into a space ship, suggesting continuity between the earliest technology and the most advanced.

Mankind finds itself on the brink of encountering extraterrestrial (ET) life near Jupiter. A small crew travels to the location of a beacon with the assistance of an onboard supercomputer, the HAL 9000, who (he is strangely human) becomes threatened by the crew who want to turn off his higher cognitive ability. HAL murders the crew except for one member who escapes and finishes the mission. After his encounter with the ET, Commander Bowman converts into an angelic figure, or star child who returns to earth. Director Stanley Kubrick comments on the meaning of this scene when he says of Bowman, “He is reborn, an enhanced being, a star child, an angel, a superman, if you like, and returns to earth prepared for the next leap forward in man’s evolutionary destiny.”{4}

The star child is the first of a new race representing a spiritual rather than technological change. “Kubrick’s vision reveals technology as a competitive force that must be defeated in order for humans to evolve.”{5} The message of 2001 is that, though technology assists humanity in survival, it also threatens human existence.

A Final Word

Humanity now needs a spiritual transformation, not more technology, in order to survive. Although we find this theological message in an unusual source, it still represents an important warning we have yet to heed.

Notes

1. Per Schelde, Androids, Humanoids and Other Science Fiction Monsters (New York: New York University Press, 1993),125.

2. Deborah Knight and George McKnight, “What is it to be human? Blade Runner and Dark City” in The Philosophy of Science Fiction Film, ed., Steven M. Sanders (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2008), 26.

3. M. Keith Booker, Alternative Americas: Science Fiction Film and American Culture (Westport CT: Praeger, 2006), 63.

4. Stanley Kubrick quoted in Thomas A. Nelson, Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2000), 133.

5.  Daniel Dinello, Technophobia! Science Fiction Visions of Posthuman Technology (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005), 99.

© 2012 Probe Ministries




Engage, Maverick!

I really enjoy Scott’s blog which helps us engage creatively and redemptively with pop culture which is so widely influential. So when Scott asked if I would write a guest post on discerning when we should and should not engage, I was thrilled and honored. I deal with the subject of engaging culture on my blog as well (though not nearly as cohesively as Scott does here), so some of my readers may recognize a few things I’m about to say, but this is a great opportunity to bring those somewhat miscellaneous thoughts into a more cohesive treatment. So, thanks again, Scott!

Throughout history the large majority of Christians, Catholic and Protestant, all across the world, have consistently believed that a major part of our calling is to engage our various cultural contexts to meet people where they are, or perhaps more accurately, meet people halfway, and be salt and light. We get this example from Christ himself who entered into a particular cultural context and met people halfway (between where they were and where Christ was wanting to take them, namely, the Kingdom of God) with metaphors and social activities they already had a cultural framework for.

One of my favorite passages of Scripture is Matthew 10 where Jesus is sending out his apostles. In his instructions to them he tells them to show ‘em how to live life to the fullest as we were always intended to live it! (“preach the Kingdom of God”), do creative and redemptive works in their lives (“heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons”), and in all this remember, “be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.”

These are Jesus’ instructions to us, his modern-day hands and feet. We are to engage. And we are to do so shrewdly, wisely and with discernment. Not everyone has the same level of freedom to interact with various aspects of our unbelieving society. Everyone is different. There are certain things which are particularly spiritually unsafe for me; I know it in my guts and bones; I just can’t go there. But I also know that doesn’t mean it is as dangerous for others as it is for me, and I don’t begrudge others their freedom.

Personal conviction derives from the way God has uniquely created us as individuals and how our singular personality and wiring is affected by the Fall – our particular tendencies, weaknesses, addictions, our circumstances, our personal history. These are the primary factors we should consider when we prayerfully decide whether a particular book, movie, song is spiritually safe for us to read, watch, listen to, and engage through our Creation-Fall-Redemption view of the world.

Anyone who believes he or she is safe from the all the various temptations available in pop culture is a fool. My friend and colleague Todd Kappelman wisely notes and advises, “Exercising rampant Christian freedom does not necessarily mean one is a strong Christian [referring to 1 Cor 8]. It could indicate that one is too weak to control one’s passions and is hiding behind the argument that they are a stronger brother.” When we engage our culture, we must use a “framework of moderation,” to use Todd’s phrase, that addresses our particular weaknesses, for we are all of us the weaker brother somewhere. We need to be honest with ourselves about our weaknesses, and the best way to do that is to ask God and ask other believers who love us and are discerning and nuanced in regard to engaging culture, to invite the inner circle of our faith community into the part of our lives where we ask serious questions about the books we read, the movies we watch and the music we listen to.

There is a difference between conviction and legalism. One of those differences is the legalistic compulsion to impose one’s personal convictions on others. It is possible to abstain in a genuinely free way. I greatly admire my friends who abstain; who don’t even have a TV, for example. Together we add to the richness of each others’ lives by bringing perspective to one another about who God is and how we relate to him. Together we present to the world a more complete picture. It is the diversity of the Body that most beautifully represents Christ to the world. And it is vital to our Christian calling to live as much as we can in the tension between the pulls of legalism and libertinism. The ebb and flow of this kind of living is part of what in means to live the full, rich, abundant life of Christ.

When you cannot personally engage by reading/watching/listening to this or that for whatever reason, abiding an attitude of general engagement as a member of the Body of Christ fosters that humility-infused unity so foundational to our new life.

 

This blog post originally appeared at popcultureandfaithministries.blogspot.com/2011/03/engage-maverick-guest-blog-by-renea.html




When the Church Is More Cultural than Christian

July 7, 2011

So, I’m reading this excellent biography of Bonhoeffer right now, and I’ve been mulling this question. Well, I guess it’s twofold, really.

Background: You probably know this already, but just in case. In Nazi Germany the German church pretty much abandoned any form of orthodox Christianity in order to fit in with the culture. Bonhoeffer, Niemoller and others formed the Confessing Church as a stand for true Christianity in the face of the cultural abdication of the wider church. Most were either imprisoned or killed for their efforts.

1 – Do you think that the American church is undergoing a similar shift to fit in with cultural norms on a broad scale that could threaten orthodox Christianity (clearly, hopefully, not to the extent of the Reich church, but still, I see some possible parallels)? What do you think are the areas in which the American church is most at risk? Why?

2 – Do you think we have leadership that is taking a stand for orthodoxy in a counter-cultural and true way on the national scene? If so, who?

Yes. The American church acquiesces to the culture in various ways which are detrimental to the Gospel. It’s tricky because it is vital to the Gospel that the Gospel (whose hands and feet are the church) be relevant. Churches which are highly separatist and never adapt to or accommodate culture do violence to the Gospel as well, so it’s tricky. And we’ll none of us ever get it 100% right. Ever. I keep trying to tell God humility is overrated; he never listens.

I think there are two veins in which American churches are perhaps more American than Christian. One is liberal; one is conservative. (Brilliant, I know.) The tendency is to point the finger at the other and overreact for fear of falling into the other’s traps. We’re so focused on not falling into this trap, that we don’t even notice that what we think is a bunker is merely another trap of another sort.

Now to your actual question: What are these traps?
Liberal:
Of course there are the far left examples like: Employing poor hermeneutics which 1) Undercut Scripture as a text which is not historical or literal at all, and 2) justify sin, usually sexual sin such as premarital sex and homosexual sex and the sexually-related sin of abortion. And then there is the slightly more subtle trap of feeling the need to bend over backwards to kiss the keister of Science. Finally, there is the acquiescence of the (pseudo)tolerance mantra of hypermodernism: partly out of fear of being legalistic, partly because it is more comfortable, we succumb to Relativism.

Conservative:
Employing poor hermeneutics which truncate Scripture as a text which is entirely literal (it seems to me that this is a very Western thing to do, but I could be wrong; it could simply be a human thing to do… we feel more comfortable in black and white). Such a lack of hermeneutic leads to overly hard-nosed positions about creation and “the woman issue” among other things. It also leads to, instead of justifying sin, creating an extra hedge of rules so that we can be darn sure we avoid the undignified, socially unacceptable sins, perhaps especially, sexual sin.

And then of course there’s the idea of a Christian America; or that politics can fix every(one else)thing.

Traps for all:
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is probably a problem for both sides. So is materialism of course, privatism and spiritual professionalization—You’d better keep your hands off of my individual rights and my private life… and: spiritual things go in one compartment, which is private and has no business interfering in the public sphere: ie. faith and science and/or faith and business. Professionalization is also quite Western. I love this quote from GK Chesterton’s Heretics:

But if we look at the progress of our scientific civilization we see a gradual increase everywhere of the specialist over the popular function. Once men sang together round a table in chorus; now one man sings alone, for the absurd reason that he can sing better. If scientific civilization goes on (which is most improbable) only one man will laugh, because he can laugh better than the rest.

Professionalization probably also includes running our churches too much like businesses.

Finally, Q number 2: Yes. What’s tricky about this is that one must sometimes be under the radar to be counter-cultural, partly because when you’re counter-cultural, no one wants to listen to you! Eugene Peterson, Tim Keller, NT Wright, Nancy Pearcey, Os Guinness (an outside perspective is always helpful) and the Trinity Forum, Jamie Smith, especially in the area of how we do church and spiritual formation… I’m sure there are others, including my colleagues who are currently working on assessing and addressing this issue of cultural captivity: first creating an Ah-ha moment about our cultural captivity, and secondly, creating a way out of captivity and into freedom.

Good question!

This blog post originally appeared at reneamac.com/2011/07/07/when-the-church-is-more-cultural-than-christian/




Bringing the Truth of Christ to Your Generation

Are you a believer wondering if you’re part of a dwindling population? Do people who follow hard after Christ—and show it by their actions and attitudes—seem to be a vanishing breed? Do you get the feeling that we’re living in a post–Christian culture? We’re not announcing the end of the Church in America and the West, but there is much cause for concern. We have the evidence straight from the mouths of believers—many of them caught up in captivity to the culture.

Here at Probe, we have been analyzing both existing and new original survey data to obtain a better grip on the realities of born-again faith in America today. Although the evangelical church has remained fairly constant in size as a percentage of our population over the last twenty years, these surveys show its impact on our society has continued to decline as the percentage of non–Christians has grown considerably over the same period. We see two reasons for this change:

1. The increased acceptance of pluralism removes the felt need to share our faith with others. In our new Barna survey, almost one half of all born-again 18- to 40-year-olds believe that Jesus is one way to eternal life, but Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, etc. when followed well, will also result in eternal life.

2. Captivity to the culture rather than to Christ’s truth shapes believers’ perspectives on nearly every aspect of life. The recent National Study of Youth & Religion, a survey of 18- to 23-year-olds, shows that only a quarter of those affiliated with an evangelical church have a consistent set of biblical theological beliefs and that less than 2% of them combine those theological beliefs with a consistent set of biblical beliefs on behaviors and attitudes.

A combination of pluralism and cultural captivity eliminates both the reason for and the evidence of changed lives needed to effectively share the great news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, these problems are not unique to our time and country. In fact, these problems were key issues addressed in the letters of Peter, John and Paul back in the first century. In this article, we will use the writings of Peter to introduce Paul’s response to this problem as laid out in the book of Colossians with special emphasis on Col. 4:2-6.

As advocates of apologetics and a biblical worldview, we often focus on 1 Peter 3:15, which exhorts us to always be ready to give a defense for the hope of the gospel to anyone who asks. However, Peter points out that our testimony for Christ, goes far beyond our ability to make a reasoned defense. In the first chapter of his letter, Peter provides an excellent description of the hope of the gospel. He makes it clear that only through the resurrection of Christ can we can receive eternal life. He then goes on to describe the ways that we are called to “proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light.” Specifically, we are told to proclaim Christ through:

• our excellent behavior (1 Peter 2:11-17),

• our right relationships with others (1 Peter 2:18–3:14),

• a verbal explanation of why we believe the good news (1 Peter 3:15-16), and

• sound judgment for the purpose of prayer (1 Peter 4:7)

As our behavior and relationships cause observers to ask us to fully explain the hope that is driving these actions, we have the opportunity to speak the truth to them with words empowered by prayer (1 Peter 3:15-16). So Peter makes it clear that pluralism and cultural captivity are counter to the message of the gospel as portrayed in the lives of genuine believers.

Given this message from Peter, let’s take a more in–depth look at how Paul addresses this topic in his letter to the Colossians. In the first two chapters, Paul gives an in–depth description of what the gospel is and what it is not. In the New American Standard version, the reader is told to “set your mind on the things above” where we are living with Christ. Because we are residents of heaven, we need to consider our life on earth from that eternal perspective. From this point on in the letter, Paul lays out the same four instructions as Peter laid out on how we are to share Christ in this world.

In Colossians 3:5–17, we are given the standard for excellent behavior that our new self is being renewed to live in accordance with. As Paul makes clear in the first two chapters, this excellent behavior is not a qualification for heaven; after all, according to Colossians 2:9,  the audience of believers is already “complete in Christ.” Rather, the purpose of our excellent behavior is so the world can get a savory taste of heavenly living.

Then, in Colossians 3:18–4:1, Paul instructs us on the importance of good relationships in our families and at work. It is through our good relationships that the world can see the true meaning of “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” As Paul points out, in all of these relationships “it is the Lord Christ whom you serve.”

Paul then points to the remaining aspects of fully proclaiming Christ: through our prayers and our words. He addresses our prayer life as follows:

Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving;  praying at the same time for us as well, that God will open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned; that I may make it clear in the way I ought to speak (Col. 4:2-4).

First, we are to devote ourselves to prayer, making it a strong player in ordering our lives. I think that “keeping alert in it” gives us the idea that we are to be ready to take something to prayer at any time during our busy daily schedule. Prayer is not to be strictly relegated to a set prayer time, but rather a real–time, always–on communication with God in response to the interactions and challenges of our day. Paul also indicates we should not be praying as a rote habit, but rather with an attitude of thanksgiving, knowing that God hears and responds to our prayers.

Secondly, Paul gives us a consistent topic for our prayers: that God would open up a door for the word in the lives of those who need to hear. We may live a life characterized by excellent behavior and good relationships. But, if we are not praying that God will use our lives to open up a door for the gospel, then we are short–circuiting the purpose of God in our lives. Let me say it directly to you: If you are not seeing doors opening for the word through your life, perhaps you should ask, “What am I praying for? Am I praying that God will open up opportunities for me to share Christ with others?”

Note that in the first chapter of Colossians, Paul explains the mystery of Christ we are to “speak forth” saying,

. . .That I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:25-27).

We are praying for an open door to speak forth so that everyone can receive the promise of eternal glory through receiving Christ in their lives. In other words, we need to actively ask God to give us entrée into others’ lives to communicate the gospel so they can receive the riches of eternal life along with us. Do we really want this? It’s a prayer God is sure to answer. If so, we’re living according to a biblical worldview in one more essential way. If not, we risk the loss of succeeding generations.

Finally, Paul addresses the importance of our words in fulfilling our purpose as followers of Christ:

Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person (Col. 4:5-6).

We need to be wise in our relationships with those who don’t know Christ. The verse literally says we are to redeem the time spent with unbelievers. As followers of Christ, we have the privilege of taking the most temporal and earth–bound thing in the world, time, and converting it into something of eternal value through our behavior, our relationships, our prayers and the words we speak.

We are to make the most of each opportunity to season our speech with the grace of Christ. If our speech is regularly salted with references to God’s grace in our lives, we can tell from someone’s reaction how we should respond to them. If we are not looking for it, how can we know when God answers our prayers to provide an open door for the gospel? And why would we be praying for it unless we value what God is saying to us here?

In summary, we must make clear to upcoming generations of evangelicals that we have a consistent message from Christ and His apostles on these two points:

1. Jesus Christ is the unique Son of God and the only possible way to eternal life. Religious pluralism just doesn’t work.

2. We are called to live distinctly different lives—as captives of Christ not our culture—in our behavior, relationships, prayers and speech. Why? In order to be representatives of the good news of Jesus Christ in a world that desperately needs Him.

If we choose to live our lives as if these statements are untrue, we have allowed ourselves to be deceived by the persuasive arguments of the world. Let’s make the choice not to be taken captive and, instead, be bold and caring in proclaiming the truth for our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

© 2011 Probe Ministries




Those are sexy worldview glasses you’ve got there.

Feb. 3, 2011

E’s email is a response to the post “Glee-tastic!

Ms. McKenzie

Don’t think Glee’s overt sexuality has no effect on you. It is shaping you episode by episode. You are not immune.

Hi E,

Thanks for writing. I appreciate where you’re coming from. Of course you’re right. Whatever I watch shapes me. The question is, am I simply resigned to being shaped passively? Or do I have the option to take a more active role? I want you to know that I do not underestimate the power of our culture to shape us. That’s why I work at a worldview ministry. Worldview goes a long way. The healthy view of sex I have intentionally pursued through study and prayer and practice and fellowship makes the nonsense often shown on screen unattractive, uninteresting, and particularly sophomoric. (Speaking of a holistic biblical worldview on sex, let me recommend Lauren Winner’s excellent book, Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity). Now, that being said, that does not mean that I am immune. I have to be careful (again: prayer, study, fellowship/community, repentance).

I also understand that not everyone has the same level of freedom to interact with various aspects of our unbelieving society. Everyone is different. There are certain things which are particularly spiritually unsafe for me—I know it in my guts and bones; I just can’t go there. But I also know that doesn’t mean it’s as dangerous for others as it is for me, and I don’t begrudge others their freedom. Especially since it’s so important to engage. Personal conviction derives from the way God has uniquely created us as individuals and how our singular personality and wiring is affected by the Fall – our particular tendencies, weaknesses, addictions, our circumstances, our personal history. The Apostle Paul calls us “ministers of reconciliation,” those who bring back together what has been separated, which Romans tells us is people and all of creation, the combination of the two inevitably including what people create. The Church has, since its inception, chosen to reconcile, or redeem culture, generally, in five different ways (for more on this, see our article, “Christians and Culture”). And that’s good. Diversity is good. Through it we better image God in all his vastness. Creation. Fall. Redemption. That is the framework we have for understanding the world; and because the Bible is true, it’s also the most accurate understanding of the world. However, take out any part—creation, fall, redemption—and our vision is blurred.

Anyone who believes he or she is safe from the all the various temptations available in film is a fool. My colleague Todd wisely notes and advises, “Exercising rampant Christian freedom does not necessarily mean one is a strong Christian [referring to 1 Cor 8]. It could indicate that one is too weak to control one’s passions and is hiding behind the argument that they are a stronger brother.” If we choose to watch TV or movies at all, we must approach them through a “framework of moderation,” to use Todd’s phrase, that addresses our particular weaknesses, for we are all of us the weaker brother somewhere. “Teach me good discernment and knowledge, for I believe in Your commandments” (Ps 119:66).

There is a difference between conviction and legalism. One of those differences is the legalistic compulsion to impose one’s personal convictions on others. It is possible to abstain from certain types of movies and shows, or even all movies and television, in a genuinely free way. I greatly admire my friends who abstain; who don’t even have a TV. Together we add to the richness of each others’ lives by bringing perspective to one another about who God is and how we relate to him. Together we present to the world a more complete picture. It is the diversity of the Body that most beautifully represents Christ to the world. It is vital to our Christian calling to live as much as we can in the tension between the pulls of legalism and libertinism. The ebb and flow of this kind of living is part of what in means to live the full, rich, abundant life of Christ.

With affection in our Lord Jesus,
Renea

This blog post originally appeared at reneamac.com/2011/02/03/those-are-sexy-worldview-glasses-youve-got-there/




Welcome to College: Great Worldview Gift for Graduates

The world is changing so quickly it’s hard to keep up. Christians who take the Scriptures seriously as a guide for life and knowing God usually agree that we’re sliding down a very slippery slope morally and spiritually. Non–biblical worldviews not only abound but gain star status. Christ–followers can easily feel overwhelmed, wondering how to make a difference. Nowhere is this cultural decay more manifest than on college campuses.

For years, my wife and I have seized the small window of opportunity of choosing a gift for a college–bound graduate. We realize this represents one good chance to help shape a still–moldable life and, by extension, potentially touch the culture for Christ. ‘Tis the season of graduation right now and I invite you to consider following suit.

Our habit is to give college–bound graduates J. Budiszewski’s excellent How to Stay Christian in College: An Interactive Guide to Keeping the Faith. I recently discovered a book by a new graduate that I’m adding to our graduation gift bag. It’s a helpful–older–brother styled “guide for the journey” by a young man who has obviously been trained by some of the sharpest minds in contemporary Christian worldview thinking and apologetics.

If Probe ever hired someone to write an organizational brochure, it might be Jonathan Morrow. His book, Welcome to College: A Christ-Follower’s Guide for the Journey, contains one of the most succinct rationales for what we do—Christian apologetics, that is, a defense of the faith—of anything I’ve read. Morrow’s gift for profound insight coupled with brevity is keen. He shows a sweeping knowledge, yet he includes just enough material for busy students. “I have tried to keep the chapters short and sweet since this won’t be the only thing you’ll be reading this semester,” Morrow writes.

Morrow’s experience as a recent college graduate and his unself-conscious approach should resonate with younger readers. I would have wanted to write this book when my street credibility with young readers was potentially higher, but I was nowhere near his level of maturity, awareness or comprehension in my 20s!

Of course, some would say Morrow’s work is simply a Cliff’s Notes version of all he’s been taught at Biola University, Talbot School of Theology, and through apparent involvement with Campus Crusade for Christ. There is little or no truly original thinking here, perhaps. So be it.

Sure, this material is generally sprinkled throughout any well–read Christians’ bookshelves, expounded profusely by the authors Morrow draws upon. But that’s the genius of his book for today’s graduate: a young yet well–schooled voice covering the gamut of worldview and personal life issues in brief, accessible terms.

The young man or woman being pummeled by secular professors—many of whose worldviews and intentions are in direct opposition to their Christian faith—need help now. This book makes that possible.

Welcome to College isn’t filled with abstractions about controversial Bible passages or archaeological discoveries, interesting as that might be. Again, one strength of Welcome to College is its scope. Mixed in with the basic faith–defending ammunition like the problem of evil and suffering, Christology, ethics and so on, students will find a broad collection of pragmatic topics: health, sex and dating, finances, Internet use, alcohol, even a chapter on dealing with the death of a loved one. This provides unique and much–needed help for navigating the head–spinning new freedoms of college life.

Not content to simply write a how–to–get–by manual, Morrow challenges students to consider the privilege of a college education and “spend it ‘Christianly’.” He discusses questions like:

• How can you discover what you are supposed to do with your life?
• How do you share your faith in a hostile environment?
• How do you manage your time so that you can study and have fun?
• Is all truth relative?
• Are there good reasons to be a Christian?
• How should you think about dating and sex as a Christian?{1}

Since the book offers in its beginning chapters a treatment of three major worldviews, I could have been reading one of our Probe Student Mind Games graduates. One of the first sessions in Probe’s basic student curriculum contains a session on theism, naturalism (with a sub–section on postmodernism), and pantheism. Morrow uses a nearly identical breakdown of worldviews: scientific naturalism, postmodernism and Christian theism.

As Morrow directly points out, these three systems of thought predominate at the root level for people of all cultures. You base your beliefs on one or more of these, knowingly or not. Great similarity between a new book and a worldview apologetics curriculum like Probe’s may be unsurprising. How many variations on basic themes could there be? Yet it is striking as a compact manifesto for what Morrow, his alma mater, Probe, and a growing host of authors and organizations are seeking to do, which is to help people think biblically.

The fundamental importance of another theme appears, as it should, in the book’s opening pages as well. College kids need to enter post–secondary classrooms with eyes wide open, being aware that the world at large (and academia in particular) scoffs at the idea of religion as possessing absolute, universal truth. Nancy Pearcey’s treatment of what she calls the fact / value split in contemporary culture has become a go–to concept of culturally aware apologetics.{2} It also informs Morrow’s book. This “two-realm theory of truth” places religious claims into an upper story of noncognitive, nonrational values. They supposedly offer the individual some personal meaning but hold no truth–telling power over anything or for anyone else. “True for you but not for me” is the slogan. This “upstairs” portion of life is just opinions—private, personal preferences not fit for the public sphere.

In contrast, the supposed lower story is made up of rational, verifiable, scientific claims that are binding on everyone. This is not opinion; it’s truth by gosh. On this view, the only possible source of real knowledge is verifiable science. One professor in New York told his class that anyone who believed in the supernatural was “an idiot.” That’s why such war stories involving unwitting Christian students getting broadsided by scoffing professors abound. Academic authorities simply pronounce knowledge unattainable outside of the scientific method.

But understanding the anatomy of this view and its faulty presuppositions equips believing students to challenge prevailing campus biases. Though Morrow offers only a passing understanding, any student interested in pursuing further help will find direction here.

One example of Morrow’s agility with big, tough ideas is this statement rounding out his brief discussion of one major worldview: “Postmodernism is a fundamental redefinition of truth, language and reality.” Elsewhere he writes:

If the Christian worldview best answers the most profound of human questions (e.g., where we came from, who we are, how we should live, why the world is such a mess, and what our ultimate destiny is, to name a few) then it is true for more than just two hours on a Sunday morning.{3}

That’s just good writing!

Given its forty–two chapters, I only sampled the book. But that’s in keeping with the reality of any busy, overwhelmed new (or not so new) college reader. Its usefulness lies partially in its accessibility as a reference. If questions arise in class or due to new life experiences, undergrads (others, too) can crack the book and get a quick, cogent, biblical viewpoint on it.

Chapter titles like “Ladies: Pursue the Real Beauty” may pull readers in before felt needs drive them there. Many others like “Discovering the Will of God,” “Ethics in a Brave New World” or “Science Rules!” lend themselves to future thumbing on an as–needed basis. The Big Ideas chapter summations will serve as a useful preview, refresher, and set of talking points for young faith–defenders.

One surprising thought I had while reading the chapter entitled “Getting Theological: Knowing and Loving God” was its value as an evangelistic tool. If I met an average inquirer or skeptic who is unaware of the unified biblical metanarrative (big story) of Christianity—asking, What is it you Christians really believe?—I’d hand them Welcome to College bookmarked here. Morrow gives the doctrinal summary of the story, anyway. Here once again, clarity and brevity meets with completeness and orthodoxy.

Kudos to Morrow and his editors, not to mention all the fine teachers whose wisdom permeates the pages: Dallas Willard and William Lane Craig, Craig Hazen and Nancy Pearcey and many others. Simply refer to the endnotes and Further Reading sections at each chapters’ end for a collection of apologetics resources for the ages.

And don’t forget to consider adding this book to your gift list for graduates and students at all levels. You may help a young person to understand Morrow’s charge that:

God has already defined reality; it is our job to respond thoughtfully and engage it appropriately. Don’t buy into the lie that you need to keep your Christian faith to yourself. It is personal, but not private. As a college student you have the opportunity to establish the biblical habit of living an integrated life for God’s glory. In other words, think Christianly!{4}

Notes

1. Jonathan Morrow, Welcome to College: A Christ-Followers Guide for the Journey (Kregel, Grand Rapids, MI, 2008), Amazon Kindle version locations 97-103.
2. Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth (1995 Wheaton, IL: Crossway) p. 20ff.
3. Morrow, Amazon Kindle version locations 197-201.
4. Ibid, 222-226.

© 2009 Probe Ministries




On Engaging Culture

In the late 1940s, conservative Christians were called to come out of the forts to which they had retreated under the onslaught of modernistic thinking and to re–engage their culture. The call was heard, and evangelical Christians have been increasingly involved in academia, the arts, the media, medical ethics, politics, and other strategic areas of our culture. Of course, there’s also been significant involvement in pop culture with examples ranging from Christian trinkets sold in Christian bookstores to some pretty good music.

A phrase that is often used for this cultural involvement is “engaging culture.” In fact, that phrase forms a third of Probe’s abbreviated mission statement: “renewing the mind, equipping the church, engaging the world.” What does it mean to “engage” culture? The phrase might give the impression that Christians stand outside their culture and need to re–enter it. This is a simplistic understanding. With the exception of a few such as the Amish, we are all embedded in American culture. We buy food from the same grocery stores as non-Christians and eat the same kinds of food. We watch the same ballgames, wear the same kinds of clothes, drive the same kinds of cars, speak the same language, visit the same museums, take advantage of the same medical care—we could go on and on. In fact, even the Amish don’t stand totally outside American culture. Participation is a matter of degree.

To note this participation is not to denigrate it; this is the way life is on this planet. People have divided into different groups and developed different cultures, and within those cultures there are both Christians and peoples of other faiths or no faiths at all.

Christians have always had to deal with the issue of living in a world that isn’t in tune with Christian beliefs and morality. When we become actively involved in our culture, our differences become more acute. Given these differences, how are we to “engage” our culture? What should that look like? It’s doubtful whether those who first sounded the evacuation order would approve of how deeply some Christians have embedded themselves in contemporary society. Polls by the Barna Group show how much evangelicals look like their non-Christian neighbors. What is a proper involvement in culture?

A new book on the subject has gained a lot of attention: Culture Making by Andy Crouch. Crouch presents two sets of concepts which together form a framework for how we might interact with our culture. He names five strategies and two ways of employing these strategies.

First, the five strategies for interacting with culture are condemning, critiquing, copying, consuming, and cultivating. Condemning is finding fault with a thing or practice or person. Critiquing refers to analyzing culture. Copying is bringing cultural goods into our own subculture and forming a parallel culture. Consuming is simply enjoying the fruits of our culture. Cultivating refers to creating and nurturing. I’ll come back to cultivating later.

Second, the two ways of employing the strategies Crouch calls postures and gestures. These are metaphors taken from our physical stances and motions. Posture is the way one stands when not paying attention to how one is standing. Some people have a very erect posture and some slouch. Gestures are ad hoc motions we make throughout the day. I need the book on my desk, so I pick it up. I greet someone by shaking hands. I get someone’s attention by waving my arms over my head. I don’t constantly use the gestures of arm waving or hand shaking or picking up; I only use them when needed.

Now let’s put the strategies together with the stances. The first four of the strategies are the ones most commonly practiced. All of them have their places as gestures. Occasionally we need to condemn. Some things are bad, and we need to say so. Critiquing is something we need to do as well from time to time. Some law is being debated, for example, and those involved have to analyze the proposal from a variety of angles. Copying our culture is something we do sometimes that is okay. Because we live alongside non-Christians in our broader culture, we will be influenced to some extent by musical styles or styles of clothing. In the area of sports, some churches have softball teams and compete against teams from other churches. Consuming is something we all do routinely. I go to movies that don’t have distinctly Christian messages. I eat at a local Italian restaurant without checking the religious credentials of the owners or employees. I drive on our interstate system without worrying about the fact it wasn’t created with distinctly Christian purposes in mind.

A serious problem for Christians is that we often allow these gestures to become postures. That is, what should only be an occasional behavior becomes a lifestyle or character trait. For example, some people adopt a posture of condemnation. They condemn constantly. You’ve seen the facial expression: eyebrows up, piercing eyes staring, head shaking. Such people seem incapable of finding anything good in culture.

Other people adopt a posture of critiquing. Everything is put under the microscope for analysis. Nothing is simply enjoyed. Occupying one’s time with critiquing leaves no place for actually bringing about change.

The posture of copying is often seen in our Christian subculture. Whatever is new in clothing or hair styles or music, we’re all over it. On our t-shirts we print Christian slogans (sometimes cheapening the gospel by a cheesy use of company logos, such as T-shirts with “Christ is King” in the style of the Burger King crown logo). Christian lyrics are written for the latest styles in music. We master the latest marketing techniques. When we are always copying, we are getting our cues from people who don’t share our values. Another problem is that we are always following behind. This posture also reveals a separatist mindset; we can enjoy “their” music, but we have to bring it over the wall into “our” world.

Consuming as a posture results in us becoming indiscriminant in what we “eat.” Others are always deciding for us what is good. There is such a concern with keeping up with the latest, with not being left behind, that we are often unaware of how what we consume affects us. A posture of consuming also leaves little room for creating something new.

These strategies are the same ones non-Christians employ. The difference is the values which determine how they are employed. All of our condemning, critiquing, copying, and consuming are to be governed by scriptural norms.

If we stop here, we will miss the major point of Andy Crouch’s book. While these strategies have their places, there’s one which we can leave out completely to our detriment and the detriment of our society. That is cultivation. Cultivating involves creating and nurturing. Crouch uses the metaphor of gardening to illustrate. The gardener looks at what is there—landscape, sunlight, etc.—and considers what could be grown. Weeds are removed, the soil is tilled, and the seeds are planted. Water is provided to enable growth. This is the stuff of culture making. We aren’t just to react to what is there, but to bring new things into existence and to care for what is there that is good.

Crouch has some questions for Christians:

I wonder what we Christians are known for in the world outside our churches. Are we known as critics, consumers, copiers, condemners of culture? I’m afraid so. Why aren’t we known as cultivators—people who tend and nourish what is best in human culture, who do the hard and painstaking work to preserve the best of what people before us have done? Why aren’t we known as creators—people who dare to think and do something that has never been thought or done before, something that makes the world more welcoming and thrilling and beautiful?

I suspect that one problem some Christians might have with this has to do with eschatology. Those who hold to a premillennial, pretribulational view of end times see this world as being doomed for destruction, and some wonder why we should put any effort into cultural engagement beyond witnessing for Christ. A big problem with that is that no one knows when the end is coming. In the meantime, cars and factories spew pollution into the air that is harmful to our health and to the well–being of other living things. Cancer still ends lives way too soon and is often attended by much suffering. The decay of inner cities is depressing to its inhabitants. Are Christians engaged in making cars that don’t pollute? Fighting cancer? Cleaning up and reversing the decay of declining neighborhoods?

To some, this will sound suspiciously like the “social gospel” of the mid-twentieth century. It isn’t. For one thing, it is grounded in Christian theology. We are created in the image of the Creator and have been made creative ourselves. For another, because we are made in the image of God we should care about the health and well-being of all people. Consider, too, that God Himself is interested in beauty (Ex. 28:2, 40).

Most of us will never invent something that will drastically alter people’s lives. We won’t do anything really big like find the cure for Alzheimer’s or solve the nation’s economic crisis. But we can do small things. We can tutor a child who has trouble reading, fix up our yards and houses so they aren’t eye-sores to our neighbors, join a local civic chorale or orchestra. In short, it’s just a matter of using our talents to make our world a better place, and in doing so to enrich the lives of other people and point to the glory of God.

In doing so, we may also find that non-Christians are more apt to listen to our reason for doing so.


© 2009 Probe Ministries

 




Charity and Compassion: Christianity Is Good for Culture

Byron Barlowe looks at the impact of Christianity on the world.  He concludes that applying a Christian, biblical worldview to the issues that we face in our world has resulted in a great amount of good. Apart from the eternal aspect of Christianity, people applying Christian principles to worldly issues have benefited all mankind.

Christian Religion: Good or Bad for Mankind?

Standing on the jetway boarding a flight out of Cuzco, Peru, I overheard an American college student say to his companion, “See that older guy up there? He’s a professor. Came here to give lectures on Christianity. Can you believe that?” In an apparent reference to abuses perpetrated on local Indians by the conquistadors centuries earlier, he added, “Haven’t Christians done enough to these people?”

He didn’t know that I was the professor’s companion. Turning around, I said, “Excuse me, I couldn’t help but overhear. I’m with the professor and, yes, we were giving lectures at the university from a Christian worldview. But did you know that all these people in between us were helping with humanitarian aid in the poorest villages around here all week?”

He sheepishly mumbled something about every story having two sides. But his meaning was clear: what good could possibly come from Christians imposing their beliefs on these indigenous people? Their culture was ruined by their kind and should be left alone. Popular sentiments, but are they fair and accurate?

The church—and those acting in its name—has had its moments of injustice, intrigue, even murder. Unbiblical excesses during the Inquisitions, the Crusades, and other episodes are undeniable. Yet these deviations from the teachings of Christ and the Bible are overwhelmingly countered by the church’s good works and novel institutions of care, compassion, and justice.

Carlton Hayes wrote, “From the wellspring of Christian compassion, our Western civilization has drawn its inspiration, and its sense of duty, for feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, looking after the homeless, clothing the naked, tending the sick and visiting the prisoner.” As one writer put it, missionaries and other Christians lived as if people mattered.{1} Revolutionary!

Christianity exploded onto a brutal, heartless Greco-Roman culture. Believers in this radical new religion set a new standard for caring for the ill, downtrodden, and abused, even at risk of death. Through their transformed Christlike outlooks, they established countercultural ways that lead to later innovations: orphanages, hospitals, transcendent art and architecture, and systems of law and order based on fairness, to name a few. In the early church, every congregation had a list of needy recipients called a matriculum. Enormous amounts of charity were given.{2} “Pagan society, through its excesses, teetered on the brink of extinction. Christianity, however, represented . . . a new way.”{3}

Compassion and charity are biblical ideals. “Early Christians set a model for their descendents to follow, a model that today’s modern secular societies try to imitate, but without Christian motivation.”{4} We take for granted the notion that it’s good to help the needy and oppressed, but wherever it’s found, whether in religious or secular circles, it can be traced right back to Jesus Christ and His followers.

Answering Atheists: Is Religion Evil?

“Religion poisons everything,” carps militant atheist Christopher Hitchens. Fellow atheist Richard Dawkins claims that “there’s not the slightest evidence that religious people . . . are any more moral than non-religious people.” True? Not according to social scientists from Princeton and other top universities.

As citizens, religious people generally shine. According to Logan Paul Gage, “for every 100 altruistic acts—like giving blood—performed by non-religious people, the religious perform 144.” Also, those active in religion in the U.S. volunteer in their communities more.{5} A Barna study reports that “more than four out of five (83%) gave at least $1000 to churches and non-profit entities during 2007, far surpassing . . . any other population segment studied….”{6} This echoes studies from the past few decades.

Furthermore, studies show that religious youth have more self-control against cigarettes, alchohol and marijuana. “Religion also correlates with fewer violent crimes, school suspensions and a host of other negative behaviors.”{7}

It appears that Dawkins is very wrong. He lamented that “faith is . . . comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.” People who care about our culture will hope he’s right about how hard religion is to eliminate, especially Christianity.{8}

So, what about the evil perpetrated by the church? Early Christians were admirable in their display of compassion and charity. But haven’t the centuries since witnessed a parade of continual religious wars (including “Christian wars), persecutions, and mayhem? Among Christianity’s sins: forced conversions, expansion by so-called “Christian states” mingled with genocide, execution of accused heretics and witches, and the ever infamous Crusades. Regrettable, inexcusable, but largely overblown.

Dinesh D’Souza writes that this popular refrain also “greatly exaggerates [crimes of] religious fanatics while neglecting or rationalizing the vastly greater crimes committed by secular and atheist fanatics.”{9} Historian Jonathan Riley-Smith disputes that the Crusaders were rapists and murderers. He and other historians document that they were pilgrims using their own funds to liberate long-held Christian lands and defend Europe against Muslim invaders.{10}

What about heretics who were burned at the stake? Author Henry Kamen claims that “much of the modern stereotype of the Inquisition is essentially made up. . . . Inquisition trials . . . were fairer and more lenient than their secular counterparts.”{11}

Atheism is associated with far more death and destruction than religion is, particularly Christianity. In Death by Government, R.J. Rummel writes “Almost 170 million men, women and children have been shot, beaten, tortured, knifed, burned, starved, frozen, crushed or worked to death; buried alive, drowned, hung, bombed or killed in any other of a myriad of ways governments have inflicted death on unarmed, helpless citizens and foreigners.”{12} Rummel directly attributes eighty-four percent of these to atheistic “megamurderers” like Stalin, Hitler, and Mao.

For perspective, consider that “the Crusades, Inquisition and the witch burnings killed approximately 200,000 people” over five hundred years. These deaths, tragic and unjust as many were, only comprise one percent of the deaths caused by atheist regimes during a few decades. That’s a ninety-nine to one ratio of death tied directly to the atheist worldview.{13}

History shows that atheism, not Christianity, is the view that is bad—even murderous—for society.

Compassion: Christian Innovation in a Cruel World

Christianity is unique. No other religion or philosophy values and practices wholesale taking care of the young, sick, orphaned, oppressed, and widowed, hands-on and sacrificially.

To ancient Greeks and Romans, life was cheap. Infanticide—baby killing— was “condoned and practiced for centuries without guilt or remorse [and] extolled by Greco-Roman mythologies.” This ungodly practice was opposed by Christians, whose compassionate example eventually caused Roman emperors to outlaw it.{14} First-century art shows believers rescuing unwanted Roman babies from the Tiber River. They raised them as their own.

Emperors pronounced death sentences on a whim, even beyond gladiatorial games. This was the ultimate extension of paterfamilias: a father had the right to kill his own child if she displeased him. Life was expendable, even among families!{15}

Abortion, human sacrifice, and suicide were also part of societies unaffected by God’s love.How different from the scriptural doctrine that all are made in God’s image and deserve life and dignity.

Slaves and the poor were on their own. One exhaustive survey of historical documents “found that antiquity has left no trace of organized charitable effort.”{16}

The ancient code was: “leave the ill to die.” Roman colonists in Alexandria even left their friends and next of kin behind during a plague.{17} Japanese holy men kept the wealthy from relieving the poor because they believed them to be “odious to the gods.”{18}

By contrast, Jesus expanded the Jewish obligation of compassion well beyond family and tribe even to enemies. His parable of the Good Samaritan exploded racial and social boundaries.{19} Scripture says that Jesus “had compassion on them and healed their sick.” Christ’s disciples went around healing and teaching as their master had. Believers were instructed to care for widows, the sick, the disabled and the poor, and also for orphans. “Justin Martyr, an early defender of Christianity, reveals that collections were taken during church services to help the orphans,” writes Alvin Schmidt. By the time of Justinian, churches were operating old folks’ homes called gerontocomia. Before Christianity, homes for the aged didn’t exist. Now, such nursing homes are taken for granted.{20}

Schmidt notes that “Christianity filled the pagan void that largely ignored the sick and dying, especially during pestilences.” Greeks had diagnostic centers, but no nursing care. Roman hospitals were only for slaves, gladiators, and occasionally for soldiers. Christians provided shelters for the poor and pilgrims, along with medical care. Christian hospitals were the first voluntary charitable institutions.{21}

A pagan Roman soldier in Constantine’s army was intrigued by Christians who “brought food to his fellow soldiers who were afflicted with famine and disease.” He studied this inspiring group who displayed such humanity and was converted to the faith. He represents much of why the early church grew despite bouts of severe persecution.{22}

Basic beliefs—or worldviews—lead to basic responses. The Christian response to life and suffering changed the world for good.

Early Church Charity vs. Self-Serving Greco-Roman Giving

In ancient Greece and Rome, charity was unknown, except for gaining favors and fame. This stood in stark contrast to Jesus’ thinking. He rebuked the Pharisees, whose good deeds were done for public acclaim. Christ’s ethic of sharing with any and all and helping the underprivileged brought a revolution that eventually converted the entire Roman Empire.

Caritas, root word of charity, “meant giving to relieve economic or physical distress without expecting anything in return,” writes Schmidt, “whereas liberalitas meant giving to please the recipient, who later would bestow a favor on the giver.”{23} Pagans almost never gave out of what we today would ironically call true liberality.

In contrast, for Christ-followers part of worship was hands-on charity. They celebrated God’s redemption this way, giving and serving both individually and corporately. Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem in the fifth century, sold church ornaments to feed the poor. (Another contrast: the Hindu worldview assumes that neediness results from bad deeds in a past life.)

Ancient culture was centered on elitism. The well-off and privileged gave not out of any sense of caring, but out of what Aristotle termed “liberality, in order to demonstrate [their] magnanimity and even superiority.” They funded parks, statues, and public baths with their names emblazoned on them. Even the little philanthropy the ancients did was seldom received by the needy. Those who could pay back in some way received it.{24}

Historian Kenneth Scott Latourette noted that early Christians innovated five ways in their use of their own funds for the general welfare:

First, those who joined were expected to give to their ability level, both rich and poor. Christ even called some to give all they had to the poor. St. Francis of Assissi, Pope Gregory the Great, and missionary C.T. Studd all did as well.

Second, they had a new motivation: the love for and example of Christ, who being rich became poor for others’ sakes (2 Corinthians 8:9).{25}

Third, Christianity like Judaism, created new objects of giving: widows, orphans, slaves, the persecuted.

The fourth Christian innovation was personalized giving, although large groups were served. Also, individuals did the giving, not the government. “For the most part, the few Roman acts of relief and assistance were isolated state activities, ‘dictated much more by policy than by benevolence’.”{26}

Last, Christian generosity was not solely for insiders.{27} This was truly radical. The emperor known as Julian the Apostate complained that since Jews never had to beg and Christians supported both their own poor and those outside the church, “those who belong to us look in vain for the help we should render to them.”{28}

Believers sometimes fasted for charity. The vision was big: ten thousand Christians skipping one hundred days’ meals could provide a million meals, it was figured. Transformed hearts and minds imitated the God who left the throne of heaven to serve and die for others.{29}

Even W.E. Lecky, no friend to Christianity, wrote, “The active, habitual, and detailed charity of private persons, which is such a conspicuous feature in all Christian societies, was scarcely known in antiquity.”{30} That is, until Christians showed up.

Medieval and Modern Manifestations

This way of thinking and living continued in Medieval times. Third century deacon St. Laurence was ordered by a Roman offiical to bring some of the treasures of the church. He showed up with poor and lame church members. For this affront to Roman sensibilities, he was roasted to death on a gridiron. Today, a Florida homeless shelter named after St. Laurence provides job help and basic assistance to the downtroden.

The Generous Middle Ages

The Middle Ages saw Christian compassion grow. In the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries, Italian clergy “zealously defended widows and orphans.”{31} Ethelwold, bishop of Winchester in the tenth century “sold all of the gold and silver vessels of his cathedral to relieve the poor who were starving during a famine.”{32}

Furthermore, according to Will Durant,

The administration of charity reached new heights in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. . . . The Church shared in relieving the unfortunate. Almsgiving was universal. Men hopeful of paradise left charitable bequests. . . . Doles of food were distributed [three times a week] to all who asked. . . . In one aspect the Church was a continent-wide organization for charitable aid.{33}

From Hospitals to the Red Cross

Christian hospitals spread to Europe by the eighth century. By the mid-1500s, thirty-seven thousand Benedictine monasteries cared for the ill. Arab Muslims even followed suit. Christianity was changing the world, even beyond the West.

The much-maligned Crusaders founded healthcare orders, helping Muslims and Christians. This led to the establishment of insane asylums. By the 1400s, hospitals across Europe were under the direction of Christian bishops who often gave their own money. They cared for the poor and orphans and occasionally fed prisoners—an all-purpose institution of care.

“Christian aid to the poor did not end with the early church or the Middle Ages,” says Schmidt.{34} By the latter years of the nineteenth century, local Christian churches and denominations built many hospitals.

Medical nursing, a Christian innovation in ancient times, took leaps forward through the influence of Christ-follower Florence Nightingale. In 1864, Red Cross founder Jean Henri Dunant confessed on his deathbed, “I am a disciple of Christ as in the first century, and nothing more.”{35}

Child Labor Laws

The Industrial Revolution in England ushered in a shameful exploitation of children, even among those naming the Christian faith. Kids as young as seven worked in horrible conditions in coal mines and chimneys.

Compassionate believers like William Wilberforce and Charles Dickens rallied their callous countrymen to pass Parliamentary laws against the worst child labor. The real superman of this cause was Lord Shaftesbury, whose years of tireless “pleadings, countless speeches, personal sacrifices and dogged persistence” resulted in “a number of bills that vastly improved child labor conditions.” His firm faith in Christ spurred him and a nation on to true compassion.{36} This had a ripple effect across Western nations. Child labor has been outlawed in the West but continues strongly in nations less affected by Christian culture.

And Still Today . . .

This attitude of charity and compassion continues today in Christian societies like the Salvation Army and Christian groups who aided Hurricane Katrina victims so much better than the government.{37} Many more can be named. As someone said, “‘Christian ideals have permeated society until non-Christians, who claim to live a “decent life” without religion, have forgotten the origin of the very content and context of their “decency”.”{38}

Notes

1. Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004) 147-148.
2. Ibid, 127.
3. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (Nashville: Word/Thomas Nelson, 1995) 40.
4. Schmidt, pg. 148.
5. Logan Paul Gage, Touchstone, January/February 2008.
6. “New Study Shows Trends in Tithing and Donating,” Barna Research Group, April 14, 2008, www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdateNarrowPreview&BarnaUpdateID=296.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Dinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great About Christianity (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2007), 204.
10. Ibid, 205.
11. Ibid, 207.
12. R. J. Rummel, Death by Government (Transaction Publishers, 1994), quoted in The Truth Project DVD-based curriculum, Focus on the Family, 2006.
13. D’Souza, 215.
14. Schmidt, 71.
15. Schmidt, 100.
16. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe, What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994) 29.
17. Schmidt, 129.
18. Schmidt, 131.
19. Christopher Price, “Pagans, Christianity, and Charity,” CADRE (Christian Colligation of Apologetics Debate Research & Evangelism), www.christiancadre.org/member_contrib/cp_charity.html.
20 Schmidt, 136.
21. Schmidt, 155-157.
22. Schmidt, 130.
23. Schmidt, 126.
24. D’Souza, 64.
25. 2 Corinthians 8:9.
26. Lecky, quoted in Schmidt, 128.
27. Kennedy and Newcombe, 30.
28. Shelley, 36.
29. Schmidt, 126.
30. Quoted in Kennedy and Newcombe, 32.
31. Schmidt, 131-134.
32. Schmidt, 126.
33. Will Durant, The Age of Faith, 31, quoted by Christopher Price: www.christiancadre.org/member_contrib/cp_charity.html.
34. Schmidt. 137.
35. Schmidt, 155-166.
36. Schmidt, 143.
37. Schmidt, 142-144.
38. Schmidt, 131.

© 2008 Probe Ministries




Bridging to Common Ground: Communicating Christ Across the Cultural Divide

Have you ever felt like an alien in your own culture? What was your reaction to the people in that other group? The other day, mine was negative, then a bit hopeful. It all left me very humbled, but ready once more to build bridges and sow spiritual seed over shared common ground.

Always Ready?

There I was, in a vegetarian restaurant, talking to the Chinese owner about my motivations for patronizing this rare refuge for vegans, vegetarians and other people far removed from my day-to-day world. I just like to eat healthier sometimes, I weakly offered. After all, when I recently found it closed, I had sauntered to the Texas-style barbeque joint in the same shopping center feeling little irony.

Not so for most of the old man’s clientele. They just seemed to fit the veggie-eaters mold. I felt conspicuously out of place as I mingled in the buffet line with pony-tailed guys, gals with their hair in doo-rags, Indian and Chinese immigrants. Yet there I stood, representing white middle-America in my Tommy Bahama knock-off shirt and dress slacks.

I spied a rack of religious booklets promoting an off-beat Asian religious group. Hey, I thought to myself, if you want authentic tofu-based cuisine, you have to mix with the diversity. No problem.

But I wasn’t prepared for the group of youths who walked in next, sporting dreadlocks, torn Goth stockings, studded leather boots and T-shirts that would offend the most tough-minded. The “F” word assaulted me in a slogan scrawled across the back of several wearing the official T-shirt for the punk band P*ssChrist.

I have to admit, I wavered between repulsion and compassion, amusement and offense. Then I began to fantasize about striding right up the large table of vegan-gothic-anti-social kids and introducing myself. I imagined chatting, asking about the band their shirts represent, then moving on to the fact that not all Christ-followers are hypocritical haters—see, I’m talking to you!

My two-fold goal in my little daydream, admittedly: to challenge their perception of an establishment-looking right-wing Christian guy like me and to test their own assumed sensibilities regarding acceptance, tolerance and diversity. After all, I judged, can they themselves show tolerance for a fellow who represents a polar opposite worldview and set of values? Or will they be found out as just another brand of bigot? All of this I dreamed up perhaps without even finding out their names! I never went over to their table.

Bad Thinking Means No Bridging or Burned Bridges

Upon reflection, I saw how off-guard I was spiritually and how deeply my gut reactions represent some questionable thinking, even unbiblical attitudes. I would probably have come off as, well, a hypocritical hater, despite the better intentions I mixed in with my prejudices. That drove me to prayer and back to a book that is still worth reading: Finding Common Ground: How to Communicate with Those Outside the Christian Community—While We Still Can by Tim Downs.

My response revealed several unhelpful presuppositions about people on the other side of the cultural divide and how to deal with them that still have roots in my soul, although I should know better. My private syllogism went like this:

They’re obviously not for us (biblical believers), but against us, so

The best way to deal with such people would be to confront them or ignore them (and I don’t prefer the latter).

Although confronting them outright would be wrong, it wouldn’t take long for the tolerant approach to necessarily give way to an uncomfortable, confrontational proclamation of truth, so bring it on!

Somebody’s got to reach these folks, and it’s apparent that sooner is better. These are the last days, after all.{1}

But building bridges with the eventual goal of sharing the gospel fruitfully—something I’ve worked at full-time for two decades—requires much more. More thought, compassion, understanding, wisdom and patience. The kind, writes Downs, modeled not by grain harvesters, but rather by fruit growers. This is biblical, but often ignored by Bible-believers.{2}

As a member of an out-of-balance evangelical Christian subculture, I have unconsciously bought into a worldview that overvalues the spiritual harvest at the expense of spiritual sowing. In so doing, I am implicated in a scorched-earth mentality that neither tends the spiritually unready nor makes allowance for future crops.{3} I repent, and not for the first time.

This way of thinking assumes a vast conspiracy of God-haters. Although the caustic, outspoken atheism of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins has risen to prominence recently, it is not the norm. Rather a muddled middle of persuadable unbelievers and confused born-agains is still a large part of the American scene.{4} The us vs. them approach tends to be self-fulfilling, writes Downs. If approached as an enemy, defensiveness is understandably generated in those who dont fit cleanly into our community. Even for announced enemies, like the T-shirt-wearing punk rockers, turning the other cheek while engaging with love can be a powerful witness.

Another evangelical myth, according to Downs, is the certainty that we’re experiencing the final harvest.{5} Indeed, the coarsening of the culture is a mainstay and we are promised that, in the End Times, things will go from bad to worse. That’s sure how it looks, increasingly. Also, we conservative Christians, who shared the heady age of the Moral Majority, are now being blended with every other social group into a stew of diversity where no group is a majority—and we sound like jilted lovers, says Downs. We need to ask, How much of the spiritual fruitlessness in America might we be contributing to by our own perceptions and resultant attitudes?

To act out of such worldview-level angst and fail to prepare to reach future generations is dereliction. Picking low-hanging fruit, if you will, and plowing under the remaining vines is neither loving nor wise. It’s certainly not God’s way, thankfully.

If I’d waltzed up to that table of vegetarian punkers the other day, I’d have likely displayed the attitude Downs critiques and confesses having owned: I’ll proclaim the truth. What they do with it is their business. In other words, ‘Id walk away self-justified, ineffective—and likely having done harm rather than God’s purposes. My commitment to justice would have overridden my practice of love.{6}

To make any genuine impact for Christ among a crowd so foreign to me as these youths would require more than mere personal chutzpah and a bag of evangelistic and apologetic “tricks.” I’d need to wade humbly into their world, eyes wide open and skin toughened, expecting no respect (initially at least), hoping realistically only for long-term results. I could not be effective in my current state—from dress to time commitments to my mindset. To be missional about it long-term, I’d need to be surely called of God and make a monumental life-change, like a missionary I met here in town.

Becoming All Things to All People

I first heard of Dale{7} when he spoke to parents at our kids’ Christian school. I marvelled that he and his wife—both in their 40s—along with their three girls would pack up their middle-class home, leave a thriving youth pastorate in a Baptist church and take up residence in the grungiest, hippest part of Dallas, Texas. When I met with Dale down in Deep Ellum, I could feel the gaping divide between my suburban existence and the urban alternative, Bohemian art-music district scene he’d adopted.

When a couple of 20-something chicks interrupted our meal, I was annoyed that he left me hanging for some time. But Dale’s apology stopped me short in my own self-absorption. He and his wife had befriended one of the gals, a bartender, and were seeking to slowly, carefully build a relationship with her without scaring her off. And it was working. She had noticed the non-confrontational yet uncompromising difference in this loving Christian couple and asked about it. Now, when she introduces these Christian friends, she openly initiates conversations about spiritual things with rank unbelievers. There’s no threat felt, but plenty of curiosity.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.”{8} To use the hackneyed phrase, “Walk a mile in their shoes”—even if the shoes are foul (some punkers don’t do hygiene) or not your style.

When I researched the band with the sacriligious name on the T-shirts, I was introduced to a subculture that not only was foreign to me, but one that actively alienates itself from the larger culture. Part of a movement called anarcho-crust punk, this particular band is known for blasphemous rants. Counter-cultural lifestyle, vile language, themes of death, filth and anti-religious, anti-conservative and anti-capitalist identity politics all mark this underworld of dark lostness.

To bridge across cultural canyons—even such a radical one—to begin on common ground with those outside the Christian community, we need to:

adopt a bridging mentality—think of outreach as a process and pass your perspective on

avoid fueling intolerant stereotypes and show genuine, biblical tolerance

don’t burn bridges—avoid unnecessary confrontation but rather persuade by modeling uncompromising love and concern along with truth

remember from where you fell and recall who the Enemy really is—our struggle is not against flesh and blood{9}

cultivate, sow, harvest and begin again. Patiently use art and subtle, effective communications{10}

relate genuinely: share your own foibles, ask sincerely about their anger and pain

wait on God’s timing, but don’t fail to offer the gospel and help them grasp faith

For those called to go native to bridge across cultural divides, one couple reaching out in the London music-arts district serves as a model. In a four-hour conversation with a Londoner deep into the local scene—a definite unbeliever who knew of the couple’s Christian commitments—the husband was asked:

What do you think of homosexuality?

After thoughtfully pausing, he deferred, Well, I’d prefer to not share that with you.

Why not?

Because I believe my view on that will offend you and I don’t want to do that; you’re my friend.{11}

Compromise? Wimpiness? No. Curiosity caused the non-Christian to ask again some time later, to which the believer responded gently, “As I said, I don’t want to offend you, but since you asked again. . .” His reply led to Jesus Christ Himself. His biblical response evoked a thoughtful, “Oh—now I’m glad you warned me. That is very different from my opinion.” The message was heard and respected. The relationship, still intact, grew in breadth and depth and led to a fuller witness.

Our London-based missionary took care, as a vinedresser, not to bruise the unripe fruit. His eventual impact with the life-changing good news of Christ was made possible by the patience and love he balanced with the hard truth. He and his wife, an accomplished musician, now have high-level contacts in this London subculture.

I’m taking mental notes and rereading Down’s important book for some really useful and specific strategies for bridging to common ground with those alien to me.

Notes

1. Finding Common Ground: How to Communicate with Those Outside the Christian Community…While We Still Can, Tim Downs, (Moody Press: Chicago, 1999), Chapter 3, “Calling Down Fire,” pages 33ff.
2. Ibid, 46.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid, 44.
5. Ibid, 47. See also: End Time Anxieties.
6. Ibid, 38.
7. Not his real name.
8. I Corinthians 9:22 (NASB).
9. Ephesians 6:12 (NASB).
10. Downs, T., op. cit., 66-71.
11. Based on second-hand account without attempt to check details of the conversation. The meaning was clear: by waiting and building credibility, the door to sharing more opened where none likely would have otherwise.

© 2007 Probe Ministries