American Cultural Captivity

Kerby Anderson provides an overview of ways in which American Christians are culturally captive: individualism, consumerism, racism, church growth values and globalization.

Cultural Captivity

Probe Ministries has dedicated itself to helping Christians be freed from cultural captivity. Therefore, I want to focus on how we as Americans are often captive to an American form of Christianity and thus are culturally captive.

Download the PodcastBefore we address the issue of cultural captivity, it might be worth mentioning how small American Christianity is compared to the rest of the world. Philip Jenkins reports that “the center of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably southward to Africa, Asia, and Latin America.”{1}

We can put this in perspective by looking at what happened last century. In 1900, about eighty percent of the Christians in the world lived in Europe or North America. Now more than seventy percent live in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

A century ago, if you were to describe a typical Christian in the world, you would probably describe a Christian living in the middle of the United States. Today a typical Christian would be a mother in Zambia or a college student in South Korea.

Christianity has also become diverse. “More people pray and worship in more languages and with more differences in styles of worship in Christianity than any other religion.”{2} Put simply, American Christianity is no longer the norm in the world. Yet we as Americans often make the mistake of assuming that our Western values and assumptions should be the standard for the rest of the world.

Many of my observations come from insights in the book, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity.{3} Soong-Chan Rah provides numerous examples of how the American church is captive to a white, Western view of the world and thus is culturally captive. Obviously, the church has been captive to materialism, but I will focus on some of his other descriptions of captivity, namely, individualism, consumerism, and racism.

It is worth noting that the phrase “captivity of the church” has been used in different contexts with varied meanings throughout church history. Martin Luther, for example, wrote the tract On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church in which he compared the Catholic Church’s teaching on the sacraments to the captivity of the Israelites by the Babylonians.{4} R.C. Sproul has written about how many Christians are captive to the Pelagian view of the basic goodness of humanity instead of holding to the biblical view on original sin.{5} And Nancy Pearcey’s book Total Truth was written as an attempt at “liberating Christianity from its cultural captivity.”{6}

American Christians don’t like to think of themselves as being culturally captive. But the truth is that they have to a significant extent been assimilated into American culture. While they rightly criticize many of the sins and failings of American society, they are more conformed to the culture than they would like to believe.


One example of American cultural captivity that Rah uses in his book is American individualism. He is hardly the first person to talk about this. Many social commentators over the last century have discussed and documented American’s obsession with individualism which has created an individual-focused worldview.

On the positive side, the rugged individualism of Americans is responsible for the willingness to explore, build, and being willing to “go it alone” when circumstances required it. An individual willing to take a bold stand in the midst of theological heresy or cultural captivity is a good thing.

American individualism also has many negative sides. Christians should be aware of the impact of individualism on their theology. Rah says “the church is more likely to reflect the individualism of Western philosophy than the value of community found in Scripture. The individualistic philosophy that has shaped Western society, and consequently shaped the American church, reduces faith to a personal, private and individual faith.”{7}

To put this in perspective, consider that most of the books of the New Testament were written to churches and communities of believers. Only a handful of books (such as Titus and Philemon) were written to individuals. Yet when most Americans read the New Testament, they focus on the individual aspects of the biblical truth rather than consider the larger corporate aspect being presented in Scripture.

Often our Bible study focuses on the individual and personal understanding of God’s Word when so much of it applies to our relationship to the entire body of Christ. Often worship is self-focused and self-absorbed.

Ask a typical Christian about sin, and he or she is likely to describe it in personal terms. Sin certainly is personal, but it can also be corporate. But if you only have a personal, privatized faith, then you are also likely to see sin as merely a personal matter. Rah concludes: “Evangelical theology becomes exclusively an individual-driven theology instead of a community-driven theology.”{8}


Another example of American cultural captivity that Rah gives is consumerism. This is a topic that I have addressed before not only on radio but in my book Making the Most of Your Money in Tough Times.{10} Even secular commentators have noticed that American culture is infected with “affluenza.”{11}

Rah says, “Materialism and consumerism reduce people to a commodity. An individual’s worth in society is based upon what assets they bring and what possessions they own.”{12}

How has consumerism affected the American church? First, it means that we have been willing to include materialistic values into our worldview and lifestyle. Often it is difficult to distinguish Christian values from the materialistic values of American society. Some commentators point out that many of our churches look more like shopping malls than like churches.

Second, consumerism affects our mindset and perspective about spiritual things. A consumer mindset sees the spiritual life as a consumable product only if it benefits the individual. Believers with a consumer mindset usually aren’t living for eternity but for the here and now. Essentially they are so earthly minded, they are no heavenly good.

Third, consumerism affects the way we choose to fellowship with other believers. “American evangelicalism has created the unique phenomenon of church shopping—viewing church as yet another commodity and product to be evaluated and purchased. When a Christian family moves to a new city, how much of the standards by which they choose a church is based upon a shopping list of their personal tastes and wants rather than their commitment to a particular community or their desire to serve a particular neighborhood?”{13}

Finally, consumerism even affects the way we measure success. We should be measuring success by the standards of Scripture. Often, we measure it by the American consumer value system. Consider what many refer to as the ABCs of church growth. These are: attendance, building, and cash. Often the success of a church is measured in the same way a secular business would measure its success. The bottom line is often the number of attendees or the size of the church budget.

Jesus asked in Mark 8:36, “What good is it for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul?” A consumer mentality often chooses short-term solutions instead of eternal values despite the possibility of long-term negative consequences.


Another example of American cultural captivity that Rah gives is racism. Not only was this a chapter in this book, but he actually wrote another book on the subject of racial and ethnic issues.{14}

Let’s begin by stating that the idea of race is actually artificial. As I pointed out in a previous radio program on Race and Racial Issues, both the Bible and modern science reject the idea of what today we call race. For example, the Bible teaches that God has made “from one blood every nation of men” (Acts 17:26). Here Paul is teaching the Athenians that they came from the same source in the creation as everyone else. We are all from one blood. In other words, there are no superior or inferior races. The Bible refers to people groups and nations, but does not label based upon skin color.

Race is also an imprecise scientific term. For example, people of every race can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. It turns out that the so-called differences in the races are not very great. A recent study of human genetic material of different races concluded that the DNA of any two people in the world would differ by just 2/10ths of one percent.{15} And of this variation, only six percent can be linked to racial categories. The remaining ninety-four percent is “within race” variation. That is why “many scientists are now declaring that the concept of race has no basis in the biological sciences, more and more are concurring that race should be seen as a social invention.”{16}

How have racial ideas and prejudice affected the church? It is tempting to say that this was merely a problem in the past and should be no concern for a country moving towards a post-racial society. Soong-Chan Rah disagrees: “We are quick to deal with the symptoms of sin in America, but oftentimes are unwilling to deal with the original sin of America: namely, the kidnapping of Africans to use as slave labor, and usurping of lands belonging to Native Americans and subsequent genocide of indigenous peoples.”{17}

Race is an important issue not only in our past, but our future. Many church growth methods are based upon the idea of racial homogeneity. If it is true that the most segregated place in American culture is an American church at 11 AM on Sunday morning, perhaps we should pay more attention to race and racial issues.

Church Growth and Globalization

We can even see cultural captivity in the way we build our churches and the way we interact with the world. We can see the impact some of these ideas about race and racial issues have on church growth.

The popular church growth movement places a high priority on what is called the “homogeneous unit principle” in order to have substantial numerical growth within a congregation. Homogeneous churches tend to grow faster because church attendees are more comfortable with people with similar racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.

Racially and ethnically segregated churches are the natural result of such teaching. And not only are segregated churches unbiblical, they are impractical. America in the twenty-first century will be more diverse than any previous century. It will no longer be dominated by white, Eurocentric people.

Church growth principles also prioritize “an individualized, personal evangelism and salvation over the understanding of the power of the gospel to transform neighborhoods and communities. They also emphasize a modern, social science approach to ministry, focusing on a pragmatic planning process that leads to measurable success goals.”{18}

Globalization is another challenge in the twenty-first century and can also illustrate how we spread our cultural captivity to the corners of the world. Globalization often means that one nation’s values and mindset predominate. In this case, American Christian values (which often are not biblical) are spread and dominate other cultures.

Thomas Friedman says, “Culturally speaking, globalization is largely, though not entirely, the spread of Americanization—from Big Macs to iMacs to Mickey Mouse—on a global scale.”{19} Globalization not only allows us to spread the influence of Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and McDonalds, but it also is the means by which American cultural captivity is spread to believers around the globe. Once these values are transmitted to the rest of the world, we will have a global Christianity that is just as culturally captive to American values as American Christians have been.

This is our challenge in the twenty-first century. American Christians cannot merely look at Christians in other countries and shake their heads about their captivity to their particular cultural values. We too must be aware of culture captivity in our midst and “see to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception” (Colossians 2:8). We have been assimilated into the American culture and should “not be conformed to this world” but instead should be “transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

1. Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 2.
2. Ibid.
3. Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009).
4. Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church trans. A.T.W. Steinhaeuser, Three Treaties (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1947).
5. R.C. Sproul, “The Pelagian Captivity of the Church,” Modern Reformation, May/June 2001.
6. Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005).
7. Rah, The Next Evangelicalism, 30.
8. Ibid., 40.
9. Ibid., 43.
10. Kerby Anderson, Making the Most of Your Money in Tough Times (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2009).
11. John DeGraaf, David Wann, and Thomas Naylor, Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2005).
12. Rah, The Next Evangelicalism, 48.
13. Ibid., 55.
14. Soong-Chan Rah, Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church (Chicago: Moody Press, 2010).
15. J. C. Gutin, “End of the Rainbow,” Discover, November 1994, 71-75.
16. Audrey Smedley, Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview, 3rd ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2007), xi.
17. Rah, The Next Evangelicalism, 69.
18. Ibid., 95.
19. Thomas Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree (NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 199), 8.

© 2011 Probe Ministries

The Empty Self


Christian philosopher Dr. J. P. Moreland is a man with a mission. He claims that Christians are not experiencing spiritual maturity because they are victims of something he calls the “Empty-Self Syndrome.”{1} This lack of maturity leaves believers without the necessary tools to impact their culture for God’s kingdom or to experience what the Bible calls the “mind of Christ.” According to Moreland, the purpose of life for believers is to bring honor to God. This involves finding one’s vocation and pursuing it for the good of both believers and non-believers, while in the process, being changed into a more Christ-like person. Doing this well involves developing intellectual and moral virtues over long periods of time and delaying the constant desire for immediate gratification.

Unfortunately, our culture teaches an entirely different set of virtues. It emphasizes a self-centered, consumption-oriented lifestyle, which works directly against possessing a mature Christian mind. It also places an unhealthy emphasis on living within the moment, rather than committing to long-term projects of personal discipline and learning.

To better understand his argument it helps to explain the concept of necessary and sufficient causes. A necessary cause for Christian maturity is salvation. For without the new birth, a person is still spiritually dead and devoid of the benefits of the indwelling Holy Spirit. However, although forgiveness of sin is necessary for Christian maturity, it is not sufficient. We cooperate with the Spirit to reach maturity by disciplining our will and intellect in the virtues outlined in the New Testament.

Writing to Titus, the apostle Paul said that a leader in the church should be “self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.”{2} This admonition assumes a number of complex skills and a life of dedication to learning and teaching. Our leaders must be knowledgeable of the Scriptures, but they must also be able to defend the Christian worldview in the marketplace of ideas common to our culture. The ability to give a response to those opposed to Christianity, and to do so with gentleness and respect, as Peter teaches (1 Peter 3:15), requires a confidence that comes with a life of devotion and study. Herbert Schlossberg writes:

In their uncompromising determination to proclaim truth, Christians must avoid the intellectual flabbiness of the larger society. They must rally against the prevailing distrust of reason and the exaltation of the irrational. Emotional self-indulgence and irrationalities have always been the enemies of the gospel, and the apostles warned their followers against them.{3}

In this article we will consider Moreland’s description of the empty-self syndrome and offer ways for Christians to avoid its influence.

Seven Traits of the Empty-Self

We are discussing a set of hindrances to Christian maturity called the “Empty-Self Syndrome.” J.P Moreland, in his book Love Your God With All Your Mind, lists seven traits common to people who suffer from this self-inflicted malady. To some, it might appear that Moreland is describing a typical teenager and, in a sense, the analogy fits. The empty-self is best summarized by a lack of growth, both intellectually and spiritually, resulting in perpetual Christian adolescence.

Inordinate Individualism

The first trait of the empty-self is inordinate individualism. Those afflicted rarely define themselves as part of a community, or see their lives in the context of a larger group. This sense of rugged individualism is part of the American tradition and has been magnified with the increased mobility of the last century. People rarely feel a strong attachment or commitment even to family members. The empty-self derives life goals and values from within their own set of personal needs and perceptions, allowing self-centeredness to reign supreme. Rarely does the empty-self seek the good of a broader community, such as the church, when deciding on a course of action.


Many observers of American culture note that adolescent personality traits are staying with young people well into what used to be considered adulthood. Stretching out a four-year college degree to five or six years and delaying marriage into the thirties are signs that commitment and hard work are not highly valued. Some go even further, seeing an infantile demand for pleasure pervading all of our culture. The result is that boredom becomes the greatest evil. We are literally entertaining ourselves to death with too much food, too little exercise, and little to live for beyond personal pleasure.


The empty-self is also highly narcissistic. Narcissism is a keenly developed sense of self-infatuation; as a result, personal fulfillment becomes the ultimate goal of life. It also can result in the manipulation of relationships in order to feed this sense. In its most dangerous form, one’s relationship with God can be shaped by this need. God is dethroned in order to fit the individual’s quest for self-actualization. This condition leaves people with the inability to make long-standing commitments and leads to superficiality and aloofness. Education and church participation are evaluated on the basis of personal fulfillment. They are not viewed as opportunities to use one’s gifts for the good of others.

All of us are guilty of these attitudes occasionally. Christian growth is the process of peeling away layers of self-centered desires. The situation becomes serious when both the culture and the church affirm a self-centered orientation, rather than a God-centered one.

According to Moreland, the couch potato is the poster child for the empty-self. Rather than equipping oneself with the tools necessary to impact the culture for Christ and His kingdom, many people choose to live vicariously through the lives and actions of others. Moreland writes, ” . . . the pastor studies the Bible for us, the news media does our political thinking for us, and we let our favorite sports team exercise, struggle, and win for us.”{4}


The words we use to describe our free time support this notion of passivity. What was once referred to as a holiday or originally a holy day has become a vacation; what used to be a special time of proactive celebration has become a time for vacating. The goal seems to remain in a passive state while someone else is paid to amuse you.

One of the most powerful factors contributing to this passivity is the television. Watching TV encourages a passive stance towards life. Its very popularity is built upon the vicarious experiences it offers, from sports teams to soap operas. It is hard to imagine how a person who watches an average amount of TV, which is twenty five hours a week for elementary students, could have enough time left over to invest in the reading and study required to become a mature believer and defender of the faith. Our celebrity-centered culture encourages us to focus on the lives of a popular few rather than live our own lives to the fullest for God.

Sensate Culture

It follows naturally that the empty-self syndrome encourages the belief that the physical, sense-perceptible world is all that there is. Although Christians, by definition, should be immune from this attitude, they often act as if it were true. The resulting sensate culture loses interest in arguments for transcendent truth or in ideas like the soul, and the consequence is a closing of the mind, as described by Allen Bloom in his best-selling book on university life in the late 1980s.{5} Students and the general public lose hope in the possibility that truth can be found in books, so they stop reading; or at least stop reading serious books about worldview issues. Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sarokin wrote that once a sensate culture takes over, a society has already begun to disintegrate due to the lack of intellectual resources necessary to maintain a viable community.{6}

Paul reminds us of the danger of the empty-self state of mind when he writes, “Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ. . . .”{7}

No Interior Life

Moreland claims that in the last few decades people have become far more concerned about external factors such as the possession of consumer goods, celebrity status, image, and power rather than the development of what he calls an interior life. It wasn’t long ago that people were measured by the internal traits of virtue and morality, and it was the person who exhibited character and acted honorably who was held in high esteem. This kind of life was built upon contemplation of what might be called the “good life.” After long deliberation, an individual then disciplined himself in those virtues most valued. Peter describes such a process for believers when he tells us to “add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.”{8} He adds that “if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”{9} The Christian life begins with faith, but grows by feeding the interior life in a disciplined manner.


Almost everyone experiences the last trait of the empty-self to some degree: the hurried, overly busy life. Although most of us wouldn’t think of it this way, busy-ness can actually be a form of idolatry. Anything that stands between a person and their relationship with God becomes an idol. As Richard Keyes puts it:

Idolatry may not involve explicit denials of God’s existence or character. It may well come in the form of an over-attachment to something that is, in itself, perfectly good. The crucial warning is this: As soon as our loyalty to anything leads us to disobey God, we are in danger of making it an idol.{10}

Many pack their lives with endless activities in order to block out the emotional emptiness and spiritual hunger that fills their souls. Nothing but God Himself can meet that need. David cried out to God saying, “Do not cast me from your presence, or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.”{11} The empty-self attempts to replace God with things God has created, a life that’s too busy for God is missing out on life itself.

The empty-self is highly individualistic, infantile, narcissistic, passive, sensate, without an interior life, and too busy.

Curing the Empty-Self Syndrome

Is there a vaccine for the Empty-Self Syndrome? In his book Love Your God With All Your Mind, J. P. Moreland lists six steps for avoiding the empty-self. Like all maladies, we must first admit that there is a problem. Christians need to realize that faith and reason are not diametrically opposed to one another and that intellectual cultivation honors God. We need to begin talking about the role of the intellect and the value of a disciplined Christian mind. The results of not doing this will be a church with shallow theological understanding, little evangelistic confidence, and the inability to challenge the ideas that are dominant in the culture at-large. Christians will continue to be obsessed with self-help books that merely soothe, comfort, and entertain the reader.

Second, we need to choose to be different. We must be different from the typical church attendee who rarely reads or considers the questions and challenges of unbelievers, and different from the self-centered general culture that seeks knowledge only for power or financial gain.

Third, we might also need to change our routines. Believers would benefit by turning off the TV and instead participating in both physical exercise and quiet reflection. We need to get out of our passive ruts and be more proactive about growing spiritually and intellectually.

Fourth, we need to develop patience and endurance. The intellectual life takes time and diligence. It is a long-term, actually life-long, project and for some of us just sitting down for fifteen minutes might be difficult at first. Our newly developed patience is also needed for the fifth goal, that of developing a good vocabulary. As is true of any area of study, both theology and philosophy have their own languages and it takes time and effort to become conversant in them.

Finally, the last step is to establish intellectual goals. This is often best accomplished with the aid of a study partner or group. Setting out on a course of study and sharing what you find with someone else can be exhilarating. Although your study might begin in theology, it should eventually touch on a broad spectrum of ideas. Even reading recognized critics of Christianity is of value if you take the time to develop a response to their criticisms.

We should also teach our children that their studies are an important way to honor God. We are not advocating the development of the mind merely to collect information or to advance one’s career. Our goal is to accomplish what Paul demands in 2 Corinthians 10:5. It is to be able to demolish any obstacle, or any pretension to the emancipating knowledge of God. The picture Paul is painting is that of a military operation in enemy territory.{12} It’s time to start training!


1. J. P. Moreland, Love Your God With All Your Mind (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1997), see chapter four for this discussion.

2. Titus 1:8-9

3. Herbert Schlossberg, Idols For Destruction (Washington D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1990), 322.

4. J. P. Moreland, Love Your God With All Your Mind (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1997), 90.

5. Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), see part one on the student.

6. Ibid., 91.

7. Philippians 3:19-20

8. 2 Peter 1:3-7

9. 2 Peter 1:8

10. Os Guinness & John Seel, No God But God (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1992), 33.

11. Psalm 51:11-12

12. Murry J. Harris, The Expositors Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), 380.

©2001 Probe Ministries.

The World in Our Worship

Choices in Worship

Church historian Bruce Shelley reports on a speaking engagement he had with a group of senior adults about recent changes in evangelical churches. When he mentioned drums in worship, he said, “even the breath-taking surroundings [of the Colorado Rockies] couldn’t suppress the sanctified outrage” he heard. “Like a match dropped on a haystack,” he said, “the room erupted first in a corporate groan, followed by an outburst of laughter.”{1} Clearly such changes don’t sit well with many Christians. Those who appreciate a more traditional approach to worship are concerned that the contemporary style of worship risks diluting the message of the church by modeling itself on the secular entertainment industry in its style, and thus risks the accommodation of the message to the ways of the world.

On the other hand, those who believe the traditional approach has become outdated are accepting contemporary worship widely. For some, the change is simply a matter of taste: they like contemporary music and a relaxed atmosphere. For others, contemporary worship seems like a better approach to reach today’s generations. In his book, The Second Coming of the Church, George Barna makes this startling statement: “After nearly two decades of studying Christian churches in America, I’m convinced that the typical church as we know it today has a rapidly expiring shelf life.”{2} The church is not effectively speaking to its surrounding culture, he says, and is becoming largely irrelevant. Adapting worship services is one part of addressing this problem.

Still a third worship option for evangelicals who are tired of traditional worship but think the contemporary style is inadequate as well, is that of liturgical worship. Through the ceremony and ritual of liturgical services conducted in settings with objects rich with symbolism, some Christians look for a special encounter with God. The October 6, 1997 issue of Christianity Today had on its cover a picture of a woman with a glazed look in her eyes. Above her head was the question: “Missing God at church?”{3} A student interviewed in the cover article said this about her church background: “There was no imagination, no mystery, no beauty. It was all preaching and books and application.” Another student spoke of the loss of the sense of the divine in worship today. “Gymnasiums and impermanent buildings” have replaced “the splendor and holiness of cathedrals,” she said. “Plastic cups and folding chairs aren’t enough,” she continued. “There has to be an environment that communicates God’s holiness to my senses and to my spirit.”

A fourth option for worship is one championed by Robert Webber: that of blended worship. This is especially appealing to young people. It reflects, to a degree, postmodern thinking. We are no longer restricted to choosing one style over another. Now that the rigid demands of modernism have broken down, people feel free to choose facets of different styles to form something new.

Some might think that differences between worship services are really merely stylistic. Each person has his or her preferences regarding worship, right? Some prefer one style, some another. But are the differences only stylistic? Is it true that worship style is basically a matter of individual preference? Are there any objective criteria for corporate worship? If there are, then we can look for the necessary elements as we consider a certain style of worship.{4} On the other hand, we can also look for things to avoid in worship, things that would hinder true worship. Are influences from secular culture coming into the church and adversely affecting our worship?

Let’s consider first some goals of corporate worship. Following that, we’ll consider three cultural forces that serve to undermine proper worship.

Three Goals of Worship

In her book, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down,{5} Marva Dawn says there are three goals of worship: praising God, building up the community, and nurturing the believer.

Praising God

The obvious answer to the question “Why do we worship?” is, “To give praise and glory to God.” Said the Levites, “Arise, bless the Lord your God forever and ever! O may Your glorious name be blessed and exalted above all blessing and praise!” (Neh. 9:5). In praise we have our focus on God and not ourselves. At least we think we do.

However, too often our thoughts about God center around what He has done for us, for me. Consider, for example, the songs many of us sing in church. So many of them have I as the real subject. God is praised for what He means to me.

Is it wrong to praise and thank God for what He has done for me? Not at all! Of course, we should do this. The problem is this: we come to worship God in His fullness, but we end up praising Him for what we’ve experienced. The being and work of God is reduced to the limits of our own experience! But we’re dealing with the transcendent One here! The One who spoke the stars into existence, who cares for all others in His family the same as He cares for me, and all at the same time! God’s project is bigger than I am. God’s being is bigger than what I have personally experienced. In addition to praising God for what He has done for us individually, we should be worshiping God for the things He does that have nothing to do with us in particular. By worshiping Him in His fullness we open ourselves up for riches we didn’t expect and maybe never even imagined.

Building Up the Body

In worship we also build up the community of faith. We are part of something much bigger than our own church or denomination; we are part of something which began two millennia ago and which will continue to grow until the Lord returns.

What does this have to do with worship? First, when we come together for worship we are a worshiping community, not just a bunch of individuals gathered in the same room. When we are together we can turn from our occupation with ourselves and focus on the development of God’s people as a body. We are not to mirror our narcissistic and individualistic society, but rather to turn outward to the community. Says Dawn, “Worship that draws all its participants into a common understanding of God will develop vibrant communities–and then the communities in turn will also deepen the character growth of their members.”{6}

Second, in worship we can also hear from members of the church from generations past through their writings and art. In turn, we nurture and protect that which we have inherited so we can pass it on intact to succeeding generations. Worship aids significantly in this project. Says Dawn, “Worship forms us; all the elements of the service develop the character of believer in us. And worship forms the community if it unites us in common beliefs, traditions, renewal, and goals. Worship schools us in the language of faith as we listen and sing and participate in its rites.” She continues: “We can only pass on the faith if it has nurtured our character to be its carriers and if we are part of a community, the Church, that has carried the faith down through the ages.”{7}

So, when we sing, for example, do we draw into ourselves and enjoy our own private worship? Or are we purposefully singing with other believers, lifting up one sound of praise to God? Do we come to church with our focus on what we hope to get out of the service? Or are we thinking about how we are going to lift others before the Lord? Are we listening to Christians from ages past who have dealt with some of the same ideas and issues we struggle with? And are we thinking about those who will come after us, about the legacy we will leave behind?

The individualism of our age fights us here. It sets us up to be a lot of little Christian islands in a sanctuary or auditorium. We are not many individuals who just happen to have a religious bond. What we are really is a body made up of many members. Worship that recognizes God as the subject will be worship that builds up His body.

Nurturing Character

Another goal of worship is the nurturing of our character. Worship should transform us as a result of being brought into the presence of the living God. It was entering the sanctuary of God that gave Asaph a right understanding of God and His ways with men, which took away Asaph’s bitterness (Ps. 73). Think of Isaiah, who was made whole and prepared to serve after beholding the glory of God and his own sinfulness (Is. 6). This isn’t just a matter of growing in faith and going deeper in our prayer life. It’s also a matter of becoming good people, people whose character is like that of Jesus!

Too often, however, our idea of being transformed is leaving church feeling good! We want to feel better about ourselves, to be lifted up! Yet, we all know in the normal course of life that building up often means tearing down first. This is especially the case when we think about being conformed to the image of Christ. In fact, Marva Dawn says that worship ought to kill us. What does she mean by this? She says:

“In a society doing all it can to make people cozy, somehow we must convey the truth that God’s Word, rightly read and heard, will shake us up. It will kill us, for God cannot bear our sin and wants to put to death our self-centeredness . . . . Once worship kills us, we are born anew to worship God rightly.”{8}

Worship, then, serves to praise God, build up the community, and nurture our character.

Subjectivism: Worship Beginning With Me Rather Than With God


Let’s begin looking at three forces, which work to undermine proper worship: subjectivism, self-focused individualism, and dumbing down the message. Our critique will not be focused on any particular worship style. Indeed, these problems can be found across the spectrum.

“Me” As Subject

Let’s begin with subjectivism. This is a common attitude today. I find what is true and good within myself. My personal experience is what counts.{9} Therefore, I am the judge of what is worthwhile in my worship. I expect the sermon to be on my level (none of that heavy theology stuff), the music to suit the tastes I’ve already developed, and the service time to not be too long. And the service is evaluated by how I feel when it’s over. What matters is my spiritual experience now.

Seeing God As Subject As Well As Object

The problem here is that the center of worship is I, not God. Although I might be directing my thoughts toward God, I am patterning my worship so as to satisfy myself. The effect is that my understanding of God is restricted to what He has done in my life; my view of God is thus limited by my experience. When my experience of God sets the limits, I’ll have a shrunken view of God.

The key to getting God fully into the picture is to see Him as the subject of worship, and not just the object. What do I mean by this? Says theologian Marva Dawn, “The gifts of worship flow from God the subject and return to God as the object of our reverence.”{10} The content of our worship comes from Him; He is the source. He gives us Himself, tells us His characteristics, and informs us of His plans. Having received this we turn back to God and make Him the object of our worship, giving it all back to Him in praise. As one writer puts it, “Worship . . . is an encounter in which God’s glory, Word, and grace are unveiled, and we respond, in songs and prayers of celebration.” In our worship, we “recognize a Lord whose majesty evokes strong praise, petition, and transformation.”{11} When we worship, we are reflecting God back to God. In filling our vision with God, we are met by Him. If we engineer our worship to meet our needs as we see them, on the other hand, we risk missing out on being touched by God in unexpected but vital ways.

I’d like to make one other point. With God as subject or source of worship, grace once again becomes central, for grace is the theme of His works on our behalf. When we are the subjects, however, our actions are the focus making law central. This leads to an emphasis on what we must do, rather than what God has done.{12}

On Worship Killing Us

With God as the subject of worship, it then becomes a vehicle of transformation in His hands. As I noted earlier, worship ought to kill us. It ought to make us see the great distance between God and ourselves. Once in God’s presence our sinful nature is put to death. Then we are ready to be infused with His life.{13}

Worship is a subversive act, Dawn insists. We don’t come before God to get His stamp of approval on our interests and agendas. God intends to turn us upside down. As Dawn says, “If the Church’s worship is faithful, it will eventually be subversive of the culture surrounding it, for God’s truth transforms the lives of those nurtured by it. Worship will turn our values, habits, and ideas upside-down as it forms our character; only then will we be genuinely right-side up eternally.”{14}

When we have the attitude that the worship service is provided primarily to fix our individual problems, we get the cart before the horse. We aren’t interested in being brought low before God. But it is only in being brought low that we can be lifted up, because it is only then that we both see our real need and surrender ourselves to God to do with as He pleases, not as we please.

We thus recognize God as both subject and object of worship, as the One who fills us with Himself, and as the One upon whom we shift our focus for our time of corporate worship.

Self-Focused Individualism: Worship Focused on Me Rather Than on the Body

One of the weaknesses of the church in modern times has been the failure to give due recognition to the fact that we are part of a community of faith. Ours is a narcissistic age; we’ve been taught to be self-absorbed in our “I did it my way” culture. Marva Dawn notes that in her observation of the church today Christians “rarely . . . think in terms of ‘we’ instead of ‘I’.”{15}

The Body Present, Past and Future

We aren’t just a bunch of individuals thrown together in some loose confederation. We are a body that extends geographically around the world at the present, and which extends back in time 2000 years and forward until the Lord returns.

How can the church address this individualistic attitude? Dawn believes “that worship which keeps God as subject is the most important key, for God is the Creator of community and the preserver of the Church. . . . [W]orship that draws all its participants into a common understanding of God will develop vibrant communities–and then the communities in turn will also deepen the character growth of their members.”{16} In our worship we study Scripture together, we speak the words of the great creeds to each other, we sing as one voice, we agree in prayer. Such things foster in us a sense of oneness, of being part of a unity.

As we are part of the community present in our own day, we are also part of a community that began with the apostles and that will continue until the Lord comes. In our worship services the past can remain a part of the present through the inclusion of the wisdom of our forefathers through their writings, prayers, and liturgies. As I mentioned earlier, there is a new interest in liturgical worship among young people. Ancient writings “are seen as providing needed maturity as well as a connection to the faith of the church historical.”{17} Also, the awareness that we are leaving a legacy for those who come after us provides an encouragement to transmit and maintain a correct understanding of God in our worship. A renewed understanding of the importance of the community of faith, then, gives us a foundation upon which to stand, and makes us aware of our responsibility to others.

Speaking to our Society

There is positive change in this regard in churches attuned to the situation of the younger generations. One of the characteristics of modernism was the psychological isolation it produced. We have been thinking in terms of personal needs and choices rather than in terms of obligations to the group. Against the existential idea that my experience now is what makes me what I am, leaving me essentially rootless and radically free, Christians find their identity in the enormous body of believers made alive through faith in Christ. Today, however, young people are crying out for community, and churches are meeting this challenge through various means. This is a key area where the church reveals its eternal relevance to the human situation; to ignore it will impoverish the church body, and will make Christianity seem truly irrelevant to the younger generations.

Dumbing Down the Message

A third problem sometimes found in churches today is that of “dumbing down” the message in an effort to make it understandable to everyone equally, even to non-believers who may be visiting.

While we should welcome nonbelievers into our churches, we have to ask whether keeping our worship on an elementary level is worth the cost of holding believers at the level of nonbelievers or new believers.

We need to remember first of all that the church is . . . well, the church. It’s the body of Christ made up of those who have been taken hold of by the Savior. It isn’t unbelievers. Worship is the work of believers, and the worship service should be geared toward them. It should not be governed by what the general population finds acceptable. As Martin Marty has said, “To give the whole store away to match what this year’s market says the unchurched want is to have the people who know least about the faith determine most about its expression.”{18}

Bringing People Up Rather than Dumbing the Message Down

Part of the mission of the church is bringing people into the kingdom, and our worship services can be good places to do this. But if in our worship we water down the message, we are robbing the visitor of the full truth he or she needs to hear. If we don’t give visitors an idea of how big God is, in the long run we won’t keep them. Why should they stay if they get little more than they can get outside the church? Church historian Martin Marty said this:

This writer fears that we are on the verge of seeing happen what happened in the 1950s to mainstream Protestant churches; they retooled for people who were casually attracted and liked big parking lots, spectacle, and low demands; and the people left as easily as they came.{19}

One of the problems of the liberal church this century was that in its effort to be timely and relevant it “plunged more deeply into the needs and wishes of human beings–or a God sculpted more closely to the image of man.”{20} The attempt to keep God up-to-date winds up allowing “the world to call the tune for God.” It ignores the complexity of God; it forgets “the tensions that must exist between human’s wishes and the Creator’s intentions.”{21}

We must relate the message in accessible ways, but we needn’t assume that people can’t learn or aren’t willing to be stretched. The things of God, not the sensibilities of contemporary culture, should be the measure of our worship.

On Christians Getting Their “Meat” Elsewhere

Some might say that Christians can get their real “meat” in Sunday schools or in other separate study time. We forget that we learn about God through all parts of worship, and not just from the didactic teaching of a sermon or Sunday school class. To suggest that Christians get the “meat” of the faith in Sunday school is to reveal a modernistic bias in favor of head knowledge; i.e., the idea that knowing is simply a matter of adding to our mental database. Some might say that we are worshiping in Sunday school when we are being taught facts and ideas. But this is only a part of worship. Corporate worship is a special time for interaction with and getting to know God on multiple levels.

What is lost by not developing our understanding of God in the context of worship? Worship takes us beyond mere head knowledge; there is interaction between God and man and between Christians. In Sunday school we listen; in worship we listen and then talk back to God. It is like the difference between reading about someone and talking with him or her.

The goal in all of this is to see God as fully as we can and be touched by Him. We use words and images and whatever else we need to lift us up to God, to let Him speak to us through whatever means are available.


Although someone will be hard pressed to find in Scripture a clear description of a proper worship style, we can find principles of proper worship, which apply whether one uses electric guitars or organs or no instruments at all. Furthermore, we can be careful to weed out of our worship-indeed, out of our thinking generally-ideas and attitudes that do not accord with what Scripture teaches. Subjectivism, individualism, and the dumbing down of the Word of God should not characterize our worship. It is hard to stand against one’s culture, especially since we’re all influenced by it. But we need to do it, for the health of the body and the individual, and for the advancement of the kingdom of our Lord.


1. Bruce L. Shelley, “Why Does Worship Keep Changing?” Christian Reader, December 1996. This article gives a brief overview of the changes in worship since the Puritans. See also Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), pp. 97-101.

2. George Barna, The Second Coming of the Church: A Blueprint for Survival (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1998), 1.

3. Gary Burge, “Missing God at Church,” Christianity Today, October 6, 1997, 20-27.

4. See Jerry Solomon, “Worship,”.

5. Marva J. Dawn, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the-Century Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.)

6. Dawn, 133.

7. Dawn, 149.

8. Dawn, 206.

9. See Donald G. Bloesch, “Whatever Happened to God?” Christianity Today, Feb. 5, 2001, 54-55.

10. Dawn, 80.

11. Burge, 22.

12. Dawn. 236.

13. Dawn, 206.

14. Dawn, 58.

15. Dawn, 131.

16. Dawn, 133.

17. Daniel Harrell, “Post-Contemporary Worship,” Leadership Journal, Spring 1999. on Jan. 11, 2001.

18. Martin E. Marty, “Build a Parking Lot, and the People Will Come (and Go),” Context 25, no. 4 (15 Feb. 1993): 3-4. Quoted in Dawn, 258.

19. Marty, “Build a Parking Lot,” quoted in Dawn, 258.

20. James Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), p. 113. Quoted in Dawn, 299.

21. Turner, quoted in Dawn, 300-301.

©2001 Probe Ministries.

Living in the New Dark Ages

Is the Sun Setting On the West?

It was 146 B.C.In the waning hours of the day a Roman general, Scipio Africanus, climbed a hill overlooking the north African city of Carthage. For three years he had led his troops in a fierce siege against the city and its 700,000 inhabitants. He had lost legions to their cunning and endurance. With the Carthaginian army reduced to a handful of soldiers huddled inside the temple of their god Eshmun, the city was conquered. And with the enemy defeated, Scipio ordered his men to burn the city.(1)

Now, as the final day of his campaign drew to a close, Scipio Africanus stood on a hillside watching Carthage burn. His face, streaked with the sweat and dirt of battle, glowed with the fire of the setting sun and the flames of the city, but no smile of triumph crossed his lips. No gleam of victory shone from his eyes. Instead, as the Greek historian Polybius would later record, the Roman general “burst into tears, and stood long reflecting on the inevitable change which awaits cities, nations, and dynasties, one and all, as it does every one of us men.”

In the fading light of that dying city, Scipio saw the end of Rome itself. Just as Rome had destroyed others, so it would one day be destroyed. Scipio Africanus, the great conqueror and extender of empires, saw the inexorable truth: no matter how mighty it may be, no nation, no empire, no culture is immortal.

Against the Night book cover

Thus begins Chuck Colson’s book, Against the Night: Living in the New Dark Ages, a sober yet inspirational book on facing the future as involved Christians. He returns to this scene frequently in the book as a reminder of the transitory nature of nations and cultures. The author, chairman of Prison Fellowship and ex-Watergate figure turned Christian evangelist, sets forth a warning for the church and for individual believers.

Just as the Roman general Scipio Africanus saw in the flames of the city of Carthage the future fall of Rome and its empire, Colson believes that we are likely witnessing in the crumbling of our society the demise of the American experiment and perhaps even the dissolution of Western civilization.

And just as the fall of Rome led into the Dark Ages, the United States and the West are staggering and reeling from powerful destructive forces and trends that may lead us into a New Dark Ages. The imminent slide of the West is not inevitable, but likely unless current, destructive trends are corrected. The step-by-step dismantling of our Judeo-Christian heritage has led us to a slippery slope situation in which destructive tendencies unchecked lead to other unhealthy tendencies. For example, as expectations of common concern for others evaporates, even those who wish to retain that value become more cautious, reserved, and secretive out of self-defense, further unraveling the social fabric. Thus rampant individualism crushes to earth our more generous impulses and promotes more of the same. Other examples could be enumerated, but this illustrates the way one destructive, negative impulse can father a host of others. Soon the social fabric is in tatters, and impossible to mend peaceably. At this point the society is vulnerable both from within and from without.

The New Barbarism and Its Roots

We face a crisis in Western culture, and it presents the greatest threat to civilization since the barbarians invaded Rome. Today in the West, and particularly in America, a new type of barbarian is present among us. They are not hairy Goths and Vandals, swilling fermented brew and ravishing maidens; they are not Huns and Visigoths storming our borders or scaling our city walls. No, this time the invaders have come from within.

We have bred them in our families and trained them in our classrooms. They inhabit our legislatures, our courts, our film studios, and our churches. Most of them are attractive and pleasant; their ideas are persuasive and subtle. Yet these men and women threaten our most cherished institutions and our very character as a people. They are the new barbarians.

How did this situation come to pass? The seeds of our possible destruction began in a seemingly harmless way. It began not in sinister conspiracies in dark rooms but in the paneled libraries of philosophers, the study alcoves of the British museums, and the cafs of the world’s universities. Powerful movements and turning points are rooted in the realm of ideas.

One such turning point occurred when Rene Descartes, looking for the one thing he could not doubt, came up with the statement Cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am.” This postulate eventually led to a new premise for philosophical thought: man, rather than God, became the fixed point around which everything else revolved. Human reason became the foundation upon which a structure of knowledge could be built; and doubt became the highest intellectual virtue.

Two other men, John Stuart Mill (1806-73) and Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) contributed to this trend of man-based philosophy. Mill created a code of morality based on self-interest. He believed that only individuals and their particular interests were important, and those interests could be determined by whatever maximized their pleasure and minimized their pain. Thus the moral judgments are based on calculating what will multiply pleasure and minimize pain for the greatest number. This philosophy is called utilitarianism, one form of extreme individualism.

Another form of individualism was expressed by Rousseau who argued that the problems of the world were not caused by human nature but by civilization. If humanity could only be free, he believed, our natural virtues would be cultivated by nature. Human passions superseded the dictates of reason or God’s commands. This philosophy could be called experimental individualism.

Mill and Rousseau were very different. Mill championed reason, success, and material gain; and Rousseau passion, experiences, and feelings. Yet their philosophies have self as a common denominator, and they have now melded together into radical individualism, the dominant philosophy of the new barbarians.

According to sociologist Robert Bellah, pervasive individualism is destroying the subtle ties that bind people together. This, in turn, is threatening the very stability of our social order as it strips away any sense of individual responsibility for the common good. When people care only for themselves, they are not easily motivated to care about their neighbors, community life devolves into the survival of the fittest, and the weak become prey for the strong.

The Darkness Increases and the New Barbarians Grow Stronger

Today the prevailing attitude is one of relativism, i.e., the belief that there is no morally binding objective source of authority or truth above the individual. The fact that this view tosses aside 2,500 years of accumulated moral wisdom in the West, a rationally defensible natural law, and the moral law revealed by God in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures seems to bother very few.

Relativism and individualism need each other to survive. Rampant individualism promotes a competitive society in which conflicting claims rather than consensus is the norm because everyone is his or her own standard of “right” and “wrong” and of “rights” and “obligations.” The marriage of extreme individualism and relativism, however, has produced a new conception of “tolerance.”

The word tolerance sounds great, but this is really tolerance with a twist; it demands that everyone has a right to express his or her own views as long as those views do not contain any suggestion of absolutes that would compete with the prevailing standard of relativism.

Usually those who promote tolerance the loudest also proclaim that the motives of religious people are suspect and that, therefore, their views on any matter must be disqualified. Strangely, socialists, Nazis, sadomasochists, pedophiles, spiritualists, or worshipers of Mother earth would not be excluded. Their right to free expression would be vigorously defended by the same cultural elite who are so easily offended when Christians or other religious people express their views.

But this paradoxical intolerance produces an even deeper consequence than silencing an unpopular point of view, for it completely transforms the nature of debate, public discussion, and consensus in society. Without root in some transcendent standard, ethical judgments become merely expressions of feelings or preference. “Murder is wrong” must be translated “I hate murder” or “I prefer that you not murder.” Thus, moral claims are reduced to the level of opinion.

Opponents grow further and further apart, differing on a level so fundamental that they are unable even to communicate. When moral judgments are based on feelings alone, compromise becomes impossible. Politics can no longer be based on consensus, for consensus presupposes that competing moral claims can be evaluated according to some common standard. Politics is transformed into civil war, further evidence that the barbarians are winning.

Proponents of a public square sanitized of moral judgments purport that it assures neutrality among contending moral factions and guarantees certain basic civil rights. This sounds enlightened and eminently fair. In reality, however, it assures victory for one side of the debate and assures defeat of those with a moral structure based on a transcendent standard.

Historically, moral restraints deeply ingrained in the public consciousness provided the protective shield for individual rights and liberties. But in today’s relativistic environment that shield can be easily penetrated. Whenever some previously unthinkable innovation is both technically possible and desirable to some segment of the population, it can be, and usually will be, adopted. The process is simple. First some practice so offensive it can hardly be discussed is advocated by some expert. Shock gives way to outrage, then to debate, and when what was once a crime becomes a debate, that debate usually ushers the act into common practice. Thus decadence becomes accepted. History has proven it over and over.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Questions arise in our minds: How bad is the situation? Is it too late to stop or reverse the downward trend? If it’s too late, do we wait, preserve, and endure until the winds of history and God’s purpose are at our backs?

When a culture is beset by both a loss of public and private values, the overall decline undermines society’s primary institutional supports. God has ordained three institutions for the ordering of society: the family for the propagation of life, the state for the preservation of life, and the church for the proclamation of the gospel. These are not just voluntary associations that people can join or not as they see fit; they are organic sources of authority for restraining evil and humanizing society. They, and the closely related institution of education, have all been assaulted and penetrated by the new barbarians. The consequences are frightening.

The Family

The family is under massive assault from many directions, and its devastation is obvious. Yet the family and the church are the only two institutions that can cultivate moral virtue, and of these the family is primary and foremost because “our very nature is acquired within families.”(2) Unfortunately when radical individualism enters the family, it disrupts the transmission of manners and morals from one generation to the next. Once this happens it is nearly impossible to catch up later, and the result is generation after generation of rude, lawless, culturally retarded children.

The Church

The new barbarians have penetrated our churches and tried to turn them into everything except what God intended them to be. Even strong biblical churches have not been immune to their influence. Yet only as the church maintains its distinctiveness from the culture is it able to affect culture. The church dare not look for “success” as portrayed in our culture; instead its watchword must be “faithfulness”; only then will the church be successful. The survival of the Western culture is inextricably linked to the dynamic of reform arising from the independent and pure exercise of religion from the moral impulse. That impulse can only come from our families and from our churches. The church must be free to be the church.

The Classroom

The classroom has also been invaded by radical individualism and the secular ideas of the new barbarians. We must resist putting our young people under unbridled secularistic teaching, especially if it isn’t balanced by adequate exposure to Christian principles and a Christian worldview.

The State/Politics

Government has a worthy task to do, i.e., to protect life and to keep the peace, but it cannot develop character. To believe that it can do so is to invite tyranny. First, most people’s needs and problems are far beyond the reach of government. Second, it is impossible to effect genuine political reform, much less moral reform, solely by legislation. Government, by its very nature, is limited in what it can accomplish. We need to be involved in politics, but we must do so with realistic expectations and without illusions.

Our culture is indeed threatened, but the situation is not irreversible if we model the family before the world and let the church be the church.

A Flame in the Night

This is an important work, one that every Christian would benefit from reading. Though Colson’s subject–the ethical, moral, and spiritual decline that many observers forecast for our immediate future–is bleak, the work isn’t morose or gloomy. His focus is on opportunities and possibilities before us regardless of what the future holds. In the book’s last section, he calls for the church and for individual Christians to be lights in the darkness by cultivating the moral imagination and presenting to the world a compelling vision of the good. He outlines three steps in that process.

First, we must reassert a sense of shared destiny as an antidote to radical individualism. We are born, live, and die in the context of communities. Rich, meaningful life is found in communities of worship, self-government, and shared values. We are not ennobled by relentless competition, endless self-promotion, and maximum autonomy, nor are these tendencies ultimately rewarding. On the other hand, commitment, friendship, and civic cooperation are both personally and corporately satisfying.

Second, we must adopt a strong, balanced view of the inherent dignity of human life. All the traditional restraints on inhumanity seem to be crumbling at once in our courts, in our laboratories, in our operating rooms, in our legislatures. The very idea of an essential dignity of human life seems a quaint anachronism today. As Christians we must be unequivocally and unapologetically pro- life. We cannot disdain the unborn, the young, the infirm, the handicapped, or the elderly. We cannot concede any ground here.

Third, we must recover respect for tradition and history. We must reject the faddish movements of the moment and look to the established lessons from the past. The moral imagination (our power to perceive ethical truth[3]) values reason and recognizes truth. It asserts that the world can be both understood and transformed through the carefully constructed restraints of civilized behavior and institutions. It assumes that to approach the world without consideration of the ideas of earlier times is an act of hubris in essence, claiming the ability to create the world anew, dependent on nothing but our own pitiful intelligence.

In contrast to such an attitude, the moral imagination begins with awe, reverence, and appreciation for order within creation. It sees the value of tradition, revelation, family, and community and responds with duty, commitment, and obligation. But the moral imagination is more than rational. It is poetic, stirring long atrophied faculties for nobility, compassion, and virtue.

Imagination is expressed through symbols, allegories, fables, and literary illustrations. Winston Churchill revived the moral imagination of the dispirited British people in his speeches when he depicted the threat from Hitler not as just another war, but as a sacrificial, moral campaign against a force so evil that compromise or defeat would bring about a New Dark Ages. British backbones were stiffened and British hearts were ennobled because Churchill was able to unite rational, emotional, and artistic ideas into a common vision.

Western civilization and the church are currently engaged in a war of ideas with new barbarians. Whether we have the will to be victorious will depend in large measure on the strength and power of our moral imagination. Charles Colson’s book, Against the Night: Living in the New Dark Ages, can give us guidance in this crucial task.



1. This essay is in large measure a condensation of several chapters of the author’s work; consequently, quotations and paraphrase may exist side by side unmarked. Therefore, for accuracy in quoting, please consult the book: Charles Colson, with Ellen Santilli Vaughn, Against the Night: Living in the New Dark Ages (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Servant, 1989).

2. Russell Kirk, The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things Are Written on the Sky (Washington:Regnery Gateway, 1987), 24.

3.For fuller discussion see Russell Kirk, Enemies of the Permanent Things: Observations of Abnormity in Literature and Politics (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1969), 119.

For Further Reading

Kirk, Russell. The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things Are Written on the Sky. Washington:Regnery Gateway, 1987.

Muggeridge, Malcolm. The End of Christendom.

Henry, Carl F. H. Twilight of a Great Civilization. Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1988.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. A World Split Apart. New York: Harper and Row, 1978.

Bellah, Robert. Habits of the Heart. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California, 1985.

Johnson, Paul. Modern Times.

Lewis, C. S. Abolition of Man. New York: Macmillan, 1947.

Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1981.

© 1996 Probe Ministries