Category Archives: Culture

The Gospel & Cultural Identity

by Jackson Watts

Recently I was perusing an older edition of Integrity, the theological journal which the Commission for Theological Integrity occasionally publishes (back issues available in PDF form here). I especially enjoyed reading an article written by Dr. Jeff Turnbough on culture as a missiological concept.

Turnbough remarks that in recent years he has given a lot of consideration to the biblical imagery of Christians as pilgrims, and the implications that has for our life in the world. As I was reading his discussion of this, simultaneously aware of his missionary background and the recent celebration of Memorial Day, I thought his piece provided a helpful caution about syncretism. Syncretism, from a religious perspective, is typically understood to be a problematic attempt to amalgamate different religious, cultures, or ideas, thus compromising the core substance of the original truth.

He warns,

While we must immerse ourselves in local cultures in order to communicate eternal truth effectively, we must be careful not to mix local wisdom with godly wisdom. This is probably most difficult when we stay in one culture all our lives, especially if the nation claims to be a Christian nation. We must pledge our allegiance first and foremost to God and heaven and treat our present location (as ambassadors of a heavenly kingdom) with diplomacy and respect, without betraying our loyalty to our eternal homeland. If we fall in love with a specific earthly and human sociocultural system, that love and allegiance will tend to distort and skew our perspective of eternal values. That is dangerous for the Christian pilgrim. Divided allegiances usually lead to varying forms of syncretism. Ultimately, in order to avoid this problem, we must follow the biblical exhortation to “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen; for what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18) [1].

Such words of caution have significant import for not only missionaries, but national church planters, pastors, and all Christians who are serious about communicating the Gospel wisely.

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[1] Jeff Turnbough, “Understanding Culture: From a Missiological Perspective,” in Integrity 3 (2006), 65-89.

Arminianism & the Rise of Secularism?

by W. Jackson Watts

Recently I’ve been lumbering through Charles Taylor’s widely discussed book, A Secular Age. Published in 2007 by Harvard’s Belknap Press, this dense, 800+ pager (with endnotes) is an expanded presentation of the material Taylor originally gave for the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh in 1999.

A Secular Age is a difficult book to read for many reasons, its length being one of many. I don’t think it is so much the professional or cultural divide of him being a bilingual, Catholic philosopher from Canada. I think it is largely because he is making his argument by telling a story, and that story brings together history, theology, philosophy, sociology, cultural analysis, and more. In that sense, it’s a very interdisciplinary story—one that must be read slowly and carefully. (Thankfully, the Gospel Coalition has called attention in several posts to James K.A. Smith’s helpful engagement with Taylor, see here, here, and here.)

One of Taylor’s remarks that caught my eye comes at the end of a lengthy episode when he is describing how the Reformation contributed to the disenchantment of the world that we commonly associate with  secularism, or modernity more specifically. Most sociologists explain disenchantment as a feature of modernity in which the former, dominant outlook of the world as being charged with spirits, demons, and moral forces (including the activity of God), eventually recedes from dominance, and ultimately disappears.

Taylor says a lot of interesting things about this transition, and how the Reformation contributed (intentionally or not) to this process of disenchantment. Yet then he provides the one reference to Arminianism that can be found in the entire book:

Of course, we could go on holding to the express belief that only God’s power makes this possible; but in fact the confidence has grown that we, people like us, successful, well-behaved people, in our well-ordered society/stratum, are beneficiaries of God’s grace—as against those depraved, disordered classes, marginal groups, Papists, or whatever…As a general proposition, of course, it remains true that the majority of humankind is destined for damnation, and that the minority of the saved are very lucky; but in practice, we are confident that we belong in this minority, and that the universe is unfolding as it should….I have described a change as it might happen among the less reflective and devout members of the community. But the sense of greater control also effected the more reflective and devout. Thus Arminianism arises after a time in all Calvinist societies, provoking as it does revivals of predestinarian orthodoxy, but then returning in force again. This development was inevitable, in view of the very success of Calvinism in changing people’s lives [1].

It’s important to note that this quotation appears in the larger context of a fairly sophisticated argument about how Protestant doctrine’s rejection or revision of sacramentalism contributed to the rise of secularism. This argument exceeds the space I have here, but I want to simple pull on the specific thread here about Arminianism and control.

It’s difficult to tell if Taylor is arguing whether this is simply a tug-of-war between two religious groups contending for market share (more of a social development), or if the issue is actually the way these two traditions address the quest for human control and autonomy. I think it’s possible that he means it in both ways, but I think the latter way is most relevant to those trying to advance an accurate understanding of Arminianism today.

Our Challenge

It has been argued that one of the reasons Calvinism receded in influence for a significant period in early American history was because of how its assertion of God’s sovereignty wasn’t congenial to the broader movements of freedom, economic opportunity, and expressive individualism in mainstream culture. This isn’t really a philosophical argument, though obviously ideas have consequences (and antecedents). This is more of a part of the story that a lot of American religious historians tell.

Conversely, it would seem that Arminianism is a much more plausible outlook to modern Christians because its assertions about God’s sovereignty and human freedom are formulated differently. Arminianism doesn’t have to compete with the same vigor for the same religious market-share because it has the cultural sensibilities of freedom-loving, but also God-loving people on its side.

I think this argument, as reasonable as it may sound to some, doesn’t really have the kind of explanatory power or scope than some people think. Let me offer one reason why I think this is the case.

It seems to reduce negative cultural change (like the slide toward secularism) more of the type of subtraction story that Taylor himself rejects.

By “subtraction story,” Taylor means the way apologists for secularism act like the move toward secularism was just a journey of being able to discard certain elements from the past, like beliefs in myth, magic, or spirits, in order to arrive at a moment of unveiling what was really there all along: nothing! Apologists for secularism think that because we’ve shed or subtracted our religious dogmas and myths, we’ve now gotten to the truth. They fail to acknowledge where they have actively substituted exclusive humanism in the place of the religious dogmas.

Similar to the argument about Arminianism, if one claims that people by default are Arminians (as sometimes I’ve heard Michael Horton and others in the Reformed crowd imply), they would have to show where some act of substitution has actually taken place. Yet they cannot; If the doctrines of grace require unpacking and explicating for those in churches from the Calvinist tradition, then it seems like those with an Arminian heritage would have had to have been exposed to confessional teachings from James Arminius for them to even be thought to be “of the Arminian heritage.” Otherwise, the “default setting,” as it were, may be some combination of beliefs about God’s existence, human freedom, Wesley’s hymns perhaps, and a certain reading of Bible. But it won’t be confessional Arminianism.

I suspect most persons in mainstream evangelicalism have found certain theologies more appealing because of how they seemed to gel with their own privately-held beliefs. But in terms of default settings, I think you have more of a little bit of this tradition, mixed in with a little bit of that tradition, situated against the backdrop of American cultural influences that all of us have been shaped by.

One of the ways Taylor’s work is helpful is because of how he doesn’t focus on secularism as some disappearance act of the church or religious influence from the state (Secularism 1), or even the decline of religious belief and practice (Secularism 2). He does discuss these, but he is decidedly focused on a third type of secularism, which has to do with the conditions of our beliefs. In other words, the important “secular question” to explore is how is it that we have come to the place where what once was the default position for most, has now become simply an option among many, and not a very good one?

Secularism calls attention to how the conditions of certain kinds of beliefs or commitments in this age are under examination. That we would be choosers of our religion in a way that we wouldn’t have been in 1500 bespeaks secularization. Secularity, in this way of understanding it, “is a matter of the whole context of understanding in which our moral, spiritual or religious experience and search takes place” [2].

I think this is a fruitful way of studying history and cultural change. It’s also a helpful way of thinking about the history of doctrine. It reminds us that (1) Some beliefs do take hold at certain times for reasons which sometimes aren’t all that theological in nature, and yet (2) If we believe that the pursuit of sound doctrine is a moral responsibility for believers, then there will always be a deliberative component to our pursuit. That is, the mind, heart, and will are involved in the adoption of sound, biblical beliefs. Though we seek diligently and humbly to understand “the material conditions of our existence,” we don’t have to be a slave to them.

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[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007), 84.

[2] Taylor, 3.

Bumper Sticker Theology

by Randy Corn

Does the name Piotr Mledozeniec ring a bell?  If you are anything like me, it doesn’t, but I would bet you have seen some of his work.

Mr. Mledozeniec is a Polish graphic designer who came up with a design for a traveling exhibit from a museum based in Jerusalem back in 2001. It incorporated a Muslim crescent, a Jewish Star of David, and a Christian cross.  This eventually morphed into the bumper sticker we are all familiar with that proclaims a one-word worldview: Coexist.

Recently, I came across an editorial in The Daily Beast written by Michael Schulson about this ubiquitous bumper sticker.  He rightly observes that this is the bumper sticker equivalent of Rodney King’s statement, “Can’t we all just get along?” made while Los Angeles burned.  I assume that people with this bumper sticker mean well, but I wonder if they have seriously thought about what they are suggesting.

Isn’t it naïve to think there is a compromise to be found in any conflict, especially when you consider the blatant force some exercise? Shulson writes, “ISIS is marauding across the Middle East. China is squeezing Tibet in an anaconda grip of cultural homogenization. Buddhists are causing violence in Sri Lanka, far-right Islamophobic parties are on the rise in Scandinavia, and Muslims and Christians are slaughtering each other in the Central African Republic.” Perhaps the Coexist folks assume that religious-based conflicts are about things that don’t really matter.  From a secularist perspective that might be true, but what about those of us who are seriously committed to certain core beliefs?

Some Christians do seem to relish the idea of minimizing what those core beliefs are, but there is an irreducible core to the Christian faith. An earlier generation called these the fundamentals.  While I have not discussed this with a Muslim, I am sure the same is true of Islam. What is the sincere Christian (or the sincere Muslim for that matter), supposed to do when they are in direct conflict either with one another or with other forces that might ask them to deny the fundamentals of their faith?

One area where this conflict surfaces is in evangelism, or what might be more broadly called proselytism. The logic seems to be that if all religions are equally valid then what gives anyone the right to “impose” his faith on anyone else?  To be sure, there have been some who would spread their belief at the point of a sword.  Christianity is not exempt from this. The Inquisition and later the forced “conversion” of native populations in the New World is a dark page in the history of Christendom. It should be pointed out, though, that while forced conversion is an aberration to Christianity, it is a tenet of Islam. Among many other examples, Qur’an 8:39 states, “So fight them until there is no more Fitnah (disbelief, i.e. non-Muslims) and all submit to the religion of Allah alone.” The philosophy of our bumper sticker would certainly condemn forced conversion, but what about the free exchange of ideas?

Evangelism, in the Christian sense, is not about imposing our faith on anyone; it is human persuasion working in tandem with the Holy Spirit’s conviction.  To be sure, some Christians have been obnoxious about this, but the knowledgeable evangelical realizes he can’t argue someone into the Kingdom of God.

Are religious people simply supposed to keep their convictions to themselves?  Is it offensive for a committed Christian to tell an unbeliever that he is praying for the lost man’s conversion?  If advocating coexistence leads the Christian away from any concern for the Great Commission, then it must be rejected out of hand.

It may be that I am overstating the implication of a one-word slogan, but at the very least Coexist is an appeal to minimize differences and be silent about any distinctions.

 

 

 

On C.S. Lewis & Chronological Snobbery

by Matthew Pinson

In my courses at Welch College, I often introduce my students to C. S. Lewis’s comments on “chronological snobbery.” Lewis described himself before he became a Christian, when he was still an atheist, as a chronological snob. He defined chronological snobbery as the “uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited” [1].

Lewis believed that this was what kept so many modern intellectuals from accepting Christianity. But he urged his colleagues not to be chronological snobs, insisting:

You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also ‘a period,’ and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them [2].

This is why Lewis recommended reading old books. In his introduction to Athanasius’s The Incarnation of the Word of God, Lewis comments on this. It was later printed under the title “On the Reading of Old Books” [3].

 It’s a good rule after reading a new book never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to three new ones. Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all therefore need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means old books. . . . None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. . . . The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds and this can only be done by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them [4].

Recently I came across another quotation from Lewis on this theme. It was on the website of, of all things, an asset management firm. You can see why an asset management firm would be quoting someone about not taking just the recent past as our guide for wisdom. Asset managers and investors must look at what markets do over the long haul, not just at current trends, to advise people on how to invest their money. Listen to this incisive quote:

 “Most of all we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village. The scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age” [5].

Now, of course, I think Lewis would agree that this ability to “live in many times” is not limited to professional scholars. Anyone who wants to put forth the effort and “read old books,” learning from the wisdom of the Christian tradition (and the Free Will Baptist tradition in our case) will reap the benefits of which Lewis speaks.

Lewis’s lessons here are ones that we evangelicals in the early part of the twenty-first century need to learn. Many of us are quick to point out chronological snobbery in liberal theology, progressive politics, and the license with which modern liberal judges interpret the U.S. Constitution. But we also need to avoid chronological snobbery when it comes to our church lives. This is not to say that we do everything “just the way grandpa did it.” Yet it is to say that we need to avoid the trendiness and ecclesiastical fashionableness that we evangelicals seem to be so tempted by these days.

So I exhort you: resist the modern temptation to be a chronological snob. Read old books in addition to modern ones. And let the clean sea breeze of the centuries blow through your mind!

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[1] Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1966), 207-08.

[2] Ibid.

[3] In God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 200-207.

[4] Ibid.,

[5] The sermon from which this quotation comes can be found at Bradley G. Green’s excellent website: http://bradleyggreen.com/attachments/Lewis.Learning%20in%20War-Time.pdf. “Learning in War-Time,” a sermon preached in Oxford, UK, 1939.

 

Moral Authority and the Media: An Uneasy Relationship

by W. Jackson Watts

Controversy has recently erupted on the American sports scene as off-the-field incidents involving professional athletes have come to the attention of the general public. Given the nature of contemporary media, it really was unavoidable that major news outlets would pick up these stories and make them front-and-center in many evening news programs.

These controversies have developed on several fronts, but all center upon off-the-field player conduct in the National Football League (NFL). Several players have been indicted or convicted in cases of domestic abuse, while another high-profile player has been indicted on charges connected to his excessive use of corporal punishment on his 4-year old son. Coupled with the usual pattern of drug and alcohol-related criminal activity, the world’s most profitable sports league has lately come under as much scrutiny as any time in the past.

As an avid sports fan, it has been especially difficult for me to avoid—intentionally or unintentionally—this extensive coverage. Like most aspects of contemporary society, much of the intrigue lies underneath the surface. It’s much like the fisherman surveying the algae settled on the top of the pond. It may be thick and green, but he still wonders what’s swimming around underneath.

If I may play the role of fisherman-cultural commentator, there is a caution which conscientious Christians should heed in this ongoing coverage. This caution concerns the link between authority and the closely-related issue of morality.

Who’s to Say?

I believe it was F. Leroy Forlines who first introduced me to the “Who’s to Say?” question. By this question, Forlines was calling attention to the nature of authority, especially as it concerns right and wrong. Anytime we start dealing with strong moral claims, we’re also dealing with the moral agents making such claims. And by thinking about agents, there is a presumption to authority which allows these persons to make such claims.

We’ve been conditioned in postmodernity to question the idea of authority. Many of the figures and institutions which in earlier periods were thought to possess moral authority included the church, the clergy, parents, and even elected officials. Yet in countless instances most of these have lost their cultural authority to assert anything about right and wrong, good and bad. “Who’s to say”? Moral judgments are simple statements of value. Nothing more. At best, morality is socially-constructed and constantly evolving.

However, in the midst of the recent coverage of the football players, journalists and media personalities of all sorts have declared their outrage at the conduct of the athletes. Moreover, they have hurled their invectives against league officials, including team-owners, who haven’t dealt with these situations in a way they thought was appropriate.

There’s no doubt that most spectators (myself included) deplore the actions of these players. Even many teammates have expressed their disgust and disdain. However, the role the media has come to play as judge, jury, and executioner is worth special attention.

Mainstream, irreligious thought today sees morality as nothing more than a cultural construct, the consensus of human opinion and preference. As troubling as this is, we should perhaps be equally concerned about having the “all-seeing eye” of the media serve as our conscience when it comes to morality.

In past decades, journalists like Malcolm Muggeridge and cultural critics like Daniel Boorstin have cautioned about the perils of modern media. We should keep in mind that this was before the 24-hour news, and largely before the surge of for-profit news organizations and programs. Boorstin warned of the “pseudo-event,” in which the media is able to manufacture and make news as opposed to merely reporting it [1]. Muggeridge, himself a journalist, spoke of how the media had created and belonged to a world of fantasy, purporting its presentation of things to be reality [2].

These observations clue us into the realization that an organ of society such as news media is not at all best positioned to instruct us in the morality of human conduct. As any powerful entity, it is far too easy for persons in this industry to not only describe events of interest and ask insightful questions, but to stand over and above society as if removed from it to render verdicts. Yet who stands over and above the media?

Because the news networks rely on advertising just as any other television programming does, they are still in some respects at the mercy of the viewers who choose to tune in. But this actually doesn’t help the problem of media authority because as consumers people may choose to find a network that narrates reality the way they choose to hear it. The news media is still in a position of moral authority.

Christians and Authority

It is difficult for Christians to wade into this arena because we recognize that the church has had far too many black eyes in the past to be taken seriously by so many. As NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell assembles a staff to study issues in domestic violence and player conduct, no clergy, theologians, or Christian counselors will be summoned to participate.

Even aside from the moral failings of pastors and massive church organizations, people often reject the moral claims of Christianity simply because “in unrighteousness they suppress the truth.” This is a problem which we may bemoan, but it will not go away. The added difficulty is that perceptions of the church’s moral credibility come to so many by way of the news media! What can be done in the midst of such a challenging climate? I would offer two suggestions:

 

  1. Maintain Integrity in Order to Gain Credibility

While it is no guarantee of mainstream cultural success, it is certainly a basic truism that integrity precedes credibility. People tend to listen to those who have demonstrated consistency, and fairness with others. Though we may bear some corporate responsibility for the failures of the church in the past, we are God’s people today. We can only fully answer for our own lives and those with whom we covenant together in the church. Seeing things this way may the scope of our influence more to the local level than the national one, but faithfulness begins in the area where God has placed us.

 

  1. Along with Integrity, Offer a Narrative

 The idea of a controlling narrative or story is a convention utilized by persons in the media. They often purport to be presenting a narrative of what is happening in society at any given moment. More often they are defining and creating a narrative within which to report their stories in a coherent way.

Christians, however, have the most powerful narrative of all time: the story of King Jesus. The morals of Jesus are still compelling to many, but we go much further by declaring that the Christ of Scripture is also the Lord of Heaven. So as we speak about the same subjects the media covers, we interpret them through a lens which is infallible. The Christian worldview makes sense of the world in all its glory and garbage. It accounts for the exemplary athletes and the despicable ones. But it also holds all of us accountable.

The notion of moral authority is a thorny one to be sure. But Christians must not back away from it simply when others seek to usurp it. We recognize that only King Jesus has ultimate authority, and we want to live under that authority as we proclaim it in a confused, media-saturated world.

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[1] Daniel Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1961).

[2] Malcolm Muggeridge, Christ and the Media (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977).