Culture, Time, & Christianity

Os Guinness says some noteworthy things about Christianity and culture in an interview with Dick Staub. Guinness observes:

If you look back when clocks came into the West, there was a subtle change. For example, the idea of being civilized for the Greeks was a spatial idea. If you were inside, you were civilized. If you were outside, beyond the pale, you were barbarian. It was a matter of being beyond.

To be civilized in our world though is a matter of time. The uncivilized are Neanderthals. Change is what matters. Progress is what matters. The latest is greatest and the newer is truer. We think that the whole of history and everything in the world leads up to you and me. We have to keep up with every emerging trend in order to be savvy today.

This notion of progess, Guinness says, causes a problem for Christians who try to make Christianity “relevant.” Guinness delineates the difference between Scripture being the authority of the church and culture being its authority. When culture becomes the authority, churches adapt to it in different ways, such as making services more “seeker” oriented and watering-down doctrine to make it more palatable.

I believe what Guinness has touched on here is only the tip of a large, and dangerous iceberg. We in the 21st century do tend to think that the people of old, along with their ideas, are too old-fashioned to be useful today. How easily we forget the words of the prophet Jeremiah:“Thus says the LORD, ‘Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, Where the good way is, and walk in it; And you will find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.'”

Therein lies the problem. People not only refuse to walk in the ancient paths, they put forth the notion that these paths never led anywhere in the first place. Church history becomes meaningless, followed by the history of Western Civilization, and so on. The Bible becomes an ancient fairy tale, and the new, progressive society becomes the sole basis for any authority.

Oh that we would at least see the ancient paths, then perhaps we would begin to walk upon them.

Lit. 101

Literature is vastly underappreciated in our day. This doesn’t mean people have forsaken reading—a mere look at the number of stores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders shows that people must be reading something.

Sadly, much of the reading that passes across our eyes doesn’t fall into the category of literature. Books like Tom Clancy’s The Teeth of the Tiger need not apply. There is nothing wrong with a book like this—I myself read Clancy and a few others on occasion. They’re good for entertainment value and stimulate one’s mind much more than watching a movie like Twister, which I affectionately rank as one of the worst movies of all time.

After all is said and done, however, one is not challenged intellectually or even emotionally by “entertainment-style” books. I define a work of literature as one which invites the reader into another mind, world, or situation which causes the reader to extend his or her imagination to come to terms with what is being discussed in the literature. Literature makes us leap out with our imaginations and often teaches us.

Myron Magnet writes in this excellent article about the value that literature has for our culture [link found via]:

Literature is a conversation across the ages about our experience and our nature, a conversation in which, while there isn’t unanimity, there is a surprising breadth of agreement. Literature amounts, in these matters, to the accumulated wisdom of the race, the sum of our reflections on our own existence. It begins with observation, with reporting, rendering the facts of our inner and outer reality with acuity sharpened by imagination. At its greatest, it goes on to show how these facts have coherence and, finally, meaning. As it dramatizes what actually happens to concrete individuals trying to shape their lives at the confluence of so many imperatives, it presents us with concrete and particular manifestations of universal truths. For as the greatest authors know, the universal has to be embodied in the particular—where, as it is enmeshed in the complexity and contradictoriness of real experience, it loses the clarity and lucidity that only abstractions can possess.

One of the examples Magnet mentions briefly is Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy. This novel is #2 on my all time favorite list (perhaps I’ll give my #1 later). Though it is an engaging and even entertaining work of fiction, I would easily rank it more valuable than any non-fiction self-help book on relationships. Anna Karenina explores nearly every type of relationship known to mankind. What makes a novel like Anna Karenina great is that it not only explores these relationships, it gives a scenario for them being lived out.

Remember Please… your prayers my paternal grandmother, Jeanette Bridges (known to her grandchildren as “MawMaw”) who is hospitalized in Tuscaloosa, Alabama for heart failure. Apparently she was misdiagnosed with pneumonia a couple of days ago and was treated as such, but now they’ve discovered it was her heart.

My maternal grandmother is still recovering, quite remarkably, from emergency brain surgery about a month ago. I was able to speak with her via telephone tonight and she seemed her old self. I would greatly appreciate your prayers for both my grandmothers.

The Tiger’s Tale

I skipped NBC’s airing of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy last night to finish reading Tom Clancy’s The Teeth of the Tiger. Sorry NBC, it’s rather queer how I always seem to miss that show.

Anyway, the book was OK, but definitely not one of Clancy’s best. It was quite predictable in places, even where there was no foreshadowing. It seems since Rainbow Six, Clancy has developed an uncanny penchant for even more uncanny coincidences in his books. I won’t spoil the plot here, but Clancy makes the reader take some giant leaps to get the book where he wants it to go.

I think Clancy’s best works are Clear and Present Danger and Without Remorse. Both of these books grapple quite well with some serious moral questions as well as laying out some more plausible storylines.

Still, if you’re a Clancy reader like me (I’ve read all of his novels), you’ll definitely not want to miss this one. The book is entertaining, although I fear that sheer entertainment may be all Clancy is writing for these days.

Tablets of Stone

I’ve got mixed feelings about the saga going on down in Alabama with Chief Justice Roy Moore. In case you haven’t heard about it, Justice Moore is fighting a US Supreme Court order to remove the monument of the Ten Commandments he placed in the rotunda at the Alabama Supreme Court.

On one hand, I can sympathize with Justice Moore. I think he is correct in maintaining that the Decalogue and God’s law is foundational to our own law. I also agree that the Constitution’s establishment clause (in the First Amendment) was never meant to cover issues such as this.

What makes me uneasy is not the fact that Justice Moore is taking a bold stand, but I wonder if this is the right battle to be fighting. Whether or not a statue of the Decalogue stays in an Alabama courthouse will not change the historical fact that Western law is based on Judeo-Christian principles. I appreciate Justice Moore standing up against a wrong, but what point is he trying to make?

Deuteronomy 6 tells us that the aim of God’s commandments and instruction is that they might be written on our hearts. The absence of a statue in the courthouse will not even be noticed if the word of God is written on the hearts of his followers. I tremble to speculate how many of Justice Moore’s vocal supporters could even quote the Ten Commandments without reading the statue.

UPDATE: It appears that I am not the only person who has some ambivalence on this issue. Marvin Olasky has a much more in-depth treatment in the upcoming issue of World. Olasky likens the dilemma to military tactics:

Christian activists, for their part, should not rush either to support or scorn, but should think through whether this is the issue on which they want to concentrate their attention. Robert E. Lee, a master strategist, chose the high ground near Fredericksburg, Va., as the place to make a stand late in 1862, and his choice led to a major Southern victory. Half a year later Lee fought another major battle at Gettysburg, on ground he had not chosen that worked to his disadvantage. “Pickett’s charge” on July 3, 1863, was a noble effort. It was also Lee’s biggest military mistake.

Christians cannot control what biased journalists report, but those who aspire to be like Robert E. Lee need to consider the ground of battle. Here’s an example of good ground: Eight years ago Texas state officials tried to remove the license of a Christian drug-counseling organization because it fought addiction through evangelism. The drug-counseling group gained a lot of support from Texans, including then-Gov. George W. Bush, because it was obviously doing good in getting people off drugs (WORLD, July 29, 1995). Recent history shows that Christians using government power to assert biblical truth tend to be seen as bullies, while those standing up against such power—if they can show that they are helping people in the process—tend to win at least grudging assent from those who would otherwise be critical.

I think this is a wise perspective. We should not be too quick to scorn, but at the same time we need not be foolish.

UNtruth in Advertising

I came across this article from the United Kingdom [linked via Tom Perrault] about a report from two advertising agencies that were hired by a British Christian magazine to create marketing strategies “aimed at encouraging people to attend church services.”

Since my undergradute major was in advertising, and I currently work for a marketing company, I couldn’t help but to comment on the outcomes the ad agencies reached. The punchline of the findings of the two agencies was,””We don’t think people want to be preached at, and we didn’t want traditional images like pictures of Jesus on a cross…”

To remedy this horrible image of the church, the agencies conceived of such ideas as:

…using an image of a goldfish in a bowl together with the tag line: “When did you last really need someone to talk to?”

Another ad featured an image of a vicar with the line: “When was the last time you saw some really good stand up… for free?”

These concepts were based upon the notion that “churches should promote themselves as a place to catch up with news and friends.”

Although this was commissioned by a magazine, and not a specific church body, it is not so far off the mark from what many churches do. They try to “re-invent church” (hmm–eerily reminiscent of Al Gore…) and try to shake up those so-called stadgy old traditions.

While it is true that churches should be careful in relying too much upon tradition, they should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. The reason the advertising agencies’ pitches weren’t far off the mark is because many churches have thrown out the Gospel along with their stodgy traditions. Paul warned of this when writing to Timothy.

We must be careful not to expunge something just because it is offensive. The Gospel itself is offensive because it exposes us for who we really are: sinners in need of salvation. Christ upon the cross is offensive simply because he was there in our place.

It is not fun think on things such as these. It is does not feel good to know that we are helpless on our own. If, however, we do not think on these things and do not feel these things, we can never know the joy of what it means to have Christ upon the cross in our place. I pray that the Church at large never gives up the distasteful cross to attract more visitors, because they will indeed be attracted–but the attraction may lead them in a direction they did not wnat to go.

The Lineup

My semester begins Wednesday morning (does anyone know why classes, no matter where you are or what level, invariably begin in the middle of the week?), so I thought I’d list the lineup for this fall:

  • Hebrew Exegesis: Isaiah 40-66 with Peter Gentry
  • The Ministry of Leadership with Brad Waggoner
  • The Worshipping Church with Carl Stam
  • Theology of Cults & New Religious Movements with James Chancellor

After I complete these, supposedly I’ve have all the credits for a Master of Divinity (I’ll need to double-check that with Academic Services, of course…).

Freshman Orientation

This week marks the beginning of another school year for many–in my case, it’s the beginning of my final semester of seminary. As I was pondering the start of new school year–you know, buying crayons (with the sharpener on the box, of course), Trapper Keepers, and those dull scissors, I came across this article by a student in Indianapolis regarding freshmen orientations at secular universities. Abby Nye writes:

The first shocker was Freshman Orientation, which you should know right now is a terrible misnomer. The correct term would be Freshman Indoctrination. Many schools basically hold students hostage for three or four days and attempt to reprogram their brains on matters of moral relativism, tolerance, gay/lesbian/transgendered rights, postmodernism, and New Age spirituality. Orientation skits sent messages like, “it’s okay to have premarital sex, just use a condom,” “underage drinking is accepted (and expected), but if you have sex when you’re drunk you have the right to press charges for rape,” “homosexuality is normal, get used to it.” And that was all before the first day of classes started.

This reminded me of my own freshman orientation just over ten years ago (has it been that long?…). The scene has changed little since then. I can remember the “heart to heart” conversation my group had with the orientation adviser on the roof of one of the dorms. He told us in candid terms how to sneak girls into the dorm, how to sneak beer into the dorm, and how we should sneak through college on the minimum twelve hours per semester. Sneaky guy.

I did, however, encounter one other Christian, and we skipped the date-rape seminar and played a round of billiards. Orientation was, for the most part, a joke. It was indeed more akin to a poorly veiled attempt at indoctrination by the so-called “free thinking” crowd than an introduction to true college life.

That said, I do believe that the secular university is great place, though difficult at times, for Christian students to be. I’m sure Christian schools have their advantages, but in my experience I was forced to depend on God more in this often hostile environment. Be sure to read the article for Abby Nye’s worthy advice to those entering college.