The Gospel Revisited: Charting a New Way Toward Culture Change (Part 2)

In my last blog post I sought to bring to the fore some of what ails our beliefs and behaviors of Christianity in the West but more specifically in the United States today. In this post I would like to continue where I left off; and that is to offer a hopeful way forward for the faithful.

Hardly any Evangelical leader today would argue that we are currently living in a post-Christian and post-truth culture. In the last ten years we have seen a myriad of books that have been published to counter the cultural slide; titles such as Renaissance by Os Guinness, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option and To Change The World by James D. Hunter come to mind. These modern day prophets, in their speaking and writing have warned, consoled and provided a new fresh way to view the world in the context of Christianity today.

If we grant the premise that we ultimately are what we love1, our understanding of how culture’s devolvement may simultaneously help us recover a proper vision of God’s kingdom. It is this understanding, an awareness, that counts as the first step.2 To illustrate this, one of the joys in my life has been teaching my son how to play competitive tennis. My family encouraged this sport in him as soon as he began walking and after years of practice he now is able to keep up with college-level tennis players. However, every once in a while he experiences a bad streak in his game in which his forehand strokes, his main competitive advantage, fail him — and fail him badly. When this happens I, as his coach, would tell him two things: (1) explain the mechanics of his stroke, what makes it work and what causes failure; and (2) physically demonstrate the proper correction, a slight tweak in how he grips the racket in order to hit the ball with enough spin and pace.

This analogy highlights two important things in our approach if we are to redeem culture for Christ: belief and behavior. This dynamic tie in respectively to the two things I mentioned above. Belief here is defined as propositions that are true and justified. It’s what counts as knowledge. Behavior on the other hand is the practical way in which one acts or conducts oneself. No one doubts the ineluctable relationship between belief and behavior in the sense that proper belief produces proper behavior. Taking this further, the common view argues that to correct a bad behavior one must correct the bad belief. This is an idealized way of looking at connection but we know this is false. Because if this were true we would not be discussing culture decay. James D. Hunter astutely observes:

Consider, first, the fact that communities of faith have been a dominating presence in American society for the length and breadth of its history. There is some evidence that suggests that there are even more Americans who are worshipping as part of a congregation today than in the past.1 As late as 1960, only 2 percent of the population claimed not to believe in God; even today, only 12 to 14 percent of the population would call themselves secularists. This means that in America today, 86 to 88 percent of the people adhere to some faith commitments. And yet our culture—business culture, law and government, the academic world, popular entertainment—is intensely materialistic and secular.3

For far too long we have fought the culture wars with more education (belief) at the expense of forming behavior, thinking that if we only taught a generation rightly all will be well. We forget that in the politicization of education, it is downstream from culture as other social structures are. In other words, our educational system, institutions curriculum, frameworks, organizations, etc. are a result of the forces that have shaped culture. Perhaps the solution may be found in shining a light to the oft-neglected part of the equation: behavior? Rick Warren, pastor and author of The Purpose Driven Life, expresses this sentiment concisely in a statement he has often repeated:

I’m looking for a second reformation. The first reformation of the church 500 years ago was about beliefs. This one is going to be about behavior. The first one was about creeds. This one is going to be about deeds. It is not going to be about what the church believes, but about what the church is doing.4

Warren is absolutely correct in his invitation and challenge to this generation. We know why, but do we know how to behave? What resources can we draw upon that will help us in the formation? In this short blog, I regretfully have not found enough time and space except to mention the first step in our project to improve culture, and that is a thoughtful awareness of the nuances of the challenges that keep believers in a cultural cul-de-sac.

The Gospel Revisited: Charting a New Way Toward Culture Change

Neil Postman, an American social critic, professor and author, best known for his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, compared two dystopian visions of the future. The famous version is from George Orwell. He saw a future in which totalitarian states ruled with fear and control. His classic novel 1984 created a world in which its citizens were persecuted for adopting individualism and independent thinking. The book popularized the adjective Orwellian, connoting deception, secret surveillance and has inspired movies such as Minority Report, Blade Runner and The Matrix.

Around the same time, Aldous Huxley, an English writer and philosopher proposed a similar gloomy future in his novel Brave New World . Only this time its citizens are engineered through artificial wombs and put in predetermined classes based on intelligence and strength. To keep society in order and prevent them from knowing the truth, the people who live in it are sustained by a constant diet of soothing, happiness-inducing drug.

Postman, a generation ago poignantly predicted things would get worse in a Huxleyan sense rather than the popular Orwellian one.  That society’s ruin would not come resulting from malevolent cultural forces, but by our loves and desires.1

Vincent Miller in Consuming Religion expands on this. He argues that the daily activities we engage in are a result of unwittingly adopting a habit of consuming goods without thinking of the harmful costs it takes to produce them. We are socialized into thinking and behaving in ways that betray our values in part because we have embraced the status quo. For example, we are unconscious in the way we check off our grocery list of produce, canned goods and sundries but fail to realize the human cost it took (growing, harvesting, delivery, etc.) to end up in our shopping basket.

Betraying ones values is typically not something we do consciously. Even inmates are not excused for they adhere to a prison ethic. The popular academic view states that our behaviors are dictated by our beliefs. We act according to what we have been taught is right. The more we are educated and learn proper doctrine, principles and formulas, the more we become civilized—so the theory goes. This has been the educational telos from the start. The problem with this method is that it overemphasized the life of the mind with the exclusion of practice.

There are more ways of knowing than simply reading it from a book. James K.A. Smith lectures on this topic often. In his book Imagining the Kingdom, he talks about a process of “deformation” and looking at the “Christian perception of the world” by borrowing concepts from Merleau-Ponty such as “practognosia,” a know-how that is absorbed through our bodies.2 This absorption in our bodies of truth and practices is precisely what happens when we are shaped by the consumption culture.

As Christians, we must conform our lives in consonant with Jesus teachings and resist, by God’s grace and power, anything that gets in the way of our sanctification. But what process of conforming do we engage in? If it is an item of knowledge, a simple correction will do. But we are dealing with a whole set of beliefs and practices enmeshed in a society. Cultural pundits constantly tell us the West is in decline and the church echo in unison. The church seems to think revival will come about from more preaching and teaching. If this is true, why are things appearing to be worse (Deborah Tannen’s Argument Culture, incivility, gender confusion, etc.) than a generation ago while churches in the U.S. stalwartly remained active in preaching, teaching and missions? While we cannot presume what God will do, he also has given us wisdom to be enact things in this world.

Miller is right when he identifies the problem and a way forward:

“If the abstraction and fragmentation of religious traditions are the result of cultural habits learned in other practices of consumption, then challenging the abstracting effects of commodification on the general level will be helpful for countering it on the explicitly religious level.”3

This is a great start. However, I regret that I do not have the space to continue with practical tips on combating the culture of consumption. Theologian, pastors and evangelists have a tough time recognizing the relevance and ill effects of a consumption culture as it relates to spiritual matters. This is one reason, as leaders helping a generation come of age, our efforts must be calculated and aimed at the real issue. Suffice it to say, “the most fundamental tactic for countering the commodification of culture is simple awareness of it as a problem.”4

Must the Sun Set on the West?

I wish I had come up with this clever title. I owe it to Dr. Vishal Mangalwadi. The title comes from a series of lectures based on his book The Book That Made Your World in which he helps the reader understand the root cause of the West’s decline and what must be done to reverse it. He and other Christian leaders are sounding the proverbial alarm. The decline of Christianity continues to be a popular topic in Evangelical circles today. For example, the latest Barna studies report that only 4% of Gen-Zers (those born after 1996) have a Biblical worldview.1 In the same study, James Emery White, professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary concludes that we are for the first time truly post-Christian.

Many popular Christian apologists and evangelists try to avoid being labeled alarmist in their views by insinuating a doom and gloom picture of the state of Christianity. But it is challenging when the church is confused in that we don’t know whether to jump on the bandwagon (hopeless) or circle it (apologetics and evangelism). The prevailing culture seems to support neither. Ligonier ministries conducts an annual study to measure Evangelical’s responses to doctrinal questions. Last year, one of the statements was “God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam” to which 51% of Evangelicals agree.2 This is just one example to show the widening gap between the church’s educational efforts and the outcomes it purports to achieve.

There are several popular ways to stem the retreat to into secularism. Some Christian leaders such as Greg Laurie promote their Harvest Crusades in the pulpit and radio. Others like Ravi Zacharias promote apologetics as solutions. The efficacy of these activities will obviously depend on the working of the Holy Spirit to transform lives as any activity involving changed hearts is concerned. However, there might be another way to go about this. A way that is less obtrusive, given the current sensibilities of our culture; perhaps it is through capitalism. Capitalism, not so much the kind imbued with partisan politics that triggers protest from a new generation. Nor the kind that elicits debate about what form of economic model that works. I am advocating the resetting of capitalism in a Weberian sense.

The message of the good news remain unchanged in this strategy. We are only using capitalism as a social carrier. Imagine today, entire neighborhoods, city blocks being restored, elevating human dignity whenever and wherever prosperity extends its reaches. A Weberian understanding of capitalism uncovers the second highest value (second greatest commandment) of all — brotherly love.3 Love may not be a prime motivator for businesses. However, it is operationally, if not intentionally, altruistic.4 Pastor and theologian Chris Brooks recognizes this point. He sees Detroit, (once the most innovative city on earth turned poorest city in the U.S. within a generation) as a mission field to promote capitalistic entrepreneurship to combat proverty. He said:

“We can see poverty change by unleashing the entrepreneurial, enterprising spirit that God has placed within each and every person within our community. When we begin to see them not just as mouths that consume, but minds that create, God restores flourishing”5

In this short blog, my modest hope was just to introduce others to the the rich foundation upon which capitalism was founded. Sure, there are abuses but that does not mean it should be thrown out, baby, bathwater, and all.

 

Culture: Blessing or Bane?

This is a tough one. One one hand we see a newness in celebrating diversity and on the other it appears that the emergence of culture was a form of punishment by God when he confused people’s languages at the Tower of Babel. 

Erin Meyer’s Culture Map

In the United States celebrating significant cultural events (Cinco de Mayo, St. Patrick’s Day, etc.) is part of who we are as a nation. And yet at the same time we bemoan and protest the fact that minority groups are still victims of discrimination. So which is it? More culture, less culture or what? 

I believe some clarity on the issue will salve the confused. The book of Genesis gives us a full account of what happened. God created everything and assigned humankind to have responsible dominion over his creation. Adam and Eve had complete freedom to do anything they pleased except eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They succumbed to the serpent’s temptation, ate of the forbidden fruit and God punished them. 

Man continued in rebellion which ultimately resulted in God destroying his creation save Noah, his family and anything on the ark. It did not take long before the lessons of the flood were forgotten. Instead of obeying God by “filling and subduing the earth” man decided to come together and make a name for themselves.1 God could have punished them with equal flood-like results but in an act of mercy God decides instead to thwart their plans by confusing their one language and disperse them over the face of the earth. And we have needed translation services ever since. 

Understanding each other across cultural difference is a challenge.2 But it’s a welcomed challenge. And here lies the beauty of the Gospel. If all we have in this life, devoid of hope and restoration, we will be doomed, hopeless in our human interactions. Frustrations, civil unrest, chaos, all the accompanying social ills would be the norm in a post-truth society. 

However, the good news, the thing we hope for, the answer to our prayer “thy kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” will be fulfilled in a curse that has been redeemed. William Edgar wisely points out that access to the tree of life that was taken away from us due to sin is now present in the new earth for the healing of the nations (Rev 22:2, 7; 22:14, 19).3 Further it appears there will be a great celebration praising and worshipping God in the eschaton, “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”4 It is clear by John’s choice of words, “nation”, “tribe” and “languages”, that what began as instruments of the curse in the book of Genesis is now redeemed in Revelations. We start in the garden and we find ourselves back in. Only this time enriched by each others strengths and nothing of our weaknesses.5 That is the gospel message. Is culture a bane or a blessing? It’s both.