December 15, 2017

War of the Worldviews: Temptations for the Church in the Information Age

brain_overload.jpgThis is one of the longer pieces I’ve posted on IM recently, and is an attempt to understand some of what we see going on among evangelicals these days through the lens of some basic sociology. Is the behavior of many evangelicals an indicator of Biblical faithfulness….or cultural fear? Are conservative churches growing for the reasons they claim? Or are some churches growing- and not growing- for the same reasons Muslims and Motorcycle Clubs are growing?

How does the information age affect the church…and those who believe the church is God’s project in history?

We’re driving down the parkway toward our home town to see our parents, and my wife is reading to me out of a book called….uh….”Menopause Without Medicine.”

See…”too much information” already.

She’s reading about iron. Denise is a bit anemic, and is interested in how to get more iron, so she’s found a section in the book about iron deficiencies in post-menopausal adult women. Of course, I’m interested. I’m always interested in this sort of thing.

It seems that iron is very important, but the best source of iron is liver, which in addition to being gross, is not exactly the best thing to eat from the standpoint of cholesterol and fat. The iron you get from the liver is very difficult to get into the system, because certain kinds of food block the absorption of iron; foods like broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. As you probably know, we all ought to be eating lots of broccoli and such. So to overcome the nutrient blocking ability of broccoli, you need to ingest enough iron to make an airport security scanner sing like a choir.

In other words, the healthy nutrient of iron is blocked by the healthy food broccoli. And the healthy nutrient, iron, is mainly available through the fatty meat, liver. So you need them all, and you shouldn’t eat any of them.

This is just one example of what happens in the world of “too much information;” the world where we now know so much about everything that we can’t do anything without guilt.

We’re drowning in information, and it may be driving some of us crazy.

I could just talk about medical knowledge, which will soon convince all of us that we can’t eat anything, but must eat everything. A more accessible example is the weather.

When I was growing up, my dad was obsessed with storms and bad weather. This was a deep seated, childhood fear, and I was never clear exactly what happened to make my dad terrorized of the ordinary thunderstorm.

In my childhood, we had three local newscasts, and an 8 minute weather segment at the end of the broadcast. The weather map was drawn on a large, white board, and the fronts and temperatures were written with a magic marker. The weather reporters had to be a bit more entertaining than today, because they had no gadgets.

Actually, they had relatively little information, which meant we really didn’t know much about what was going to happen until it happened, and that was good because Dad was terrified enough with what he could see coming over the horizon.

Now, if my father were alive today, he would be in an insane asylum. No doubt about it. The Weather Channel keeps weather disasters going 24/7. Local Doppler radar dwells in the bottom of the television screen at all times. A heavy dew gains an interruption of programming and a demonstration of the station’s array of weather technology. There are alerts, alarms, buzzers and people running through the street ringing bells. Someone would have given him a personal weather alert radio by now.

(Now, I want to be careful to say I am not ungrateful for this level of technology, because my mom lived through a tornado that hit her building, and she owes her safety to the fact an alarm put everyone into the tornado shelter. I’m not altogether stupid.)

There is so much weather information available now, that people who obsess on weather can sit in abject terror in front of their television, gripping their weather radio, listening to local bulletins.

Too much information, at least for most of us.

How about news? The news culture today selects stories that appeal to the interests and fears of their audience, and then flood their programming with those topics. Natalie Holloway’s disappearance in Aruba is a tragedy, but why is her case selected above the hundreds of other disappearance cases that could be on the news? Today’s news’ consumers are caught up in the dramas of selected by those who know how to manipulate the audience from one Chandra Levy to another Laci Peterson.

The list of information assaults is almost endless. From hard information, to philosophical questions. From consumer interests to the choice of a church. From 500 cable channels to what religion is true?

Environmental crisis? I assume you could get an environmental crisis of the day widget for your dashboard.

Moral decay of society? Listen to any of the prophets of doom selling books and advertising on their radio show by way of the end of western civilization. I really wonder if there’s any hope and why we all aren’t on a bridge somewhere.

Economic collapse? Persecution of Christians in public schools? Gadgets you gotta have? Information about celebrities? The latest methods of child rearing? Ways to get in shape? Books that must be read? Movies that must be seen?

Too much information is a way of life.

Now, one would expect we’d all be running around with our fingers in our ears, squalling like maniacs at the onslaught of facts, theories and expertise that rises like a relentless tide around us. The information overload of the contemporary world is tailor made to drive a thinking person batty.

Instead, it appears to me that we have found a way to deal with all of this, and that is to choose a manageable number of “niches,” where we live in relative sanity by selecting what kinds of information we will allow into our cubicle. Those niches are the subcultures we identify with; communities that allow us to manage this cacophony of life.

Our grandparents took in information through the daily paper, perhaps a radio broadcast, letters, and conversation with the neighbors at the store and folks at church. No matter what was happening, the amount of information was slow and manageable. More importantly, information was always in the context of the “real world” of immediate concerns: raising children, keeping the household afloat, taking care of the garden.

We live in a much different world. The modern information morass attempts to make all of us into experts on everything by forcing us to consume information in vast, fire hose force bursts. As such, we are threatened with a chaos of information that brutalizes our immediate contexts. If we are to maintain some level of sanity, we must find a way to contextualize the information age. Therefore, we select and manage information, both as a way to benefit from information and as a defense from obnoxious amounts of information rendering us unable to led any kind of normal life.

When we observe our culture, we can easily see the role of sub-cultures that determine the relevance of entire worlds of information and allow us to fill our lives with the information we choose. For example, young people elect to enter subcultures that make certain kinds of information of primary importance (fashion, technology, music, entertainment) and render all other kinds of information useless (traditional school curriculum, science, economics.)

Look at an American male who is interested in motorcycles. Thirty years ago, participation in this subculture required commitment and effort. It was relatively difficult to disengage from the common community and participate in the world of motorcycle enthusiasts. Today, everyone’s father and uncle are members of a motorcycle club where they participate in weekly jaunts, wear the requisite clothing, find information on the internet, attend conventions, watch dedicated cable channels and even place religion and family life in the context of the culture of motorcyclists. The niche subculture of motorcycling becomes the way to survive in a culture of diversity and the foundation for processing the world of information that surrounds a person.

Participants in such a subculture will have different attitudes towards the information that intersects the subculture and the value of information that exists outside of it. For instance, an interest in parenting and family life might be judged quite differently by different persons identifying with the subculture of motorcycling, perhaps leading to further divisions and identifications with different kinds of motorcyclists.

I believe that those who successfully enter such subcultures- from religion to professions to hobbies and many other interests- find life much more manageable than those who eschew subcultures and simply attempt to take on the information age alone. (With many exceptions noted.)

My purpose in all of this is to point out some of the characteristics and dangers the information age presents to religious subcultures, and to suggest a Christian perspective on the hazards and the opportunities before us.

Thoughtful Christians need to develop an awareness that their particular subculture is, in fact, managing information through a grid that serves their own interests. In other words, all subcultures tend to be less than self-critical and less than open to information that would cause compromise or change.

Sub-cultures, particularly religious ones, tend to manage their information through leaders and authoritative sources, such as texts or communities. Power, influence and reward are closely tied to the ability of a leader to present the “truth” in a persuasive manner. The increasing use of technology to package and manage the subculture’s version of the truth is now part of any evaluation of religious subcultures.

The decision to allow “information management” at the risk of self-criticism and compromise is an important mark of maturity in a person or a group. For example, the Michael Jackson sub-culture will face the tendency to manage information in a way that is biased toward Jackson’s innocence. The ability to process information that is critical of Jackson, and that might call into question fundamental aspects of the subculture, would be a rare mark of maturity.

It is quite obvious that religious communities are growing in importance in the modern world precisely because they allow the overwhelmingly complex storm of modern information overload to be managed into something coherent to the ordinary members of the group. The modernist prediction that religion would die out as the average person became more enlightened has proven to be wrong in the extreme, because contemporary westerners and those encountering the modern mindset in other cultures value the interpretative role of religion more than the interpretative promise of science.

Why? Because religion manages information in a way that science does not, particularly in areas where science and modernism leave humans without guidance or existential confidence. Carl Sagan and a chorus of atheists can lament this fact, but it has proven to be deeply true. Science and secular education have completely failed in their promise to make the modern world intelligible, and has instead handed human beings a world of absurdity and chaos, with false promises of hope and failed promises of change.

Notice, for example, John Kerry’s attempt in the last presidential election to paint George W. Bush as “anti-science” and to paint himself as a President who would “listen to the counsel of scientists.” While Kerry has a choir that will agree with this approach, the fact is that a majority of Americans are more confident in the judgment of a man with obvious and important religious values than they are in a man who would let scientists dictate ethical policy. As infuriating as this is the “liberals,” it is a fact that an ever more threateningly complex world will bolster the tendency of many Americans to seek leadership that interprets the world in simple categories of good and evil, right and wrong.

When millions of evangelicals turn to James Dobson, their pastor or a favorite radio/television preacher for leadership, they are expressing confidence that such leaders can sort through the Bible and contemporary society and instruct the Christian on what God wants now. As communities of “faith,” churches allow their members to share life with fellow “pilgrims” who are seeking the same interpretative grid as a guide. The Biblical image of the church as a flock led by Christ-like shepherds is important. It does describe what the church should be.

This is why diversity in religious communities is increasingly so rare, and is often so difficult and threatening to many religious persons. If a community communicates a specific view on an issue of truth, it is difficult for a significant portion of that community to disagree and offer a diversified interpretation of the same issue.

For example, evangelicals are overwhelmingly conservative on abortion, but the actual diversity of stands on abortion policy is rarely discussed in religious communities. They have learned- painfully, in many cases- that the community’s management of information on this ethical issue cannot be coherent if too many variables are introduced. It is common for evangelicals to be “pro-life,” but to have little agreement on how the pro-life position should be legislated or enacted. In fact, Christians who often agree on the pro-life position can fight with one another over actual policy as if they were bitterly opposed and in disagreement. The result is loud pronouncements, but little actual work together on implementing policy.

This characteristic of religious subcultures can be difficult, particularly for young people. It is why religious communities are inherently conservative, stubborn, resistant to new information and reluctant to question past versions of the truth. Such conservatism can be reassuring for adults who are seeking a kind of “unified vision” of shared values that allows members to feel they are “right” in a confusing world.

The information management aspect of subcultures present Christian leaders with two special challenges:

First, leaders must fairly and ethically manage information, and not distort it for purposes that are incompatible with the Christian Gospel. No better example is necessary than the recent sex abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church. Too many church leaders could not face the facts and realities that abuse cases presented, and the results are monstrous. In retrospect, it was not the best policy to manage information about human behavior in this manner, and thousands of victims and millions of disillusioned Catholics are the result.

Secondly, leaders must not manage information in such a way that false realities are promised and propagated, putting the church in the position of promoting illusions and lies.

Here we touch on the nature of the Gospel, and the nature of the Christian communities that proclaim it. Are we “happier” than other persons? Are our marriages better? Are our children more moral and more successful? Such claims are not part of the Gospel, but they are frequently the message of the church.

Does Christianity make sexual purity less difficult? Can prayer and various Christian approaches make substantial inroads into complex personal, interpersonal and psychological problems? Does the Bible have “all the answers” for the faithful Christian willing to do what it says?

Take the Christian response to an issue like psychiatric medication. It is not unusual to hear ministers in some denominations proclaiming that mental illness is demonic or that medical treatment demonstrates a rejection of the benefits of faith. Other Christian traditions are more open to information that affirms a medical approach.

The entire fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early twentieth century represents, in this writer’s opinion, an inherent failure of both systems – religion and science- to understand information and to approach the management of information with the best interests of the group in mind. The result is unfortunate, as many prominent evangelicals have a very unsophisticated approach to the many issues raised in current science, and popular science has arrogantly assumed that religion is a primitive and destructive way of thinking to be avoided by intelligent persons.

The idea that the church possesses an authoritative answer to every question because it has an authoritative text and leaders willing to engage almost every question makes the church both appealing and abhorrent in our culture. It is a fine line to walk, and it takes wise Christians to walk it. T. David Gordon discovered this in his infamous Modern Reformation essay, “On The Insufficiency of Scripture,” which raised the ticklish issue of ways scripture is not authoritative “as is.” The furor over the article- and its disappearance from Modern Reformation’s web site- continues to animate some who refuse to consider the possibility that the church’s claim to authority may not be as comprehensive as advertised.

Is there a Biblical, God-endorsed diet? Has God given specific instructions on government policy? Family planning? Education? Artistic expressions? Tattoos? Dating? This is only a sampling of the many areas where religious subcultures provide the comfort and confidence of answers to complex informational questions.

Researchers have noted that the battle lines in the culture war fall predictably along the question of church attendance. No other factor has as much predictive value for the various controversial issues in play. This is not an accident, as millions and millions of persons rely on the authoritative interpretations of various subcultures- from MoveOn.org to Focus On The Family- to sort through contemporary culture. Few “true believers” actually read deeply or think carefully these days, and one of the reasons is others do our thinking for us…and we trust them.

The implications of this for Christians living in postmodern times are considerable. I can only touch on a few matters that seem relevant to me.

1) Diversity is not just a liberal totem to be avoided and ridiculed. It is a reality in healthy communities. There must be a balance between unity of confessional agreement and the diversity to allow inclusion, discussion, and necessary change.

It was the Southern Baptist Statesman Herschel Hobbs who likened confessionalism to tying a grazing cow to a fence. If the rope isn’t generous, the cow will starve to death. Theology is both sail and anchor, and diversity within communities is the recognition that the wind doesn’t always blow from the same direction.

2) Leaders in Christian communities must competently and humbly discharge the responsibility of interpreting the contemporary world. The fundamentalist-modernist controversy has caused many Christian communities to put a premium on loud, self-referencing, ignorant men as leaders. The authority of God- and the “certainty” that Christians so desire- has been transfered to men who are capable of glibly dispensing “God’s Word” on every subject.

The determination of certain Christian subcultures to chain the Bible to authoritative leaders and their interpretations has a mixed record. The price paid is considerable, and these subcultures often have a trail of wreckage and destroyed faith in the wake of their accomplishments.

The New Testament challenges Christian communities to seek out leaders who will be faithful to what they have been given to guard, teach and pass along. At the same time, the New Testament warns against the kind of egocentrism and leader-worship that many subcultures routinely practice. It is not uncommon to notice that more reflective, tolerant and contemplative Christian communities are led by leaders who do not have the kind of angry football coach or scolding professorial demeanor of other Christian communities. There is a pragmatic reason for this difference.

3) Christian communities should resist the temptation to pronounce the “Christian” answer to every question or the “Christian” version to every activity or interest, particularly if these answers venture far outside of the clear center of scriptural concerns.

Church A tells its members how to vote, how to practice birth control, how to date, what to wear, what to avoid on television, what music to listen to, what books to read and where they should be 7 nights a week. Church B offers worship, teaching, service opportunities, the sacraments, prayer, ministry to the poor and occasional social activities. It is safe to say that Church A, with the right leadership, is going to be more successful in the current environment than Church B, simply because it is offering a more comprehensive approach to the complex world in which people are attempting to find meaning and raise children.

Church B may (may) be more faithful to the Christian Gospel, but will quite likely find itself tagged as “liberal,” if it does not spend large amounts of time telling its congregation how to vote and what are the threats to be avoided.

This is ridiculous.

4) Those who choose to engage the world in which we live with a more positive attitude towards other ways of seeing “information,” are not the enemy. They may be the vanguard of the church’s venture into succeeding generations. They may be the contemporary missionary church, rather than a retreating and fearful church insisting that all the surrounding culture is a threat.

A mentor once said to me, “Thank God for your education.” What he meant was that education, rather than giving me all the answers, had really taken away much of my certainty, and gave me the potential to be kinder, a better listener, more gracious and less arrogant. I’ve thought of this many times over the years, and it is more impressive to me. I grieve over the many young Christians I see who have read two books, been to camp, and have all the answers. I am disgusted at the “Five points; No questions” mentality of many young Calvinists.

I realize, however, that many of these young people are part of churches who have insulated the learning process, published the list of approved authors, founded the schools that are safe, and provided the media to reinforce the community.

Yet there is, at the same time, a remarkable collection of Christian communities developing all around us, with a different attitude toward the world and its complexity. Such communities give me hope that the relevance of Jesus Christ will not be confused with rules about dating and pronouncements on politics. They give me an optimism about the future place of the church in an ever-more complex world, where ancient texts will increasingly need to be seen through the embodiment of real communities living out Christian discipleship. I raise my hand and wish these young believers well.

The church is both a subculture that can be studied, and God’s project in history to make a people. It is both a human phenomenon and a divine initiative and mystery. It is both an example of human failure and a demonstration of God’s faithfulness. Integrity to the Gospel is critical to the church’s earthly mission. Idolatry- making something, someone, or even our own understanding a God-substitute- is always a threat to the church. The information age presents the church with opportunities to understand the world to the glory of God, or to misrepresent the Gospel to that culture.

Comments

  1. I don’t know if this could help your wife, but I recommend cooking in cast iron skillets and cookware. I know that that can help provide iron into one’s diet.

  2. Holy Crap! I love you man!
    Really good stuff Michael. I’m going to post your four points on my blog. Great insights!

  3. Pronounce says:

    Speaking of the information age cacophony let me add some fuel to that fire. CBS is doing some pieces on religion in America. Here are some excerpts and the links:

    Selling God A Lucrative Business
    Joel Osteen is pastor of Lakewood Church, the largest evangelical church in America with 30,000 weekly attendants. With a TV ministry, it’s watched in at least 100 countries.
    Asked if it’s part message and part marketing, Osteen says: “To me, we’re marketing hope.”
    And hope sells. Last year, Lakewood brought in $55 million.
    http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/06/28/eveningnews/main704903.shtml

    Mixing Religious Teachings
    Forty-five percent of Americans say the most important part of religion is following the teachings and traditions of their faith as closely as they can. But 38 percent say the search for spirituality – no matter where that takes them – is more important than sticking to those traditions.
    http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/06/29/opinion/polls/main705181.shtml

    Mix-And-Match Religion
    Armstrong says this trend is no surprise in a global society.
    “That doesn’t mean that they’re abandoning their own religion, but they are quite naturally and spontaneously without any great fanfare turning to the other faiths for wisdom,” she said.
    “Western liberal society has placed a lot of emphasis on the individual,” Moise Waltner of the Interfaith Center of New York said.
    He believes too many American’s treat faith like cafeteria food. He says mixing religion is no religion at all.
    “It’s the role of the believer to conform their will to what the tradition is, not the other way around,” Waltner said.
    http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/06/29/eveningnews/main705276.shtml

    Each of these pieces gives a little slice of American societyÂ’s perspective on religion. WeÂ’re turning into Athens of St. PaulÂ’s day. Soon there will be an idol to the unknown God sitting prominently among the monuments of our nationÂ’s capital.

    One of the historyÂ’s greatest Christian persecutions came during the reign of Marcus Aurelius over the issue of ChristiansÂ’ refusal to be as open-minded about other religions as was norm of the Roman Empire during that time. (See http://www.roman-empire.net/religion/religion.html) A possible trend happening in America today.

  4. Dave C. says:

    Decent article but it seems to ignore the call for Christians to set themselves apart from pagan society as the “salt and the light.” Both the old and new testaments are about God’s people separating themselves from their larger pagan cultures. Modern pagan society attacks the Christian worldview in everything from “cartoons” that contain adult messages to laws passed through judicial activism. Seen in this light, how is the emergence (or resurgance) of a conservative Christian sub-culture wrong?

  5. I never said that Christian subcultures were “wrong.” I simply discussed a sociological perspective. I didn’t make any judgements.

    >it seems to ignore the call for Christians to set themselves apart from pagan society as the “salt and the light.”

    I never discussed or meant to discuss this aspect of Christian practice.

    BTW- do you really believe Christians in America are persecuted by “messages in cartoons?”

  6. Dave C. says:

    >it seems to ignore the call for Christians to set themselves apart from pagan society as the “salt and the light.”<

    “I never discussed or meant to discuss this aspect of Christian practice.”

    I don’t see how you can discuss Christians and culture without referring to this aspect of the Christian message. Surely that has to be the foundation of a Christian worldview?

    “BTW- do you really believe Christians in America are persecuted by ‘messages in cartoons?'”

    No, I never said Christians are persecuted by such messages. But many modern cartoons are actually aimed at adults and have adult messages. As such, they’ve become another weapon of cultural warfare for the left.

    Whether it’s cartoons or other elements of pagan society, Christians only have three options: withdraw (non-engagement), participate through consumption without criticizing (non-engagement), or to be “in but not of” (engagement).

    The conservative Christian subculture that you criticize somewhat seems to be the only one taking the third option of engagement. Considering the pervasiveness of the information age that you so rightly point out, might their methods be the only viable response to such an onslaught?

  7. Benjamin Nitu says:

    “To be human means to be religious … if the religious falls away, then our entire existence loses its meaning, and man ceases to be man” – Carl Henry

    I think you’re right to say that we as humans are not interested just in raw information or science because we are more than just an “organic computer” 🙂
    I would also like to go to a church B type 🙂

    my little sister asks mw always for advices starting like this: “As a Christian what should I do in …. ( this context ) ” and most of the time I just try to put the decision back into her hands without really giving her an advice.
    I think that as a church we take the easy way out… tell them what to do instead of helping every member develop his/her own sense of discernment.
    It is much easier for a church to create a list of DOs and DON’Ts than to help everyone grow in Christ.
    the authority issue is very important, and we might have our differences there, but I think we can agree that Christ’s church needs to be the “city on the hill” , a light in this world.
    God bless us all!
    Happy 4th of July everyone 🙂

  8. Open Question: What do you think the “normal” Christian (as opposed to the christian leader) can do in their sphere of this sub-culture to 1. Hold leadership to a standard of accountability in this issue and 2. to help other Christians navigate the murky waters of personal choices while trying to live a “gospel” life?

  9. Michael – most book-worthy post I have yet read! You bring together a slew of ideas and trends into a coherent picture. Interesting to read in Texas Monthly just yesterday about a blogger, (don’t have time to look up his name), who’s popularity, the article said, is based on his ability to state political opinion in a manner that is free from the authoriy or alligence to a certain subculture. Because blogging is “free” and has free access, people are finding information outside the media that is not packaged or marketed, but “raw”. This both adds to the information overload, as well as helping break through the filters designed to prevent self-criticism. (Article comments on how said blogger will only have the time to keep it up if his mother continues to pay the bills, since blogging isn’t so lucrative).

  10. Pronounce says:

    Information, information, information: 0pinion, opinion, opinion: Bias, bias, bias: Bigotry, apostasy, confusion: If there is a supreme deity then truth can be discerned, but only the truly repentant will find it. If a person is not prepared to lay bare their heart in spirit and truth, then let me recommend that you find the most dogmatic pastor and group you can and stop reading everything (including the Bible), and stop thinking. This way you can happily know the truth, and be assured that you’re fully in God’s will.

    Unfortunately for those like me, we mistakenly decided to do what the pastor told us to do and that was to search the Scriptures for ourselves. And after doing so we asked the most heretical of questions, “Why?” Our pastors forgot to tell us that if we had questions about their interpretation of Scripture we were suppose to have found the verse that said their opinion was Truth, and so not to question their interpretations.

    So now I’m curious as to why “Why?” is so dangerous, and so I read opinions from different sources. Well now I’m information overloaded, and if I want to stay in good graces with my church friends and pastor I have to keep my questions to myself. I feel like a hard drive that has run out of storage space and no way to dump information. I admit not everything I’ve read is true, but much is compelling evidence that I’m not qualified to discern.

    I now know why some of the scholars and professors of theology from my daughter’s school gave up going to church. The churches I’ve been around would be more likely to lovingly address the sinner’s concerns and lovingly guide them to God’s word then they would be willing to talk to an intellectual about their issues.

    Some may tell me that I’d be better off in an Emergent Church. I’ve been there. The Emergent Church is quite tailored for two groups, the mature Christian and the agnostic. The Emergent Church gives some guidelines that are true, but allows a diverse group of individuals to express their own truth. In an Emergent Church anything “might” be true for each individual as God leads them on their spiritual journey. Meaning condemnation has been shown the door, and holding condemnation’s hand was doctrine, creed, and dogma.

    The problem I see with this is that a congregation is like a child. Children need, and want loving, consistent, boundaries. They generally do very poorly with no structure. There is a very good way of working with children (length dictates that I don’t post it here), which I believe would be a good model for working with congregations.

  11. PastorRuss says:

    Michael – you forgot to mention the bombardment of information from blogs!! LOL

    Great post!

    Dave C – “withdraw (non-engagement), participate through consumption without criticizing (non-engagement), or to be “in but not of” (engagement).” I’m not sure that your breakdown is sufficient. When looking at the ministry of Jesus, there seemed to be significant complaint that he was too participatory with the outsiders, though, of course, there is never an indication that He participated to a degree which would have been sinful. Yet, we have little record of Jesus criticizing them. It seems to me that to be around Jesus and talk to Him about religion, that a person could not NOT be changed (I know….double negative….but it just seems to sound better in my convoluted mind). In the same way, to be around Jesus and just see Him living (without any spiritual talk – i.e. being with Him at a wedding or over the house of some prostitute, etc.), that a person could not NOT be changed. How often are we changing people not only with our thoughts and arguments but also with our actions and lives? Perhaps this is part of the tension-relieiver in an over-informed culture – not necessarily understanding all the whys, but actually seeing through a person’s life, that their beliefs are true. All that to say, I find your withdraw, participate, in/not of breakdown neat but simply not complex enough for either the reality of our commission or the daily living in a sinful world.

  12. intowner says:

    “Church B may (may) be more faithful to the Christian Gospel, but will quite likely find itself tagged as “liberal,” if it does not spend large amounts of time telling its congregation how to vote and what are the threats to be avoided.

    This is ridiculous.”

    It’s true that it’s ridiculous, but it could be a good thing. Our church is a Church B type, and we’re very conservative, theologically (PCA), but we don’t mind if people think we’re liberal–it might draw more liberal people to hear the Gospel.

    We’ve also got a good mix of people (politically, theologically, culturally), and you can sense the health of the place where it’s primarily the Gospel that draws people together rather than the upcoming elections.

  13. Dave C said: “Christians only have three options: withdraw (non-engagement), participate through consumption without criticizing (non-engagement), or to be “in but not of” (engagement).”

    For the sake of discussion I’ll agree that your list of options is both valid and comprehensive. Given the three options I don’t think many of those who seek to follow Christ and know Scripture would disagree that the third option is the best way to go.

    The interesting question in my mind is “not which way is right”, but “what does it mean to engage the culture you live in”?

    Are we engaging the culture when we act to protect our “Christian Rights”? Are we engaging the culture when we asking the culture if what they are doing is “good” or “right”? Are we engaging the culture when we attempt to make our society more moral through legislation? Are we engaging the culture when we sift through all of the fluff of media and recognize the pain and fear that is in the heart of the unsaved? Or is it all of these things or none?

    Thank God for the Gospels so that we may see how Christ engaged his culture.

  14. Pronounce says:

    Sorry for the duplicate. Internal error got me. And when I did a refresh of the main page the comments total didn’t change, and so I thought it didn’t take the first time.

  15. Dave C. says:

    “Are we engaging the culture when we act to protect our “Christian Rights”? Are we engaging the culture when we asking the culture if what they are doing is “good” or “right”? Are we engaging the culture when we attempt to make our society more moral through legislation? Are we engaging the culture when we sift through all of the fluff of media and recognize the pain and fear that is in the heart of the unsaved? Or is it all of these things or none?”

    I’m also uncomfortable with the political side of the conservative Christian movement. I understand that having Christian motivations for passing legislation makes some uncomfortable.

    But considering the pervasiveness and aggressiveness of modern pagan culture, what else can committed Christians do?

    Politics and economics are simply the venues in which Americans express their cultural values. Why should conservative Christians not participate in those venues?

    Consider for a moment that the political system of Jesus’ time was a closed system: citizen participation was not allowed. We live in an open, participatory system. Might the expression of Christian views look different in a democratic society?

  16. “But considering the pervasiveness and aggressiveness of modern pagan culture, what else can committed Christians do?

    Politics and economics are simply the venues in which Americans express their cultural values. Why should conservative Christians not participate in those venues?”

    Dave, I definitely understand where you’re coming from. I think (despite the protests of many of my friends) that the political and economical worlds must have a Christian presence as much as any other aspect of society. However, you have to think about the influence of certain aspects over others. If I’m a Christian and I make a big stink about something that turns some people off to Christ in my local barber shop, I’ve done them a horrible wrong. But if I have the power, money, and influence (let’s say, of a few million voters or a large bank account) to make a big stink over something in the political arena, I could possibly do something detrimental to the Kingdom.

    For instance, the current ‘gay marriage ammendment’ comes to mind. It is wrong for Christians somewhere to neglect to say that the Bible says that homosexuality is wrong when asked about the issue. Thus, even Christians on the political stage must have some opinion (because we all know that everyone and their mother has been interviewed about this thing). But what if we, instead of throwing money, petitions, and lobbyists at Washington, actually spent all this effort towards reaching homosexuals for Christ? I think this approach would uphold the sanctity of marriage bette than any law.

    However, I definitely agree that democracy makes things trickey, especially when there are good and bad reprocussions to almost every decision made.

  17. Cultural fear? Monumental understatement.

  18. Is that T Gordon David article mirrored anywhere, or do I have to dig up an old copy of the magazine? (Goodness, I wouldn’t even know where to find such a magazine.)

  19. C Grace says:

    What do you think the “normal” Christian (as opposed to the christian leader) can do in their sphere of this sub-culture to 1. Hold leadership to a standard of accountability in this issue and 2. to help other Christians navigate the murky waters of personal choices while trying to live a “gospel” life?

    1. I would say we need to share with them our perspective. I know my pastor appreciates hearing different insights from his congregation. But if you have a leader that is stuck with their own view and refuses to accept any others then there is not much else you can do. It seems to me that trying to uproot such a leader would do more harm then good. We can only pray and trust that God protects his own.

    2. Our focus needs to be on helping others know God, rather than helping them live a moral life. “And this is eternal life to know God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent.” When we know the Truth the Truth shall set us free. Teaching morality is like giving Tylenol- it may alleviate the symptoms but it will not cure the disease. Knowing God is the cure. We also need to let God speak to us in each individual situation rather than trying to have a few general principles cover everything. An individual’s level of maturity will determine whether they need authoritative pronouncements or only advice. And always we should pray for those God has brought into our sphere of influence and trust that God is working in their lives.

  20. Emily H. says:

    It isn’t about politics or morality–not entirely. It comes down to these picky subcultural details–you must not be Christian if you don’t listen to Christian music, if you dress in black, if your friends are mostly not Christian, if you play roleplaying games or read fantasy novels, if you don’t use the right words, if you laugh at the wrong things, if you’re introverted, depressed, socially anxious. People set up, not just politics, but pop culture, idiolects, and personality as markers for Christianity.

    We need to make more room for goths and nerds and weird artistic kids who are first and foremost christian–and they do exist.

  21. Dan said:
    I’m also uncomfortable with the political side of the conservative Christian movement. I understand that having Christian motivations for passing legislation makes some uncomfortable.

    But considering the pervasiveness and aggressiveness of modern pagan culture, what else can committed Christians do?

    my comments:
    I think the first thing we can do is not look at Christianity as a “movement”. That sounds awfully smarmy, and I don’t mean to be so, but I think part of the problem is that many American Christians are acting as if their primary (emphasis on primary) role is to be part of this movement whose goal is to make America a more moral nation. In the interest of brevity I won’t further explain here, but I’ll be glad to discuss with anyone interested.

    Dan said:
    Politics and economics are simply the venues in which Americans express their cultural values.
    Why should conservative Christians not participate in those venues?

    my comments:
    I think that expressing our cultural values is fine until it gets in the way of the Gospel. When a church makes it its mission to keep homosexuals from being married is that furthering the Gospel? It may be “protecting the sanctity of marriage”, but I have a hard time seeing that as the God-given role of the Christian in Scripture.

    Dan said:
    Consider for a moment that the political system of Jesus’ time was a closed system: citizen participation was not allowed. We live in an open, participatory system. Might the expression of Christian views look different in a democratic society?

    my comments:
    I agree that Democracy does make the application of what we learn from Christ on how to deal with society difficult. I recognize that being a good citizen in a democratic society looks much different than being a good citizen in first century occupied Israel, which is one of the reasons I suppose we debate this type of thing. The answer isn’t clear. But I know that I see that in the fight for the Christian heritage and morality of America I see casualties of non-Christians who have come to see the American Christian church as a subgroup of the Republican Party.

  22. Here are some of my thoughts on some of the other posts here:

    Steve,
    I’m with you.

    C. Grace,
    Wow, I appreciate your wisdom! I love this statement in particular: “Teaching morality is like giving Tylenol- it may alleviate the symptoms but it will not cure the disease.” I wish that some of our culture war leaders would read this statement and really think on it.

    Emily,
    I think I understand your heart, and I appreciate your perspective. I think what you’re saying goes along with some of the iMonk’s recent posts about the marks of being in different camps. I think that some Christians have come to believe that to be Christian is to be engaged in the culture war. I’ve had people question my sincerity and courage as a Christian because I’ve chosen not to join their side in the war.

    Christ reached out to the outcasts and the downtrodden of his time. Who are the outcasts of our times? In many parts of our country the people you mentioned are, the geeks and the freaks. Sometimes I wish that I could go back to high school and instead of judging and mocking those people I could embrace them with Christ-like love. I pray that God would give me the grace to love the outcasts around me today.

  23. Dave C. says:

    Aduff,
    I’m Dave, not Dan.

    “I think part of the problem is that many American Christians are acting as if their primary (emphasis on primary) role is to be part of this movement whose goal is to make America a more moral nation.”

    I’m not trying to make America a more moral nation. I’m simply trying to prevent pagan society from stuffing every form of sin imaginable down my children’s throats when I’m not looking.

    Let me give you an example. Where I live, many of the buses have TV screens. I looked up the other day and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” was on the monitor. I couldn’t turn it off or change the channel. Looking away was barely an option since the TVs were everywhere. THIS is what I’m fighting.

    “When a church makes it its mission to keep homosexuals from being married is that furthering the Gospel?”

    When it prevents a group condenmed in scripture from destroying a God-given institution then yes, that furthers the Gospel.

    “But I know that I see that in the fight for the Christian heritage and morality of America I see casualties of non-Christians who have come to see the American Christian church as a subgroup of the Republican Party.”

    What non-Christians think is immaterial. The cross has always been a scandal to them. Are we going to be judged by non-believers?

  24. I’ve maintained your link on my sidebar all along, Mike, but drifted away somewhere along the line. Like your theme here, it’s too easy to find yourself with more connections than you can read. It was quite a pleasure, then, to return in recent weeks and discover your new format with the old wit still in session. We yet differ in doctrinal issues in many areas, but when it comes to your views on the Church, herself, brother, I’d like to see you with access to a national pulpit. It’s strange days we are living in, and in more ways than one. Peace, my friend……..

  25. Sorry about missing your name, Dave. No disrespect intended.

    Dave said:
    When it prevents a group condemned in scripture from destroying a God-given institution then yes, that furthers the Gospel.

    my comments:
    I’m really struggling with this. How exactly does this further the Gospel? Playing devil’s advocate: following your reasoning I could say that divorce is also destroying a God-given institution. Should divorce be outlawed? If not, then why?

    Dave said:
    What non-Christians think is immaterial. The cross has always been a scandal to them. Are we going to be judged by non-believers?

    my comments:
    This is a good example of what I’m concerned about. Christian culture warriors aren’t fighting for the Cross. They’re fighting to make sure our culture is a moral one. We’re not talking about a situation where Christians have shared the gospel with a group of people and they’re offended by it. We’re talking about whether it is helpful or destructive to force Christian morality to a fuller extent on a pagan society. My argument is that it creates bitterness, resentment, and rebellion. It’s not the Cross that they’re bitter about. It’s the foreign value-set of the Christians that they’re being forced to have.

    For argument’s sake lets say we “win” the “culture war”. What would it look like? Well, maybe there would be less sex and violence on t.v. Homosexuals wouldn’t be allowed to be married. Maybe homosexual practice would be outlawed. Abortion would definitely be outlawed. There would be 10 Commandments monuments all over the country. Sound pretty good? It does to many. My question is O.K., now what? So we’ve forced our nation to be more moral. So what? Given, they’ve probably been kept from doing less damage with their sin (especially if we outlaw abortion) and that’s good, but what is the trade-off? We have a nation full of people who are under what seems to them to be the heavy hand of Christian values they don’t understand and don’t agree with. Does this make them more open to the Gospel?

  26. Eric in New Haven says:

    Dave C said, “Politics and economics are simply the venues in which Americans express their cultural values. Why should conservative Christians not participate in those venues?”

    Maybe they should, but the danger is that the venues will define the Christians, and shape and rule them instead of Christ.

  27. Speaking of the corrosive effect of over-hyped media on society in general, and in the church in particular, the quote above from Carl Henry got me to thinking: I’ve been a Christian for 33 years, having accepted Christ in 1972 while in college. I’m trying to remember back then those who were considered the giants within the evangelical community. Carl Henry was one; Francis Schaeffer was another; Harold Lindsell (editor of Christianity Today, as I recall) comes to mind. There are others, but my increasingly senior moments are prohibiting me from recalling their names. But, essentially, these were serious and thoughtful people influencing the evangelical wing of Christianity.

    Who are the evangelical leaders today? Basically, they’re people who have distinguished themselves not by their thoughfulness and seriousness, but by their ability to make a big splash in using mass media — guys like Osteen, Warren, Dobson. I don’t want to get into critiquing their ministries, but it’s just an observation that as our general society has become awash in a media flood, a culture where people seem to be more concerned with who the next “American Idol” will be rather than whether faith will survive into the next generation, doesn’t it seem to be a bit worldly that the evangelicals of greatest note today aren’t necessarily highly regarded because of their message and their thoughfulness, but because they are able to make a big splash through the use of media?

  28. Dave C. said:
    “What non-Christians think is immaterial. The cross has always been a scandal to them. Are we going to be judged by non-believers?”

    This is exactly the sort of thinking that Michael Spencer is speaking to in his essay, “Why Do They Hate Us?”

    http://www.internetmonk.com/hateus.html

  29. WOW!!!!!!!!!!!

    This is THE BEST commentary on the church I have ever read! You have hit the proverbial nail on its head. Things like this piece show me that God is indeed actively at work in his people. Thanks for the encouragement dude!!!!!!!!!!

  30. Jeremiah Lawson says:

    “Are we going to be judged by non-believers?”

    Let’s rephrase the question a bit to include another possibility: Has God ever used pagans, unbelievers, and wicked people to pass judgment on His people?