So Goes The Culture

Girl surrounded by books

I cannot remember the books I’ve read
any more than the meals I have eaten;
even so, they have made me.”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson 

I remember the day in 2011 when Borders, a major player among bookstore chains, declared bankruptcy and closed its doors for good. At the time it was my most favorite “go to” bookstore, and the company’s CEO, Mike Edwards, stated at the time of its demise, “working at the company in it final days ‘was like finding out your best friend has cancer and there’s nothing you can do. We were in perpetual crisis’” (quote source here). Book lovers everywhere understand his words. Good books are very much akin to best friends to those of us with an insatiable desire to learn and experience what others have written and experienced themselves.

When I have free time, and I’ve had a lot of free time during these past almost six years of perpetual unemployment, I’d rather be roaming around in a library or browsing the shelves and discount tables in a bookstore than doing just about anything else. There is something about bookstores that just pulls me in like a magnet. And used bookstores, especially, contain some real gems often at greatly reduced prices that one won’t often find, even on discount tables, in a regular bookstore. In fact, just yesterday I found tucked away on a high shelf in one of my favorite used bookstores, BrightLights Books, a gem of a book on a topic that I have often expressed a fair amount of passion for in many of my previous blog posts.

The book is titled, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (2004, 2005) by Nancy Pearcey, who was born the same year I was born and received her bachelor’s degree from the same place I did–Iowa State University. However, the comparison stops there except for her passion, which is also a passion of mine, of “liberating Christianity from its cultural captivity.” Nancy Pearcey is currently Professor of Apologetics, Scholar in Residence, and Director of the Francis Schaeffer Center for Worldview and Culture at Houston Baptist University.

So often, as has been the case here in America for quite some time now, we tend to separate the secular (e.g., things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred; and not pertaining to or connected with religion”–quote source herefrom the sacred (e.g., devoted or dedicated to a deity or to some religious purpose; consecrated; pertaining to or connected with religion”–quote source here). Even among those of us who call ourselves Christian there is often a distinct line that we draw, whether conscious or unconscious, between what we do with our time during the week as opposed to what we do with it for two or so hours on Sunday morning (or whenever we attend worship services inside a church building with others). Indeed, part of the crisis we encounter in our current culture is the fact that once we get out of our “Christian settings” and we are surrounded by the rest of society (e.g., work places, for example, unless one works in a specifically Christian setting), one can’t often tell the difference (in words or in actions) between those with Christian beliefs from anyone else. And the outward proclivity to “be nice and act nice,” at least on the surface, is no indication of genuine Christian faith. Anyone is capable of being and acting like that.

In the introduction to Pearcey’s book, she states the following:

“The gospel is like a caged lion,” said the great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon. “It does not need to be defended, it just needs to be let out of its cage.” Today the cage is our accommodation to the secular/sacred split that reduces Christianity to a matter of private personal belief. To unlock the cage, we need to become utterly convinced that, as Francis Schaeffer said, Christianity is not merely religious truth, it is total truth–truth about the whole of reality (pp. 17-18).

Regarding this secular/sacred divide, Pearcey states:

On a global scale . . . the secular/sacred dichotomy is an anomally–a distinctive of Western culture alone. “The sharp line which modern Western culture has drawn between religious affairs and secular affairs is itself one of the most significant peculiarities of our culture, and would be incomprehensible to the vast majority of people.” In order to communicate the gospel in the West we face a unique challenge: We need to learn how to liberate it from the private sphere and present it in its glorious fullness as the truth about all reality.

The first step in the process is simply identifying the split mentality in our own minds, and diagnosing the way it functions. The dichotomy is so familiar that Christians often find it difficult even to recognize it in their own thinking. This struck me personally when I read about a survey conducted a few years ago by Christian Smith, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina (and himself an evangelical believer). The results of the survey highlight both the good news and the bad news about American evangelicalism (pp. 69-70).

worldviewThe good news is that the survey found that evangelicals are highly committed to their faith, but when asked to articulate a Christian worldview perspective in other areas in their lives–work, business, and politics–they had very little to say and seemed unable to translate a faith perspective appropriate for the public square (p. 70). Some of the results of the survey are cited on pp. 70-73. Pearcey states the following at the end of the review of the survey results:

Before we can even begin to craft a Christian worldview, we first need to identify the barriers that prevent us from applying our faith to areas like work, business, and politics. We need to try to understand why Western Christians lost sight of the comprehensive call God makes on our lives. How did we succumb to a secular/sacred grid that cripples our effectiveness in the public sphere? To break free of this destructive thought pattern, we need to understand where it came from, identify the forms it has taken, and trace the way it became woven into the pervasive patterns of our thinking. We will discover that, from the beginning, Christianity has been plagued by dualisms and dichotomies of various kinds. And the only way to free ourselves from dualistic thinking is to make a clear diagnosis of the problem (p. 73).

Of course, this is the subject of the rest of Pearcey’s excellent book which includes a study guide in the 2005 edition. In the many endorsements for the book, the following statements reflect on its research and readability for the average person (in other words, the reader won’t get lost in a lot of academic jargon and will, in fact, find it to be quite fascinating, enlightening, and informative):

“Lucid, easy to understand. . . . For all of it’s intellectual and theological sophistication, ‘Total Truth’ is written in a way that the average layperson will understand and appreciate.” ~World

“Easy to read, well-documented, sometimes provocative. . . . A superb worldview lens through which we can see things more clearly. All who read it will live their lives differently.” ~Becky Norton Dunlop, VP for External Relations, the Heritage Foundation

Dr. Timothy Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, and Chairman of Redeemer City to City, which starts new churches in New York and other global cities, is another prolific author of many books and articles on a variety of Christian topics to include the relationship of Christians to their culture. In an article published in 2006 titled, A New Kind of Urban Christian,” published in Christianity Today, he states:

The relationship of Christians to culture is the singular current crisis point for the church. Evangelicals are deeply divided over how to interact with a social order that is growing increasingly post-Christian. Some advise a reemphasis on tradition and on “letting the church be the church,” rejecting any direct attempt to influence society as a whole. Others are hostile to culture, but hopeful that they can change it through aggressive action, often of a political sort. Still others believe that “you change culture one heart at a time.” Finally, many are attracted to the new culture and want to reengineer the church to modify its adversarial relationship with culture. Many in the “one heart at a time” party play down doctrine and stress experience, while some in the reengineering group are changing distinctives of evangelical doctrine in the name of cultural engagement. That is fueling much theological controversy, but even people who agree on the need for change disagree over what to do to our doctrine to reach the culture.

Indeed, how Christians interact and/or reach out to their culture is a complex matter. Keller does stress that while none of the strategies he mentions above should be abandoned, he also stressed that we need a new and different strategy as explained in his article (click here for article). Specifically regarding the worldview of work, Keller states:

Most fields of work today are dominated by a very different set of answers from those of Christianity. But when many Christians enter a vocational field, they either seal off their faith and work like everyone else around them, or they spout Bible verses to their coworkers. We do not know very well how to persuade people of Christianity’s answers by showing them the faith-based, worldview roots of everyone’s work. We do not know how to equip our people to think out the implications of the gospel for art, business, government, journalism, entertainment, and scholarship. Developing humane, creative, and excellent business environments out of our understanding of the gospel can be part of this work. The embodiment of joy, hope, and truth in the arts is also part of this work. If Christians live in major cultural centers in great numbers, doing their work in an excellent but distinctive manner, that alone will produce a different kind of culture than the one in which we live now (quote source here).

One of the key points he makes in his article is this statement:

We must neither just denounce the culture nor adopt it. We must sacrificially serve the common good, expecting to be constantly misunderstood and sometimes attacked. We must walk in the steps of the One who laid down his life for his opponents (quote source here).

Jesus Christ made the following statement to his disciples which extends down through the ages to us today who claim to follow him (John 15:18-25):

 If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father as well. If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. As it is, they have seen, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’

Once again as Keller states, We must neither just denounce the culture nor adopt it. We must sacrificially serve the common good, expecting to be constantly misunderstood and sometimes attacked. We must walk in the steps of the One who laid down his life for his opponents (quote source here).

With all the complexities involved in living in the midst of our culture, we need to keep our focus always on the One who we claim to follow. For the Christian, there is no separation between the secular and the sacred. We either serve God or we serve self no matter the setting or who we are with or what we are doing. And it really boils down to who we love the most–ourselves, or Jesus. . . .

We cannot serve two masters . . .

So who will it be?

YouTube Video: “He Reigns” by the Newsboys:

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