Contextualization: “Positive” and “Negative”

If fundamentalists were reticent to engage culture, evangelicals are quick to boast in their adaptation to it. Central to that post-WWII plan has been the appropriate and measured contextualization of the Christian message to a(n increasingly) non-Christian nation.

Yet somewhere along the last seventy years or so, we evangelicals seem to have lost our way. Is it too strong to say that we’ve become intoxicated with contextualization? I fear we have. While attendance soared, budgets inflated, and political clout gathered, our disciples don’t look very different than their non-Christian family members, neighbors, and co-workers. Our disciples aren’t…disciples.

I contend that part of the problem has been a misunderstanding as to the nature of contextualization. What was meant to be a brick in the wall has become the foundation on which the whole house rests. Below I will exegete 1 Corinthians 9:19-22, define contextualization, critique the prevailing misunderstanding, respond to possible objections, briefly survey the effects of contextualization done poorly, and then apply this framework to five practical ministry examples.

Exegesis of 1 Corinthians

Paul begins his treatment of food sacrificed to idols, and the rights of Christians, in 1 Corinthians 8:1. He notes that eating food sacrificed to idols, though not actually to a “god”, can still cause weaker brothers and sisters to sin. He lays down the principle in 8:9, “But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block (πρόσκομμα) to the weak (τοῖς ἀσθενέσιν).” His point is simple: Christian love goes out of its way to serve others.

Paul then spends the first half of chapter 9 defending his rights as an apostle. But, in love, he declares in 9:12, “Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right (ἡ ἐξουσία), but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle (ἐγκοπὴν) in the way of the gospel of Christ.” As a Christian, no less an apostle, Paul has a rightful claim on things like eating meat, taking a believing wife, and being supported by the churches he founded. Yet, Paul realizes that doing any of these things might add a stumbling block to gospel growth. He is intent on minimizing obstacles, so he doesn’t act on his rights.

Verse 19 continues, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all (πᾶσιν), that I might win more of them.” Though Paul has all kinds of rights, his Christ-like love compels himself to surrender any right that would make it harder for others to follow Christ. Paul then proceeds to describe the two main ethnic groups of his day, and how he “contextualizes” his ministry to both. Paul states in verse 20 that he “For to the Jews (τοῖς Ἰουδαίοις) I became (έγενόμην) as a Jew.” Because his normal way of life would be offensive to Jews, Paul changes his behavior. He realizes that living by his Christian rights might create obstacles for belief for Jews; thus, he endeavors to remove those stumbling blocks (by living as a Jew).

In verse 21 he writes that “to those outside the law (τοῖς ἀνόμοις) [I became] as one outside the law.” Again, because his normal way of life would be offensive to Gentiles, Paul changes his behavior. He realizes that living by his Christian rights might create obstacles for belief for Gentiles; thus, he endeavors to remove those stumbling blocks (by living as a Gentile). He then circles back to ministry to the week in verse 22a, and states, “To the weak (τοῖς ἀσθενέσιν) I became (έγενόμην) weak, that I might win the weak.” Again, Paul “takes care” that his right does not become a stumbling block. By his new behavior, he tries to remove potentially unnecessarily offensive practices (to the weak).

In what has become the linchpin of contextualization talk, Paul concludes in 22b, “I have become (γέγονα) all things to all people (τοῖς πᾶσιν), that by all means I might save some.” Based upon the preceding verses, I contend that Paul is simply expanding his principle from 8:9, which has been applied to “the Jews”, “those outside the law”, and “the weak”. Now he summarizes that “to all people” he takes care that none of his rights “somehow become a stumbling block.” That is, Paul isn’t simply dressing like the locals. He is not simply adopting his target audience’s tastes and preferences. Rather, it is a deliberate attempt to not allow obstacles to impede gospel growth. In line with all three previous examples, he is seeking to remove any unnecessary stumbling blocks.

Definitions

My conclusion from this passage is simple: Paul commended Christians to not add obstacles to gospel growth, but to subtract obstacles whenever possible. Whether marriage, pay, or food sacrificed to idols, Paul wanted the Corinthians to follow his example and remove potential stumbling blocks of belief. Therefore, Paul’s “contextualization” of the gospel was ensuring that barriers were not added, and that, so far as it was righteous and faithful to the gospel, barriers were removed. Hence my definition: contextualization is “the deliberate changing of one’s behavior to reduce the number of obstacles to believing and obeying the gospel.” I call this “negative” contextualization because it seeking to reduce/decrease/remove/negate/eliminate barriers. This is my first definition, which I think is the biblically faithful concept of contextualization.

But I don’t think it is the prevailing evangelical understanding of contextualization. Notably, it doesn’t seem that most evangelicals have an explicit definition. Instead, they abide by a certain kind of ethos: “do whatever is necessary to attract people to the gospel.” This impulse then morphs into an even more unbiblical strain: “do whatever is necessary to make the gospel seem attractive.” (An extreme version of this will actually change the content of the message, as in classical Protestant liberalism. At present, I am only seeking to critique the mainstream evangelical perspective.) From this model, I derive my second definition. I call this “positive” contextualization because it seeks to add/increase/grow/enhance the appeal of Christianity. Here is my definition of “positive” contextualization: “the deliberate changing of one’s behavior to make the gospel more attractive.”

Put another way, those who employ “positive” contextualization, hope to win people by means of their contextualization. As if people will believe in Jesus, because of the church’s music, attire, pop culture references, etc.

The difference between these two understandings should be obvious. “Negative” contextualization exists to make the gospel known and understood more clearly, while “positive” contextualization exists to make Christianity, Jesus, and the gospel look better. Thus, “Negative” contextualization is good, I contend, and “Positive” contextualization is bad. I will now briefly respond to some possible objections, before turning to the deleterious effects of “positive” contextualization.

Objections

Objection 1: “But don’t we want to make the gospel more attractive?” Answer: yes and no. We certainly want people to perceive as much of the beauty of the gospel as possible. In that sense, we are indeed trying to “increase” their attraction to the gospel. But we want people to see the beauty that is already inherent in the gospel. That is, we want people to see the glory and attractiveness that is already there. We are trying to take away the blinders (barriers) in people’s hearts to perceiving the excellencies of Christ. But we should never try to “beautify” the gospel, as if it were lacking. This is, I fear, is the error of “positive” contextualization. In trying to commend the true gospel, via contextualization, churches have actually tried to improve it. To discern which type of contextualization is being considered, ask this crucial question: what stumbling block is this change going to remove? If no obvious barrier is being eliminated, it might be because you have drifted into “positive” contextualization. You’re trying to make the gospel more attractive.

Objection 2: “But don’t the ‘negators’ also try to make the gospel more attractive?” Answer: yes and no. Again, we want to do everything we can to communicate the gospel clearly and effectively, because we want people to behold the glory that Christ genuinely has. But where a “negative” contextualizer is trying to remove barriers to belief, so people can see the beauty of Christ, the “positive” contextualizer is searching for ways to be more relevant or impressive, as if by those things to attract people to Christ.

Objection 3: “So should Christians ever try to attract people to God?” Answer: yes! Jesus states in Matthew 5:16, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” The good deeds of Christians are meant to point non-Christians to God. Similarly, in John 13:35 Jesus states, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Christians are to so love one another, that such humble service and devotion is actually evidence that they are followers of Christ! Or consider 1 Peter 2:12, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God.” As Christians endure persecution, and continue practicing righteousness, they are glorifying God! My contention is not at all that Christians should not try to commend the gospel. Instead, it is that the gospel is already, inherently, commendable. It is glorious. And the way that the church commends the gospel is through the holy and loving lives of believers. It is not through our music, attire, pop culture references, etc., but the sincere love of Christ in us.

Harms of “Positive” Contextualization

I now move to explain the two undesirable outcomes that result from using “positive” contextualization. First, “positive” contextualization does not depend fully on God. A stronger way of putting this would recognize it as a lack of faith in God and his promises. God has ordained the gospel as the means of salvation (Romans 1:16; 1 Cor 1:18) because it eliminates human boasting (Rom 3:27; 1 Cor 1:29; Ephesians 2:9). It eliminates the boasting of the messenger, because it is a message of folly, and it eliminates the boasting of a Christian, because salvation is by grace, through faith, in Christ.

Therefore, when we don’t depend on the gospel alone, we don’t depend on God alone, and we end up relying on our own ingenuity or intelligence. And if our own ingenuity or intelligence win people, then our own ingenuity and intelligence gets the glory. For Paul was right when he wrote, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due” (Rom 4:4). Thus, if people respond well to our impressive schemes, we get to boast in ourselves and our schemes.

Second, God has appointed the means of salvation, and we dishonor him when we try to improve that means as if it were insufficient. When God gives explicit instruction, we neglect that instruction, and follow our own wisdom and methods, we show a profound lack of trust in him and his word.

Third, “positive” contextualization is harmful because it doesn’t create true disciples. Since the gospel is the only means of salvation, all efforts that rely on other things cannot, by definition, grant salvation. Any change will only be temporary, external, non-spiritual, and eternally insignificant change, insofar as it has been technique-d by our methods. It is not really the Spirit of God that has changed the sinner’s heart, but some human-made innovation that brought excitement. For God alone gives spiritual growth (1 Cor 3:6) and opens people’s hearts to believe (Acts 16:14) the gospel. And the parable of the soils (Mark 4:1-20) demonstrates that some who seem like a Christian (responding with joy, initially growing up with the thorns) are not always truly converted. Thus, any method that depends, say, 80% on the power of God, as it were, and 20% on human ingenuity, might be predicted to create 20% false converts. Inasmuch as people are “converted” by something other than the gospel, they are still unconverted! Only the Holy Spirit gives true gospel growth, creating lasting gospel change.

Certainly, genuine Christians can be born again from ministries that use “positive” contextualization. But that will be in spite of, not because of, those efforts. For if those efforts were truly effective—in providing the decisive persuasion to the individual—then the sinner could not be made a saint. Only the Spirit of God, empowering the gospel of God, can do that work.

Perhaps all this has seemed a bit heady, and in need of practical examples. I will now seek to demonstrate five typical evangelical “contextualizations”, and how they fall squarely into the “positive” (that is, unbiblical) category.

Examples

First, consider humor in a church service. I recently passed a church’s prominent front sign that proclaimed this coming week’s sermon was entitled “My Name is Inigo Montoya.” It seems this kind of amusing language is all-too common among evangelical churches. While proponents would point to the ubiquity of humor in today’s culture, and the necessity of “contextualizing” to connect with the contemporary audience, this emphasis does not match Paul’s “negative” contextualization. For what stumbling block does humor remove for believers and unbelievers? It certainly makes the sermon more enjoyable, and thus crowds tend to get larger. But without a clear obstacle to remove, the profusion of humor seems more accurately like an attempt to make Christianity more appealing. That is, it is an attempt at “positive” contextualization.

Second, consider the emphasis of music in a church service. Music is a glorious gift of God, to sing his praises, declare his salvation, and encourage the saints. Yet I fear that, under the banner of contextualization, many churches have adopted a pragmatic style that seeks to improve upon the gospel. For the impressive worship stages, the professional musicians, the dramatic lighting, and the deafening choruses, what stumbling block do these things remove for believers and unbelievers? It certainly makes the service enjoyable, one’s emotions can be swept along quite easily, and crowds can surge quickly. But without a clear obstacle to remove, it seems that these techniques are promoted as if they could make Christianity cool and compelling. Instead, I believe it takes focus off of where it should be; namely, the gospel.

Third, consider the role of clothing and attire at a church. Often, pastors are known for dressing in a way that is impressive and hip to their target audience. This can sound very similar to Paul’s strategy in 1 Corinthians 9. Yet, when Paul contextualized, he did it by “negation”. He didn’t seek to win people by his contextualization, but used the contextualization to remove barriers to the gospel. I fear that many pastors, in the name of contextualization, partake in the “positive” vain. That is, they seek to win people by their stylishness. While Paul never mistook his contextualization with the power of the gospel, it seems that some pastors do confuse their clothing with God’s power. Again, what stumbling block do designer jeans (or tailored suits) remove for believers and unbelievers?

This is perhaps the thorniest example I analyze.  For the pastor has to wear something. Yet my analysis is meant to get to the root motivation of his decision: why does he choose one set of clothing over another? Whether jeans or a suit, the motivation can be a godly desire to be unremarkable (that is, “negatively” removing a potential barrier). So a pastor doesn’t want an elderly congregation to be offended by jeans, and he wears a suit. But there can also be an unwise attempt to “positively” impress the audience with the hipness of Christians. Again, is the pastor seeking to simply remove a barrier that certain clothing might produce? Or is he seeking to win people to Christianity by his coolness, as evident in his clothing?

Fourth, consider the general tone set by the lighting, stage, and other environmental factors. What message is it trying to send? In a modern church, with slick lighting, impressive stage props, and a lone stool for preaching, I wonder if pastors are seeking to “positively” contextualize the gospel in such a way as to make Christianity more appealing. But what barriers do slick lighting and professional music overcome?

Fifth and finally, consider how a church might avail coffee to Sunday churchgoers. Often, churches will put out inexpensive coffee to bless and serve those attending. At other times, churches will create entire coffee shops, with either free or discounted gourmet drinks. While the former set of churches seems to be motivated by Christian love and simple hospitality, I wonder if the latter group of churches sometimes seeks to win people through impressive and trendy coffee-shops. But what stumbling block does a state-of-the-art coffee shop remove for believers and unbelievers? This seems more like “positive” contextualization, in an attempt to make Christianity seem trendy and chic.

Notably, all of these examples have to do with aesthetics. This fits well with my goal of describing American evangelicalism. Cross-cultural “contextualization,” and the discussion therein, has been prone to much more like liberal Protestantism, with a tendency to change the message itself. But in our American context, evangelicals seem obsessed with changing the externals. Perhaps they know its wrong to mess with the message itself; or they think the medium doesn’t matter. In either case, these examples are fairly typical of the churches and conferences that promote “positive” contextualization.

In all of these situations, the lines are never black and white. But the more your coffee shop outdoes Starbucks, how much of a barrier are you really removing? And while the church has to play some kind of music, how much of a barrier does professional, concert-style music really remove? My position is that it does not. While purporting to follow the example of Paul from 1 Corinthians 9, such examples are actually unbiblical “positive” contextualization, and add to the gospel.

Conclusion

Evangelicals are right to engage the world with the gospel. Yet we must do so with wisdom. The gospel is not a product to be marketed, sold, or advertised. And we are not salespeople. Instead, with Paul, “we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20).

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‘Why Johnny Can’t Preach’ Review

Gordon, T. David. Why Johnny Can’t Preach. Phillipsburg: P&R, 2009.

Introduction

After two decades as a seminary and Christian college professor, David Gordon is well positioned to assess the state of evangelical and Reformed preaching—and the ministers who do the preaching. In this penetrating book, Gordon seeks to examine “the causes for the impoverished conservative evangelical and Reformed pulpit.” The problem is not in the myriad of homiletics manuals that he acknowledges. Instead, Gordon locates the culprit “largely [in] the cultural changes in the second half of the twentieth century” (12). Thus he proceeds to critique the cultural milieu that has produced such vapid preaching, and offers a corrective course of action for ministers and churches alike.

Summary

Happily, Gordon uses his difficult life circumstances to produce this book in both its brief and direct manner. He first endeavors to demonstrate that evangelical preaching is impoverished. After establishing the validity of that claim, he diagnosis two critical deficiencies: the inability of Johnny to read and write texts. Gordon concludes with an affirmation of Christ-centered preaching and practical steps that a minister can take to undo the values inculcated by our mass media culture.

How then does Gordon seek to establish his claim that Christian preaching is insipid today? Essentially, he relies upon anecdotal evidence and personal experiences. He recognizes that this could prove misleading, but the nearly three decades of thought and reflection lead him to believe that his views are representative. He notes the Emergent church, lack of annual reviews, and the desire of congregations for shorter sermons as additional evidence that the preaching is poor. Again, because Gordon references no surveys or sociological evidence, it is tempting to dismiss his claims as idiosyncratic. Yet, his experience and breadth of learning indicate that he has touched a nerve.

He cites Robert Lewis Dabney as an authority for what a sermon should be. The seven prerequisites—“honored almost exclusively in their breach”—are textual fidelity, unity, evangelical tone, instructiveness, movement, point, and order (24-28). Gordon contends that these minimum requirements can be sufficiently summed up in his tripartite analysis: “What was the point or thrust of the sermon? Was this point adequately established in the text that was read? Were the applications legitimate applications of the point, from which we can have further fruitful conversation about other possible applications?” (19).

Yet if the preaching is poor—and Gordon contends it is—the blame should not be placed on seminaries. Indeed, they have an embarrassment of riches in distinguished homiletics professors! How then has this issue arisen? “The problem is the condition of the typical ministerial candidate when he arrives at seminary” (italics his, 35).

And this woefully lacking aptitude is a result of culture. Indeed, Gordon believes that life has so drastically changed in the last five decades—with the advent of television, internet, mass media, and the image driven consumer—that the seminarian is laden with a load of culturally imported burdens (and deficiencies) that handicap him and impede his preaching. The rest of the book is simply aiming “to demonstrate that these cultural changes, and especially changes in the dominant media, have created a Johnny who can neither read nor write as he could in the early twentieth century, and who, therefore, cannot preach” (italics his, 38).

Hence the minister is incapable of appreciating Shakespeare, Frost or Dante. And this is not merely a crisis in highbrow culture. The issue arises when preaching demands that Johnny be able to comprehend, internalize, and conceptualize in a similar way as these writers. Johnny has been reared on a diet of magazines, sound bites, and frothy comedies so that he is unable to grasp the deep and profound meaning of Scripture. Entranced by the novelty of the insignificant, Johnny cannot bring himself to encounter the biblical God. Only an insignificant and banal gospel remains.

And because the modern minister is unable to master—and be mastered by—the epoch shaking drama of Scripture, he is unable to portray it. If his inability to read Dante, and thus the Bible, marks his study, the preacher’s lack of written ability showcases itself in the composition and delivery of the sermon. The congregation suffers as Johnny fails to bring coherent unity, structure, movement, and Christological focus to bear on the people. Moralism, how-to Christianity, introspection, and social justice pervade the Sunday morning pulpit, and leave the people malnourished.

But Gordon is not hopeless. If ministers will diligently seek to inculcate those latent abilities within them, they too can feed their people Christ. Through self-education—reading poetry and writing, mainly—the preacher is able to hone his abilities, faithfully preach Christ, and overcome the cultural trappings of modern technological society.

Critical Evaluation

Are we amusing ourselves to death? Or, as the subtitle to this book suggests, has “the media shaped the messengers”? Lamentably, I think Gordon is spot on in his assessment of modern evangelicalism and the impact culture brings to bear upon preaching.

Although written in 2009—and much has changed in the subsequent seven years—the dearth of good preaching in our day is pronounced. Evangelical mega-churches are packed. Christian bookstores are thriving. Yet the salt and light that Jesus calls his people to embody seem strangely—and almost uniformly—absent from evangelical private and public life. Lloyd-Jones is astutely cognizant of the underlying cause to such malformation when he comments, “the most urgent need in the Christian Church today is true preaching” (Preaching and Preachers, 2012, 17). Without true preaching, there cannot be true Christianity. Perhaps the best evidence for Gordon’s thesis—that, due to culture, contemporary preaching is inadequate—is the failure of the churches to live counter-culturally. Thus, I agree when he challenges detractors of preaching: “Show me a church where the preaching is good, and yet the church is still moribund. I’ve never seen such a church” (33).

If Lloyd-Jones’ analysis was true in mid-century Britain, how much more so today in America! Gordon skillfully contends that contemporary culture has so conformed and shaped the evangelical mind that preaching necessarily suffers. Indeed, with Noll, Wells, and Guinness, one is tempted to say that there is no evangelical mind! So I agree with Gordon that the contemporary obsession with the “STEM” disciplines—though he does not put it this way—comes not only at the cost of our societal unity and coherence, but the very sustenance of the church! That is, the preaching of God’s word. In some ways, the scandal could not be any more penetrating and pernicious than this.

For just as architecture and law requires a certain skill set, so too does preaching. The question is whether the church’s ministers are sufficiently equipped for this calling. And it seems to me that television, Twitter, and telecommunications have stunted the education, and thus the abilities, of ministerial candidates. Why? Such mediums—as Gordon notes—rely upon the trivial. It is necessarily the case that nothing of substantive depth and weight can be considered in 140 characters. This is not to imply that Twitter is useless, but that it is useless at cultivating the kind of man that can preach God’s word. And as ministers fritter away their time—Piper would say, “wasting their lives”—on the inconsequential, the sheer weight of God and his reality leave the preacher un-impressed. That is, instead of having his mind shaped by the profundity of the word of God, it is conformed to the superficiality, levity, and insignificance of this world. Thus un-impressed, he is unimpressed.[1] No awe remains in the preacher because his God is not awe-some. And unimpressed preaching always begets un-impressed listeners.

Though implicit in Gordon’s work, I likewise contend there are two skills necessary for faithful preaching. As two wings on a plane, both are indispensable to preaching; without one, the whole exercise is doomed to fail.

First, the minister must be analytically competent. This is not too dissimilar from Dabney’s “textual fidelity” requirement. The minister must be a skilled exegete. Paul charges Timothy to preach the word and this can only be accomplished as the preacher understands the word. To accomplish this, ministers must have a firm grasp on logic, Greek and Hebrew grammar, biblical theology, and historic Christian orthodoxy. These skills might be called the “science” of preaching.

Second, the minister must be artistically competent. I take this to be the thrust of Gordon’s argument, with which I heartily agree. A minister does not profit his congregation by merely regurgitating biblical phrases. Rather, he must so take his exegesis—data gathering, you might call the first step—and shape it in such a way as to be beautiful. This is not to appeal to any kind of ancient Greek rhetorical standard. Paul explicitly denounces such a worldly philosophy in the first chapters of First Corinthians. Rather, it is to let the beautiful text radiate all its beauty. The Greeks rhetoricians were skilled in their ability to put makeup on a corpse and give it beauty, as it were. The task of the preacher is to draw out the beauty latent in the text. This is not to imply that God’s revelation is “trapped” by words. By no means! Rather, we are trapped in our ignorance so long as we fail to adopt the worldview and meta-narrative that Scripture appropriates and subsequently promotes. The task of preaching is to reveal that glory-beauty which is already present—in ways not too dissimilar from Heidegger’s etymological understanding of aletheia as “unveiling” or “disclosure.” This textual beauty can be seen in a sermon’s structure, unity, movement, vocabulary, and Christological focus.

My only noteworthy qualm with Gordon is his insistence on his particular form of education. Put another way, Gordon seems to imply that there is a certain standard of learning and cultural appreciation—that he determines—that must precede preaching. Without such sophistication, preaching is hopeless adrift in the waves of late modernity. I agree, but I question his authority to determine such qualifications. Why his standard, instead of Rick Warren’s? Of course, Gordon might respond that he is merely requiring of ministers those qualities that were normally expected in centuries past. To this, I contend that he is mostly right. Yet the solution is not necessarily Shakespeare, as he suggests. Why not Tolkien? Or Beowulf? I suspect Gordon would agree that such works would be helpful. Thus my disagreement is actually slight. I would simply allow ministers more freedom in choosing those particular books and poems to be their tutors, leading them to a more profound encounter with, and exposition of, the biblical Christ.

Conclusion

I enthusiastically recommend Why Johnny Can’t Preach to all preachers and would-be preachers interested in honing their craft. We need more pastors skilled in the English language, and we need Gordon to wake us from the dogmatic slumber that insists “peace, peace” when there is none. Evangelical preaching is in a crisis. The solution cannot be more of the same, for that is how we landed in this mess. Modernity has exacted its toll and our preaching has been found bankrupt. What then should pastors do? To adopt Lewis’ insight into Gordon, read the old books! And may God give the growth as we tolle lege.

[1]Perhaps more clearly: thus un-shaped by God, the minister is apathetic towards him.

Review of ‘One Nation Under God’

I have to admit that I didn’t have the highest expectations for Bruce Ashford and Chris Pappalardo’s recent book One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics. The title seemed more interested in staking claims of America’s Christian heritage than delivering balanced and nuanced remarks. Happily, I was pleasantly surprised.

The book divides in two, with the first half the more ‘theoretical’ side and the second half considering particular policy concerns. First, we will consider the conceptual side. Ashford and Pappalrdo delve into many of the conceptual difficulties of Christians engaging politics in the public square. In the first chapter they begin by tracing the grand narrative of Scripture as Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration. This both humbles and exalts the political realm. It humbles politics because only Christ will usher in the kingdom. Until then, all our policies and objectives are temporary. But Scripture also grants a great deal of worth to politics because it takes place within God’s cosmos. Because God made it, it is ontologically good (even if “directionally” bad).

In chapter two, the authors appropriate their own version of H. Richard Neibuhr’s Christ and culture paradigms. They first discuss “grace against nature” (16) as the untenable Anabaptist option. Next, they consider “grace above nature” (18) and find it wanting for lack of a serious view of sin. Third, the authors analyze “grace alongside nature” (19). While they clearly think there is merit in this view, this paradoxical view of the two kingdoms is found to be to isolationist and silo-ed; that is, the two realms to not sufficiently interact. Finally, the authors’ own position of “grace renews nature” (21) is taken up.

As a two-kingdom proponent myself (with hints of being a transformationalist), I wish they would have spent a bit more time explicating the competing visions for Christ and culture (or grace and nature). This really seems to be the foundation for the rest of the book–including the theoretical and ‘practical’ part. Nevertheless, the authors fairly (if quickly) describe the differing views and theirs is a balanced transformationalist approach.

Next, Ashford and Pappalardo delve into Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty. Because Christ is Lord of all, all “spheres” of modern life are ultimate under his sovereignty. But this does not turn into theonomy or theocracy because Christ governs different institutions in different ways. I was very impressed with the authors treatment of this topic–both succinct and capable. For those looking for a primer on this aspect of the Dutch theologian/philosopher/statesman’s thought, this is a helpful chapter.

In chapter four, the authors delve into the tricky topic of church and state relations. American history aside, this requires great care. Within an American context, things quickly become convoluted. Again, the authors should be commended for their fair treatment of the issues. And while I may not have entirely agreed with all their exegesis (e.g., John 18:36 and Mark 12:13-17), Ashford and Pappalrdo end the chapter incisively by distinguishing between the church institutional and organic (42). The mission of the institutional church is the proclamation of the gospel. But the organic church orients its life differently. Again, I wish the authors had explicated this important topic some more! Nevertheless, I am grateful for this treatment.

Next, the authors delve into pluralism and the public square. They touch upon the works of John Rawls and the “naked public square”, before also rejecting a theocratic state (and the ecclesiasticism variant). What do they propose as an alternative? Again taking their cue from Kuyper (though not in name), the authors advocate for a principled pluralism that allows both conviction and diversity.

In the sixth  and final chapter in the first half of the volume, the authors note six ways that Christians can engage politics with wisdom and virtue. “Seeking the good of the city”, “living between the times”, “being shaped for public righteousness and civility”, “taking a longer and broader view”, “choosing between thick and thin”, and “politicking in the pulpit (or not)” title the varied sections. Nothing particularly ground-breaking here, but the authors do well to summarize their findings in the first five chapters and give a bit more practical wisdom for implementing all that has been thus far covered.

In chapter seven, Ashford and Pappalardo turn to particular public policies from a Christian perspective. It should be noted that the authors are careful not to appear too partisan. While suggesting specific policy objectives, they go against Republicans and Democrats. And when suggesting particular outcomes, they are wary not to delve into too much policy detail. As they note earlier in the book, the church is neither called nor equipped to adjudicate on the finer points of public policy.

Touching upon Life and Death (ch.7), Marriage and Sexuality (ch.8), Economics and Wealth (ch.9), The Environment and Ecological Stewardship (ch.10), Racial Diversity and Race Relations (ch.11), Immigrants and Immigration Reform (ch.12), and War and Peace (ch.13), the authors helpfully survey much of the current political landscape. A nice touch is the suggested reading at the end of each chapter, with varying levels of difficulty distinguished.

Finally, Ashford and Pappalardo conclude the book by briefly considering Augustine’s City of God and the cultural context for that work. Commending cultural exegesis, careful study of Scripture, and finding one’s hope in God alone, the authors draw the book to a close by fixing our eyes on Christ’s kingdom.

Thus, the authors come full circle. Beginning with Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration, they conclude the book by noting that it is that story (not the latest poll on CNN) that is our hope. Summoning individual Christians (and the collective church) to a wise engagement in the public square, Ashford and Pappalrdo have produced a very helpful and winsome primer by providing “A Christian Hope for American Politics”. Christ’s kingdom will only comes when he returns on a horse (Revelation 19), but until then we are called to be faithful to our King in our respective callings and bear witness–in political word and in deed–to that coming kingdom.

On Identity & Reality

What is reality? Is it objective or is it subjective? And if it is subjective, who gets to define it? While these may seem like merely academic questions your Philosophy 101 professor would assign for a midterm, the truth is that how you answer these questions has a profound effect upon your worldview and therefore your entire life.

In the recent video put out by the Family Policy Institute of Washington, we see the incredible effects of postmodernism and a practically atheistic worldview. In it, the students are asked increasingly absurd questions about personal identity, to see if they will ‘admit’ that there are at least some things (like height or age) that are independent of one’s own beliefs. As it turns out, none of the students were willing to make such a judgement.

We live in strange times indeed. What makes our culture so unique is not simply the rampant secularization of the public square (the communists had that), but also the removal of seemingly any legitimate external authority. At least the commies had the state to submit to. That is to say that ethics must come from somewhere; and if not from without, then it will be from within.

This practical atheism inevitably leads to a kind of squishy relativism that champions statements like “If you feel like you are seven years old at heart, yea, good for you” and “I feel like thats not my place, as another human, to say someone is wrong or to draw lines or boundaries”. For when you remove the absolutizing and unifying existence of God, the universe no longer has any telos or purpose. That is, randomness rules supreme. And if everything is random, everything is meaningless. And if everything is meaningless, relativism follows soon thereafter.

This makes it quite awkward to state that certain ideas, behaviors, or practices are inherently bad. While a theist can look to God for moral instruction—“Thou shalt not commit adultery”—it’s hard to say where an atheist looks to condemn obviously immoral conduct (like murder). Instead of appealing to God as the absolute arbiter of truth, beauty, and goodness, the atheist is forced into semi-bizarre statements like “You shouldn’t murder, because I said so”.

And while this may hold water for the obvious cases (like genocide), its not exactly a knock-down argument when it comes to lying, cheating, stealing, fornication, adultery, homosexuality, or gender-identity issues. This helps explain why it is so rare to find non-theists against homosexuality.

What does all this have to do with the recent video? In it we see the students struggling to find the moral and intellectual resources of their postmodern worldview to reject the absurd. You can almost see their thoughts on their contorted and confused faces. “Of course this man in front of me isn’t a 6’5” Chinese woman, but I’ve committed myself to a position of no judgment whatsoever”…”Of course this man is not seven years old, but I’ve committed myself to a worldview that is incapable of making any distinctions or moral evaluations”. I’ll confess, watching the students squirm is a bit entertaining.

And yet the scary thing about these students’ responses is not that they are so illogical, but that they are logical! When you commit to a kind of postmodern moral fluffiness, any absolute like sex, age, height or gender goes out the window. Reality ceases to be what is and becomes whatever I say it is.

But do I really get to define reality? Thankfully, Christians stand on much firmer ground than these students. The Christian holds that I do not have the right to define reality; God alone has that right. It is not my word that ultimately matters—whether I think I am white, Asian, male, female, tall or short—but God’s word that matters. And in his grace, God has given his reality-defining word to us! We are not left groping in the dark as to what reality is (as these students so awkwardly do), but God has graciously declared it to us in the Scriptures.

For it is in the Bible that we learn that a crucified Jewish carpenter is actually the Savior of the world. It is in the Bible that we learn that to save one’s life, one must lose it. It is in the Bible that we learn that it is better to give than to receive. It is in the Bible that we learn that no matter how strong my feelings toward fornication, adultery, homosexuality—or a thousand other sins!—it is better to obey God’s commands. God’s word not only helps us live in light of reality, it defines reality.

For the Christian, reality matters because it is God’s reality. So it only makes sense that if you reject God, you also reject his reality. You reject true reality and are consigned to invent for yourself myths and fantasies, designed to interpret and define what you so obviously inhabit, yet so tragically suppress.

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:18-23).

Modern Man and the Ancient Church

The modern man no longer needs one another. He needs others but he does not need another.

The modern man sits in his modern condo and uses modern appliances to do modern things. Others made them, but he does not know them.

He has never been to the store and he has never been to work. He stays at home and is more efficient that way. Others grow his food and work alongside him, but he does not know them.

Because he is a modern, the man shops online. He buys online and returns online. Packages arrive and depart from his doorstep. Others produce for him, but he does not know them.

The modern man has no thoughts of family. He does not need a wife for sexual fulfillment. He has limitless partners awaiting him online. Others please him, but he does not know them.

He also plays online. He does not have friends come visit him, or he visit them, but he meets his friends on video games and website forums. He sometimes posts on their social media accounts. Others leisure with him, but he does not know them.

The corporation moves him across the country. He lives near his parents now, but it makes no difference. Others raised him, but he does not know them.

 

Our man is a modern man through and through. He is an individual and the Enlightenment has succeeded.

The modern man is lost in a sea of anonymity. If this became mostly true with the advent of department stores, it has been made perfect through online shopping.  The modern world is far too efficient and rational for life to be personal.

But it was not always this way. There was a time in Western society when men and women knew one another. Buying shoes, getting a tool fixed, traveling, and acquiring food were once personal endeavors, but they are no more.

I was reminded of this fact when my state got hit with 30+ inches of snow and the most remarkable thing happened. People met each other and if not for the first time, then certainly the first time in a long time.

Forced by the shoveling to venture outside, neighbors were with one another. By necessity we spurned Netflix, Hulu, Facebook, and everything else that draws us into isolation. Doors opened, kids played in the snow, dogs ran up and down the street, and neighbor helped neighbor. We got to know one another.

A few days later I visited the home of a 70+ year old saint and there I noticed an old church pew on his front porch. When asked why he had it, he responded, “I want to bring back the days when people were neighbors. Back then, we knew one another”.

 

In this age of rampant individualism the Church stands in the unique position as being the people of God. When individuals wonder about their place in society, the church has the opportunity to show them the body of Christ. There they can know and be known. There they can be one with others who are radically other (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-27). The church is a community of faith that brings Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, liberal and conservative, young and old, together as one man (Ephesians 2:15).

God’s eternal purpose has always been creating and setting apart a people for himself. This was true for Adam (and Eve), Abraham (and his descendants), and Christ (and his brothers and sisters). And this glorious reality–God making those who were not his people to become his people–is displayed every Lord’s day in local churches across the globe.

There brothers and sisters gather around the table for the family meal (the Lord’s Supper). There they gather to celebrate the adoption of new family members (baptism). And there they gather to sing praises to God, communion with him through prayer, and hear from their heavenly Father through his word. There the Church makes the people-creating gospel visible.

Authentic Theology (Part 1)

Charles Taylor has famously called our era the “age of expressive individualism”. This is evident even in the constant tweets, Facebook posts, news articles, and advertisements which beckon the person to ‘be yourself’. Just let it out. Don’t let anyone tell you who to be. Chase your dreams. Don’t be defined by some distant authority. You decide what is right for you. Do what feels right to you.

 

This individual autonomy has deep roots in American history. As a nation, we have always been prone to individualism (prioritizing the individual over the collective) and a rejection of authority (e.g. the British Empire, the federal government, a state church, etc.). For a summary of how this liberal impulse to individual autonomy clashed with mass media and hyper-modern society, see George F. Marsden’s recent “The Twilight of the American Enlightment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief”. (Interestingly, the late psychologist Erik Erikson stated that  Martin Luther’s stand at the Diet of Worms was the first instance of modern individualism.)

 

It is a rich irony that as our culture has become more captivated and controlled by mass media (originally newspaper, radio, television, and magazines but now the internet and social media especially) there has been a pronounced increase in the rhetoric of individual autonomy. As culture has become more dependent on conformity (for example, cookie cutter houses and neighborhoods), so too has the anxiety for individual identity blossomed.

 

But this is perhaps best seen in our culture’s approval of nearly all sexual expression. The narrative goes something like this: “If you feel a certain way, don’t deny it. Don’t let anyone tell you its wrong. Do what feels good to you. And if you don’t act on your feelings, it must be because you are repressed and controlled by domineering (read: conservative and religious) authorities”. Thankfully, this logic is not applied to rapists, pedophiles, polygamists, and the incestuous. Yet, the modern ‘individual’ is still being controlled. He or she has simply changed Masters. No longer is the church the dominant authority. Buzzfeed is.  And the tragic fact is that the modern sexual revolution has proven to be a harsh Master indeed indeed. Statistics of divorce, remarriage, single parenting,  STDs, rape, and depression need not be multiplied here.

 

This would be destructive enough. However, much of modern theology, especially of the liberal variety, has been infiltrated by such a worldly philosophy. It is surely true that Jesus calls us to avoid hypocrisy (see Matthew 5-7, 23). But this is never at the expense of condoning sin. As Christians we are never called to rejoice in our sins, stating “This is who I am and you (whether God or neighbor) had better deal with it”. In many instances expressive individualism has promoted pride, selfishness, and blatant sin in the church of Christ.

 

But the problem of individual autonomy, divorced from biblical and Theological wisdom, is not new. It has been present seen the the Fall (see Genesis 3). Indeed, as Judges 21:25 states, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes”. So while our post-modern Western mood may exasperate the problem, it is plainly evident that we are the problem. Fallen humans are ever seeking approval to act on their sinful intuitions. And we will go to any lengths to secure such approval–whether that entails rejecting authority or appealing to it.

 

How then is the Church to respond? We turn to a biblical rejoinder soon.

The Bloody Cross

Sounds rather grotesque doesn’t it? A naked criminal, hands and feet pierced by nails, hanging from a tree, drowning in his own blood and lung fluid.

 

And yet this is exactly how Jesus died–which is pretty strange, when you think about it. The King of glory is mocked and spit upon. The Prince of Peace is whipped and shackled, beaten and cursed.

 

Perhaps even stranger is that Christians love this particular execution. Christians glory in this death. Because, through the death of  Jesus on the cross, we are saved and forgiven (see Colossians 2:13-14). And so early on Christians began making the sign of the cross with their hands, putting it on their churches, and integrating into their art. Even today, it is not uncommon to see people wearing necklaces and bracelets with crosses.

 

It is the cross which has become a dominant Christian symbol. It is the Christian symbol. However, perhaps not everyone likes it this way.

 

When browsing through Spotify’s ‘Genre and Moods’ section, I noticed the Christian option. I was happy and surprised to find this secular music provider with a religious music selection (even if only because of the popularity of Christian music). Yet I was intrigued to find that Spotify had chosen a white dove as the symbol to represent this assortment of playlists. The ‘Party’ assortment has a disco ball, ‘Focus’ has a studying lamp, and ‘Romance’ has a heart. The ‘Christian’ selection has a dove.

 

What is so interesting about Spotify’s ‘Christian’ dove? It is evidence of the tempering and taming of Christianity. The dove represents hope and peace. Who can object to it? On a page dedicated to catering to the interests of customers, the dove offends no one. But the cross represents divine wrath, divine propitiation, and divine intrusion. Who can listen to this teaching? (see John 6:60)

 

Do Christians love peace? Yes! In many ways, the cross occured so we could be at peace with God and with one another (Romans 5:1, Ephesians 2:14). Colosians 1:20 states that the (bloody) cross has actually brought us peace with God.

 

But the stubborn fact remains that Christianity is a bloody religion. At the center of our hope, as Christians, is that Jesus bore that divine judgment that we deserved. So let us keep the cross as our religion’s ‘symbol’, even if this disappoints those who want a more tolerable Christianity and a more tolerable Christ.

 

“For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).

 

“May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

 

“And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain…And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:6,9).

 

He is a bloody Savior and we will rejoice in this for eternity to come.