Random reflection from one of my writing projects:
Our cultural healers (Oprah, Tony Robbins, et al.) have no concept of sin and so can offer no real sense of redemption. Unfortunately, many Christians mimic the same approach of our cultural healers. Too many self-proclaimed Christians offer a superficial remedy and are increasingly embarrassed by the “ancient paths where the good way is.” (Jer. 6:14-16)
Is it any wonder that many of us Christians have no problem consuming and being influenced by large amounts of popular culture?
“No other country houses so many gorgeous frauds and imbeciles as the United States, and in consequence no other country is so amusing. Thus my patriotism is impeccable, though perhaps not orthodox. I love my country as a small boy loves the circus.”
H.L. Mencken as Quoted in Writers to Read: Nine Names that Belong on Your Shelf by Douglas Wilson
HT: John Fea (www.thewayofimprovement.com)
Richard Bauckham is professor emeritus of New Testament studies at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. He is also senior scholar at Ridley Hall, Cambridge and a fellow of both the British Academy and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He is the author of many distinguished works. The following interview revolves around Professor Bauckham’s book, The Bible in the Contemporary World (http://www.amazon.com/The-Bible-Contemporary-World-Hermeneutical/dp/0802872239).
David George Moore conducted the interview. Dave blogs at www.twocities.org.
Moore: In the introduction you write that “biblical surprises should also be part of the Bible’s relevance to the contemporary world.” Would you unpack that a bit for us?
Bauckham: I meant that we should never feel too satisfied that we know what the Bible’s messages are and how they relate to the contemporary world. If we go on studying Scripture at the same time as we attend to what is happening in our world there will always be fresh insights.
Moore: Some continue to argue that Gnosticism is compatible with Christianity. It seems fairly obvious that this is not the case, so why do so many keep seeking to persuade us otherwise?
Bauckham: We live in a culture that values diversity and so I think the idea that early Christianity was more diverse than we thought is appealing. Moreover, the institutional church is not popular and so the idea of an early version of Christianity that was suppressed by the institutional church for political reasons also appeals. But Gnosticism is a slippery term. I think, for the sake of clarity, we should limit it to the view that the material world was created by an inferior and incompetent deity, identified with the God of the Old Testament, while the Father of Jesus Christ is an altogether different, supreme God. Jesus came from the Father with a message for the elect: that they do not belong in this world, in which they are trapped by their bodies and the hostile god of this world, and can escape to the kingdom of the Father. Gnosticism is anti-Jewish, anti-body, anti-matter.
Moore: It seems quite evident that British biblical scholars are generally more apt than their American counterparts to discuss the abuses of capitalism and the importance of stewarding the environment. If I am correct in my observation, what do you attribute this to?
Bauckham: There is a strong tradition in USA of association of conservative Christianity with right-wing politics and economics. This doesn’t exist in UK. You also need to remember that the political spectrum in USA is considerably to the right of the spectrum in the UK.
Moore: The modern idea of progress is a stubborn and persistent idea. It is resilient in the face of modern horrors like the great wars, genocide, and so much more. How can we better help others see the unbiblical assumptions behind the modern notion of progress?
Bauckham: I always have to explain that, when I criticize the idea of progress, I am not denying that many things have improved (e.g. medicine). But other things have got worse (e.g. climate change). We cannot empirically weigh up all the gains and losses and say that on balance and in total the world is constantly getting better. The idea of progress is an ideology that distorts by making us notice what seem to be improvements and to miss what are often serious downsides of those very improvements. “Progress” very often has victims, but the beneficiaries of this “progress” can the more easily ignore them because the ideology of progress consigns them to a past that is being left behind.
In its origins the idea of progress is a secular version of Christian eschatology. Perhaps that’s why so many Christians are still firm believers in it. But the Christian hope is for a future that comes from God and is not just for those lucky enough to live in the vanguard of progress but even for the dead.
Moore: It is common to hear people announce the death of the Enlightenment Project. Is the Enlightenment over, and if it isn’t, why do so many say it is?
Bauckham: Of course, the Enlightenment was a complex phenomenon, like all such historical movements. Some of its legacy is more or less permanent, other aspects less so. I think many of us were very impressed by the claim that postmodernism was about to succeed the Enlightenment, but it hasn’t really worked out that way. It looks like the West now has a culture that mixes elements of both.
Moore: Do Christians in the West generally have the correct understanding of freedom?
Bauckham: My impression is that Christians generally don’t think about what true freedom is. They unthinkingly go along with the views that are current in our culture. But, seeing that freedom is probably the most powerful concept in contemporary western culture, it is surely vital that Christians think critically about it.
Moore: Give us a few things that you would like your readers to take away from reading The Bible in the Contemporary World.
Bauckham: I hope many readers will come away with the sense that the Bible speaks more broadly to the big issues of our time than they have realized before. And I hope many readers will find that the Bible invites them to be more concerned with the big issues of our time than they have been before.
Nicholas Kristof is a self-described “progressive” who goes where the evidence takes him. With a son who is headed into a lifetime of scholarship, this got my attention:
“Culture will eat strategy’s lunch every time.”
Attributed to Peter Drucker
My interview with author and Aussie pastor, Mark Sayers:
Moore: You’ve been addressing some of these themes in previous books, so what led you to write a full-throated account?
Sayers: I was driven by a conviction that something radical was changing culturally, and that the Church was struggling to not just catch up but articulate this shift. For decades now the Church has relied on the strategy of cultural relevance to engage Western culture. The premise of this strategy was based on two great assumptions. First, that Western culture had entered a kind of post-Christian phase, and second that the best way to engage this post-Christian phase was through employing strategies and tactics learned on the mission field with pre-Christian cultures.
This was the strategy that ultimately created the contemporary church movement. I am not suggesting that the strategy of cultural relevance has not been fruitful nor that we should abandon it. The strategy of cultural relevance works well in pre-Christian or traditional cultures where the gospel can be communicated into and built around local symbols, stories, traditions, conventions and structures. However, the mood behind the post-Christian culture of the West ultimately seeks to deconstruct and contest all symbols, stories, traditions, conventions and structures. How do you apply a strategy of cultural relevance in a Western context which liquifies culture? Missiology emerged as a way of engaging non-Western traditional cultures without colonizing them. In our post-traditional West, the danger is that when the church engages the cultural solely with the strategy of cultural relevance, too often the church is colonized by the post-Christian mood. I am suggesting that alongside the strategy of relevance we need a strategy of resilience. Not retreat, but cultural engagement with robust resilience.
Moore: In an early section titled “The Soft Power of Post-Christianity” my marginal note reads: “Well put and insightful. We get dulled, duped, and diverted by the panoply of options that indirectly say Christianity is irrelevant.” Describe a bit of the allure and toxic nature of our current cultural moment.
Sayers: Post-Christianity is ultimately the project of the West to move beyond Christianity, whilst feasting upon its fruit. Thus it constantly offers us options and off ramps, in which we seemingly have what we enjoy about faith, but without the sacrifices and commitments. It does not demand that we become apostates rather that we reshape our faith to suit the contours of the day, and in the process offers us the promise of tangible freedoms and pleasures for doing so. It does not challenge our faith head on in a kind of apologetics debate; rather it uses soft power, offering a continual background hum of options and incentives which eat away at our commitments. We are offered the mirage that we can have community without commitment, faith without discipleship, the kingdom without the King. To steal and misquote Eliot’s line, our faith doesn’t disappear with a bang but with a whimper.
Moore: Much of modern culture seems rather benign. We all benefit from breakthroughs in technology, medicine and so much more. It seems a bit ungrateful to level harsh criticisms (something you don’t do) against a culture that produced such benefits. How can the church be winsome in its critique without losing fidelity to the biblical story?
Sayers: Its key that we remember that human culture reflects human nature, thus it mirrors the reality that we are both created and loved, yet also fallen. It is also important to remember that culture is not a monolith, but contains all kinds of spheres, such as media, law, art, and politics. In a globalized world, locations also still matters. So we need nuanced, wise and discerning cultural critique. Scripture shows us that such wisdom and discernment flows from a close abiding with Christ.
Moore: The following is a generality, but does, I believe, depict a big problem. In America, older evangelicals can be faulted with tethering the gospel to certain political agendas that have little or nothing to do with the gospel. Younger evangelicals have reacted in the opposite direction with a disinclination to say much about certain issues that the gospel does address. Do you have a similar challenge in Australia?
Sayers: Traditionally evangelicalism is more politically diverse in Australia than in the US. Having said that, with the rise of the Internet, increasingly Australian evangelicals and even some elements of the media, confuse our relatively small local evangelicalism with American political conservatism. So we also have had understandable move away from some of the compromises with right wing politics, but sometimes the reaction slides into an equally concerning compromise with left wing politics.
This is all happening at a time, where across the Western world we are seeing the rise of a harder left and a harder right. This comes as a shock for since the fall of the Berlin Wall, with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair moving politics into the center, it seemed that such ideology had had its day. Yet ideology is back. What I find fascinating though is behind this move to further edges of the right and left is a common thread. Both espouse a kind of anti-institutional impulse which seeks to remove the restraints on the individual will. Both seek to either return to an idealized past or a utopian future through the hand of a kind of a benevolent, paternal entity be it government, tech companies, or the global financial market. Both end up ignoring, or bypassing the mediating institutions such as family, neighborhood, community organizations or church. Thus, creating the contemporary, atomized, and commitment phobic self, dizzy with choice. There is a significant and growing missional opportunity here for the church to inhabit and rehabilitate this ignored space.
Moore: You write about “creative minorities.” In what ways can the church better remember both words of that description?
Sayers: Writers from Arnold Toynbee to Malcolm Gladwell have shown the way that creativity emerges so often from the margins. This is true in politics, culture, art and religion. The marginal position, isolating one from the mainstream, enables one to view the mainstream from the outside. To in a sense be a part, but also to stand apart and see the idols flaws, and myths of the mainstream culture. To be invited to be a healing presence with good news that directly addresses those idols, flaws and myths. However, as the story of both Israel, and Christ shows us, the margins at best are not comfortable and at worse harm and hurt. To be a true creative minority, the church must truly understand that we will always be mocked, persecuted, and marginalized, and yet we must meet such a response with love and faithfulness. Such a posture provides a fruitful creative tension.
Moore: What are a few goals you would like your readers to walk away with from having read Disappearing Church?
Sayers: There is no going back. We will most likely live the entirety of our lives in an increasingly diverse, contested, globalized, and divided world. As William Davidow and Moises Naim have shown, this world will also be a fragile one. Thus such a moment will be served by a church that is relevant by being resilient. With change and chaos as the norm, a nostalgic desire to return to halcyon days is deeply tempting. Instead of wanting to return to the past, we must learn from the past. Two thousand years of Church history have shown us that again and again, even as large portions of the Church compromise with the spirit of the day. Creative minorities, who engaged new landscapes with creativity alongside biblical orthodoxy and faithfulness, flourish, bring good news and live as ambassadors of the kingdom. This can and will again happen in our day. If in some tiny way Disappearing Church can contribute to that renaissance I will be deeply grateful to Him.
From Alan Lightman, the first professor at MIT with a joint appointment in the humanities and science (italics added):
I was on the Harvard faculty for 10 years before I went to MIT, so I have a good sense of the differences in the student bodies. The students at MIT are brighter and they are quicker and more original, but they are not nearly as well read as the Harvard students.
What I don’t like about MIT and I don’t mind saying this is that it’s too high pressure, it’s a workaholic place and I don’t think this is good for the students and I don’t think it’s good for the faculty. The students are madly rushing to learn as much as they can. They take as many courses as they can. They just assume that more is better. It is their mantra. The more you can cram in, the better. They assume that all technology is progress. If you design a car that goes at twice the speed as the current cars, you should design it. If you can build a machine that goes twice as fast, you should build it. If you can build a computer that stores twice the information, you should build it. They just assume without questioning that more is better. They don’t take the time or they don’t have the time to slow down and really think about what is important, what is the value of their lives, what is the value of this technology, to question the technology. Some technology can be used well and some cannot be used well, how should we be using the technology? What is important? They don’t the time to go back to square zero and ask the question, why are we doing this? What do I really believe in? What’s really important? They don’t have the time for that. The students and faculty are similar. They are all rushing too rapidly.
The rest is here: http://www.concordlibrary.org/scollect/fin_aids/OH_Texts/Lightman.html