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Reforming the Culture a Temporary Thing

“What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is receding cannot be ordered.”

(Ecclesiastes 1:15)

When my wife and I first got married, our first house was what people call a “fixer-upper.” It was a home originally built in 1905 and while being structurally sound, it needed a lot of repairs and renovations. And, in many ways, it was a great learning experience for me as a “handyman” and my wife and I made it our home. One of the projects was to address the sagging joists on the east side of the house between the main floor and the upper floor. These were old, heavy oak joists that had bowed under the weight of time and years of life in the upstairs of the home. Overall, they weren’t too bad, but it created a noticeable sag and bounce in the upstairs of the house. So, I proceeded to acquire “floor jacks” and jacked the joists straight while also “sistering” new joists beside the old joists to add additional support.

There were two problems with the picture. First, in my lack of patience, I jacked up the old joists a little faster than I ought to have done…that was my error. The other problem is that the old oak joists had gained their sag slowly over a period of nearly 100 years and had conformed to a given shape (which included the bow). Further, the material that I used to sister the joists together was new pine, which is not nearly as strong as the oak. So, after all was done and the jacks were removed, it wasn’t long before the oak beams started sagging again and they pulled the pine beams along with them. Now, do understand, it was not as pronounced as before, but I imagine that in time, they settled back into their characteristic bow. That is just the nature of things.

And here is the point…in this fallen world that we live it, there is a tendency for things to fall apart, decay, rust, mold, and otherwise deteriorate. Entropy surrounds us in the cosmos and we grow frail and die. We may be able to do some things to mitigate the effects of deterioration — we renovate old homes, we take medicines to strengthen our old bodies, and we add preservatives to our foods so that we can store them for longer periods…but in the end, decay and deterioration wins. That is just the way it is in this fallen world. And to some people, that is depressing.

Yet, to the believer, who understands that the righteous live by faith, not our works, not our creations, and not by the orderliness of the natural world, there is hope. For while the creation is fallen due to Adam and Eve’s sin, God is not. And God sent his Son into this world to redeem a people for himself through faith, a faith that is divinely worked within us. And there is also in this found the promise of a new creation where the crooked will be made straight and things will no longer recede from order to disorder — entropy will be a thing of the past.

So, does that mean that we shouldn’t bother with trying to straighten that which is bet or to try and order that which is in decline — let it fall apart and then Jesus will fix it when he remakes the cosmos? No, absolutely not, that would be a most depressing response to the wisdom espoused here by Solomon. No, the church is called to be about the work of straightening in this world. We are to do justice as God teaches through Micah (Micah 6:8) and thus make laws that honor God and care for the poor and “bent” around us. Yet, we are to recognize two things. First, the unbending is ultimately a work that God is doing through us. The wrongs happen naturally, the “righting” of the wrongs is divinely worked through His agents. And second, we are to recognize that any reformations we make will not be eternal ones…they will be temporal and one day they will fall away…just like improvements and renovations done to old buildings (eventually the renovations will need renovating!). Thus, if we recognize that, perhaps we won’t take so much pride in that which we perceive ourselves to have done (remember, it is God working through us anyway!). 

And so the bent cannot be unbent and the things falling away cannot be numbered. And, though we may, for a season, see some “unbending” of the society around us, it will only be for a season and that which we have buttressed will begin deteriorating again. Yet, that means we have our work cut out for us here on this earth (we wouldn’t want to grow complacent!) and we recognize that in time, to suit the glory of God, Jesus will return once again and make all things new (Isaiah 65:17; Revelation 21:5).


 

The Culture War: Win, Lose, or Rebuild?

In the battle of Gibeah (recorded in Judges 20), the armies of Israel drew the defenders of Gibeah out toward the highways and away from the city by a feigned retreat. As Israel fell back, appearing to route, the heart of Israel’s army lay in ambush around the city, thus defeating the city while the city’s defenders were chasing after a decoy.

As I meditate on what is typically called the culture war, lately it has been occurring to me that we (the conservative evangelical church) may be acting a lot like the defenders of Gibeah. As we look around us at the broader culture, it is clear that the church has been losing influence. In many segments of society, the voice of the church has been relegated to the irrelevant and thus we find ourselves speaking only to ourselves and thus not influencing the culture around us as salt of the earth and light of the world.

Maybe we have been duped — duped into thinking that we are still fighting a legitimate war and as we pour out all our resources and energies against our perceived enemy, they have been gladly giving ground because they are nothing more than a distraction and the real battle has already been lost.

LOST?

Before you get all angry and storm off, just hear me out because I am not a defeatist — in fact, if anything, I usually am called a “triumphalist” by people who don’t like what I am saying. Just bear with me for a moment.

What if we have been duped? What if the culture war was something that was lost a generation ago when people began allowing prayer and Bible instruction to be taken out of our schools? What if the culture ware was lost when evolution and situational ethics began to be accepted as the norm instead of a divine creation and absolute morality? What if the church’s acceptance of “Tax-Exempt” status (as if the Government ever had the right to tax a Church) upon the promise that the church would not play an active role in politics was the point where we lost the war? What if the cultural belief that “religion is a private matter” is where we lost the war? What if we have been fighting decoys while the enemy lay in siege and infiltrated our congregations and our homes, leading the next generation to stray from the church? What if the creation of the “Christian sub-culture” has been nothing more than a colossal failure whereby we have removed our own influence from the wider world? What if we are doing nothing more than fighting ghosts that don’t need to win because the real war has already been won? What if?

MAYBE?

Do I have your attention? Just maybe? If we have lost the war, then that changes the whole paradigm and approach, doesn’t it? It has been said by many, the world around us today is more like the world of Paul’s day than the world of Luther’s day. If so, how do we react? How do we think differently?

What if the change in paradigm means no longer fighting a culture war that has been lost but instead, consists of building a new culture. No, not a sub-culture like we see around us today — that has not proven compelling (sorry, folks, my intent is not to hurt feelings). What if we let go of the whole Christian sub-culture thing and began really competing on the same footing and level as secular artists, writers, musicians, and dramatists? No, not in a preachy way, but what if the most compelling stories, music, books, ideas, etc… came from people who happened to be Christian and their Christian worldview informed what they produced (but was not what they produced). What if the best book, work, video, etc… in every field just happened to be produced by a Christian whose worldview was again, below the surface, informing what was thought.

What if, by building a new culture that was more compelling than the old culture happened to be (even to the non-Christian), was our tactic and approach. What if we realized that this is also not a new idea, but that others, like C.S. Lewis, were arguing for this kind of approach nearly 60 years ago — yes, when many of those things I mentioned at the beginning were lost! What if we approached this world as builders…though not unlike the builders of Nehemiah’s day, with spears in one hand while work was being done by the other. We need to defend agains the attacks that the enemy will really bring when they realize that we realize that their feigned retreat was a ruse. Something to think about…

Transformation

“You love evil over good;

A lie over speaking righteousness.

Selah!”

(Psalm 52:5 {verse 3 in English Translations})

 

Selah! Indeed, Selah! We arrive at the first stanza break and we begin to ready ourselves for the affirmation that God’s name will be vindicated; David is moving from despair over what has taken place to reminding his soul that God is just and the wicked will be utterly destroyed. If there is a sense of pity here, it is because the wicked know that they will receive the judgment of God, yet pursue their evil schemes in spite of that knowledge.

As we have noted in discussions of other psalms, we do not know what the word “selah” means. Most suggest it is a liturgical term long lost to history, but exactly what that term indicated is anyone’s best guess. Some suggest that it indicates a key change, others suggest that it is a musical interlude. Others have suggested that it is a place where the singer would raise his voice. It comes from the verb that means to “throw or hurl something away from you.” Perhaps it could be a reminder that these verses are being sung not simply to one another, but lifted up toward God and hurled in his direction as a prayer. The only thing that we can be absolutely sure of is that no one is absolutely sure of what they mean.

Regardless of the meaning of “selah,” the meaning of the rest of the verse is clear. The wicked have set their hearts on evil instead of good and they are committed to lying over speaking words of truth, justice, and righteousness. How sad it is that we live in a world where we are surrounded by those who would choose wickedness over righteousness. Yet, it ought to grieve our hearts further that we live in a world where so many who profess faith in Christ choose to treat lying (one of the things that God considers evil) so casually. “It won’t hurt anyone” or “it is just a ‘little-white-lie’” people profess. Because God is truth, a lie either great or small, is a departure from living out God’s character in our lives — more importantly, as Satan is the Father of Lies (John 8:44), it reflects that we cannot discern the difference between God and Satan in whose character we are seeking to live out.

There was a time when the Christian’s word was considered his bond and assurance. No longer in our culture is that so. Today, many professing Christians live out their lives in ways that are little different than the pagans around them and then turn around and wonder why the non-believing world has such a low view of the church. If we wish to see our culture change, the culture of the Christian church will need to lead the way. Seeking the goodness — the character of God — in our lives needs to be the pillars on which our lives are supported both individually and corporately as the body of Christ. It is a transformation that can take place in a generation, the question is whether or not we are willing to commit ourselves to making that transformation.

Bread and Circuses

Let me paint a picture for you of a culture where the Senate ruled over the people and the “commoners” had little say over what laws were enacted in the land. The culture that I am describing was one where many flocked to the cities of jobs, though they would only earn poverty level wages. Healthcare was available, but only for those who had the wealth to afford it; most suffered under whatever folk remedies happened to be available. Infectious disease was rampant in the poor sections of the cities and the government did little more than turn a blind eye to their situation. About the only thing that the society could expect in terms of assistance was a little bit of free grain and free tickets to an occasional arena even — “bread and circuses.”

I am trusting that this description sounds fairly familiar, but I am not talking about our own society, but am instead talking about the first century Roman empire. For the elite, it was a comfortable time in history: there was art, culture, relative order in the empire, abundant access to wealth, and there was rule of law to keep the “rabble” in their place. For the poor, it was a life of hard labor, starvation, and death. The bread was meant to keep the poor working and the tickets to the games was meant to keep the poor from revolting — the ancient precursor to television, one might argue. And it is into this world that God chose to send his Son, taking on flesh and living not amongst the rich, but amongst the poor.

It has been said that compassion is a character trait that is learned, not one that is natural to us. Our default is typically to take care of “ol’ number one” first and others second. If that is the case, and I think that there is merit to the idea, then the ultimate teacher of compassion is God himself. In both Hebrew and Greek, the same word is used to describe both compassion and mercy, and that is what God was doing when he sent his Son to come into this world, to live amongst us, and to die to atone for our sins.

But the question of compassion must not end with the compassion of God. We need to ask the question as to whether or not we have learned compassion from His example. You see, compassion cannot be modeled by the pagan gods, which are made of wood and stone — they neither move nor see nor hear, so how can they extend compassion to any? Compassion cannot be modeled by the gods of nature, for nature is cruel and only the strong survive. And compassion is not modeled by the god of the atheist, for their god is their own mind and reason, thus any action taken will be self-serving. If the God of Christianity, then, has modeled compassion to us, shouldn’t then we who have received the compassion of God also be the most compassionate people in the world?

In ancient Rome, that became the case. One of the first things that Christians did in ancient Rome was to establish hospitals that welcomed all, rich and poor. These hospitals were staffed with doctors, pharmacists, teachers for the children, caretakers for orphans, nurses, people to care for lepers, surgeons, cooks, priests, laundry women, and pallbearers. Never in the history of the world had such institutions been established and the Roman elites looked at the Christians and just did not understand why believers were doing what believers were doing. And Christianity thrived even in an empire where professing Christians were persecuted and sentenced to death within those circuses that everyone attended.

Something has happened though. Today, it would seem, Christians are often seen as self-serving and insulated from the pain and misery of the world around them. Pagans no longer shake their heads in disbelief at the compassion we are willing to show to the poor and suffering, but describe Christians as being just as “self-seeking” as the next group of people.

So what is the solution? The solution is not to win more political elections and gain power to enact laws to protect the “Christian way of life.” Such laws are not bad, but legislation cannot transform a culture. The early Christians turned Rome inside out without ever getting a seat in the Roman Senate. The early Christians turned Rome on its head by sacrifice and compassion for those in need. If we, as modern Christians, desire to see America turned on its head, this is the model that God himself has set for us — radical compassion, grace, and mercy. Such is what God demonstrated when he sent Christ to us as a baby in that manger and such is the kind of compassion that we ought to emulate as we live our lives amongst a people who reject the truth for which we stand.

 

The Culture Wars

In Christian circles, we talk a lot about the culture wars and at least vaguely, I think, most people have some sense of what is meant by that. As we look around us, the western culture has grown more secular and less markedly “Christian” as a whole and the culture war is the crusade that many have engaged themselves in to turn back the cultural influence toward one that is more markedly Christian. And, as one who has spoken and written on the importance of Christians living out their faith in every aspect of life (both inside of the church and outside of the church), this cause is one toward which I am very sympathetic. Having said that, can we talk?

First of all, I am not entirely convinced that we are going about things the right way in terms of what we are trying to achieve. Is it the culture we are called by Jesus to redeem or is it the people we are called to evangelize? One might respond that both go hand in hand, and they do, but which comes first, the chicken or the egg? The group that would broadly be defined as leading the culture war would argue that as we see a change in the culture, we will see a change in the people. There is a certain degree of truth to this line of thinking as it would seem that most people will go with the flow and do what is acceptable to the culture.

When the “Blue Laws” were in place, people’s lives revolved around church because there was little else to do. There is no question as to the sociological benefit of these laws as even the most basic moral teaching of the Bible affects people’s lives and behavior. Yet, when the Blue Laws were repealed, church attendance dropped, which indicates that the percentage who left were only there because of the cultural expectations upon them and not because they had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus did say that in the final judgment there will be many who will cry out, “Lord, Lord!” and to whom Jesus will say, “Get away from me, I never knew you” (Matthew 7:21-23). So, did the “Christianization” of the culture build the church? The church as an institution perhaps was built up, but the word “Church,” in a Biblical sense, normally refers to a body of believers that have been called out from the world and into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Arguably, then, the church was not built up by simply existing within a Christian culture.

It should be noted that we use the term “culture” in a variety of different ways. In addition, we talk about cultures and sub-cultures within a given culture. There are also various “cultural expressions” that people may embrace as well as the “culture” of certain pieces of music, art, or literature. In addition, when you are sick and go to the doctor, he or she may take a swab and apply it to the back of your throat to take a “culture” to see what kind of bacteria may be developing in your body. So, when we talk about a “Culture War,” what kind of culture are we talking about and is that even the proper term that we ought to be throwing about?

Typically, when speaking of a “Culture War,” we are referring (as do sociologists) to those shared norms, ethics, linguistic expressions, histories, folk-stories, values, and beliefs that bind a group of people together. We might talk broadly of the “Western” culture that has been dominated by the thought of the Greek Philosophers and Latin thinkers, the European Renaissance, and the Christian religion (as this was the dominant influence in the development of Europe for well over 1,000 years.

We might narrow the discussion down further and talk about the “American” culture or even about the evangelical sub-culture within America, but bottom line, it still gets back to these shared beliefs and histories that bind a people together. But how do these beliefs get propagated? Certainly they are not innate as cultural expression varies widely throughout the world. They are taught then, by one generation to the next, either intentionally or unintentionally, by those who hold said beliefs. And unless one makes a deliberate effort to “break out” of a cultural norm, that culture will continue into another generation.

Interestingly enough, the word “culture” comes from that Latin term colere, which means “to cultivate or tend,” and was originally used to describe the way that a farmer would work the ground and tend to the crops that he has planted. This is a valuable note because there is nothing unintentional about the way a field is cultivated. The farmer chooses how he prepares and fertilizes the plot of land, the kinds of seeds that are sown, and the way those plants are tended and harvested. Similarly, culture is created by those within the community.

Yet, if culture is created by those within the community, does the idea of a “culture war” really make any sense at all? It presents a picture of workers in a field warring over which seeds to plant — one side fighting to plant corn and the other fighting to plant wheat. Does it not make more sense to focus on changing the hearts of the planters?

Prejudice is one of the things that people have been trying hard to change in our culture (and rightly so). And in many areas, the work has been very successful. But what is bringing the most success? Is it laws that are written outlawing prejudice or is it people’s hearts being changed and choosing not to propagate the prejudices of their parents in the lives of their children? I would suggest that the latter is the tactic being used with success. I would also suggest that the families where people marry across ethnic lines is where you will see the most pronounced removal of the prejudices because hearts change when people are in fellowship with one another.

Does this mean that Christians should not engage the culture? Of course not, we are called to tear down the strongholds of Satan in this world (2 Corinthians 10:3-6). As Christians, we should express the faith that we hold in every area of life. That being said, we will not fulfill the Great Commission by once again having Christian thought and principles dominate the cultural norm; the Great Commission needs to be fulfilled by discipling people. And for people to be discipled, their hearts must first be changed by the power of the Gospel.

One final note on this line of thinking from the five years that I taught Bible in a Christian Academy. It was amazing how often I had students who could answer all of the questions correctly on a Bible or a Worldview test but when left on their own, would live as an unbeliever. The culture at the Christian School was intentionally Christian. The curriculum was also designed to foster a Christian worldview. As teachers and administrators, we had won the “Culture War” at our school (at least on the surface). Yet, we had many kids who could live in the Christian culture, yet were not being discipled because the Christian culture was not the culture that they had embraced as their own. The solution for the school environment was not to institute more rules or to offer more Christian “cultural” experiences. The solution is to get to the heart of the student and apply the Gospel in the hopes and prayers that God would regenerate their dead hearts and give them life.

The school tends to be a microcosm of the community and the Christian school is a microcosm of a community that is dominated by Christian culture. If we aim to change hearts by changing the visible culture, we will likely lose both. Yet, when hearts are changed, the culture will be changed by default. The “Culture War” as described is at best a crusade that will change small pockets of life — we may take the promised land by force, but for how long will it be held? Instead, let us wage war against the powers and principalities of Satan, seeking to evangelize the hearts of men, for this will be the “Holy War” that will bring long-lasting and spiritual fruit.