Sunday, April 29, 2012

Christianity and Culture

Well, as promised, I have finished reading, rereading, processing, and outlining To Change the World. I don't think I've ever learned so much from and thought so much about any book except the Bible. (Going by amount of underlining and margin notes, at least--and previously the Bible was the only book I wrote in) Suffice it to say that I cannot, cannot, cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is a brilliantly thought-out, thoroughly researched, exhaustively argued critique of the methods and ideas behind how American Christianity engages with the world around it, particularly in the contexts of culture and politics. James Hunter dissects and analyzes the assumptions, beliefs, successes, and failure of the modern church's ministry with a surgeon's precision. This book has helped me tie together and think about many, many thoughts and concerns I've been having over the past few years. It is a bit scholarly and densely written, but please don't let that stop you from checking it out. (You can borrow my copy soon, if you don't mind a heavily annotated book)

My response to this book has two phases. I'll be making three big posts that effectively summarize the three essays of the book. Again, my writing skills and research can't do justice to James Hunter; this is just to whet your appetite for the book. After that, I'll probably be posting other various reactions to it (I already have one in mind for my music blog) for a while.

The first essay of To Change the World focuses on culture: how it is made, how it changes, and how the Christian church has interacted with it in the "late modern world" and in history. It begins with what Hunter considers the dominant view on culture in the modern church. In it, "the essence of culture is found in the hearts and minds of individuals". The focus is on the values--or, more generally, worldviews--held by ordinary people, with the belief that a change in these values will cause a corresponding shift in culture.

Accordingly, the church's attempts to reach out and influence culture generally focus on individuals (particularly evangelism or, on a broader scale, "revival") and relationships. This is contrasted with a "top-down" process of change that imposes values on people, rather trying to win them to Christ and His perspective through love. Therefore, it is essential for Christians to hold tightly to what they believe and be authentic to minister to those around them in order to really change this nation for the better.

Somewhat counterintuitively, this bottom-up approach to change has increasingly been translating into political action. The goal is the "renewal" of a clearly flawed and fallen political system, or the introduction of a new kind of "spiritual" politics. The methods are similarly grassroots; the whole idea of calling Christians to "vote their values" to help renew culture by putting God's representatives into public office. More recently, Christians who realize the limitations of the political approach have been focusing more on social movements that try to influence culture from outside government by educating and helping people, and pursuing social goals like stronger marriages, stronger fathers, and in general stronger character in people.

Hunter identifies three common assumptions of these approaches. First, they believe culture is changed one individual at a time. Second they assume cultural change can be planned out and effected in a systematic, programmed way. And third, they assume culture is a democratic entity and that it changes from the "bottom up". They hold up great people like Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, and William Wilberforce as examples of how one person can take a stand for God and make a difference. Then Hunter finishes the chapter with a sentence that made my jaw drop and left me reading it over and over: "This account is almost wholly mistaken."

What are the problems with this so widely accepted and clearly gospel-centered view? Well, as he argues in the next chapter, culture just doesn't work as this view thinks it does, at all. To disprove the notion that culture is truly democratic, he contrasts the relatively small contributions to American culture made by the Christian majority in the 20th century with the contributions of the Jewish community, a much smaller group that has contributed to culture in amazing ways relative to its numbers. Even today, if the majority of Americans still consider themselves to be Christians, why is our culture becoming increasingly secular and materialistic? Culture, Hunter concludes, "often seems eerily independent of public opinion."

A common response of the church to this discrepancy is to see it as a call to action: for Christians to step up, take hold of their faith, and fight for what they believe in, as if the problem is that we're not trying hard enough, being "Christian" enough. The real problem, Hunter says, is that the common view of culture is simply wrong. It is heavily influenced by idealism, an enlightenment-era philosophy that says that the metaphysical world of concepts and ideas is more significant than the physical one in shaping culture and steering the course of history. It is summed up succinctly in the aphorism, "ideas have consequences". This idealism is also colored by individualism--the view that "the autonomous and rational individual is the key actor in social change"--and Christian pietism, the belief that the most important thing in life is having one's life based on God and the gospel. There is, of course, nothing wrong with either of these things, but they determine the unique flavor of idealism that drives much of the church's approach to engaging culture.

The problem with idealism, Hunter says, is that it misconstrues how the world really changes and creates a belief that someone is capable of having influence when that capacity may be weak or nonexistent. It also "mistakenly imputes a logic and rationality to culture where such linearity and reasonableness do not exist but rather contingency and accident." It fatally underestimates the crucial role institutions and social structures play in culture. Ironically, the approach of idealism to culture reinforces the idea of dualism, a separation between the spiritual and physical domains that Christians rightly reject, by disregarding the institutional influence on culture. To be clear, the evangelism, revival, and personal ministry pursued by Christians based on this view are all very good things, but it is mistaken to expect pursuing them alone in any capacity to change culture.

Hunter then offers an alternative view of culture based on seven propositions.
  1. Culture goes much deeper than simply the sum of the things that people believe to be true, their "worldviews". Culture is partially subconscious mindset shared by the people in it, a set of unspoken moral obligations and the things considered "normal", "good", or "acceptable" even if people can't always articulate why. It is closely tied in with language, as language determines how the assumptions and views of a culture rise to the surface of conscious thought by being articulated.
  2. Culture is deeply tied into history; it is "'history turned into nature', second nature, if you will." Cultures have inertia due to their ties with the immutable past.
  3. Culture is based on the interface between abstract ideas and concrete institutions. It is grounded in and produced by these institutions and the elites that run them. The relationship between individuals and these institutions goes both ways, often more toward the individual.
  4. Culture can be thought of as a kind of currency in the form of "symbolic capital", which is basically respect or credibility. For example, the New York Times has more symbolic capital than the Star Tribune, or research from MIT more than research from, say, the U.
  5. Like real capital, symbolic capital is not evenly distributed but concentrated in certain individuals and institutions, which are said to occupy the cultural "center" of their field; institutions with less symbolic capital are more on the "periphery". Symbolic capital is more of a qualitative than quantitative resource, and is deeply tied in with social structure.
  6. Culture and cultural change are generated by intra- and interconnected networks of individuals and institutions. The "great man" theory that attributes cultural change to principled, charismatic leaders like William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King Jr., etc., overlooks the large networks of which they were the leaders and public faces.
  7. Perhaps most importantly, culture is neither autonomous nor very coherent. It is heavily conflated with trends in institutions, social structures, politics, and (especially in the modern world) economics.
This is a starkly different view on culture than the dominant one described above. It paints culture not so much as a separate entity to be molded and influenced as a chaotic emergent phenomenon, an interface between individuals and institutions that runs both ways and deeply influences both in ways seen and hidden.

In light of this, he says, the aphorism "Ideas have consequences" requires some qualifying. In truth, not all ideas have consequences, and some ideas have many more consequences than others. Why is this? Hunter offers four more points to help shed light on how ideas really influence culture.
  1. Cultures usually change from the "top down", not the "bottom up", influenced by elites and institutions closer to the center of their cultural field who have concentrated power to effect cultural change. He touches on some apparent exceptions, such as some political revolutions (this book was written in 2010, so he's thinking socialist revolutions, but also the "Arab spring" revolutions) that "nearly always involve leadership from the ranks of marginal and disaffected elites". Culture is "about how societies define reality" and the capacity to do so is concentrated in certain institutions and groups. In almost every case, grassroots mobilization is an outward manifestation of cultural change, not a cause of it.
  2. Cultural change is typically initiated by elites just outside the center of cultural production. Elites in the very center are most concerned with upholding the current culture; change comes from organizations "on the outside" enough to want change, but with the power to make it happen.
  3. World-changing is most effective when networks of elites and the institutions they lead overlap--especially elites from different spheres of influence (social, economic, political).
  4. Culture does change, but rarely (if ever) without a fight. The changing of culture is at heart a conflict between alternative views on what is and what should be. An alternative vision of culture must be similar enough to the current one to resonate with the current social environment, but not similar enough to be co-opted and absorbed by it.
In sum, Hunter paints a very different picture of culture and cultural change than the common one dominated by idealism, individualism, and Christian pietism. "Ideas have consequences in history, yet not because those ideas are inherently truthful or powerful but rather because of the way in which they are embedded in very powerful institutions, networks, interests, and symbols." Against the power of individual hearts, minds, and values we see the inertia of institutions and the feedback effect culture as a largely separate entity has on them all.

The final message of all of this is that "cultures are profoundly resistant to intentional change--period." The idea that an Evangelical movement can "redeem" culture in a single generation is "nothing short of ridiculous." The methods currently advanced--evangelism, politics, social reform, and the creation of artifacts, all have their own good effects, but on their own they will not have a lasting effect on culture. Because of how deep and embedded culture is in our lives, "the most humane understandings of personhood, relationships, community, time, space, freedom, obligation, material wealth, cannot be established or recovered through a five-year plan or even in a generation--certainly not through politics, not through social reform, and not even in and through revival."

In the following chapter Hunter does a quick tour of the history of Christianity and its engagement with culture through the ages. He isn't as  good a historian as he is a social scientist, but it's still a good read. Christian dominance of the culture of late antiquity, he says, did not happen overnight with Constantine's declaration, but gradually over the course of centuries as people of higher and higher status converted, Christianity climbed its way up the ladder of culture production. As higher-status  peopled converted, Christianity's influence on the intellectual, philosophical, and aesthetic culture of the day increased.

In the following centuries, monasteries became the dominant centers of cultured for much of Europe, "culture" at this point largely consisting of the preservation of the "classical" Greek and Roman traditions. This was when the church started gaining political power equal to or greater than states. Evangelistic efforts at this time focused on converting the nobility, since only once they had converted would it be safe for their subjects to do so. Cultural changes moved from the higher reaches of the social order to the lower.

In the late eight and early ninth centuries, commonly known as the "Dark Ages", was the Carolingian Renaissance, an "exceptional flurry of cultural production" in which many advances were made by education, literature, law, theology, architecture, art, and music. Much of this was due to the reforms of the king Charlemagne and Alcuin, an English monk who was prominent in his court and provided the cultural leadership, "in effect the architect of the Carolingian renaissance". It was at this time that the idea of a "liberal arts" education was developed, and many schools were set up by the church to promote universal literacy among the clergy and to provide universal elementary education. The vision of society was largely from Augustine, that of a machine made of many parts working together--reflecting the vision of the church as a body made of many parts in 1 Corinthians 12.

Then he moves on to the Reformation. The view of the Reformation as simply truth triumphing over falsehood and corruption ignores the efforts of the highly educated scholars who were the prime movers. The theologians at the heart of this movement presented a "bibliocentric alternative to late medieval theology and religious practice". The Reformation was as much a revolution in education as in religion, and these theologians introduced many new universities as well as the notion of the "academy" as a place for the development and international sharing of ideas. These academies became esteemed centers of learning and people came from all over Europe to receive an education there. The success of the Reformation also depended on the emerging commercial elite for mass distribution of ideas via the printing press and on the political elite for protection from persecution.

For two secular examples, Hunter gives the Enlightenment and the socialist revolutions of the 20th century. The enlightenment was largely dependent on state patronage to provide both economic and administrative resources as well as freedom for intellectual and artistic innovation. Where these factors were in place, the Enlightenment flourished. Socialism was entirely driven by the top-down propagation of Marx's ideas through intellectual elites "whose theory was both highly abstract and difficult to read by any but the most intellectually trained thinkers"--ironic given its focus on a revolt of the masses.

In summary, none of the described movements was simply caused by a popular shift in values or the popular appeal of the alternative culture. The effectiveness of these movements was dependent on many structural conditions such as the particular identity of the individuals and institutions originating them, and often on resources provided by political patronage.

From here, Hunter moves to an inventory of the "cultural economy" of American Christianity. First, he notes that its most visible area of influence today is the political realm, where it is represented by a myriad of groups seeking to shape current political issues. Economically, Christianity has by far the most influence in the middle class.

On the cultural side, he looks at faith-based patronage, the enabling factor for much of the cultural change described in the previous chapter. For many years, about 40% of the total philanthropic giving in America has gone to religious organizations. At least 80% of this was from individual donations rather than from corporations or foundations, whose faith-based donations were relatively small. Among self-described Evangelical foundations, the majority of giving went to evangelism and missionary efforts. Compared to the most generous foundations, very little money from Christian foundations went to supporting intellectual, artistic, and cultural innovators.

He then moves on to "cultural capital" as described earlier. Here he sees a considerable decline for Christianity in the last 50-70 years, especially within mainline Protestantism which once had a good deal of cultural and intellectual influence. Evangelical Christian scholars have difficulty gaining credibility both within their fields and among fellow Evangelicals because of its "long-standing tradition of anti-intellectualism." Instead, Evangelical Christianity has put much cultural capital into the development of fairly robust "parallel institutions" that mirror the mainstream means of culture development and production. Hunter notes that these institutions are largely insular, directed inward toward the needs of the Evangelical community; on the periphery rather than in the center of cultural production at large; and "overwhelmingly oriented toward the popular". Evangelicals who are present in fields of influence usually seem to be there more by accident than anything else.

In other words, American Christianity has largely withdrawn from its once-prominent place in institutions that serve as centers of influence in cultural and intellectual production. He presents a "culture matrix" showing three fields of culture (knowledge, morality, and aesthetics) and notes that the areas of each in which the cultural economy of Christianity is strongest are all on the lower, popular side rather than the higher side in which culture is influenced and originated--particularly in the arts. "The cultural capital American Christianity has amassed simply cannot be leveraged where it matters most."

While the church undeniably continues to do good in innumerable ways today, it is not active in ways that actually influence culture. Besides its withdrawal from centers of cultural production as described above, two other possible reasons are its extreme disunity and lack of centralized leadership; and  its unwitting syncretism with secular cultures of consumerism, individualism, and self-help which manifest themselves in myriad ways throughout its various divisions. Overall, Hunter concludes that American Christianity, for all its strengths, is a marginal and weak culture.

Finally, he goes back to humanity's God-given mandate of developing, cherishing, and restoring God's creation, a mandate that extends to every person and every area of life. The Christian belief that everyone is equally loved and valued by God, central to this mandate, is at odds with the elitism that Hunter has argued is central to how cultures change. For all its potential (and actual) abuses, the populism espoused by American Christianity is well-meaning and biblical, but profoundly at odds with its stated mission of changing culture. This is a tension that the church needs to address presently.

Another issues is that of the church's relationship with power, explored in much more depth in the second essay. Whatever way of engaging culture the church chooses implies the use of power in some capacity. In another hard-hitting sentence, he asserts that the church's use of political power to achieve faith-based ends is "completely wrong and, in my view, an utter distortion of the creation mandate." More generally, he says that the church's tendency to lay claim to God's plan for history and try to influence it to match that plan is a mistake. As an alternative, he hints at the idea of "faithful presence" in all areas of life, not just the most common--an idea laid out in much more detail in the third essay.

That concludes my summary of Hunter's first essay. I'm going to leave my own reflections and evaluations for later, and hope that the second essay, exploring the relationship of the American church to power, goes a bit faster.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

"Christian" Music

This post is an offshoot of the ones on my main blog about To Change the World by James Hunter. It also steams from a teaching session on culture I attended at my church's spring retreat, where the topic came up pretty prominently. Specifically, the topic: why are none of my posts any longer tagged as "Christian" music?

Like so many others, I used to divide music into two camps: "Christian" and "secular". "Christian" music had lyrics specifically about God/Jesus or Biblical doctrine, "secular" music was everything else. You see this divide reinforced in many places; "Christian" music has its own radio stations, its own places of performance (churches and festivals), its own record companies, its own sales charts and awards. It's closely tied in with modern styles of worship and sung at many churches and Christian student groups, and is a central part of what I would term the "Christian subculture" in America.

To quote James Hunter, the only problem with this view is that it is mostly wrong. And I think this view has consequences on the witness of Christians who buy into it. For one thing, music of course does not fall neatly into these two camps; if you ranked bands by "Jesus" density in their lyrics (or some other absurd metric), you wouldn't get two clusters but an even distribution. Why is Switchfoot commonly considered to be a "Christian" band and Anberlin considerably less so? What about music about Christianity written by non-Christians? (I think of "Spirit in the Sky" by the Jewish singer-songwriter Norman Greenbaum)

Additionally, music determined to be "Christian" is accepted and embraced uncritically by Christians. I even felt a bit of subconscious pressure to listen to "Christian" music, as if my relationship with God depended on it; for a while I didn't let myself replace "Christian" songs in my main playlist with "secular" ones for fear that this would lead to my faith slipping. I was doing this up until last year, even when I was thinking out so many other parts of my faith. At the same time, this divide leads to unmerited suspicion of "secular" music that isn't about Jesus, no matter its other redeeming qualities. The unspoken question "Why are you listening to this instead of ["Christian" band]?" seems to hang in the air. I've sometimes been hesitant to voice my love for European metal for fear of being superficially judged for it.

This dichotomy is another example of dualism, the sharp division of life into the spiritual, or "Christian", and the worldly, or "secular". Though most Christians rightly claim to be opposed to this philosophy, they often unintentionally reinforce it in their actions with the best possible intentions. The whole (mostly Evangelical) concept of developing institutions that parallel those of the world with a Christian twist, including the music industry, is another. I'll get into this much more in my response to Hunter's book, but dualism is antithetical to Christianity (at least, how we are to live and witness as Christians) because just like Jesus, we are not trying to push away or overpower the things of the world to let distinctly transformed "Christian" versions replace them, but are growing the new like a mustard seed precisely in the midst of the old. Trying to simply replace the institutions of the world with parallel Christian ones leads to many dangers I'll get into in other posts.

I also see dualism played out in a different way within "Christian" music itself, in how the music, song structure, and even lyrics often seem to be instrumentalized (pun intended) to serve as vehicles for the message, as if the aesthetic and intellectual value of the work don't matter, only how "inspirational" it is or if it gets people to believe in Jesus. So you get music that seems to almost slavishly follow the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus model of popular music, written with utterly simple instrumentation and chord progressions and lyrics meant to be taken entirely at face value. If the subject matter were any different I never would have been the slightest bit interested in this music; why does it get a free pass? (I will refrain from naming any names) On an even deeper level, this dualism is somewhat subverted by the nature of the financial relationship between the big "Christian" record companies and the heavily profit-driven "big four" music labels.

I fear I'm getting far too negative and that this post is turning into a tirade. Of course it's not bad for Christians or anyone to listen to "Christian" music, and to the extent that it does awaken people to the glory of God and the goodness of the gospel, that really is a good thing. What I'm getting at is that in the Christian subculture (the existence of which is another matter entirely), music itself just doesn't seem to be as appreciated or valued as it is in the larger culture, instead being seen largely as another medium for the Christian message. Concerns of aesthetics and songwriting are often subordinated next to simply getting this message across. And for a lover of music like myself, this is a tragedy.

This makes it all the more reassuring when I find music that is inspired by the gospel, but also makes a priority of aesthetic legitimacy. And now I will name some names--on the lighter side, I think artists like Gungor, David Crowder band (requiescat in pace), Needtobreathe, Mumford and Sons, and Jars of Clay, to name a few, do a great job of meshing beautiful, thoughtful, joyful lyrics with solid music. For my fellow metal-lovers, I cannot recommend bands like Theocracy, Becoming the Archetype, and Demon Hunter highly enough.

I'm getting a little preachy and not answering the big question--how are Christians to engage in music culture? What is the way past this "Christian"/"secular" dichotomy? I sure don't have the whole answer. But I think part of it is recognizing that Christians don't have a monopoly on truth--on the Truth, yes, but not on the ability to make true, good, and valuable statements. Following Paul's lead in Acts 17, I think we should be seeking to understand the culture we're in and seek out truth in it to affirm. This means not just sticking to a parallel, largely insular music industry but listening to "secular" music, understanding it, being able to think and talk about it. This is one manifestation of a larger paradigm that James Hunter calls "faithful presence within".

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Gnosticism, Then and Now

This post is at the request of my wonderful small group, at which the subject of gnosticism came up last night. I volunteered to do a quick survey of gnosticism and its presence in the early church and the modern world.

Gnosticism is a belief system that originated before Christ and is particularly known for its relation to heresies in the early Christian church. Like Christianity, it taught that we live in a fallen world with evil; unlike Christianity, it concluded from the existence of death and suffering that the creation of the material world was a mistake and the creator deity, the "demiurge", was imperfect or even evil. The demiurge, identified as one of many beings (including Satan), was viewed as lesser or subordinate to the true, supreme God, who was viewed as remote, unreachable, and having nothing to do with the evil material realm.

Because of this theology, gnosticism was strongly dualistic, believing the physical world to be evil, and the spiritual world to be good. Gnostics did not see any hope of redemption for this world and put their hope in the salvation of their souls to the spiritual realm through gnosis, the attainment of esoteric or intuitive knowledge. Jesus was either seen as an emanation (or "aeon") of the supreme God who came to bring gnosis, or as a man who attained divinity through gnosis and taught others the way. In either case, they had a lot of trouble with the idea of God tainting himself by putting on evil flesh. Gnosis came from an inward journey of self-knowledge, "finding the kingdom of God" both inside and outside oneself. To be clear, gnostics didn't believe in salvation of their bodies or anything in this sinful world; they only sought freedom for their souls in the remote spiritual realm where the supreme God resided.

In practice, early gnostics were generally ascetics, trying to minimize their attachment to material things, but the belief that the flesh was beyond redemption made it hard to justify behavioral rules and they were accused of living wildly. Their confusion about how to live in this world was understandable since they didn't believe they were supposed to be here in the first place.

Gnosticism is never mentioned by name in the Bible, but the apostles seemed to be aware of it and its dangers to the early church.
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. - 1 Corinthians 2:1-5
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul delivers an implicit rebuke to anyone who might be buying into the gnostic school of thought. His eschewing of "lofty speech and wisdom" would have been abhorrent to gnostics who values spiritual wisdom above all else. Instead, Paul decides to "know nothing...except Jesus Christ and him crucified." His rebuke of Corinthians claiming "freedom in Christ" in 6:12-20 could also apply to gnostics. Also 1 John 1:1-3:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
The concrete verbs John uses make it crystal clear that Jesus was indeed God and did indeed come in the flesh. And John's fellowship is with "the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ"--there is no concept of a remote, unreachable God here, but a close and personal one.

So gnosticism was a school of thought that tried to syncretize itself with early Christianity. What does it matter now? Because the key ideas of gnosticism live on in our culture. The idea of "finding the divine spark within" is strikingly similar to the new age movement of spirituality. They seem to keep discovering new "gospels" such as the Gospel of Thomas and, more recently, the Gospel of Judas that are pervaded by gnostic thinking. Dan Brown's bestseller The Da Vinci Code did more than either of them combined to bring gnostic thinking into public acceptance.

But none of these hit terribly close to home for me. I don't know any new agers. I'm well aware of the skeptical nature of the new "gospels" as authentic Biblical text, and of the dangers of believing the research of The Da Vinci Code as factual. As our worship pastor Tim Johnson, who has a keen eye for patterns in culture, pointed out, gnostic thought also influences the modern church today. The example he cited was of Christians who equate "worship" with an inward-looking spiritual experience, trying to make some sort of private, personal connection with God. God is indeed close at hand, but we won't find Him within ourselves. (Well, the Holy Spirit does dwell within us, but that isn't the part of ourselves I'm talking about, and seeking the Spirit draws us out of ourselves towards God and others, not inward)

One other way I see the church picking up elements of gnosticism today is in the "lifeboat theology" or some churches. This view, as James Hunter puts it, "[sees] the world as a sinking ship on the way to judgment and hell; the goal of the Christian is to rescue as many people as possible on the lifeboat of salvation." Somewhat related to this is the belief that our final destination is a cloud in heaven, away from all the troubles of this world. Does this sound anything like the gnostic belief that this world is evil and our goal is escape for our souls? I think so. in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul assures us that our final destination is in renewed bodies, and Revelation, for all its metaphor and nonliteralism, does make clear that we will live on the (new) earth. God made us and the rest of creation and saw that it was good, and He does not give up on His creation even when we do. As Christians our task is to participate in God's ongoing renewal of creation, not escape it for something better.

May you know the Truth and be kept from all falsehood.

Monday, April 16, 2012


The theme for my church's Spring Retreat this year is Story--my story, your story, and how God has been behind them all. To get us excited for it (and maybe for talking points when we're there), Hopestars are encouraged to "tweet" their story in 140 characters or less. I've never been a twitter (tweeter?), so my official story will consist of a link to this post. I'll probably never be fully satisfied with my story. (After all, it will never be complete) My last telling was pretty good, though maybe a bit too introverted and focused specifically on last December.

For most of my life, my mission statement would have gone something like this: "To get as many good things for myself as possible, without negatively affecting anyone else." Having grown up in a "Christian home", I called myself a follower of Jesus since I was old enough to start thinking independently about my faith, but really this was how I lived. Personal advancement, and later peace of mind, became idols to me. There were several problems with this way of life. The first was that it was fundamentally selfish, revolving around self-gratification. But the clause about "not hurting anyone else" blinded me to this fact and made me think I was a decently good, moral person. So my selfishness grew, hidden under a veneer of benevolence.

The second problems was that since I was living according to this self-imposed standard, I became self-righteous. When I was living up to it (which was usually the case), I felt fine, but when I failed, it really messed me up. I was willing to forgive others, but not myself. The despair I felt when I didn't meet my own expectations was still selfish in an "Oh, poor me" kind of way.

And finally, I started to internalize the difference between what I said I was (a good Christian) and how I lived (for myself). Even as I began paying more attention to my faith and relationship with God, I found it hard to see how to live it out because I had become used to doing things without thinking over the reasons.

But it was in college, when many people lose their faith, that God thankfully found me. For the past few years God has been pushing the simple but critical truth of the gospel further into every corner of my life. It shakes and topples the old laws that controlled how I lived. In the place of my arbitrary and selfish code of morality, I have the perfect example of Jesus. When I inevitably fail to fully live up to it, I don't despair because I know that I am unconditionally loved and forgiven by the only One whose view of me matters. I've been able to see my old idols for what they were and subordinate them to God's calling.

The thing that's motivated the most external change in me has been the growing notion that the things I do matter; they aren't just for my own sake, but determine how I represent God on earth and build His kingdom one fragment at a time. In this way the gospel fulfilled the need that lay beneath my old, selfish ways of living: the need to feel "right" or justified with the way I'm "supposed" to be and live, once invented by myself but now shown to me by God. If I'm inventing my own purpose for life, there is no real or transcendent significance, but with God, it's all gloriously real and meaningful.

My life isn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination. The fact that I once believed myself to be a Christian while remaining totally lost stands as a stern warning to remain authentic with God, myself, and others. One of the great challenges of the Christian life is remaining faithful even in the reality of constant doubt, reminding myself daily of what I believe and why, of convincing (sometimes forcing) myself to believe that the gospel really is that good. Because it is.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Words and Meaning

First of all, today I began (and almost finished) another book from Hope's Spring Break reading list, To Change the World by James Davison Hunter. Until I finish it, read it again, take a ton of notes, and spend some time processing it, all I will save is that it is probably in the top five books I have ever read--possibly right below the Bible and John Owen as nonfiction goes. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Again, a fuller explanation to come later. For now, though, it is getting me thinking about lots of things by articulating thoughts I've been having but been unable to voice coherently--including one on language.

One of my favorite quotes from To Change the World is found in the section on the challenge of the dissolution of the very idea of meaning in modern culture.
After all, words notoriously fail to adequately express, describe, and explain the depths and complexities of love, beauty, knowledge, and sensation. Critics are right to observe that we abuse and demean reality when we ask words to stand in lieu of or be a substitute for the phenomenon itself. ... The modern world, by its very nature, questions if not negates the trust that connects human discourse and the "reality" of the world. In its mildest expressions, it questions the adequacy of language to make the world intelligible. In its more aggressive expressions, however, it fosters a doubt that what is said has anything to do with what exists "out there". (Page 205)
Hunter in this section describes two extremes in modern views on semantics, the connection between language and underlying meaning. Here I say "meaning" to mean correspondence to absolute truth and objective reality, which I believe exist apart from our representations of them in language.

The first extreme is to assume that, in Hunter's words, "there is a strict correspondence between words and the realities that make up human experience." Despite his problems as listed above with this idea, he quotes George Steiner in arguing that this assumption undergirds much of modern civilization. This is seen in the other book I'm currently digesting, Milton's Paradise Lost, in which one of Satan's defining flaws is his confusion of symbols with the realities they represent.

Lately, however, American culture has been tending more towards the other extreme of severing the semantic connection between words and meanings. The forces of dissolution, which Hunter argues is pushed forward by patterns in postmodern intellectualism, communications, and technology, "lead us to a place of absence, a place where we can never be confident of what is real, what is true, what is good; a place where we are always left wondering if nothing in particular is real or true or good."

As usual when I set up one of these spectra, I'm going to argue that the truth is somewhere in the middle, tending more towards the "mildest expressions" of dissolution and critically examining the limitations of language to describe reality. Don't get me wrong, I wish the first view were true and we really could encompass reality with words the same way I can communicate unambiguously with a computer in Python. Perhaps on the new Earth, when the effects of Babel are undone, we'll be able to. But like everything else of this world, our languages are also imperfect.

I can think of no better example of how language (the English language, at least) has broken down than the word "religion". I have already written a post on the shift of meaning that has occurred with this word and a certain viral video that showed the philosophical divide centered around it. If you don't feel like reading that, I basically explained that in the past 50 or so years, "religion" has shifted to mean to some people the worst excesses of hypocrisy and legalism of the church, while retaining its previous meaning (a set of beliefs and practices) to others. But it's still the same word, so you get things like that video or my church's numerous sermons on "religion" versus the gospel even while to some people "religion" simply means "Christianity". Which definition is right? The one that more people subconsciously associate with the word? Is there a "right" definition at all?

So you can see why I don't believe there is a "strict correspondence" between words and meanings. Many postmodernism-influenced thinkers, perhaps for similar reasons, jumped to the other side of believing that words and their meanings are fundamentally disconnected, that meaning and truth are at best unreachable in discourse and at worst a myth.

But I don't go that far. I firmly believe in the existence of absolute truth. (Since any attempt to refute its existence is necessarily self-contradicting) And despite the problems of language, it does still give us access to truth, albeit not a perfect one-to-one correspondence. I would say that words are imperfect tools for accessing and discoursing about truth. Notice how I was able to (clearly, I hope) describe both definitions of "religion" to clarify them; the issue that the word refers not to zero definitions, but to two. Words have meaning, but we must take care that our audience gets the same meaning out of them that we put in. Fortunately, I think most of the words in the English meaning correspond to their true meanings to most people; unfortunately, the ones that have the fuzziest meanings turn out to be the most important, like "God", "love", "family", "faith", "courage", etc.

What does all of this have to do with life, you may ask? The thing I love about Hunter's book is that a lot of that is for the reader to figure out. For one thing, I see much of American Christianity sticking to the "words and truth match up perfectly" side of the spectrum and throwing powerful words around carelessly, ignoring the issues of meaning I raise above. For example, some of the "Christian-ese" words I define in a previous vaguely satirical post are ones that have given me quite a bit of trouble because they don't mean to me exactly what they seem to mean to their users. And, of course, if you fall on the other side, take hope that words really do let us tap into objective truth; not believing this can be, in Hunter's words, "unlivable".

May you choose your words wisely. Happy Easter!

Saturday, April 7, 2012


Now that I have your attention...oh, actually, this post really is about free books. Specifically, three of Francis Chan's books are currently being offered for free on Amazon in e-form. If you have a Kindle, that's great; otherwise, Amazon has a free application that lets you read them on your computer. Crazy Love tries to take a fresh look at God's love for the world and how we are to respond to it, The Forgotten God is about the Holy Spirit (I haven't read it yet), and Erasing Hell (which I am reading right now) is a sober and impressively thorough look at what the Bible has to say about hell, partly as a response to Rob Bell's firecracker of a book Love Wins. Get them while they're free!