Carson Revisits Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, Part 2

Carson_01282015D.A. Carson. 2008. Christ & Culture Revisited. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. [1] (Go to part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra [2]

Carson’s own exploration of culture begins with defining what it means to be Christian, or deeply Christian, as he describes it. This definition hangs on the great turning points in salvation history (67). These turning points are:

  • The creation,
  • The fall,
  • The call of Abraham,
  • The exodus and giving of the law,
  • The rise of the monarchy and the prophets,
  • The exile,
  • The incarnation, and
  • The ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (81).

Carson observes that to deviate from these turning points introduces “massive distortions into one’s understanding of cultures and therefore of how to interact with them” (81). In this definition we hear an echo of Niebuhr’s most famous indictment of liberal theology:

“[They preach] A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” (Niebuhr 1959. 193)

The turning points in salvation history explain, for example, why the atonement (Christ died for our sins) is a fundamental Christian confession (1 Cor 15:3-5). In effect, the atonement of Christ reverses the fall and advances salvation history to demonstrate God’s new relationship with humanity through Christ’s death and resurrection (61-62). Salvation history is an old idea and is, for example, why western countries date the years from the birth of Christ.  Attempts to downplay or deny these great turning points in salvation history dilute the distinctiveness of the Christian message leaving it vulnerable to to syncreticism and making transformation of wayward souls difficult or impossible [3].  The church’s voice in defining culture is thereby muted.

Metanarrative

Postmodern critics of Christianity, like Francois Lyotard (87), actively dispute the idea of salvation history labeling it a meta-narrative. The term, meta-narrative, which means “above the narrative or grand narrative” is an apt description because it implicitly recognizes the dichotomy between a physical and a spiritual reality. As a meta-narrative, salvation history outlines the Bible itself and shows why prophesies of Christ’s coming are recognizable from the very beginning (e.g. Gen 3:15). By adopted salvation history as the defining idea of Christian culture, Carson is effectively using fire to fight fire in confronting postmodern philosophers.

Cultural Factors

Moving from a definition of Christianity, Carson turns his attention to the cultural landscape. Here he describes 4 “huge cultural forces”:

1. The seduction of secularism,
2. The mystique of democracy,
3. The worship of freedom, and
4. The lust for power (115).

Christianity collides with secular culture because: “Christianity does not claim to convey merely religious truth, but truth about all reality.” (120) Attempts to make Christianity a mere preference or to privaticize Christianity deny this fundamental point and form the core of the secular agenda—creating a world where the creator God is ignored, denied, and vilified.

Church and State

Carson rightly focuses a lot of attention on the issue of church and state. The privaticization of Christianity (131) necessarily creates a vacuum into which the secular state eagerly pours. We entered the 20th century believing that morality was the domain of the church and exited the 20th century believing that morality is an individual matter subject to legally imposed sanctions—in other words, who needs morality? [4] This shrinking of the role of the church relative to the state is reflected the 20th century confessions [5]. This transition was ushered in by the secular state.

Carson writes:

“Where countries have become deeply Christianized, Christianity itself becomes far less questing and far more conserving: in other words, it begins to think of itself as a ‘religion’ in the older, obsolete, pagan sense” (146).

Here pagan religion can be thought of as a religion that focuses on divine bribery. The focus of cultic activity is to appease the gods. The idea of the church as the community of those “called out” by God and that our spirituality begins with God (not us) distinguishes authentic Christianity. Carson’s notion of “deeply Christian” (81) based on salvation history and on being “authentically Christian” (formed on the historical confessions) both rely on the fundamental presumption that God acts sovereignly to call out his people and form his church in an historical context (Acts 2)—an inherently public activity. The defining pagan idea, by contrast, is that a physical or metaphorical tower can be built to heaven (Gen 11:1-9) to appease, bribe, manipulate, or force the gods to do our bidding—an inherently private activity because private benefits are sought. Paganism, not Christianity, is at the core of the modern and postmodern worldviews inasmuch as the authority of Christ is set aside and the cultural focus is on shaping the physical and social world in an image of our own making.

Common Treatments

Carson ends his discussion with “a handful of common treatments of Christ and culture” (208) but endorses none–each has its own limitation.

Anne Graham Lotz (2009, 1-2) recounts a conversation that her mother, Ruth Graham, had with the head of Scotland Yard. When her mother remarked that he must spend a lot of time studying counterfeit money, he responded: “On the contrary, Mrs. Graham, I spend all my time studying the genuine thing. That way, when I [see] a counterfeit, I [can] immediately detect it.” In the same way, knowing what true community looks like, as Christians, we know can recognize the dysfunctions of culture that we encounter every day and we can live with the tension that those dysfunctions create [6].

Assessment

In Christ & Culture Revisited Carson has done a splendid job of  making the counterfeit dysfunctions of postmodern culture more obvious.

Footnotes

[1] My own review is at:   Re-examining Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Po).

[2] Part 1 is:  Carson Revisits Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, Part I (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-PZ).

[3] This point is easily observed.  While the mainline denominations spent the 20th century debating anthropology and lost half their members, the Pentecostal movement evangelized the world.  Ironically, the Azusa Street rivalry of 1906 started out more open to the participation of women and minorities than mainline denominations are even today (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Azusa_Street_Revival).

[4] Replacing Christian virtues and moral teaching with law is inherently biased against the poor and poor communities where funding for public services is woefully inadequate.  Even in the wealthiest of communities, the police cannot replace individual initiatives to be righteous.  In poor communities the police are under-paid, under-trained, under-equipped, and over-worked.  Is it any wonder that bad things happen?  The secular substitution of law for morality works to make freedom a reality only for those wealthy enough to enjoy the benefits.

[5] The 20th century confessions of the Presbyterian Church USA, for example,  are the Theological Declaration of Barman, the Confession of 1967, and the [1973] Brief Confession of Faith.  The Barman confession resists the incursion of the Nazi state into the German church; the 1967 confession codifies the civil rights legislation that proceeded it; the Brief Confession talks about unmasking idolatries in both the church and culture.  None of these confessions are a complete articulation of faith (like the reformation confessions); all of them highlight the influence of the state on the church suggesting the that the state, not the church, is defining (and should define) the agenda.

[6] These tensions are highlighted in my recent Friday posts, such as:  Bothersome Gaps:  Life in Tension (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-OT).

References

 Lotz, Anne Graham. 2009. Just Give Me Jesus. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. 1959. The Kingdom of God in America (Orig. pub. 1937). New York: Harper Torchbooks.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. 2001. Christ and Culture (Orig. pub. 1951). New York: HarperSanFrancisco.

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PC USA). 1999. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part I: Book of Confession. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.

Carson Revisits Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, Part

Also see:

Niebuhr Examines American Christian Roots, Part 1 

Friedman Brings Healing by Shifting Focus from Individuals to the Family 

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Carson Revisits Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, Part I

Christ and Culture RevisitedD.A. Carson. 2008. Christ & Culture Revisited. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. (Go to part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

For about my first 3 years of college, I never went to church voluntarily. In my senior year of high school, the session had let our youth director go and I felt betrayed and angry. Instead of enjoying my senior year in youth group, the group disappeared overnight and I graduated a fairly isolated and lonely teen. Later, I learned that the youth director had been discovered to be lesbian; another prominent member of the congregation (who I also knew well) was charged with pediphia about the same time. Membership plunged after that point. The church building was sold in 2014. After journeying through some dark times, I able to make peace with God after I realized that the people around me, not God, had been responsible for my pain—evidence that we live in a toxic culture.

Introduction

In his book, Christ & Culture Revisited, Carson (viii) starts his preface observing that: “even since Pentecost Christians have had to think through the nature of their relationships with others.” His other three reasons for writing have a more professional focus—the need for an international perspective on culture, Niebuhr was the focus of his seminary discussion group, and an invitation to lecture in Paris [1] on the subject (ix-x). Still, the preface to his paperback edition provides more insight into his motivation. He writes (vi): “The famous Niebuhr typology…drives us toward mutually exclusive choices we should not be making”. Ideas matter. I tell my kids—if you want others to take you seriously, first take yourself seriously. Carson is a serious thinker and a serious writer.

Background and Organization

D.A. Carson is a research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield just outside Chicago in Illinois. His book cover is a painting, The Last Supper by Conrad Romyn. He writes in 6 chapters:

1. How to Thinking about Culture: Reminding Ourselves of Niebuhr;
2. Niebuhr Revised: The Impact of Biblical Theology;
3. Refining Culture and Redefining Postmodernism;
4. Secularism, Democracy, Freedom, and Power;
5. Church and State; and
6. On Disputed Agendas, Frustrated Utopias, and Ongoing Tensions (v).

An important observation from this list of chapter titles is that Carson focuses on Niebuhr primarily in the first two chapters. Throughout the remainder of the book, he looks beyond Niebuhr to take a fresh look at the relationship of Christ and culture.

Carson’s Interpretation of Niebuhr

Carson starts his analysis of Niebuhr with the observation that: “If he [Niebuhr] is going to talk about ‘Christ and culture’, Niebuhr must provide reasonably clear definitions of both ‘Christ’ and ‘culture’” (9). This task proves harder than initially meets the eye because of a clear diversity of opinion about the information content of both terms.

In discussing Niebuhr’s definition of “Christ”, Carson cites Niebuhr saying: “If we cannot say anything adequately, we can say some things inadequately” and cannot “limit oneself to the forms of confessional Christianity that explicitly and self-consciously try to live under the authority of Scripture” (10). Hmm.

As Carson observes, Niebuhr’s definition of culture proves no more easily defined as “Niebuhr wants to avoid the technical debates of anthropologists.” (11) Carson then opines that “Niebuhr’s definition of culture embraces ‘ideas’ and ‘beliefs’ as well as customs, inherited artifacts, and the life.” (12)

Having demonstrated that Niebuhr’s definitions of both “Christ” and “culture” are oblique, offers an insightful interpretation: “Niebuhr is not so much talking about the relationship between Christ and culture, as between two sources of authority as they compete within the culture.” (12)[2] Christ as an authority competes with other authorities in society today and in the past who define culture. This interpretation is interesting because it is at least coherent offering an apples-to-apples comparison [3].

Because Carson’s interpretation of Niebuhr hangs on competing authorities, he needs a concrete set of ideas to characterize Christ’s role in interacting with culture. This he finds in the great turning points in salvation history (67) which then, in turn, define Christ’s contribution. In this latter respect, Carson focuses on Jesus’ words: “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Luke 20:25 ESV)[4] Carson notes that God as creator of the heaven and earth abides no competitors [5] so Jesus is clearly asserting authority over culture (56-57).

Assessment

A complete review of Carson’s Christ & Culture Revisited would require almost as much study and ink as his review of Niebuhr. For this reason, I have broken this review into 2 parts.  In part 1, I note that Carson’s careful review of Niebuhr’s pays homage to Niebuhr even while making the limitations of his classification scheme (typology) painfully clear [6]. In part 2, I examine Carson’s exploration after Niebuhr.  Carson is a good read and worthy of detailed study. I learned a lot—perhaps you will too.

Footnotes

[1] This interpretation is insightful because truly innovative thinkers, like Niebuhr, do not have the benefit of refined thinking when they express themselves—they define entirely new thought patterns—and their expressions are invariably enigmatic. While they know what they mean, their words only partially express their underlying thinking.

[2] I find it the height of irony that Carson should lecture in Paris in French on a book about culture both proclaiming the obsolescence of postmodernism (vi-vii) and an end to the “high culture” critique implicit in Niebuhr (1-2).  I wish that I could have been there!

[3] The other apples-to-apples comparison option would be to compare Christian and pagan cultures—a perilous task.

[4] Also Matt 22:21 and Mark 12:17.

[5] See Gen 1:1 and Exod 20:3-5. Culture is a perfectly good idol for many people which has direct bearing on Jesus’ words when he points to a coin with a picture of Caesar (Luke 20:24). A good Jew in Jesus’ day would refuse to carry a denarius which is why, for example, Jesus had to ask for one.

[6] My own review is at: Re-examining Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Po).

References

Richard Niebuhr. 2001. Christ and Culture (Orig. pub. 1951). New York: HarperSanFrancisco.

Carson Revisits Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, Part I

Also see:

Niebuhr Examines American Christian Roots, Part 1 

Friedman Brings Healing by Shifting Focus from Individuals to the Family 

Books, Films, and Ministry

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

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Kreeft Critiques Cultural Decline

Kreeft_review_20210507

Peter J. Kreeft. 2021. How to Destroy Western Civilization and Other Ideas from the Cultural Abyss. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Hardly a day passes without someone explaining sharing their views about U.S. cultural decline. This morning after my swim a woman in the net lane introduced herself and expounded at great length on why she sent her kids to a Catholic school. At noon, I heard comparisons to the Book of Judges and the Deuteronomic cycle (Deut 30:1-3). More typically, these discussions focus on bad politics and things like rampant drug use or exotic sexual practices. When I heard about Peter Kreeft’s new book on this subject, I immediately ordered a copy.

Introduction

In his book, How to Destroy Western Civilization and Other Ideas from the Cultural Abyss, Peter Kreeft starts with a brilliant statement of the obvious. To save Western Civilization, start by having children (7). What is ontologically obvious is, however, not obvious to everyone—only a philosopher (or an astute student of the Bible) would be mindful of the priority of ontology.

Kreeft goes on to observe that a third of the pregnancies in North America end in abortion (8). Everyone wants to have sex, far fewer want to raise children—it is the religious people who have the most children; they are the also the happiest and live the longest (11). Thus, while the absence of children is an important indicator of cultural decline, their presence is indicator of cultural and personal advance.[1]

Background and Organization

Peter Kreeft is a professor of philosophy at Boston College, a Catholic school. His doctorate is from Fordham University.

Kreeft must believe that cultural decline is death by a thousand cuts because he treats the subject with eighteen chapter-essays on a number of pertinent topics. These essays stand on their own without obvious connection to one another. They are:

1.    How to destroy Western Civilization.

2.    What can Chicken Little do?

3.    The unmentionable elephant in the living room of the religious liberty debate.

4.    The paradox of poverty.

5.    The logic of liberalism.

6.    The social, moral, and sexual effects of symbolic logic.

7.    Twelve core values.

8.    Traditionalism and progressivism.

9.    C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the culture wars.

10. Heros.

11. What is a liberal?

12. What is the key to a good society?

13. Seventeen freedoms.

14. Four confusions about freedom.

15. Is Agnosticism in religion the default position?

16. A word about Islam and a defense of my controversial book about it.

17. Pity vs. pacifism.

18. Judgment. (v)

The pragmatic, postmodern art is a collage so to describe and rebut problems with it, one might reasonably employ an alternative collage.

Death by a Thousand Cuts

Inherent in the observation that our cultural decline is a case of death by a thousand cuts is that small things matter. When we read in Leviticus—be holy because I am holy—we see God as concerned with details. We clearly are not. When Kreeft criticizes a thousand incoherent arguments that lay at the foundation of the postmodern era, it evokes the torture that a thinking person must endure being symbolically chained to an ant hill in the middle of such philosophical chaos. Ants possess no poisonous venom that can kill a person, yet the sum of a thousand ant bites is most certainly life-threatening. Those chained to the hill will no doubt appreciate the incineration of a few ants.

Thus, Peter Kreeft’s How to Destroy Civilization and other Ideas from the Cultural Abysis a delight to read for the reflective soul.

Footnotes

[1] The fact that Hispanics are the only ethic group in the United States where the fertility rate is above 2.1 children per woman, which is necessary for a stable population, may be related to their status as immigrants—they have had the smallest exposure to the negative factors leading to U.S. cultural decline.

Kreeft Critiques Cultural Decline

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Baker Loves Characters

Baker_review_20210118

Nicholson Baker.[1] 2009. The Anthologist: A Novel. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Back before the Iron Curtain came down I had a friend named Yuri from Siberia, whose friends called Yuri the spy. As any good spy, he spent his day reading everything available and his nights throwing wild parties.

At one such party, a professor and Russian ex-pat marveled reading from Pravda, the official communist party newspaper: How could a country that produced such brilliant thinkers as Goethe, Braham’s, and Freud also produce such villains as Adolf Hitler and the SS?

What’s the big deal? I asked.

He explained: In a country where it is dangerous to speak the truth, everyone speaks in code so Goethe, Braham’s, and Freud translate as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Stravinsky and Hitler becomes the party leader and the SS becomes the KGB. So in Russia even the street drunk is easily an accomplished poet, while in democratic countries where people expect the truth, poets are rare and usually eccentric.

Introduction

In Nicholson Baker’s novel, The Anthologist, we meet an eccentric poet named Paul Chowder. An obviously educated man, Paul is a pathetic figure. He pales before his one task in this narrative: To write an introduction to an anthology of poetry that he has assembled. His cowardice in not rising to the task provokes his girl-friend to leave him. He is too proud to teach and the college where he previously taught refuses to take him back so he is unemployed and is forced to do odd jobs to earn money to support his poetry habit. He spends most of his time contemplating poetry while sitting in a plastic white chair in the barn behind his house. If that weren’t enough, many of his favorite poets lose heart and end up committing suicide.

Let me try to unpack what is going on here in terms of genre, the task, and the context.  This is a work of art, which implies your mileage may vary.

Genre

Some readers may wonder why an author would use the novel form to introduce the audience to the history and mechanics of poetry. This is a reasonable question.

The Anthologist presents itself as a cross between two interesting books: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder.

The first book comes to mind because it follows the daily life of Ivan Denisovich with such detail that would not be expected. Denisovich is essentially condemned to live out his last days in a freezing death camp, like millions of others before him. He is special only in his dignified persistence in not dying. We might infer that Solzhenitsyn pictures Denisovich as the image of God. We care about Denisovich because he could be any one of us and, as God’s image bearer, his life is precious. Paul Chowder is no different, except for the observation than he is named for a favorite seafood item carried by every Boston restaurant.

The second book comes to mind because Sophie World chronicles an introduction to Philosophy, much like Paul Chowder provides a treatise on poetry. Being a novel means that the structure and history of poetry is revealed, helping to move the plot forward and to develop Chowder as a character. For most readers, this is a fresh approach to an otherwise dry topic.

The Task

The task of writing an introduction to an anthology might on the surface seem to be a rather straightforward writing task. We get a clue to the problem presented as Chowder is told that he must write forty pages. His proclivity to review in his mind the social context of many previous anthologies provides another clue. Anthologies make or break the poets included and he knows all these poets personally. He never says it directly, but his role as kingmaker clearly bothers him. Why else casually mention the vast number of poets that have committed suicide?

Social Context

Paul Chowder provides a window into the despair of the postmodern era.

While Catholic art focuses on sacred events and traditions, Protestant art pictures God in everyday people and items of life. Where Catholic art features the Madonna and Child, the cross with Jesus still on it, the communion elements, and baptismal pictures, Protestant art introduced the beauty of landscapes, still life, and peasants at work that all point to God as creator. Secular art obsesses about physical things and strips away the reference to the creator. Madonna is stripped naked and stripped of her relationship to God to become mere pornography. In poetry, words no longer point beyond themselves, have meaning only relative to one another, and become hollow symbols. Despair and suicide are a natural consequence of such meaningless art.

In such a world, Paul Chowder’s task becomes a deconstructionist’s power play—the quality of poetry that points nowhere is completely in the eye of the editor: The anthologist. Chowder is like the father driving his two kids who is confronted with an accident and is given Sophie’s choice—give up one child or the other—and unable to decide he freezes. Worse, he describes his own poetry as a plum, because it does not often rhyme. So constitutionally unable to play the kingmaker, Chowder sits in his white chair in the barn and stares into space.

Assessment

Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist is a fascinating book. One need not unpack the social critique to enjoy the artful descriptions. Baker was born in New York City, studied at Eastman School of Music, and received a B.A. in English from Haverford College.[2]

References

Gaarder, Jostein.1996. Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy. Translated by Paulette Møller. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. 2009. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Orig pub 1962). New York: Penguin.

Footnotes

[1] @nicholsonbaker8. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/authors/1229/nicholson-baker

[2]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicholson_Baker.

Baker Loves Characters

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Cultural Adaptation, Monday Monologues, January 14, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

In today’s podcast, I will pray Over Culture and talk about Cultural Adaptation.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on the link below.

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Cultural Adaptation, Monday Monologues, January 14, 2019 (podcast)

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Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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Wells Exercises Moral Vision, Part 1

David Wells, Losing Our VirtueDavid Wells. 1998. Losing Out Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. (Goto Part 2 after November 13)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the most difficult things that I have done in my life was to work with integrity as an economist in financial regulation and actually measure and report on the risk being taken by the institutions under our supervision. I likened my job as being a lifeguard hired to watch people drown. The better my team got at actually doing our jobs, the more trouble we found ourselves getting into. When I threw up my hands and left my well-paid career to enter seminary, I discovered that much the same environment engulfed the pastors that I worked with.

Introduction

In David Well’s Losing Out Virtue, he writes:

“In the language we use to understand ourselves and our world is not simply a matter of words. It is the result of the interactions of many other factors…In this engagement, I shall argue that is now framing life in such a way that the most important part of self-understanding—that we are moral beings—has been removed from the equation. That is the beguilingly simple thesis I shall be pursuing: functionally, we are not morally disengaged, adrift and alienated; we are morally obliterated. We are, in practice, not only morally illiterate; we have become morally vacant.”(13)

Well’s goes on to observe:

“For over two thousand years, moral conduct was discussed under the language of virtues. First Plato and then Aristotle talked about the cardinal, or foundational, virtues. These were justice (or rectitude), wisdom, courage (or fortitude), and moderation (or self-control) …. The importance of the classical view of the virtues was that moral conduct was seen to be the outcome of character, and it was considered entirely futile to divorce inward moral reality from its exercise in the society or community in which a person lived.”(14)

Obviously, having morals in the classical sense meant much more than simply being able to keep one’s pants on. In a world where virtually every adult male served in the military (as is true in small counties today), hand-to-hand combat quickly tested at least one’s courage and other virtues. Following this train of thought, Hauerwas and WIllimon (2014, 35) write: “States, particularly liberal democracies, are heavily depend on wars for moral coherence.”

What Makes the Postmodern Era Different?

Wells observes four distinctives of the postmodern period:

  1. “We are seeing on an unprecedented scale the birth of a world civilization…
  2. Ours is the first major civilization to be building itself deliberately and self-consciously without religious foundations…
  3. Our experience of modernity is intense to an unparalleled extent…
  4. As a result of these factors that are unique to our time, we are seeing on an unprecedented sale, a mass experimentation with new values.” (23-27)

Note that Wells is using the term, modernity, to apply primarily to what I would call the postmodern period. Changes that might have taken generations during the modern period (1800 through 1960) have been compressed into just a few years during the postmodern period (since 1960).

Recovering our Moral Vision

Wells sees the church needing to undertake two things in recovering its moral vision. The first thing is:

“it will have to become courageous enough to say that much that is taken as normative in the postmodern world is actually sinful and it will have to exercise new ingenuity in learning how to speak about sin to a generation for whom sin has become an impossibility.”(179)

In the twenty years since Wells penned these words, little evidence can be cited to suggest that the church has taken up this first challenge. The second thing is:

“the church itself is going to have to become more authentically morally, for the greatness of the Gospel is now seen to have become quite trivial and inconsequential in its life.”(180)

Again, there is little evidence that the church has taken up this second challenge. As a general rule, the church has not staked out morally as a field that it even attempts to play on. If anything, it has run away from teaching morality which is often associated with the folk ways of the builder and boomer generations rather than a challenge facing every generation equally.

Background

Dr. David Wells is a Distinguished Senior Research Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (GCTS) in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. Born in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Wells is a graduate of University of London with a masters from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and a doctorate from Manchester University, England. He is the author of numerous books.[1]

As a GCTS graduate myself, Wells taught one of my New Testament courses and I read this book before taking the class to acquaint myself with his work, as was my custom in seminary.

Organization

Wells writes in these chapters:

  1. A Tale of Two Spiritualities
  2. The Playground of Desire
  3. On Saving Ourselves
  4. The Bonfire of the Self
  5. Contradictions
  6. Faith of the Ages

These chapters are preceded by a preface and introduction and followed by a bibliography and indices.

Assessment

In part one of this review, I have focused on summarizing Wells’ basic argument. In part two I will examine his arguments in more depth.

David Wells’ Losing Our Virtue focuses on the question of Christian morality in the postmodern period better known for its sexual obsessions and liberality. As leaders in all aspects of society, from our politicians to our academics to entertainment to the church, crash and burn in moral failures in daily news accounts, Wells’ stark assessment of postmodern morality rings ever truer. This is a book desiring of more attention from academics to frontline pastors.

Footnotes

[1]https://www.gordonconwell.edu/academics/view-faculty-member.cfm?faculty_id=15912&grp_id=8947.

References

Hauerwas, Stanley and William H. Willimon.2014. Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong (Orig pub 1989). Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Wells Exercises Moral Vision, Part 1

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The Better Story

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

How do we know what we know is true?

The end of the modern era spells the end of the modern pretension that we can logically prove that objective truth is knowable and provable. It is not. Because it is not knowable and provable in the abstract, proof requires that truth be knowable and provable to a human audience. An argument must both make sense and feel right in the context of the human condition. In the context of a confusing and dangerous world, who has the best story, one that you can bet your life on?

The Gospel Story

The Gospel story is the story of Jesus’ birth, life and ministry, death, and resurrection. This story is the focus of the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—in the New Testament and of faith statements, like the Apostle’s Creed.

Christianity began in a graveyard with the resurrection. The resurrection could not have occurred without Jesus’ crucifixion and death which was, in turn, associated with his life and ministry. Because Jesus’ life and ministry was chronicled looking back from the resurrection, each sentence in the New Testament should be prefaced with these words: Jesus rose from the dead, therefore . . . Jesus’ life, ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection are the Gospel story.

Christians, like Mary Magdalene, are the ones running from the cemetery to tell the rest of the world that Jesus lives (Matt 28:8).

After the Gospels themselves, the story of Jesus is the subject of many New Testament sermons by both Peter (Acts 2:14–41; 10:34–43) and Paul (Acts 13:16–41).

Context for the Gospel

In Genesis 11:1-9 we read the story of how men schemed to build a tower up to heaven to force God to come down and bless their city. The God who created heaven and earth (Gen 1:1) looked down on this effort and just laughed. These devious and obviously stupid men thought that they could manipulate a god that stood outside of time and space having created both. To prevent further foolishness, God confused them with different languages so that they would not be able to scheme together any further.

Because God transcends the material world and time itself, no physical or metaphysical tower can reach up to heaven.Towers, temples, religions, philosophies, and sciences are all equally vain. God must come down to us; we cannot reach up to him. The story of God’s efforts to reach down to us is recorded in scripture; he himself came down in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (Matt 1; Luke 1). God reversed the curse of Babel on the day of Pentecost with the giving of his Holy Spirit and the founding of the church (Acts 2), the oldest, continuous institution known to humanity.

But this story is not over; the church is not a museum of the past. Jesus points to the future and promises to reunite with his disciples:

“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:3)

Because the future is in Christ and we worship a loving and all powerful God, we know that our future is secure. In the midst of the traumas and tribulations of life, our hope is assured.

The Better Story

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/2018_Lead

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Hauerwas and Willimon: Christians as Colonists, Part 2

Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident AliensStanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon.[1] 2014. Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong (Orig pub 1989). Nashville: Abingdon Press. (Goto Part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Fundamental to the problem of the postmodern church is grasping for how much society has changed. In Christendom, a sense of right and wrong permeated the entire culture—even those that never entered a church shared Christian morality even if reluctantly. An important problem in postmodern culture is its fragmentation—kids frequently introduce themselves by who they listen to and prefer communication with friends, not in person, but by texting. One gets the impression that for a boomer a FB friend is an acquaintance, but for a millennial a FB friend is a intimate—in part because of differences in the personal details shared online.

Introduction

 In their book, Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon (hereafter H&W) described the church already in 1989 as:

“The church exists today as resident aliens, an adventurous colony in a society of unbelief…Western culture is devoid of a sense of journey, of adventure, because it lacks belief in much more than the cultivation of an ever-shrinking horizon of self-preservation and self-expression.”(49)

My wife and I had our first child in 1989 right after I received my first job in finance and could afford for the first time the house that we lived in and we attended a church plant in our community that now is a well-established church. We were among the fortunate few because anyone without a post graduate degree still earns probably little more than they did back then.

Church in the Lurch

Churches not serving the fortunate few were already struggling back in the 1980s and have lost members, especially young people, ever since. H&W observe:

“An army succeeds, not through trench warfare but through movement, penetration, tactics.(54)

The old saying goes, the best defense is a good offense, yet most churches never learned to play offense because in Christendom evangelism consisted primarily in keeping those that showed up on Sunday morning. If no one shows up, they are lost as to what to do.

The Importance of Story

The church played defense pretty much throughout the modern era. In attempting to respond to the unscientific nature of faith, churches used abstract concepts, like “God is love”, to communicate the Gospel, but for the most part such abstractions merely served to vaccinate people against real Christianity. Conceptual—ersatz or cultural— Christianity is sterile and cannot reproduce itself.

H&W write:

“How does God deal with human fear, confusion, and paralysis? God tells a story: I am none other than the God who ‘brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.’ (Deut 5:6)”(54)

 At its heart, the Gospel is the story of Jesus, not the concept of Jesus! We cannot understand and appreciate the Gospel unless we follow Jesus and participate in his story. (55) For postmoderns, it’s all about narrative and the Good News is that the church has the best story around—if it is willing and able to tell it.

Assessment

In part one of this review, I have outlined a few key points and summarized the book. In part two, I will endeavor to engage their arguments in more depth.

In Resident AliensStanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon outline an approach to a post-Constantine church from perspective of the church and Christian ethics. The text is engaging and is often cited as a follow up to John Howard Joder’s The Politics of Jesus(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), which they frequently cite.

Footnotes

[1]https://divinity.duke.edu/faculty/directory. @Stanleymemelord

Hauerwas and Willimon: Christians as Colonists, Part 2

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Books, Films, and Ministry

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/2018_Lead

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Postmodernism

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

In his book, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, James Smith (2006, 26) Describes post modernism as a kind of pluriform and variegated phenomena, an historical period after (post) modernism, heavily influenced by French philosophers, especially Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and Michael Foucault.  Adding to the confusion, Smith observes that postmodernism does not make a clean break with modernism, but tends to intensify certain aspects of modernism, particularly notions of freedom (Smith 2006, 19-21, 26).

Smith starts with the intriguing premise that the basic ideas of these three postmodern philosophers have misunderstood. When properly understood, postmodern philosophy and the traditional teaching of the church remain compatible.  The collapse of the church in our lifetime can accordingly be seen to lay the groundwork for a revitalization of the church around traditional teaching—once purged of its modernistic thought patterns (Smith 2006,  22-23, 29).  This re-imaged traditional teaching he refers to as radical orthodoxy and has an incarnation focus which takes time, place, and space seriously and which affirms both the liturgy and the arts (Smith 2006, 127).

Jacques Derrida

Smith’s premise that these philosophers have been misunderstood because of weak bumper-sticker summaries of them. For example, Derrida’s misunderstood statement is: “there is nothing outside the text.” (Smith 2006, 36)  The idea that one can simply read a text, particularly an ancient text written in another language, and understand its meaning is to misunderstand the role of language, context, and interpretation. 

While often said to mean that the Bible cannot be read and understood by just anyone, Smith says that this is not what Derrida is saying. Derrida’s point is simply that all understanding of texts requires interpretation—the context and the interpretative community—which implies that there is no such thing as 

objective truth.  Interpretation is always required (Smith 2006, 38-40, 43).

Jean-François Lyotard

Smith also sees Lyotard’s idea of a meta-narrative as misunderstood in its bumper-sticker characterization. Postmodern critics have trouble with the meta-narrative or big story of scripture—creation, fall, redemption, and eschatology.  Smith disputes, however, that the scope of meta-narratives is Lyotard’s main concern.  Smith sees Lyotard’s main concern being the truth claims of modern use of meta-narratives—science is itself a meta-narrative but falsely and deceptively claims to be universal, objective, and demonstrable through reason alone. Smith writes:  “For the postmodern, every scientist is a believer.” Lyotard is perfectly okay with the idea of faith preceding reason, following Augustine  (Smith 2006, 62-72) and Anselm, who cites Isaiah 7:9.[1]

Michael Foucault

Foucault’s concern about institutional power structures is hard to reduce to a bumper-sticker characterization, in part, because he resists reductionism in his writing style and focuses on tediously pure description.  Smith sees Foucault preoccupied with disciplinary structures, but wonders what his real intentions are.  He talks about two readings of Foucault:  Foucault as Nietzschean and Foucault as a closet enlightenment liberal (Smith 2006, 96-99).  Smith (2006, 102) writes:

“What is wrong with all these disciplinary structures is not that they are bent on forming or molding human beings into something, but rather what they are aiming for in that process.”

Smith sees Foucault offering three lessons to the church: to see “how pervasive disciplinary formation is within our culture”; to identify which of these disciplines are “fundamentally inconsistent with…the message of the church”; and to “enact countermeasures, counter disciplines that will form us into the kinds of people that God calls us to be” (Smith 2006, 105-106).

Weakness in Modern Witness

Smith sees hope in the Derrida’s critique because the modern understanding of the Christian message is itself a distortion of traditional church teaching.  In attempting to frame the Christian message in ahistorical truth statements (God is love), the narrative tradition (God showed his love by sovereignly granting the exodus of the nation of Israel from Egypt) has been lost.  Because the Christian message is contextual in biblical accounts and is interpreted by the church, it meets Derrida’s primary concerns.  Consequently, according to Smith, the church must, however, abandon modern stance and language in order to thrive in the postmodern environment (Smith 2006, 54-58).

When exactly did the church relinquish its internal discipline and why?⁠[2]  Smith (2006, 107) sees communion, confession, foot washing, and economic redistribution as the kind of disciplines that need to be maintained.  A more normal reading of discipline might ask why the teaching of the church—church doctrine—is ignored and no dire consequences follow for those most engaged in the ignoring.

References

Davies, Brian and G.R. Evans [ed}. 2008. Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works. Oxford World Classics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Longfield, Bradley J. 1991. The Presbyterian Controversy:  Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates. New York:  Oxford University Press.

Smith, James K.A.  2006.  Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism:  Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic.

Footnotes

[1] In his Proslogion, Anselm writes: “I believe so that I may understand.” (Davies and Evans 2008, 87)

[2] Longfield (1991, 79-91) chronicles changes 1925-1936 in the Presbyterian Church from dropping the five fundamental of faith as ordination requirements in 1925 to changes at Princeton Theological Seminary serving to allow theological diversity within the denomination. These changes also effectively removed doctrinal basis for church discipline, accept in the case of gross error.

Postmodernism

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/2018_Lead

Continue Reading

Hart Argues History to Inform the Present

Review of Davide Bentley Hart's Atheist DelusionsDavid Bentley Hart. 2009. Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The old saw goes: you cannot argue someone out of a position that they were not argued into. Apologetics is accordingly most useful in convincing oneself of the reasonableness of views that you already loosely hold. For critics who engage primarily in slander, correcting the veracity of arguments propping up such slander does not normally lead to retraction of the slander so much as the advancement of new arguments of similar veracity, particularly when political or financial incentives motivate the slander. Even weakly argued slander can imperil loosely held faith so the apologist is bound to remain fully employed.

Introduction

David Bentley Hart opens his book, Atheist Delusions, with these words:

“What I have written is at most a ‘historical essay,’ at no point free of bias, and intended principally as an apologia for a particular understanding of the effect of Christianity upon the development of Western civilization.”(ix)

Hart’s concern about bias is interesting because quickly proceeds to outline his decision criteria for establishing historical truth:

“It may be impossible to provide perfectly irrefutable evidence for one’s conclusions, but it is certainly possible to amass evidence sufficient to confirm them beyond plausible doubt.”(ix)

Again, this is interesting because Hart begins playing by postmodern rules of argumentation—a modern writer might appeal to objective truth (or rationality) at this point, which would invite derision from postmodern critics.

Central Argument

As an historian, Hart focuses on using the past as a vehicle for understanding the present, writing:

“This book chiefly—or at least centrally—concerns the history of the early church, of roughly the first four or five centuries, and the story of how Christendom was born out of the culture of last antiquity. My chief ambition in writing it is to call attention to the peculiar and radical nature of the new faith in that setting: how enormous a transformation of thought, sensibility, culture, morality, and spiritual imagination Christianity constituted in the age of pagan Rome.; the liberation it offered from fatalism, cosmic despair, and the terror of occult agencies; the immense dignity it conferred up on the human person…”(x-xi)

What struck me in the middle of this lengthy essay was how much paganism of these first centuries of the church resembled the anxiety that we see every day in postmodern culture.

The Mythology of Modernism

Through the lens of historical observation, Hart furthermore chips away at the mythology surrounding the modern period. He writes:

“…what many of us are still in the habit of calling the ‘Age of Reason’ was in many significant ways the beginning of the eclipse of reason’s authority as a cultural value; that the modern age is notable in large measure for the triumph of inflexible dogmatism in every sphere of human endeavor (including the sciences) and for a flight from rationality to any number of soothing fundamentalisms, religious and secular; that the Enlightenment ideology of modernity as such does not even deserve any particular credit for the advance of modern science; that the modern secular state’s capacity for barbarism exceeds any of the evils for which Christendom might justly be indicted, not solely by virtue of the superior technology, but by its very nature…”(xi-xii)

Hart’s comment about barbarism is particularly interesting because today’s culture is quick to forget about the millions killed by the National Socialists and by various Marxian governments in our time yet obsesses about the thousands killed during the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition hundreds of years ago, where the historical veracity of various claims requires close scrutiny that is almost never offered.

Faith in Choice

An important critique that Hart examines at length is the postmodern obsession with personal freedom. He writes:

“…there is no substantive criterion by which to judge our choices that stands higher than the unquestioned good of free choice itself, and that therefore all judgment, divine no less than human, is in some sense an infringement upon our freedom. This is our primal ideology. In the most unadorned terms possible, the ethos of modernity is—to be perfectly precise—nihilism.”(21)

This observation is damning in its implications for the banality of our time. Freedom defined in terms of market choice for goods and ideas leaves no philosophical room for God, the development of personal character, or even the organization of communal activities, present or future. Inherent in this focus is an assumption that individual making choices has the resources required to make them and society is eager to provide them. Focusing on choice accordingly leaves decisions about everything else up to whoever is powerful enough to enforce them. Even the choices offered today may disappear quickly as a lack of interest in the future may lead one to eat one’s own seed-corn or to trade away one’s own freedom in the rush to consume.

Outline

Hart writes his book in 17 chapters divided into four parts:

  1. Faith, Reason, and Freedom: A View from the Present
  2. The Mythology of the Secular Age: Modernity’s Rewriting of the Christian Past
  3. Revolution: The Christian Invention of the Human
  4. Reaction and Retreat: Modernity and the Eclipse of the Human(vii-viii).

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and followed by notes and an index.

Assessment

David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions is an interesting read for the historically sensitive and philosophically astute. Hart offers commentary on current cultural controversies that both enlightens and challenges one to probe deeper, if for no other reason than to understand his voluminous vocabulary.

Hart Argues History to Inform the Present

Also see:

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Hebrew_Heart

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