Interact Magazine 2000
Volume 11 Number 3
For Christians the gospel is good news. We spend a lot of time in pulpits proclaiming it and exhorting the flock on Sundays to go and do likewise. So why doesn’t it make the impact it deserves? Why is there such a negative view about Christianity in our culture?
In the last article, I summarised ten criticisms of Christianity by students who come to L’Abri. These come from a new book by Dick Keyes (‘Chameleon Christianity’, published by Baker Books, 1999). In a similar vein, I left you with the question of what the result might be if you asked ten strangers in your local shopping mall about the impact on the quality of their lives if they became Christians. I suspect you’ll agree that the views presented in Dick’s book and by your shoppers would be equally non-flattering to Christianity.
I want to bypass all the excuses – some of which are undoubtedly correct – and raise some issues of communication, which have caused Christianity to be a non-starter in the eyes of much of our culture. It is terribly unfashionable to allow Christian thought as a legitimate option in the agenda of debate. Instead, Christians are looked to only if a reactionary statement is sought. This ought not to be so and it is overcoming this Christian mediocrity that I want to address in this article.
Let’s start at the apologetic end. The phrase ‘worldview thinking’ has taken on increasing popularity today. In short, a worldview is a set of glasses we put on which colours how we see the world we live in. All of us wear such glasses as a consequence of the myriad of influences in our lives. The moral values we have been brought up with shape our responses to moral issues. Some of us think about the kinds of glasses we put on, whilst most, I suspect, have worldview glasses caught much like we catch measles. If we want to communicate to our culture we need to understand both their worldview and our own.
Let us summarise, in a few lines, what our Christian glasses are:
1. There is a personal yet infinite God, creator of our universe with approximately 1022 (a 1 followed by 22 zeros) stars and at least one biologically habitable planet. He is a person with a defined character of righteousness and perfection. He has created humankind on this biologically habitable planet with the stamp of His character. Hence we have eternity, a desire for relationship, and personhood in our make-up. God provides the physical and metaphysical context for our meaningful existence. Science, art, music, poetry, being human, worship, beauty, high culture, cosmic significance, meaning, value and purpose all find their fulfilment in this understanding.
2. There is a moral rebellion, a cosmic malignancy in which humankind rejects God and His demands. There is a break between God and us and this is represented as brokenness in the universe: physical entropy, metaphysical Murphy’s law (if it can go wrong it will!) and death are all expressions of this break. Our cosmic alienation, our yearnings, hopes and aspirations for final meaning against the reality of our finiteness and imperfection have their understanding in this.
3. God, by His own choice, has provided a way back to relationship with Him. This is through the sacrifice of His son begotten of Him and not made – Jesus. By grace, and not because we have earned it, acceptance of the work of Jesus provides justification, sanctification and redemption before God and a freedom to be fully human. This implies not only relationship to the Father through Jesus and therefore personal salvation, but also redemption of some sort in all areas of life. Science, art, beauty, living, social justice, culture, etc. are all to be affected by this wonderful truth of redemption wrought by Jesus. Christians are to make a difference in all areas of life and to critique all counterfeit options. The process of redemption and fighting the Fall is a proper work – although never complete – until the Day of Judgment and God’s completion of the redemptive work in a new heaven and earth. Christianity is not simply marking time until heaven, or escapism, or just saving souls, but can and does make a difference to a culture.
The above is good news for the whole of life. We have something to say which is rich and exciting and far from mediocre. It is holistic, answering our deepest spiritual yearnings for cosmic significance and, at the same time, answering the big philosophical questions with which we struggle. Thus the gospel tells me that I am not alone in this universe – a product of time plus chance in a pitilessly indifferent universe. Rather, I am created in the image of a God whose very character defines what is good and what real love is. The gospel also tells me I’m wanted by God but cannot come on my own terms. Rather, this same magnificent God has reached out to me and stands against all my failures and rebellion if only I would acknowledge these before Him. Moreover, I am accepted, unconditionally, on the basis of the substitute death of Jesus. The gospel brings answers to the ‘whys’ in the universe. Not only physical ‘whys’ but the metaphysical ones too. I can understand my place in space, time, the flow of history, and the struggle of existence. The gospel gives reason to science, art and culture. It speaks of redemption. And so as a Christian my working redemptively, in any area of life, is working for God and against the legacy of brokenness in our universe which is the result of a real structural break between God and us. Surely all this is the good news and is the engine for our proclamation!
Having a right view of the depth of the gospel and understanding our own glasses is the first step. The second step is doing our homework and understanding the glasses that others wear. This is not an easy option. The apostle Paul was able to do so in Athens at the Areopagus (Actsl7:16-32) and again before the Jews in Acts 22:lff. It is the force of his famous dictum ‘… I have become all things to all men…’ (1 Cor. 9:19-23). The results were not always in his own best interest, nevertheless, he successfully communicated because he understood his particular milieu. We need to do the same and think about the world-view of others in order to communicate effectively.
An immediate reaction to the above might be that this is good for intellectuals and not for the people in our own congregations. But understanding the worldview of others is equipping the saints and can be done by anyone. Just helping the person in the pew appreciate the subtleties of worldviews presented in television shows like ‘The Simpsons’, or ‘Friends’ is a good place to begin. Then too there are the magazines. One doesn’t need to go to ‘Cleo’ or ‘Penthouse’; your average edition of ‘New Idea’ has lots of worldview presentations as the writers are experimenting with pushing the limits of what respectable people should now believe. These are set in the context of human-interest stories, but they are nevertheless good examples of what the average person is uncritically subjecting themselves to. Have film nights. Learn to reflect and to teach your congregation to reflect about issues.
Here are some leading questions:
What are the assumptions behind the story/article?
Do the characters work – do they develop in response to circumstances? Is the solution the main characters have to their situation possible? Are there better solutions? What is missing? How do the characters live in God’s world. Where are the tensions with what they believe and what is real? How would you engage the main characters in friendship and conversation? What value adding would Christianity bring to solving the problems of the character and the outcome of the story?
In truth, there are countless Christians who are quite capable of reflective thought and they come from all walks of life. Each should be encouraged to take worldview issues seriously in their own area of endeavour. All of this resonates with Paul when he says in defending himself against the Corinthians ‘… We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ…’ (2 Cor. 10:5).
Furthermore, we need to encourage Christians to strive for excellence to the glory of God. Great composers like Mozart, Beethoven and Bach were often inspired by their thoughts of God. What about great artists like Rembrandt or Michelangelo? Great art, music, poetry, literature, science and philosophy can come out of a Christian worldview. We need to go beyond the kitsch and encourage the holistic fruits of the gospel because it is good news for the whole of life.
The third step is serious dialogue which takes time, effort and relationship.
Few of us get the opportunity to stand before large audiences and put forward apologetic thought. Many of us, however, have everyday relationships with surrounding people and friends. These are the contexts in which dialogue can occur. This is slow and one on one, yet it is here that the work of evangelism is so often done. Even if this does not lead a person to accept the need to repent, the thoughtfulness and thoroughness of world-view critique has the added benefit that Christians are seen to actually have something to say to current issues in all areas of life. Extrapolated to society, this means that Christians are no longer reactionary but actually contribute to the thought life of a culture and bring forth radical and thoughtful options.
There is a thread that runs throughout the above three steps which, though not outwardly obvious, is crucial in the postmodern world in which we live. More than ever we must stress the need to be authentic in our Christianity. People today are not so much asking questions like ‘What is true?’ but rather ‘Does it work?’ We can therefore understand all the worldview issues we like, but still fail to communicate, because the Christianity we stand for is inconsistent with our life style – what we say is true doesn’t really work. The cynicism and suspicion of the postmodern culture we live in will then see straight past the value of the Christian gospel and its associated worldview. All along we have been encouraged by Jesus to be doers of His teaching. Yet it is particularly poignant today because of the aforementioned postmodern sensitivities.
To be a good servant of the work of the Spirit and therefore convincing to a culture which is hopelessly cynical about the legitimacy of comparing and contrasting worldviews, we need to be genuine about our spiritual experience. This is a hard one. It is often easy to talk about God in an apologetic sense, particularly if you have a good mind and are inclined to systematics, yet it is harder to talk of a genuine experience of God. By ‘genuine’, I mean something born out of real trust in Jesus and beyond psychological self-delusion. I’m reminded somewhat painfully at this point of what Jesus said to the Pharisees: ‘You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life…’ (John 5:39-40).
Proclamation of the gospel is good news but it is only good news if we are able to show why to our own culture. This cannot be done by shouting louder. It can only be done by understanding the darkness of the modern worldviews which drive people and by exposing them to the light of the gospel. This requires verbal proclamation, understanding and apologetics, but it also requires a redemptive lifestyle which embraces being human and expresses itself in the context of living. We need to encourage art, beauty, learning, education, science and just plain living for God.
Dr Frank Stootman is a physicist and Senior Lecturer at UWSM and is Director of L’Abri fellowship in Australia.
© Frank Stootman (1 November 2000)