Tag Archives: culture

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Prophetic Untimeliness

In Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance (2009), Os Guinness explores the fascination with relevance that permeates evangelicalism, diagnosing it as a result of our uncritical immersion in our current view of time. He summarizes the problem in two densely woven sentences:

The faith-world of John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, John Jay, William Wilberforce, Hannah More, Lord Shaftesbury, Catherine Booth, Hudson Taylor, D.L. Moody, Charles Spurgeon, Oswald Chambers, Andrew Murray, Carl Henry, and John Stott is disappearing. In its place a new evangelicalism is arriving in which therapeutic self-concern overshadows knowing God, spirituality replaces theology, end-times escapism crowds out day-to-day discipleship, marketing triumphs over mission, references to opinion polls outweigh reliance on biblical exposition, concerns for power and relevance are more obvious than concern for piety and faithfulness, talk of reinventing the church has replaced prayer for revival, and the characteristic evangelical passion for missionary enterprise is overpowered by the all-consuming drive to sustain the multiple business empires of the booming evangelical subculture.

The book begins by reviewing of the historical impact of clock-time, examines the ways it has shaped our values and concepts theologically, and offers a 3-part prescription for finding a perspective not held captive to our present culture:

  • Cultivate an awareness of the unfashionable.
  • Know history.
  • Pay constant attention to the eternal.

The gospel, he points out, is eternally “relevant” or it’s not good news at all. Our concern is not to “make it relevant,” but to be faithful to its message amidst the whirl of our time. In this way we can be something like the prophets of old, who often didn’t feel at home in their times but who were faithful to proclaim God’s truth.

Last night during a long car ride, I read the “solution” section aloud to my husband. I’ve tossed out blurbs to him here and there as I’ve been reading the book, and he wanted to hear it. It was an interesting experience, and it made me realize what a good book this would be to read with a group.

My husband complained that Guinness “paints with a broad brush” — he makes sweeping statements about periods of history, and about present-day church and culture. But to me, this is the delight of reading Guinness. He is so well-read and such a master of his subject that he can make such generalizations as a way of contextualizing his statements. His failure to support them in detail here results not from failure to have support, but from a decision to keep the focus clear and narrow (the book is only 119 pages long). But it was lots of fun to read aloud and be stopped so often to process and clarify.

It’s also only fair to add that my husband’s view, after hearing only the last section of the book, is that Guinness criticized extensively and solved minimally; his solutions (above) were not as thorough and developed as my husband would have wanted to see. But I didn’t feel that way. Maybe they seem undramatic because we are already cultivating them in various ways in our lives. But as ways of tying down our perspective in points outside the limits of culture — or, as Guinness puts it, of finding “an Archimedean point of leverage outside of history and society” — all three are effective disciplines to cultivate. As Christians we have one foot in eternity and one foot in time, and we need to be well balanced between them.

This is my third book by Os Guinness, and I always appreciate the elegance and wit of his thinking. There may be points here and there that I quibble with, but the overall effect of reading one of his books is intellectually astringent. There are insights large and small, breadth and depth and erudition that challenge and inspire. I would recommend this book to any evangelical for its power to startle, awaken, provoke and motivate.

A larger and truer confession

Someone forwarded Ben Stein’s CBS Sunday Morning “Confession” to me by email. Mr. Stein uses the following exchange as a springboard for discussing God’s alleged departure from America:

Billy Graham’s daughter was interviewed on the Early Show and Jane Clayson asked her ‘How could God let something like this happen?’ (regarding Hurricane Katrina).  Anne Graham gave an extremely profound and insightful response.  She said, ‘I believe God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we’ve been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives.  And being the gentleman He is, I believe He has calmly backed out.  How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?’

Mr. Stein is Jewish and does not purport to speak for Christians, but the comments of Anne Graham Lotz reflect a common sentiment among believers, one I’ve heard before. I have no problem with the idea that we reap what we sow, but I take issue with how that principle is interpreted here. I disagree with the notion that God used to confer special blessing on America, but he’s gone now. I think it reflects a misunderstanding that strips God of both faithfulness and transcendence.

Biblically, the only nation God ever explicitly chose was Israel. With the advent of Christ, he didn’t withdraw that blessing, but he did widen it to extend the invitation to all nations. Jesus’ last recorded words are,

19“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,

20teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28, emphasis added)

The idea that America is/was a “Christian nation” is true only in a limited sense. Its humanistic ideals are Christian; the Bible affirms the glory of humanity made in God’s image. The ideal that all are “created equal” was biblical when the founding documents were drawn up, and in every instance in which Americans have been challenged to rise up out of the hypocrisy of official oppression. But the idea that because of this we can appropriate a collective divine blessing implies that Christianity is a nationalistic proposition. It isn’t.

Jesus called for “disciples.” Throughout history, misguided rulers have assumed that he meant “nations.” But disciples are individuals. Disciples are not legislated or coerced, but choose freely to follow.  Disciples are, as Dallas Willard points out, apprentices learning to be like Jesus, to do what he said, to reflect his character. The impersonal cultural Christianity defined as a set of lifestyle choices is probably the worst thing that ever happened to this country’s understanding of the gospel.

If the conception of nationalistic Christianity is erroneous, then the suggestion that God would “calmly back out” is equally erroneous. But beyond the logical untenability of it, think about how false to the biblical picture of God this is. How can we believe that he, having made salvation available “once for all” out of his great love and mercy, would abandon us? “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” is quite clear. He has dwelt here not in our institutions, but in individual human hearts. To suggest that he has departed is to claim that he has gone back on his promise to those who believe. It would be a betrayal of the worst proportions, one that would discredit one of the central tenets of God’s nature as he has always defined himself: faithfulness.

The Anne Graham Lotz comment above paints God as an aggrieved, merely polite, and ultimately powerless parent. It reduces the problem of evil in the world — a problem theologians and ordinary human beings have wrestled with for centuries — to a cause-effect equation similar to that suggested by those folks who argued that God was punishing America on 9/11.

I don’t pretend to have the problem of evil neatly solved. I do recognize, however, that it has something to do with the high stakes of the freedom God has built into his universe. (Even natural events like hurricanes, Paul implies in Romans 8, are related to human freedom; the falleness of creation began with the human fall.) A.W. Tozer offers a picture of a ship to illustrate the relationship of God’s sovereignty to human freedom:

An ocean liner leaves New York bound for Liverpool. Its destination has been determined by proper authorities. Nothing can change it. This is at least a faint picture of sovereignty.

On board the liner are scores of passengers. These are not in chains, neither are their activities determined for them by decree. They are completely free to move about as they will. They eat, sleep, play, lounge about on the deck, read, talk, altogether as they please; but all the while the great liner is carrying them steadily onward toward a predetermined port.

Both freedom and sovereignty are present here and they do not contradict each other. So it is, I believe, with man’s freedom and the sovereignty of God. The mighty liner of God’s sovereign design keeps its steady course over the sea of history. God moves undisturbed and unhindered toward the fulfillment of those eternal purposes which He purposed in Christ Jesus before the world began. We do not know all that is included in these purposes, but enough has been disclosed to furnish us with a broad outline of things to come and to give us good hope and firm assurance of future well-being.

Unlike the “saddened gentleman” of the excerpt above, who alters his purposes and withdraws his presence because he is displeased, the God of Tozer (and the Bible) is always present and always sovereign no matter what evil choices people may make. He is a much grander God, one who is surely grieved by evil, but who is as far superior to it as the sky is above the earth. We can choose to worship him, to be reconciled through the provision he has made, or we can defy him. Either choice has a consequence. But we cannot unseat him from his throne.

I second David Bentley Hart’s perspective on God’s attitude toward hurricanes and other evils:

For, after all, if it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God.

We need a larger and truer Confession, a creed that squeezes out the self-pity and pessimism of much that passes for Christianity today. And instead of lamenting and blaming, we need to pray without ceasing for our neighbors, our leaders, and each other.

What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31)

The Abolition of Man: Contemplating Skepticism

Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void. Nor are their subjects necessarily unhappy men. They are not men at all: they are artefacts. Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man.

–from Lewis’ title essay, “The Abolition of Man”

The Abolition of Man: How Education Develops Man’s Sense of Morality consists of three lectures given by Lewis in 1943. Partly because my reading experience was fractured by countless interruptions, I found it a challenge. But in essence, the three essays together develop an argument about the erosion of common consent to the existence of a universal moral law — and what kind of society emerges from that skepticism.

Lecture 1:

“Men without Chests” focuses on an English textbook for British secondary school students. Lewis takes one example, the textbook’s discussion of Coleridge’s claim that a waterfall is not merely “pretty,” but “sublime.” The textbook authors undermine the idea of objective value by stating unequivocally that Coleridge is really talking about his own feelings, not the waterfall at all. The school boy who reads this passage, Lewis points out, “will believe two propositions: firstly, that all statements containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker, and, secondly, that all such statements are unimportant.”

Not so, Lewis argues. A central aim of education is to instruct the “chest” — the faculty that mediates between intellect and feeling, head and heart. The point of reference, across many different cultures and throughout history, has been what Lewis calls the Tao: “The doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.” He gives examples from Plato, Aristotle, Stoicism, Christianity, and Oriental forms of thought, but makes no attempt to “prove” the Tao, taking it as a doctrine of first things.

My favorite passage from “Men without Chests:”

For every one pupil who needs to be guarded against weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defense against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments… A hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.

Today, when our most eloquent cultural critics challenge the undiscerning worship of science and technology that have resulted in part from embracing “head” without reference to the seats of either emotion or morality, they are observing the result of the trends Lewis is focused on in this essay.

Lecture 2:

“The Way” examines subjectivism and shows how moral relativism ultimately undermines even itself. If all value is subjective, there is nothing authoritative on which to base this claim. Also in this essay, however, Lewis raises another alternative, not subjectivism but nihilism:

The Nietzchean ethic can be accepted only if we are ready to scrap traditional morals as a mere error and then put ourselves in a position where we can find no ground for any value judgements at all. It is the difference between a man who says to us: ‘You like your vegetables moderately fresh; why not grow your own and have them perfectly fresh?’ and a man who says, ‘Throw away that loaf and try eating bricks and centipedes instead.’

Lewis, explaining that he’ll need another lecture to do justice to this problem, moves on to his culminating final address.

Lecture 3: “The Abolition of Man”

Ultimately the rejection of all value leaves brute force as the only governing power. “In what sense is man the possessor of increasing power over Nature?” Lewis begins. Taking the airplane, the “wireless,” and contraceptives as his examples, he concludes:

What we call man’s power is, in reality, a power possessed by some men which they may, or may not, allow other men to profit by. Again, as regards the powers manifested in the aeroplane and the wireless, Man is as much the patient or subject as the possessor, since he is the target for both bombs and propoganda. And as regards contraceptives, there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive… Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car.

This final lecture would have been excellent to read in conjunction with That Hideous Strength. In this lecture, Lewis does in prose what the novel does in fiction: paints a picture of the logical outcome of human society “sanitized” of the Tao in which the law of Nature replaces the humane. (That Hideous Strength gives a vivid picture of this happening to the members of the “advanced” society of the N.I.C.E. — “National Institute for Controlled Experiments”). The Tao, after all, instructs us in right living within the framework of Nature’s order. Humanity may throw out the roadmap, but we cannot escape Nature.

Lewis concludes by coming full circle, making oblique reference to the official skepticism of the school English text he began with and extending it to its resulting moral blindness:

The kind of explanation which explains things away may give us something, though at a heavy cost. But you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ forever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ’seeing through’ things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ’see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ’see through’ all things is the same as not to see.

Appendix:

The final section of the book is an appendix of illustrations from the Tao. Different moral laws are given, with their occurrence in various writings, including ancient Egyptian, Jewish, Norse, Babylonian, Hindu, Chinese, Greek and Roman sources.

My thoughts:

I grew increasingly interested as I read. I could see that Lewis was writing prophetically. There are so many present-day trends that illustrate the surrender of the humane to the technological and the scientific, a surrender that could not have happened without the moral preparation Lewis observed in his day.

It’s impossible not to think of the books I’ve read recently by Neil Postman. In Technopoly, Postman discusses the evolution of a culture from tool-using to technological to technopoly, with the power of a shared worldview diminishing with each phase. Lewis is talking about the same phenomenon in more philosophical terms.

At the time I write this, the debate over health care reform is raging in the country. Over the past year, during the presidential campaign, other debates have raged as well over issues of science (abortion, stem cell research, birth control in schools), America’s use of power, and the role and extent of government. When I read this passage from “The Abolition of Man,” I had to stop and consider these things in the light of what Lewis says here about the essential political equations that remain despite how “progressive” humanity becomes:

I am not speaking of particular corruptions and abuses which an increase of moral virtue would cure: I am considering what the thing called “Man’s power over Nature” must always and essentially be. No doubt, the picture could be modified by public ownership of raw materials and factories and public control of scientific research. But unless we have a world state this will still mean the power of one nation over others. And even within the world state or the nation it will mean (in principle) the power of majorities over minorities, and (in the concrete) of a government over the people. And all long-term exercises of power, especially in breeding, must mean the power of earlier generations over later ones.

It seems to me that our politics and our public discourse reflect what Lewis describes in these lectures. They are not entertaining reading; they take some work. But they provide terms for thinking about our present lives. The terms available to Lewis in 1943 are much more categorical and unequivocal than those considered permissible today. Lewis addressed an audience that might disagree with his view, but would not find the notion of “absolutes” offensive. What a change 66 years have made in the “spirit of the age.”

Finding the proper tools

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I learned about this op-ed piece in the Washington Times through the weekly HSLDA email. It’s about President Obama’s plan for “zero-to-five” education — using federal money to create more preschool opportunities, and work toward universal preschool. “The presumption by Mr. Obama is that the earlier children start formal education, the better chance they have of being successful in life and being competitive in the global market,” writes HSLDA President J. Michael Smith. “Sounds good, but is this policy backed by evidence that government involvement in child rearing from birth actually works?”

It’s worth reading… or at least, I think so. It touches on something that’s been nagging at me every time I hear the president talk about college education. From now on, he’s said several times, if you don’t go to college, you’re not just letting yourself down. You’re letting your country down. We must be more competitive internationally.

Doesn’t this notion of global competitiveness — put forth unquestioningly as a good thing in the president’s plans for both ends of the educational spectrum — put free nations at the mercy of not-free nations? If market competitiveness on a global industrial scale is the supreme goal, coercion and specialization are more dependable tools for achieving it than freedom and true learning. Where does the uniqueness of a free nation’s concept of education fit into this picture? In the liberal arts tradition of the west, education is seen as a humanizing process, not merely an economic one. To put forth global market competitiveness as the only, or even the primary, goal of education is to reduce education mightily. It reduces, too, the whole gamut of ways in which we might “compete” that aren’t measurable by economics — the level of courage or ingenuity or determination possible in a context of freedom.

Besides that, I have to ask when my personal educational goals became any of the government’s business.  Letting my country down by not going to college? That’s not just intrusive; it’s elitist. My country needs tradespeople and artisans too, people who keep the inherited knowledge, the agricultural wisdom, the community traditions and the local comprehension of places alive. What happened to the dignity of all walks of life?

Worse, what happened to freedom? As a former college educator, I get cold chills at the tenor of the president’s remarks. To make the university an entitlement, or, worse, a citizenship duty for everyone not only robs the educational process of freedom, it destroys what legitimacy it has left. I believe everyone who has the ability and is willing to work should be able to pursue higher education. Let’s leave it at that. The problem in the housing industry began, some economists have said, during the Clinton administration with its goal of home-ownership for everyone. I can’t help but wonder if making college a requirement for everyone, and throwing the weight of government behind it, invites similar abuses, and similar devaluation of the goal.

I think re-anchoring education in tradition, and rediscovering the humanities, should play a larger role in the solution to our academic woes. It would enable us to better evaluate the times in which we live. Of course these things won’t happen, but I can dream, can’t I? And I can quote those far more articulate than I. Here’s Dorothy Sayers’ conclusion of “The Lost Tools of Learning,” first presented 62 years ago. Her essay still speaks, and it’s interesting to consider alongside the current dialogue about public education in America:

We have lost the tools of learning–the axe and the wedge, the hammer and the saw, the chisel and the plane– that were so adaptable to all tasks. Instead of them, we have merely a set of complicated jigs, each of which will do but one task and no more, and in using which eye and hand receive no training, so that no man ever sees the work as a whole or “looks to the end of the work.”

What use is it to pile task on task and prolong the days of labor, if at the close the chief object is left unattained? It is not the fault of the teachers–they work only too hard already. The combined folly of a civilization that has forgotten its own roots is forcing them to shore up the tottering weight of an educational structure that is built upon sand. They are doing for their pupils the work which the pupils themselves ought to do. For the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.

The Way of Ignorance

In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance. (T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”)

So reads the passage from which Wendell Berry’s 2005 essay collection The Way of Ignorance takes its title. Ranging from essays of a page or two, to full-length lectures and conference presentations, to letters, these essays address topics that Mr. Berry has been writing about for many years: What is the cost of globalization, and who pays it? What is the difference between local knowledge, and corporate knowledge? How do you measure and improve the health of land? What is involved in National Security? What makes for the good — truly good — life? Perhaps most central: how can we solve the problem our increasing violence to one another and the world?

The range of essays offers new readers of Berry a good introduction to, and old readers a further development of, some of his main themes. Berry’s continued “kneading” of his subject for over 40 years is part of what gives him such credibility, along with his willingness to practice what he preaches in the way he lives and farms.

But in two areas, I was left unsure of how to take this book. One area is Berry’s attitude toward Christianity. As in past collections, this one takes up the issue of the Bible’s teaching. “Many of us are still withholding credence,” he writes, “from any person or institution claiming to have the definitive word on the purposes and the mind of God.”  I can relate to the suspicion of “persons or institutions” that act like they have all eternity figured out and all the mystery squeezed out. But “withholding credence” is a negative statement that doesn’t work well into the affirmative texture of the rest of Berry’s life as a committed, placed husbandman. Here is the positive statement he provides:

When Jesus speaks of having life more abundantly, this, I think, is the life He means: a life that is not reducible by division, category, or degree, but is one thing, heavenly and earthly, spiritual and material, divided only insofar as it is embodied in distinct creatures. He is talking about a finite world that is infinitely holy, a world of time that is filled with life that is eternal. His offer of more abundant life, then, is not an invitation to declare ourselves as certified “Christians,” but rather to become conscious, consenting, and responsible participants in the one great life, a fulfillment hardly institutional at all.

As a statement that refuses to simplify or demystify the world, it’s successful. But I’m not sure I understand it beyond that.

Another area that left me scratching my head was politics. The concluding section of the book contains a letter from Berry to Montana politician Daniel Kemmis, who had apparently written out of concern for the democrat party. The letter offers Mr. Berry’s advice for the party (a theme struck as well in “Some Notes for the Kerry Campaign, If Wanted” earlier in the book), and is followed by Mr. Kemmis’s reply. After so much ink is devoted to arguing for cultural changes that must be enacted in the small sphere of the individual life, it was deflating that Mr. Berry would make a case for either political party, least of all the one that advocates more government interference. I began to see in this collection that part of the role of government for Mr. Berry is to enact protections for small farmers (and smallness of all kinds, perhaps). In a global economy, such intervention may be necessary. I’m not sure. But my first impulse (which I haven’t gotten past yet) is to see the preoccupation with politics, which is essentially top-down in its influence and corporate in its affiliations and its mentality, as inconsistent with the great substance and momentum of Mr. Berry’s 40-year body of work.

The Berry I prefer is not the politician or the theologian. The Berry I prefer is the one who encourages me that I can make a difference by writing paragraphs like this one:

If we find the consequences of our arrogant ignorance to be humbling, and we are humbled, then we have at hand the first fact of hope: We can change ourselves. We, each of us severally, can remove our minds from the corporate ignorance and arrogance that is leading the world to destruction; we can honestly confront our ignorance and our need; we can take guidance from the knowledge we most authentically possess, from experience, from tradition, and from inward promptings of affection, conscience, decency, compassion, even inspiration.

I may not share Mr. Berry’s optimism about our ability to change ourselves. In my worldview, we need a savior from without to accomplish true rebirth. But to add my worldview to Mr. Berry’s emphasis on personal choices is to gain all the more reason for hope.

I’ll include one last favorite excerpt as a conclusion:

All of us who are committed to saving things of value have been in what Wes Jackson calls “the ain’t-it-awful conversation,” in which we recite the current litany of outrages. We have been in the conversation, and, if we have brought to it a modicum of sanity, we have recognized sooner or later the need to get out of it. The logical end of the ain’t-it-awful conversation, as of the life devoted to opposition, is despair. People quit having any fun, they begin to talk about the “inevitability” of what they are against, and they give up. Mere opposition finally blinds us to the good of the things we are trying to save. And it divides us hopelessly from our opponents, who no doubt are caricaturing us while we are demonizing them. We lose, in short, the sense of shared humanity that would permit us to say even to our worst enemies, “We are working, after all, in your interest and your children’s. Ours is a common effort for the common good. Come and join us.”