Transforming Christians to Transform Culture

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The Cultural Tail Wags the Political Dog

Posted on November 30, 2013

The text of a talk delivered at the CCL East Coast Symposium on November 23, 2013 in Shepherdstown, West Virginia

Perhaps you’ve seen the movie titled Wag the Dog, starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro and Willie Nelson. It’s about a president who invents a crisis in the Balkans in order to divert attention from a sexual scandal at home. It came out after President Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinski scandal. Coincidence? You do the math.

I suggest it’s an equally apt metaphor for the relation between politics and culture in Western Constitutional democracies like ours. It’s a metaphor that’s not self-evident.

The reason for this is that for decades the West has (ironically) purchased stock in the Marxist idea that all of life is politics (“the personal is the political”). Marx borrowed and developed this idea from French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau made an ingenious offer to 18th century Europeans: I’ll offer you a plan to liberate you from every social authority that you deplore — family, church, guild, caste — as long as you give me an authority strong enough to crush these other authorities. Of course, that all-crushing authority was the state. Marxism bought that premise. In the Soviet Union and China and Eastern Europe and elsewhere it enlisted the state as a crushing authority to equalize all incomes and living standards. Many Western intellectuals and elitists gleefully went along for the ride.

In time, long after the rest of the world knew of the political horrors of Marxism, Western elites turned against this politically totalitarian Marxism (“Why, the Soviet Union is just as totalitarian as the United States!”). But they didn’t abandon Marxism. In fact, they expanded it. They adopted what is called “cultural Marxism” or “libertarian Marxism.” That is, they asked the question, “If what we want is total control over everything, isn’t it better to adopt a bottom-up strategy, so that people willingly embrace our views, rather than try to impose them politically? Why do we need a totalitarian state, when we can have a totalitarian culture?” In short, they turned their attention toward capturing culture: schools and universities, the law and medical schools. the arts, TV and radio and Hollywood, the major foundations and newspapers, prominent web sites, and playwrights and novelists. They’ve been dramatically successful. Their goal has been radical egalitarianism: flattening all differences, not just in the economy, but in sex (feminism, de-masculinization, homosexuality), in the environment (radical naturalism and dehumanization), religion (everything is “spiritual”), even in living existence (abortion and euthanasia and trans-humanism). Western elites never saw a hierarchy they didn’t want to topple — as long as they had a state strong enough to guarantee they could topple it.

Here’s where it gets really interesting: At about the same time that Western elites were turning away from political totalitarianism to cultural totalitarianism (in the 70s), conservative Christians were discovering politics. They wanted to take their country back from the pro-communist, pro-secular, anti-family, anti-biblical forces. They took their strategic cue from Western elites: “Let’s capture politics so we can restore our Christian values.” They learned their lesson in the failure of this strategy long after their enemies did, and many haven’t learned it even yet.

Just as conservatives and Christians were winning political victories — the Reagan revolution, a Republican-controlled legislature, and even a slight majority (sometimes) on the U. S. Supreme Court — they were losing their culture to same-sex marriage, ubiquitous pornography, religious pluralism, intentionally childless marriages, the gradual erosion of marriage altogether, the trivialization of the church, legal nihilism, collectivist health care, and on and on. They’re just learning, if they’re learning at all, that you don’t win cultures just by winning at politics. Quite the reverse is true.

Conservative Christians are often resistant to this stubborn fact. For one thing, political victories are a lot easier — you just need to elect somebody every 2 or 4 or 6 years. Or you simply need to pressure enough representatives to vote for a piece of legislation. For another thing, political victories are a lot more spectacular — what’s more dramatic than standing on the rostrum in a crowded Ritz Carlton ballroom late one election evening with all the major TV and cable news networks shining the camera and bright lights after you’ve just had a concession call from your political opponent? Talk about dramatic.

But these victories are illusory. They’re certainly not long-lasting, as we’ve learned much to our chagrin. It’s only as we grasp that culture is the tail that wags the political dog that we can might begin to turn our political defeats around.

If you want to make a long-term political impact, therefore, let me make some very boring, but very momentous, suggestions: Stay married. Love your spouse. Start a family. Educate your children in the Faith. Park yourself in a Bible-believing church. Immerse your life in prayer. Teach your younger children Christian songs and Bible stories. Expose your older children to TV programs like Blue Bloods and Longmire and movies like Lord of the Rings and The Patriot and books like C. S. Lewis’ space trilogy. Use your personal blog and FaceBook to articulate or share thoughtful Christian truths. Support (or start) sound Christian businesses. In conversation with friends and relatives, expound the virtues of Christian culture in law, medicine, entertainment, technology, economics, business, music, education, and so on. Send money to organizations that foster Christian culture, like CCL, the Alliance Defending Freedom, Jennifer Lahl’s Center for Culture and Bio-Ethics. There is a distinct place for more “top-down” cultural influence, and CCL supports that place, but most Christians will have a more modest, yet no less significant, role.

In a society that prizes autonomy from the Triune God and his Word, these are all culturally revolutionary acts. They are the acts that will produce massive political victories over time.

Am I advising we abandon politics? By no means. If nothing else, we have a vested interest in electing politicians and enacting policies that impede the continued growth of the omnivorous state. More importantly, politics is an area of culture, and we must work to redeem all culture, including politics, for the Lord’s glory.

Meanwhile, we must never forget the importance of culture. The political dog is out front, menacing and barking, but the hidden cultural tail is making it all happen.

I close with these incisive and sobering words from British conservative Theodore Dalrymple in his book Our Culture, What’s Left of It:

I have come to regard intellectual and artistic life as of incalculable practical importance and effect. John Maynard Keynes wrote, in a famous passage in The Economic Consequences of Peace, that practical men might not have much time for theoretical considerations, but in fact the world is governed by little else than the outdated or defunct ideas of economists and social philosophers. I agree: except that I would now add novelists, playwrights, film directors, journalists, authors, and even pop singers. They are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, and we ought to pay close attention to what they say and how they say it

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Jesus, Not Politics, Saves

Posted on April 21, 2012

In reading the current fracas over at American Vision (and I want to mention here that I have the highest personal regard for Gary DeMar), I was reminded again of a travesty I observed frequently while a part of the Theonomy movement (with which I no longer identify): the apparent subordination of Christianity to politics, specifically libertarian politics.  This is the first time I’d ever encountered such misguided thinking.  I’d always been politically conservative, not because there was any inherent value in conservatism, but because conservatism (I mean by this classical liberalism, with its stress on individual liberty that libertarians most value) was more in harmony with the Faith and the Bible than its alternatives.  I was only interested in politics to the extent that the Bible and Faith shape one’s political views (Ayn Rand would not have approved).

Of course, I believe that the Bible addresses, either explicitly or implicitly, many political and cultural issues, and that’s why I’m devoting a big part of my life to Christian cultural reclamation.  David Bahnsen and I, for instance, will be hosting on April 28 in Orange County a conference on The Roots of the Financial Crisis, and my talk is “The Theological Roots of the Financial Crisis.” I am passionate about the application of the Faith in culture, including in politics; but politics may never become the proverbial tail that wags the Christian dog.

Conversely, it appeared — and appears — to me that many professed theonomists are committed libertarians who are seeking in Christianity a religious sanction for their libertarianism. I believe this because they seem quite willing (at times) to sacrifice Biblical views (like God’s moral law) when they conflict with libertarian tenets (like freedom for any action that doesn’t harm others).  For this reason, some of them are eager to make common cause with secular libertarians, who often despise Jesus Christ and the Bible and who support clear violations of God’s moral law like same-sex marriage and other extramarital consensual sexuality, which God abominates (Heb. 13:4).  These Christian politicos hate the state, and therefore make common cause with libertines.  They are so afraid of Stalin that they leap into bed with the Marquis de Sade. They don’t seem to understand that individual liberty minus Biblical Christianity equals libertinism, against which God promises judgment (Gal. 6:8).

If there is to be a libertarianism at all, it must be an explicitly Christian libertarianism.  I’m sure that I didn’t invent that moniker, and if I knew where I first heard it, I’d give due credit, but people seem to think I’m the modern source of it.  In any case, we are Christians first, not libertarians (or anything else) first.  If that Bible-shaped Faith leads to generally libertarian conclusions, well and good.  But if the Bible taught state socialism, I’d be socialist (it emphatically does not, and so I am not). The issue is Jesus Christ and the Faith and the Bible, not politics as such.

The Christian stake in politics is, first — always first — to disciple all nations (Mt. 28:18–20) in the Gospel of Christ, the message that his death on the Cross (1 Pet. 3:18) and his victorious resurrection (Rom. 4:25) save all who believe in and submit to him (Rom. 10:13).  As individuals trust and submit, they reorder their lives in accord with his Word (Phil. 2:12–13).  We pray that the state stays out of the way so that we can live a peaceful life under Jesus Christ’s authority (1 Tim. 2:1–2). In democracies we employ our vote and discourse to bring all of life, including politics, steadily under God’s righteous standards (1 Pet. 2:16).  That includes, among other factors, maximum individual liberty under God’s law (this is how I defined “Christian libertarianism” in my article 15 years ago).  Individual liberty is not a stand-alone virtue.  It is a virtue only as it’s subordinated to Jesus’ gospel and God’s law.  Liberty without God is vice, and it leads to enslavement (Rom. 6:16).  To repeat: individual liberty minus Biblical Christianity equals libertinism.  We must be Christians, and we should be Christian libertarians, but we cannot be libertarians who also happen to be Christians.

I warned recently about political salvation, or messianic politics, which is generally the province of liberals but can ensnare conservatives as well.  Let’s never assume that if we just got rid of an onerous state and got back to unfettered liberty for any action that doesn’t harm anybody else, we’d have a really great society.  We wouldn’t.  Man needs salvation from sin, the greatest slavery of all (2 Tim. 2:26).  Only Jesus Christ provides this salvation.  And only the gospel furnishes true freedom (Jn. 8:36).

Jesus saves.  Politics doesn’t.

Boys, This Ain’t Scholarship

Posted on April 17, 2012

I’m not going to interact with the substance of Robert Godfrey’s and Mike Horton’s breezy responses to John Frame’s The Escondido Theology (just as they didn’t interact with the substance of Frame’s book), but I can’t pass up a “teaching moment” (as we say these days) to those onlookers who might want to learn a thing or two about scholarship — and substandard scholarship.

First, read this from Godfrey, the main point of his response to Frame:

Perhaps the simplest way to do that [“set the record straight”] is to refer to the thirty-two bullet points with which John has summarized our views at the beginning of the book (pp. xxxvii-xxxix).  He introduces these bullet points by claiming: “Below are some assertions typical of, and widely accepted among, Escondido theologians.  Not all of them make all of these assertions, but all of them regard them with some sympathy” (p,xxxvii).  In response all of us on the WSC faculty wish to state clearly that we reject all of these thirty-two points as a fair or accurate presentation of our views…. In relation to most of John’s bullet points we believe and teach the very opposite of what is attributed to us.

Similarly, Horton writes:

Do not assume that if you’ve read The Escondido Theology you actually have any grasp of what I or any of us [sic] teach at Westminster Seminary California.

Frame’s book is comprised almost entirely of extensive and intensive book reviews from current Westminster Seminary California (WSC) faculty.  They are not PR notices (like Godfrey’s presidential response) nor are they a list of disputed categories with sprinkled comments (like Horton’s response).  They are weighty, analytical, documented book reviews.  They take the authors’ leading arguments seriously and critically interact with those arguments.  They agree with the authors on some points and disagree on other points.  In other words, they are standard, scholarly book reviews.

Now consider what Godfrey is saying in his response to these reviews.  A scholar and former long-standing faculty member interacts critically and analytically with prime works by the leading members of the WSC faculty, and that reviewer manages not only to unfairly or inaccurately depict every single one of thirty-two of their positions, but manages in addition, to portray their views as “the very opposite” of what they believe.  In Horton’s language, you wouldn’t “have any grasp of what I or any of us teach at Westminster Seminary California” (emphasis supplied).

What’s so Bizarre 

If you’ll think about it, this defense borders on the bizarre. Most disagreeing responses to scholarly book reviews go something like this: “The reviewer understood most of my views, misunderstood others, and he is wrong in his opposition to my views, and here’s why; and his misunderstandings of certain of my views are irrelevant because I simply don’t hold those views.”  That is a credible disagreeing rejoinder to book reviewers, and scholars do it all the time.  If the author is humble and interested in getting at the truth, he might even say, “The reviewer make some good points, and I’ll re-think my views in light of them.”

Never in all my years (many years now) of reading authors’ responses to reviews of their books have I read, “The reviewer misunderstood or misinterpreted or unfairly or inaccurately characterized every single one of my views that he discussed.”

This line of reasoning has an air of unreality about it.  If a reviewer unfairly or inaccurately characterizes every single position of the book(s) — a whopping thirty-two in this case, not two or three, which is not entirely uncommon, but thirty-two — there is something more than ordinary misunderstanding going on.  The reviewer is either so dense that he cannot understand arguments, or he is deliberately twisting the book’s arguments.  In commonsense parlance, “Two’s a coincidence, but three’s a trend.”

Please understand what Godfrey is saying: “John Frame, a Princeton- and Yale- (and Westminster- ) trained theologian-philosopher, founding and longtime faculty member at our very institution, author of massive tomes on systematics and all sorts of other topics (much more than any current WSC faculity member), widely recognized as a rigorous thinker steeped in the best of the analytical philosophical tradition that prizes clarity and analysis, has managed to unfairly or inaccurately characterize every single position of ours — count ’em, thirty-two — that he addressed.”  Or Horton: “Do not assume that if you’ve read The Escondido Theology you actually have any grasp of what I or any of us teach at Westminster Seminary California.” Any grasp?

Now if this is the case, there are two — and only two — explanations: either Frame is dense — no scholar at all, in fact — or else he has intentionally mischaracterized the WSC views and is therefore an immoral liar.  Frame is either stupid or sinister.

If any faculty at any credible college or university received a book by a prominent scholar at a sister institution reviewing five or six books of its leading scholars, and the faculty all said, with one voice, “He has unfairly or inaccurately characterized every single position of ours, making it appear that we teach the exact opposite of what we actually think, and you could not get any grasp of what we actually teach by reading these reviews” they’d be laughed right out of their mahogany paneled offices.  It does not happen, and could not happen.

Except at Westminster Seminary in California.

Young scholars and students, let this be a lesson to you: if you ever have the fortune of having your book reviewed by a world-renowned scholar, and you don’t like what he says, don’t respond by saying, “He didn’t understand a thing I said, and he perverted everything I said into its very opposite.”

Not, at least, if you wish to be taken seriously.

But implicitly accusing reviewers of either massive ignorance or malevolent intent seems to be quite acceptable at WSC.  That’s not the way actual scholars interact with one another in the real world.

I myself am no great scholar and never claimed to be.  But I have read great scholarship for many years.  I know scholarship when I see it.

And, boys, this ain’t scholarship.

Crusading Christianity

Posted on April 15, 2012

Passion for Catholicity

In recent years I’ve tried to make a chief feature of my ministry catholicity, specifically, orthodox Christians working together for wholesale reformation.  Culture-reclaiming Christians committed to Biblical authority, the apostolic Gospel, and historic orthodoxy should not allow their secondary differences to divide them.  The stakes are too high; our culture is too decadent for us Biblical Christians to wallow in nit-picking sectarianism and divert ourselves from the collective task to press the Lordship of Christ in all of life.  Catholicity for cultural change is a cornerstone of Biblical faith.

Tenacity for Truth

But culture-avoiding sectarianism is not the only danger confronting us.  We now encounter a massive defection — there is perhaps no better expression for it — from Biblical Faith in formerly orthodox, Bible-believing corners: among the evangelicals.  This is not a “crisis” that I have manufactured; it is evident to all who have open eyes and objective minds.  Nor should this defection surprise us.  A pervasive example of naiveté, as David Wells has noted, is the idea that great decadence can never emerge within the church.  This sunny notion is patently false, as the history of Christianity, certainly the Christianity of the 20th century, abundantly testifies.  Three quick examples of today’s defection will support my point:

Example # 1:  You may have heard about the group “Evangelicals for Obama” with which prominent “post-conservative” Christians are bandwagoning.  Franky Schaeffer, late Francis’ son, supports Obama because Franky is so pro-life.  But Obama, you may be thinking, is thoroughly and eagerly pro-abortion.  What, then, is Franky is trying to say?  In essence that Obama is a politician who is “full of life” [!]. But endorsing the legality of the murder of preborn children is no celebration of life, no matter who’s spinning the PR.  Tony Jones, at the vanguard of the Emergent (and Emerging?) Movement, has also endorsed Obama, as have a number of other younger evangelicals.

These Christians and those like them tend to decry the captivity of evangelicals by the Christian Right and the Republican Party, their new whipping boys.  Well, I agree with that caveat.  Christians must ever and always be captive to Jesus Christ and His infallible Word, not to political parties or ideologies.  But to say that Christians should not be captive to a political ideology is not to say (a) that free markets are no less Biblically justifiable than socialism, (b) that the burden of the American “Black experience” is a valid explanation for the inane and hysterical rants of Barak Obama’s long-time pastor Jeremiah Wright, and (c) that supporting an aggressive pro-abortion candidate (like Obama) is ethically preferable to supporting a pro-life foreign-policy-hawk candidate (whoever he may be).  But this is just what a growing number of evangelicals are saying or implying.

Example # 2:  Fuller Seminary New Testament Professor Marianne Meye Thompson writes in the Winter 2008 issue of the Seminary’s house organ Theology, News & Notes: “[T]he inerrancy of Scripture . . .  has at times been taken by some [sic!] to be essential to an ‘evangelical’ doctrine of Scripture, but . . . others, including Fuller Seminary, have not deemed [inerrancy] to be helpful in coming to terms with the phenomena of Scripture or its authoritative function for faith and practice” (p. 12).  While no thoughtful Christian should bow to a form of Biblical inerrancy that subordinates it to categories of thought alien to the Bible itself, it is remarkable how easily more and more evangelicals are surrendering the classical confidence in the full trustworthiness of the Bible under the pressures of modernity and postmodernity.  Should we be surprised if in 50 years their institutional heirs have given up on the authority of the Bible altogether (just as happened in nearly all the major Protestant denominations)?  Must not the Bible be truthful to be divinely authoritative?

Example # 3:  In the long-awaited symposium from the Emergent Movement, An Emergent Manifesto of Hope (Baker Books, 2007), edited by Tony Jones and by Doug Pagitt, contributor Samir Selmanovic writes that for too long Christianity has been influential in the West.  It now needs to fail.  (Read that line again.)  For too long Christianity has insisted that one must trust in Jesus Christ to obtain eternal life; this dogmatic insistence just plain turns people off, and we must get rid of it.  We follow Jesus best (so goes the logic) by not insisting that people trust in Jesus Christ.   Selmanovic argues that Christians must “reinterpret the Bible, reconstruct the theology, and reimagine the church to match the character of God that we as followers of Christ [presumably, people who agree with him] have come to know” (p. 191).  In other words, human experience must be the new criterion for Christian belief and practice.  No theological liberal ever said it better.

In the same volume, gadfly Brian McLaren savages Western Christianity for its “colonialism” and reprimands the United States for its material wealth, suggesting that “[w]e are rich in resources gained at the expense of the colonized” (p. 150).  The fact that he has not learned even the most basic economic fact that free trade is never a zero-sum game but that it enriches all parties involved never seems to have stopped McLaren from his demonstrably spurious utterances.  They do, however, find enthusiastic reception among young, white, guilt-ridden evangelicals who never studied basic economics — and seemingly do not know what the Bible teaches on these topics.

Evangelicalism has gone soft at its core, and it’s in danger of rotting away.

Liberalism on the Cheap

These examples highlight today’s poorly concealed revival of the old Protestant liberalism among the evangelicals without, as John Frame has noted, the intellectual firepower of the older liberalism.   Much of today’s evangelicalism is liberalism on the cheap.

The problem isn’t that these Christians aren’t culturally relevant; they’re increasingly relevant.  The problem is that they’re culturally relevant in injurious ways.  Transformed Christians must be transformed from their accommodation to the world spirit (Francis — not Franky — Schaffer warned of this danger 20 years ago) and to the mind of the Spirit disclosed in God’s infallible Word (Rom. 12:1-2).

The present evangelical crop has things just backwards: they live in conceptual and ethical accommodation to the world.  The next generation is in danger today of losing the Faith.

What Zealous Christians Do About the Defection

I am haunted by words I once read from an old, stodgy — but faithful — preacher I knew:  “You cannot preserve a position without crusading for it.”  I thought at the time, “This sounds unnecessarily combative and just isn’t true.  After all, you don’t need to crusade for the Trinity to preserve it, do you?”

But, no longer a young man, I have now lived long enough to observe the trends of conservative Christianity and learned (painfully) the element of the truth in this old preacher’s words.   One generation obtains through great combat and suffering the spiritual capital that the next generation squanders in its diffident accommodation to the world spirit.

The heart of the problem is a heart problem: drifting away from unalloyed devotion to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.  Pleasing the world and man rather than pleasing God.  Lusting for success rather than living in faithfulness.  Increasingly accommodating to forms of the world spirit.

Amid this accommodation, I refuse to go down without a fight.  I intend to intensify my prophetic trumpet blast to greater Biblical fidelity and devotion to Jesus Christ and His infallible Word without which godly cultural reclamation is a mirage.

  

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