Transforming Christians to Transform Culture

The Secular Regime

Posted on August 18, 2016

secular-believers

 

We live in a radically and increasingly secular society. This secularization has several prominent historical roots, and it would be reductionist to attribute it to only factor. My point isn’t so much to offer a genealogy, however, but a brief diagnosis.

First, we need to know what secularism is.

Secularism Defined

Secularization doesn’t mean that people no longer believe in God. It means that people no longer believe that God has any interest in culture. “[T]he process of secularization,” states Christopher Dawson, “arises not from the loss of faith but from the loss of social interest in the world of faith. It begins the moment men feel that religion is irrelevant to the common way of life and that society as such has nothing to do with the truths of faith.”[1] It’s possible for many people in a society to believe in God and Christianity and still live in a secular society. This is precisely the case in the West, and even in North America. Secularization isn’t the conviction that God doesn’t exist (it isn’t the same as theoretical atheism). It’s the idea that God doesn’t exist in any influential way in a society. Cultural secularists are rarely interested in what we’d call metaphysical issues; they just don’t want God or any religion crimping their style, and especially their sex lives. Secularization is the abolition of the Triune God from everywhere except between anybody’s two ears or, at best, the family, and the church between 10:00 a.m. and noon on Sunday. Secularization means that God and Christianity simply have no official or formal bearing (and have, in fact, practically no bearing at all) on politics, education, art, science, architecture, music, technology, media and so on.

Plausibility Structure

This secularism has created a massive plausibility structure. By that I mean, it has remanded Christian truth as culturally relevant to the far reaches of society. It has de-privileged Christian discourse. It has ruled it not wrong, but simply out of bounds. Secularism is a faith so widespread that it no longer needs to be defended or even promoted tenaciously. Almost everybody holds it, and to believe differently is not so much to be opposed as to be ignored. Racial equality (for example) is part of our plausibility structure (it also happens to be biblically correct). People today in the West who claim that Whites or Asians are superior to Blacks or Hispanics aren’t persecuted; they are ignored as kooks and cranks. Yet 250 years ago, this was an idea that was hotly disputed in the populace, including by educated elites. By contrast, if you say today that marijuana should be legalized, you’ll get a real fight on your hands. That’s because pot legalization is not a segment of the plausibility structure like racial equality is.

Secularization is one of the great plausibility structures of our time, and perhaps the chief one. If you contend that Christianity in the West should govern science and music and politics and education and sports and architecture and music (say, like it did 400 years ago), people will say, in effect, “This is the kind of arrangement they have in Islamic societies; nobody here believes that. Please get a life and leave the rest of us alone. You’re delusional. Do you also believe in the tooth fairy?” The fact that it is secularists who would have been deemed delusional 400 years ago shows how plausibility structures can change dramatically over time. In 1613 Christian culture was the rule. In 2013 it is not an exception; it is unthinkable.

The Tyranny of the Majority

I think immediately of the haunting prediction of Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America. He was the famous Frenchman who visited the States in the 19th century. He was a keen observer of the United States, and many of his predictions have uncannily proven true. He writes of the “tyranny of the majority.” This is a tyranny in democratic states that is more dangerous than the tyranny of the old despots. He writes:

Fetters [chains] and headsmen [executioners] were the coarse instruments that tyranny formerly employed; but the civilization of our age has perfected despotism itself, though it seemed to have nothing to learn. Monarchs had, so to speak, materialized oppression; the democratic republics of the present day have rendered it as entirely an affair of the mind as the will which it is intended to coerce. Under the absolute sway of one man the body was attacked in order to subdue the soul; but the soul escaped the blows which were directed against it and rose proudly superior. Such is not the course adopted by tyranny in democratic republics; there the body is left free, and the soul is enslaved. The master no longer says: “You shall think as I do or you shall die”; but he says: “You are free to think differently from me and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but you are henceforth a stranger among your people. You may retain your civil rights, but they will be useless to you, for you will never be chosen by your fellow citizens if you solicit their votes; and they will affect to scorn you if you ask for their esteem. You will remain among men, but you will be deprived of the rights of mankind. Your fellow creatures will shun you like an impure being; and even those who believe in your innocence will abandon you, lest they should be shunned in their turn. Go in peace! I have given you your life, but it is an existence worse than death.”[2]

Secularization is the “tyranny of the majority.” It is a huge hindrance to Christian culture because its hostility is so invisible — it’s how the majority peacefully tyrannizes Christians. As long as it remains invisible, it’s very safe in its pernicious depredations. You’ve perhaps heard the Chinese proverb, “If you want a definition of water, don’t ask a fish.” The point is that once we invest in plausibility structures, it becomes very hard to evaluate them. The advantage of work by unbelieving scholars like Stanley Fish[3] (no pun intended) and Christian scholars like Herman Dooyeweerd [4] is to rip the mask off the pretended autonomy of modern faiths like secularism. The alleged bonanza of secularism is its reputation as a neutral, rational arbiter among competing worldviews. It sets the ground rules of all social debates. All worldviews have vested interests and agendas, and secularism assures they treat each other fairly in public discourse.

Secularism’s Secret

The secret that secularism (and secularists) can’t afford to have exposed is that secularism is itself a worldview and a rapacious, unrelenting one at that. Its goal isn’t the fair assessment of all viewpoints (a creditable goal) but rather the subordination and marginalization of any viewpoint hostile to secularism — especially Christianity. Secularism doesn’t protect freedom of religion, but assaults religious ethics and even its symbols in the “public” sphere (like manger scenes and displays of the Ten Commandments). Secularism doesn’t protect freedom of speech, but penalizes speech (like support for marriage and condemnation of homosexuality) not conforming to its worldview.[5] Secularism doesn’t protect freedom of property, but confiscates property for the purpose of financing its social agenda (“public” schools). Secularism is a lot of things; neutral isn’t one of them.

Secularism is an almost impregnable hindrance to Christian culture, and it will remain impregnable until Christians — and others — discover how false its benign pretensions really are.


[1]Christopher Dawson, The Historic Reality of Christian Culture, 19.
[2] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/1_ch15.htm, accessed October 12, 2013.
[3] Stanley Fish, “Why Liberalism Doesn’t Exist,” There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech … And It’s a Good Thing, Too (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 134–138.
[4] Herman Dooyeweerd, The Twilight of Western Thought, 54.
[5] Manny Fernandez, “San Antonio Passes Far-Reaching Antidiscrimination Measure,” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/06/us/san-antonio-passes-far-reaching-antidiscrimination-measure.html?_r=0, accessed October 12, 2013.

Marriage: Communion, Community, Cosmology

Posted on August 7, 2016

Homily for the wedding of our son Richard A. Sandlin and new daughter-in-law Samantha Matheson, July 23, 2016, Grace Church-Vancouver, Canada

 

 

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Introduction

 

“The history of the human race begins with a wedding.”[1] If we’re under the impression that marriage is a casual, carefree legal arrangement, we’d do well to ponder that fact. Every human, with rare exception, was created for marriage. The creation of man and woman is inextricably linked to marriage. To be created as human is (in most every case) to be created for marriage.

 

God created humanity in his own image, but he didn’t create just one — a male or a female. A single individual wouldn’t have fully reflected that image. Man and woman both, in complement, comprehensively reflect God’s image. A man alone or a woman alone can’t fully display the image of God. In marriage, humanity most spectacularly images God. Adam must have Eve; Eve must have Adam. Together they embody and exhibit the divine image as fully as a creature can.

 

Marriage is communion, marriage is community, and marriage is cosmology.

 

Communion

 

The Trinity — God the Father, Son and Spirit, God as one nature in three persons — enjoyed infinite, eternal, blissful communion. Their communion was so indescribably joyous, that they decided to share it. God is not stingy. That’s why he created man and woman. The eternal communion of the triune God expands outward to man in time and history. Man and woman now share in the communal life of the triune God.

 

But communion with God wasn’t sufficient for Adam. God can’t meet — and was never meant to meet — the man’s entire needs. The man needed the woman. To revise Tom Wolfe, a man without a woman is a man in half.

 

So the male and female don’t each commune only with God. They commune with one another. Marriage is the co-mingling of faith, love, hope, dreams, children, possessions, and lives. St. Paul tells us that just as the church is mystically united to Jesus, so the husband is mystically united to his wife. There’s an ontological union in marriage whose mystical depths none of us can fully grasp. But as the woman and man join in marriage, they become bone of bone and flesh of flesh; in some mysterious way they become one being before the Lord.

 

Marriage is communion.

 

Community

 

Moreover, marriage is community. Since God is a community (the Trinity), and since man and woman in marriage fully display God’s image, marriage is a community.

 

The entrance of sin into the world didn’t erase that community. God’s objective is to redeem that community, and all communities. The community of marriage is an integral part of the community of redemption. The apostle Paul wrote in the book of Ephesians that the husband and wife symbolize Christ and his church. Just as the husband lays down his very life for his wife, so our Lord laid down his life for the church. That community, the bride, is washed in the atoning blood of Jesus Christ, the groom. All who trust in him by simple faith become part of that community, the church. The church submits to her Lord, as the bride submits to the groom. The groom loves and cherishes the bride, as Jesus Christ loves and cherishes his church.

 

We live in times that champion radical individual autonomy. It always ends in loneliness, alienation and despair. Why? Because humanity was created for loving, self-sacrificial community, not for radical individual autonomy.

 

In the church, and in the wider Christian community, the community of marriage finds its fullest fulfillment. The church loves and nourishes and encourages and corrects and disciples the marriages in its midst. Just as man and woman weren’t designed each to be alone, so marriages were not designed to be alone. The Christian community is God’s great sustenance and bulwark for marriage. Marriage is community — and is itself designed for community.

 

Cosmology

 

Finally, marriage, the union (and communion, and community) of man and woman before God, is woven into the creational cosmos. It’s every bit God’s ordinance that the physical laws of gravity and propulsion are. It’s not a historically evolving, legally malleable, casually optional social construction. It’s rooted in the world’s creation order.

 

As a divine ordinance, it’s calculated to contribute to the smooth, organic existence of the cosmos. To our first parents God gave what we call the cultural mandate: to steward the rest of creation for God’s glory. Man and woman are God’s deputies in this world.

 

But not man and woman as separate, autonomous creatures. Rather, it is man and woman in marriage that fulfill (despite the effects of sin) God’s plan to steward this splendorous, awe-inspiring creation to glorify him.

 

This is why marriage is a permanent component of cosmology. Our world was created to be stewarded by humanity in the ordinance of marriage: the man and woman united in oath-bound covenant before the triune God.

 

And this is equally why the erosion of marriage necessitates the erosion of the created order itself. To preserve and perpetuate and promote marriage is to preserve and perpetuate and promote the world itself. The simple word of “yes” or “no” by the bride at the altar not only shapes and reshapes human history. It also, and more importantly, cultivates and nurtures and perpetuates the very cosmos itself.[2] The married man and woman cultivate the cosmos for God’s glory; and without marriage, the cultivation of the cosmos would finally fail. (This is why, by the way, despite the blistering assaults on it, marriage will not finally fail.)

 

It is for this reason that the most momentous event today in Vancouver occurs not in the ivory halls of government edifices, or in the opulent boardrooms of high finance, but in this solemn, sacred service before God.

 

Here. Now. Today. We are witnessing a world historical event.


[1] Herman Bavinck, The Christian Family (Grand Rapids: Christian’s Library Press, 2012), 1.
[2] I take the basic idea from Eugene Rosenstock-Huessy, Out of Revolution (Norwich, Vermont: Argo Books, 1969), 9.

Racist Democrats and Crooked Clintons: A Review of Dinesh D’Souza’s “Hillary’s America”

Posted on August 4, 2016

 

Hillarys-America

 

Long-time friend David Souther once told me that whenever there’s a radical discrepancy between the verdicts of the critics and those of the commoners on the popular movie review site Rotten Tomatoes, you should safely go with the commoners. This is certainly the case with Dinesh D’Souza’s explosive new (and highly successful) documentary Hillary’s America: The Secret Life of the Democratic Party. At this writing, the certification is 4% fresh for the critics and 80% fresh for the commoners, the greatest discrepancy I’ve ever seen.

 

The commoners are mostly right, but the critics are not entirely wrong.

 

D’Souza, convicted of campaign finance violations in helping a friend’s failed political quest, served the evenings of eight months in prison and must fulfill five years of community service for his crime. D’Souza claims he was unfairly targeted by the Obama administration, whose namesake he had himself targeted in his highly successful 2012 documentary Obama’s America. D’Souza’s thesis in that movie, based on his book of the same title, is that Obama’s goal has been the dismantling of American influence in the world and the diminution of prosperity at home. D’Souza flatly — and correctly — asserts that the ensuing four years have verified his thesis. On the basis of that fulfilled prediction, D’Souza now turns his attention more broadly to the Democratic Party and to its 2016 presidential nominee.

 

In Hillary’s America, D’Souza parlays his prison experience into an explanation for the Democratic Party’s agenda to control America and impose its radical agenda. Like the cons D’Souza met in prison who concoct unscrupulous schemes to bilk the naïve out of their money, the Democrats are pulling the wool over the eyes of simple Americans and pilfering their way of life. Their goal is to divert America from its heritage and rob Americans of their country.

 

The Not-So-Secret History of the Democratic Party

 

D’Souza begins with “the secret history of the Democratic Party,” exhibiting its roots in Andrew Jackson’s inveterate racism, slavery support, and sexual exploits. He also reminds viewers that it was the Democrats that sequestered Native Americans on reservations and in effect launched the KKK. He equally indicts the Democrats in Congress in both the 19th and 20th centuries for their persistent support of slavery and, after the Civil War, their staunch anti-black sentiments. He documents Democratic President Woodrow Wilson’s widely attested but less-mentioned racism, and he notes that more congressional Republicans voted for the 1960’s civil rights legislation than Democrats.

 

D’Souza links the Democrats’ racist past with the present by suggesting that today’s slavery plantations are the black ghettos, where the party essentially provides social programs in exchange for minority votes. D’Souza argues that the reason blacks today vote so overwhelmingly for Democrats is FDR’s New Deal, which assisted them economically at a time they were impoverished. It has nothing to do with the party’s movement away from racism, which persists. D’Souza contrasts the GOP, a party begun as a protest to slavery and which has constantly countered the Democratic Party’s racist sentiment and policies before, during, and after the Civil War.

 

One of the most riveting scenes of the movie is the interview with Vanderbilt’s African-American professor Carol Swain, who left the Democrats after researching the racist roots and subsequent flowering of it in the party of the vast majority of her fellow African-Americans. The Democratic Party is pulling a big con, positioning itself as the altruistic party of racial minorities and their interests when it’s anything but (D’Souza himself is an Indian-born American).

 

Hillary in America

 

D’Souza breaks off his exposé of the Democratic Party to unmask Hillary Clinton, whom he links with the self-serving, mob-inspired radical Saul Alinsky. Hillary, a “Goldwater girl” in her youth, was radicalized by Alinsky as a college student and brought him to her alma mater Wellesley College to speak. D’Souza claims that even in her college and law school days she was aware she had mediocre political instincts, so she latched onto tall, popular fellow student Bill Clinton. She saw her role as providing the (radical) political philosophy, and Bill as providing the popularity and political success. D’Souza argues that Hillary has always tolerated Bill’s numerous sexual dalliances because the marriage is one of political convenience. This explains why Hillary vilifies all the women who claim they were bedded or even raped by Bill Clinton, and why Hillary herself once seemed to make light of an accused rapist whom she was appointed to defend even though she believed him guilty.

 

D’Souza takes aim at the Clinton Foundation, notably its alleged fraud in its fundraising for Haiti and its quid pro quo influence peddling for a Canadian businessman and one of their big donors.

 

If Americans expect to preserve their country, they must wrestle it away from the Democrats and Hillary Clinton.

 

He’s right about that.

 

This commoner critic’s criticisms

 

Hillary’s America is far from flawless, however, though the defects do not diminish the impact of the movie’s factual content. Still, they are well worth mentioning.

 

First, D’Souza does not create a logical or even artistic link between the racism of the Democratic Party and the crookedness of Hillary Clinton. In fact, it seemed at times as though I were watching two one-hour movies rather one two-hour movie.

 

Second, D’Souza launches the movie with another attempt to vindicate himself in his own legal case, despite the fact that he pleaded guilty. True or not, the notion that the Left targeted him for prosecution does nothing to bolster his case against the Democratic Party and Clinton.

 

Third, D’Souza engages in gratuitous motive questioning. For example, he states that Clinton became disengaged from the notorious Benghazi debacle because there was no money in it for her. Where he came up with this idea or how he could prove it is beyond me.

 

Fourth, Hillary’s America offers a whiff of conspiracy thinking, an odor D’Souza actively cultivates. In his visit the DNC headquarters to uncover the real truth about the party, we see D’Souza furtively slipping into an off-limits door to enter the basement, where allegedly the hidden, damaging documentation is found. The irony is that most assertions he makes about the party are readily discoverable, and that is why in this review I never included a spoiler alert: there is no concealed plot to spoil. Everything he reveals as a secret history is as secret as a sixty-second Google search of D’Souza’s legal problems.

 

Finally, in the beginning of Hillary’s America, D’Souza declares that the Left in the Democratic Party is dedicated to controlling every aspect of the lives of every American. That thesis is far from far-fetched. Unfortunately, D’Souza doesn’t attempt to link his documentary research with that thesis. Apparently we’re left to assume that political racists, sexists and influence peddlers want to steal America. That thesis may be true (I think it is), but it’s far from self-evident. Here D’Souza missed a major opportunity to make a major case.

 

Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party is at its best when it documents the racism and sexism of the Democratic Party and the crookedness of Hillary Clinton, and it’s at its worst when it postulates unconfirmable motives and conspiracy theories that only undermine its case among reasonable people and when it fails to connect the dots between bold assertions and facts that support them.

 

That’s a pity, because Hillary Clinton is bad for America, and the evils of the Democratic Party are no secret.

Cultural Truth Is Ecclesiastical Truth

Posted on July 4, 2016

The Modern Church

 

“Culture,” Henry Van Til memorably wrote, “is religion externalized.”[1] It’s the outward, external manifestation of the internal religious impulse driving and shaping a society. If you want to know what a society’s dominant religion is, look at its culture. Unfortunately, the Western church in recent decades hasn’t always been perceptive or relevant in assessing the culture in which God placed it. Much of that failure is rooted in diffidence toward culture. Culture just isn’t worth bothering about.

 

Dividing Gospel from Culture  

 

The propensity to sequester God’s truth for culture from his truth in the church is becoming harmfully common. The formerly orthodox Christ Church-San Francisco abandoned its requirement of celibacy for those members inclined toward or committed to homosexuality.[2] The reason? Their previous (biblical) policy of not permitting practicing homosexuals as members was “not necessarily the way of the gospel.” In turning from biblical truth, however, they turned away from the gospel. The gospel is family truth (God is our Father and Jesus is our elder brother; the Father adopts children into his family; Jesus is the groom and his church is the bride). Gospel truth necessitates family truth. You cannot be wrong about the family and right about the gospel — and to accept homosexuality as Christian is to be wrong about the family.

 

Today, in an effort to create a consensus in our culturally chaotic times, the attitude of many church leaders, including professed evangelicals, is: “We want to keep close to the gospel and not alienate members, present and potential, by addressing cultural issues. If we just peach the gospel, we can avoid the divisiveness that introducing cultural issues fosters. We want to be Gospel-centered and not trifle with culture.” The problem is that the cultural issues they are studiously avoiding cannot be severed from the gospel. To be gospel-centered is to be culture-concerned.

 

The Objective of the Gospel

 

The objective of the gospel is to defeat sin and its consequences wherever and whenever they are found. “The sweep of redemption is as comprehensive as the sweep of sin.”[3] The protevangelium, the first gospel promise in Genesis 3:15, speaks of the seed of the woman (Jesus Christ) crushing the head of the seed of the Satanic serpent. The gospel is not only a message of individual salvation; it is also a message of cultural reclamation. The good news is about salvation from all sin, not just individual and private sin like pride, lust, prayerlessness, and unbelief. For the church to labor for the sanctification of its members from these sins but not more pubic and visible and social sins is not to live in the fullness of the biblical gospel.

 

The old covenant prophets routinely thundered against the cultural evils in the ancient Jewish church and society.

 

In his first sermon as Messiah at his hometown Nazareth, our Lord invoked the Hebrew Scriptures to identify his ministry as not merely rescuing individual sinners but also overturning cultural evil.[4]

 

Paul confronts the cultural evils of the magic arts and commerce derived from idolatry while preaching at Ephesus (Ac. 19). He preached the gospel of the kingdom, which is the gospel of the reign of God in the earth:[5] his reign over all things, including culture.

 

The message of Revelation to the seven churches of Asia Minor is suffused in warnings about and denunciations of imperial Rome and all of its seductive but oppressing cultural depravities.[6]

 

Confronting All Sin Everywhere

 

The gospel of Jesus Christ is calculated to confront and expose all sin everywhere and to restore God’s justice, his rightness, in the earth. For church leaders not to decry (for example) abortion, homosexuality (and all other extramarital sex), machismo, feminism, state socialism, covetous consumerism, and military pacifism is to say that some sins are not the gospel’s target of destruction. For ministers blithely to accept members who unrepentantly practice or advocate these and other cultural sins without an attempt to persuade them to trust Jesus Christ for salvation is to stunt the gospel. To argue, “We have Obama and Trump and Sanders and Cruz supporters all in our congregation, and we have many shades of belief on Obamacare and the LGBT community and abortion and gun control, and we all live together as one big, happy family because we center on the gospel” is actually to practice a form of ethical syncretism. Make no mistake: the Bible permits (no, demands) tolerance and grace on issues that are secondary and unaddressed. You won’t find in the Bible what a nation’s capital gains taxes should be, whether energy companies should opt for natural gas or solar power, or when a family should or should not adopt children. But the most pressing cultural issues of our time do not fit into this classification; the Bible is quite clear, explicitly or implicitly, about excessive confiscatory taxation, abortion, homosexuality, judicial activism, property rights, euthanasia, parental authority, human egg harvesting, and religious liberty.

 

Getting Back to the Gospel-Centered Church

 

The churches that avoid biblically defined cultural issues under the mantra, “We need to get back to the gospel” have the mantra right but the meaning wrong. If our churches would only get back to the gospel of the Bible, the good news that God by means of the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is setting the world right, they would preach the convicting and healing and hopeful message to the proud and pharisaic, fornicators and adulterers, human egg harvesters and motherhood surrogates, the legalists and racists, socialists and authoritarians, feminists and abusers, and all other sinners.

 

Shying away from cultural issues is to omit a critical dimension of the gospel. It is neither brave nor beneficial. It might increase attendees but it will never increase God’s blessings. A chief calling of the church in culturally apostate times is to confront the apostasy with the gospel, living in glorious hope of great gospel victory in time and history.[7]

 

Hiding the culture-reclaiming gospel under a bushel is to succumb to ecclesial delinquency.

 


 

[1] Henry R. Van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1959, 2001), 179–189.
[2] Michael W. Hannon, “Against Heterosexuality,” http://www.firstthings.com/article/2014/03/against-heterosexuality, accessed July 4, 2016. There are only men and women. Humans are identified by God-given, creational biology, not by “sexual orientation.” I use the terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual” simply because of their popularity and currency.
[3] Cornelius Van Til, Christian Theistic Ethics (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980), 86-87.
[4] See Luke 4:19, in which Jesus claims to be preaching “the acceptable year of the Lord,” the OT Year of Jubilee (the canceling of debts and slavery), and God’s vengeance on the wicked nations oppressing the Jews. See Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972, 1997), 3:460.
[5] George E. Ladd, Crucial Questions About the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), 77-81.
[6] Henry Barclay Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d., third edition), lxxviii–xcviii.
[7] For an example of how to interpret the Bible optimistically in this way, see Roderick Campbell, Israel and the New Covenant (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1954).
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