Monday, April 26, 2010

And Looking to the Future...

My final (I think) description of how the characteristics of American culture affect American evangelicalism.
Future-oriented

American culture characteristically sets the near future as the focus of thinking and effort. Individuals choose their actions, and their actions today are important because of how they will affect that individual and his or her environment in the foreseeable future. If the goal of action is focused on the future event of glorification and new creation, this view can be readily incorporated with the Christian mindset of sacrifice and suffering that accepts them as worthwhile in light of the future glory that will result (Rom. 8:18). On the negative side, future-orientation makes it easy to forget to be grateful for God's past and present blessings. American Christians face the danger of living for an imagined future and neglecting the treasures and opportunities of the present.

A future-oriented society values things that are new and change that anticipates the needs of the future. This allows changes for the better to occur more easily and quickly than in past-oriented cultures. Conversion to Christ can occur much more smoothly, without the same level of struggle against the patterns of previous generations. If the conversion shows evidence of changing the near future for the better, than the patterns of the past can quickly be tossed aside. If one generation of the American church exhibits faulty thinking, the next generation is ripe for a message of change within the highly-self-critical, continually-contextualizing mindset of evangelicalism. While some Christian movements are barely catching up with one wave of trends, other voices are calling for a new barrage of changes to keep with the fast-moving culture around (and within) the church. This does not bring all good changes, however: some valuable and useful practices are also brushed aside in the forward press for new forms of contextualization.

One corollary of future-oriented thinking is a glorification of youth. “Reaching the next generation” and touching the lives of youth “because they are our future” are commonly used phrases within the American church. Leaders are frequently favored because of their youth and energy - sometimes so much that the more important qualities of proven Christian character and wisdom are examined less rigorously. Christian organizations readily accept the mindset that, if they are to continue to thrive, they must cater to the desires of a youthful target audience or constituency. Thus members of the church who have lived long and faithful lives of Christian service may be marginalized or forgotten because of the cultural perception that they have outlived their usefulness and have little value for the future. In the rush to rescue the “orphans” and build them into future leaders, the “widows" may be neglected (James 1:27), even though this evaluation of age and worth is not warranted by a biblical theology of the church.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Give me options! (Or at least let me think I have them)

The Power to Decide

While many cultures have social or communal ways of making decisions for an individual, American culture places the locus of decision squarely on the individual most affected by the decision. In the overwhelming majority of situations, a person has the final say in determining his or her actions and situations. Others give advice and information to aid in the process, but Americans adamantly desire - even demand - to make their own, individual decisions (or at least feel as if they are doing so). This makes it a natural and logical appeal to call a person to choose Christ instead of continuing in sin, unbelief or false religion. The New Testament’s portrayal of sin, faith and judgment as individual choice and consequence communicates readily to this culture. When a person is convinced of the guilt of sin, the choice to accept forgiveness is a logical next step. The American assumption which Stewart and Bennett label the “implied agent” (61-66) - the idea that every occurrence is connected to an agent that caused it - also makes it easy for judgment to be viewed as actions that result in personal guilt which deserves punishment.


The belief that actions should be controlled through highly personalized (and frequently self-centered) decision gives fertile ground for several problems in thinking about how people are related to God. One constant threat is worry about the future: an individual who is constantly causing things by every decision and action will surely be tempted to defy Christ’s teaching in Matthew 6:25-34 and worry about the outcomes. Thinking in terms of a "right" to choose can easily set a trajectory toward a false sense of being in control. The God of the Bible calls for unconditional trust and acknowledgement of his sovereignty, and an overweening tendency to proclaim cultural catch phrases like, “It’s my life” (as per Bon Jovi), “I Did It My Way” (Sinatra), or “I do whatever I feel like, gosh!” (Napoleon Dynamite) leaves an American Christian in a prideful and rebellious independence that is incompatible with a Christian worldview.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Busy, busy busy...

As a note on method: while evangelicals - and especially fundamentalists - have had a tendency to talk about culture only when it affects our Christianity negatively. If our cultural assumptions fall in line with Biblical priorities, we don't talk about the effects of culture; we just pat ourselves on the back with pride over how great we are as the church. Thus, we fail to notice the aspects of our culture that are helpful, and begin to think of culture as the problem instead of as a neutral medium. In these posts, I make an effort to balance positives and negatives of cultural characteristics. When something we believe is part of American culture that obviously doesn't mean it's right - but it doesn't mean it's wrong, either.

Task-oriented

The culture of the U.S. emphasizes accomplishments, work, numbers, and results. Americans value doing, and the more factual evidence we have that the action is yielding observable results, the better we feel about the actions. This results in a high value on activism and productivity. An effective evangelist, in this mindset, is one who can count a high number of people who made decisions for Christ. A pastor expects that if he does his job well, his church will grow in numbers. These expectations are met in some cases and are not entirely off-base, but quantitative measures alone do not adequately evaluate the qualitative progress that should be part of church life. Faithfulness, growth in character, building relationships, listening and observing are often not valued as highly as activities like running programs, staging events, and speaking to crowds, because the results of the former actions are less tangible.

This task-oriented view combines with America’s distinctive pragmatism to have a variety of effects. The focus on efficiency results in high output in terms of buildings, book and media output, and large-scale activities. It also results at times in viewing relationships as important primarily for the work that gets done as a result. I have found myself dramatically varying the amount of time I spend with people in my Christian community based on what we are working on together more than any other factor. We unite and put effort into our relationships because doing so is important to accomplishing a particular task. Networking and partnering with other churches and organizations views relationships as the key to greater effectiveness and results. According to doctrine, it is our union in the body of Christ that causes us to love, care for, and learn about each other. In reality, increased productivity often drives the connections we make.

Task-oriented pragmatism seems connected to a frequent lack of emphasis on aesthetics among evangelicals. Stewart and Bennett observe that “Americans focus on operational procedures rather than perceptions of the situation” (30), while other cultures spend more time talking about observations and descriptions of the people, places and situations involved. The American mindset assesses what resources and processes are most efficient for producing the greatest numerical results by communicating the facts of the gospel to the greatest possible number of people in the manner that yields the most public (i.e., recordable and countable) confessions of faith. Pouring time and resources into fine arts, architecture, and d├ęcor is usually valued only to the extent that it makes these activities effective, not for the sake of ideals like expressing truth and beauty in imaginative ways or reflecting the creative nature of God.

Pragmatism can easily lead to neglect of intellectual and historical foundations for Christianity as well. Being driven for numerical results and having an affinity for constant activity sometimes make time spent thinking, studying, and reflecting seem like a waste. While there are a number of evangelical groups that are exceptions, large swaths of American Christianity are colored with an anti-intellectual hue. As Charles Malik says, “Evangelicals are in a hurry to preach the gospel,...but ‘they have no idea of the infinite value of spending years of leisure in conversation with the greatest minds and souls of the past, and thereby ripening and sharpening and enlarging their powers of thinking.’” (Pearcey, 282) Undervaluing intellectual life in exchange for getting faster results raises questions about the true nature of the results. If church is done in a way that is disconnected from the lessons (both good and bad) of 2000 years of church history, is it really as close to the ideal as we would like to think? Are we not arrogant to think that we can interpret Scripture from a modern or postmodern American viewpoint without ever comparing it with the insights of the many good thinkers who have examined Scripture through the centuries? These are questions we must continually ask when tempted to follow the cultural impulse toward simply pushing ahead, running the risk in doing so of producing a great number of Christians with shallow knowledge and little sense of connection to a larger body.
1. Pearcey, Nancy. Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2004.
2. Stewart and Bennett. American Cultural Patterns: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Rev. Ed. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1991.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

American Culture and Christianity: More Stuff don't Make You More Better

One characteristic prevalent in American culture, and sometimes invisible to us, that affects how we view our faith is...

Materialism


America has supported, since the early days of its settlement by Europeans, a wealthy culture with a stable government and economic liberties, where hard work and good morals are much more likely to yield financial prosperity than in many nations. The culture places a high value on possessions, wealth, income and the comforts they give as evidences of success and status. The unprecedented economic mobility available in America provides opportunities that would be unthinkable in more static or stratified societies. The prosperity of our country presents an incredible opportunity to use our vast resources in worshipful Christian generosity. Sadly, the statistics show that professing Christians in the U.S. are far more likely to acquire more possessions and comforts than to give a significant percentage of their wealth. We are easily misled by the idea that more money and possessions make life better, so that we miss out on the blessing of choosing contentment and joy.


Our efforts to help the poor frequently are built on the assumption that money, possessions and technology ought to be bundled together in a package with the gospel. This mindset needs critique, however, as it reflects the cultural assumptions that increase in personal wealth is always a sign of progress. Introducing wealth in the wrong manner (e.g., along with consumerism) can be dangerous and destructive to relationships and attitudes emphasized in aChristian worldview that are already present in another culture. (As illustrated in this article) Linking economic prosperity to proper relationship with God can be supported by careful proof-texting, but does not line up with a well-rounded Biblical theology. Yet this link is easily taken for granted by affluent (by global comparison, if not by their own standards) American Christians. We ought to be thoughtful about how to share wealth with those in need and still affirm the relationships and attitudes that are emphasized in a Christian worldview rather than unwittingly conveying consumerist attitudes.


All of the material world was declared good as God created it, which allows us to accept the pleasure, goodness and beauty we find on earth as gifts of God. Because fallen man will abuse pleasures that were intended for good, self-control and discipline are distinctive parts of the Christian lifestyle. A worldview that condemns pleasure or views material things as inherently bad does not line up with the story of creation and its exposition throughout Scripture. Exalting pleasure as an end in itself fails to bring satisfaction, however, and sets a person on an idolatrous course, giving more value to stuff than to God. Where no clear guidelines are given, we must ask questions such as the following: Am I enjoying this as an act of worship to God, or am I allowing it to distract me from God? Am I enjoying this in a way that brings me closer to other believers and maintains an effective witness to the world around me? Each pleasure, each material blessing, each comfort that we receive should be accepted with gratitude as a gift from God, and offered in worship back to God, submitted to use for his glory and the service of others.


When prosperity comes to a Christian, it presents an opportunity to use our resources in worshipful generosity. As American believers, we must fight the cultural pressure to acquire more possessions and comforts rather than to sacrificially give a significant percentage of wealth. The blessing of choosing contentment and joy is important to the Christian way of life, regardless of one’s level of wealth.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Cultural Effects: The Right to Believe

Another characteristic of American culture, and how it affects our Christianity.

Individual Freedom of Conscience

American culture tends to think of religious experience as personal, private and largely emotional, while public, professional, and intellectual life are something separate from faith. This is part of the “separation of church and state” that, on the good side, allows for religious pluralism within the United States, so that forced conversions or persecution of members of other faiths is generally not part of the national history of the U.S. (the Mormons may object to this generalization). Christianity is allowed to develop a lifestyle and worldview among its members apart from the mandates of the government (though this lifestyle clearly has not occurred apart from the cultural influence of political theory and events).

This cultural characteristic is positive in a huge way: in the majority of human experience, religion has been taken as a legitimate cause for internal repression or outward aggression by rulers and their armies, occasionally out of misguided conviction, but more often, it seems, as a pretext for greed and power. The consistent call through the Old and New Testament to worship God from the heart, not merely with outward conformity, makes forced conversions unproductive, if not counterproductive, to shaping true followers of Christ.

The weakness that this tolerance can cause is accepting that their individual choice has no implications for public living, but only affects what a person does, as it were, “on his (or her) own time.” The basic Christian act of evangelism is attacked by some as improper, at least "in a professional setting." The frustrating and easily misdirected task of applying Christian principles to political action keeps believers swinging between alternating extremes of overemphasizing the political activism allowed in the American system and retreating from the governmental sector with the conclusion that faith belongs only in the private and social realm, and cannot be effectively applied in the political process.

A Christian view on freedom of conscience allows for dialogue, recognizes evangelism as distinctive to the Christian life, and acknowledges that God is the one who ultimately brings people to faith - state mandates or forced conversions will not bring about genuine belief by all who profess faith because it is necessary or advantageous. It allows the gospel to affect every area of our life - private, professional, public - without accepting the secular definition of tolerance that requires all to set aside a belief in truth and accept the dogma of relativism. As people in a fallen world, as citizens in a diverse nation, we allow those in false religion and unbelief to worship as they choose. As Christians, we work hard to persuade them of the truth with loving concern, recognizing that the right to believe whatever one chooses does not mean that whatever one chooses to believe is right.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Influence of (American) Culture Upon a Christian's Worldview

There will be more posts on this topic coming, looking at various distinctive elements of American culture, and how they affect our way of doing church and living our faith - some good, some bad.

The extent to which our culture shapes our perception of what it means to be a Christian can be quite surprising, and even unnerving. Yet discovering how culture influences our view of reality is highly valuable, as it is a step toward discovering the blind spots in our worldview. By understanding the distinctive elements of an American approach to life, we are in a better situation to evaluate whether the assumptions we identify contradict distinctively Christian thinking, and bring our lives into closer conformity with God's pattern, allowing for the beauty of cultural variety while accepting the universal claims God makes on his image-bearers. One of the distinctive elements of American culture is...

Individualism

The extreme concept of individual identity and right to self-determination dominates American culture. This sense of independence and personal rights distinguishes our culture from others, bringing positive and negative results. The stamp of the image of God on humanity gives value to every person, and a culture that affirms the dignity inherent in being a human individual fits with a Christian worldview. However, when a healthy concept of individuality progresses to become individualism, problems can occur. The effects of individualism on American Christianity are legion, and a few significant effects are discussed here.

The idea of a right to choose one’s own religion coupled with the desire to determine one’s own destiny has led evangelicals to incorporate Jeffersonian ideals into church structure. Nancy Pearcey observes that, during the Second Great Awakening, “The priesthood of all believers was taken to mean religion of the people, by the people, for the people” (275). This meant the rejection of traditional and hierarchical church structures as authoritative. Just as the nation rejected traditional forms for the “rule of law,” where a document (at least in principle) set the parameters for law, so evangelicals seek to go directly to the text of Scripture, individually determine its meaning, express a personal view, and vote or otherwise influence practice accordingly.

The result is congregational rule and a very loose view of membership: it is an at-will agreement for mutual benefit - result. Spiritual life is viewed as viable apart from a community: “In many churches, the individual alone with his Bible is regarded as the core of the Christian life” (Pearcey, 293). A church is thus viewed as the sum of its members, who are all basically equal. This implies that leaders can be removed easily if the people are unhappy with them - they are not entrenched with nearly the same firmness of authority as in traditional church structures, but are allowed to lead by the consent of the majority of the members.

A celebrity mindset has taken the place of the hierarchical structures rejected by most of American Christianity, so that celebrity status does more to determine the widespread influence of a church leader. This allows individuals to decide whether they like a leader or not based on charisma, dramatic ability, public image, and oratory, then freely make a choice whether or not to follow that leader’s influence. The choice can be reversed, and this kind of "following" does not usually mean incurring any obligation or membership commitment as part of an institution. This fits with the analysis of cultural anthropologists Stewart and Bennett that “Personal relations among Americans are adapted to gaining emotional benefits from social interaction while preserving independence and avoiding obligations” (89). Church affiliations are evaluated according to how well the church environment suits the individual, and are all too often treated with very little commitment to be involved and committed to life within that Christian community.

1. Pearcey, Nancy. Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity. Wheaton:
Crossway Books, 2004.
2. Stewart and Bennett. American Cultural Patterns: A Cross-Cultural
Perspective. Rev. Ed. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1991.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

What is spiritual growth?

I've contemplated over the past few years what exactly it means to grow spiritually. How should I evaluate progress in my Christian walk? At one point I evaluated my spiritual condition by whether I felt close to God and could sense his presence. But some times in life he feels very distant, yet I am growing in producing the fruits of salvation that the Bible speaks of: Christ-like character, perseverance in faith, and a worshipful attitude towards God (sometimes felt with awe and ecstasy, and sometimes acted on even though I can't feel it). Here are some words I put down pondering spiritual growth as change (conformity to Christ's image), steadfastness (remaining faithful even when life's circumstances harangue me with difficulty and doubt), and what Jonathan Edwards would call "Religious Affection" - a sense of wonder and joy over who God is and delight in learning his ways and serving him. Even if the artistry of the composition doesn't impress you, you can give me feedback on the ideas.

GROWTH

From the moment I first
Was touched by grace
My deepest desire
To grow, to grow

In moments of business
Dry spirit and lack
My vision is blurred
What is it to grow?

To be touched by love
By the Spirit conformed
To Christ's pure traits
To change, to change

To stay on the course
Enduring with strength
When all fall away
To remain, to remain

To relish the sight
Of his glory and grace
Delight in his wonder
To be amazed, amazed

When character changes
When faith stays the same
When hearts overflow
To grow, to grow

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Christian Compassion and Condoms (part 2)

Rest your fears, my friends: I will not be part of demonstrations and petitions calling for condom distribution and safe sex education as part of international aid programs (nor advocating expanding these within the North American education/health care system, for that matter). But neither will I be a loud voice opposing these activities. If unregenerate people want to teach unregenerate people how to avoid contracting and infecting others with a deadly disease, is it really worthwhile to try to stop them? Sounds like a good way to waste my time feeling important for taking a “moral stand” while a field fertile with opportunities to share the gospel while fighting this crisis goes uncultivated.

What is worth advocating for on this issue so that the people of God can influence public policy in a way that aids the spread of the gospel? We should support abstinence education, which is quite easy to do by pragmatic reason: diseases are spread every day through people having pre- or extramarital sex, protected and unprotected (condoms don’t work 100% of the time); the crowd of people who were infected as a result of choosing not to have sex outside of marriage is…well, non-existent. However, there are some who have been infected because of condoms failing. If abstinence was the favored method of prevention among public officials, Christian development groups would be much more likely to obtain public funds for their work, allowing them to do more as they offer Christian truth along with the loving laws of a loving God.

Supporting treatment for those already infected and treatment for expectant mothers (which greatly reduces the chance of the virus being transmitted to their children) provides funding for medical care that can be obtained and used by Christian organizations as an expression of God’s mercy. And God’s mercy is not limited to those who are innocent victims.
In the process of teaching prevention, then, the Christian has the opportunity to explain God’s expectations for human behavior, and show how they are clearly given in love - in this case, to keep people from harm, sickness and death. In the process of showing mercy on those suffering the consequences of sinful behavior, the Christian can show how God’s care and mercy continue for a time in the face of humankind’s tragic rebellion that brings them to face the devastating consequences of choosing a path that diverges from God’s will. Christianity can affect politics in a very good way on this issue, by putting a structure in place that is friendly to Christian compassion and pragmatically effective in reducing infections and treating effects.* And please, let’s be defined by what we are for, not by what we’re against.

Thankfully, in the community where the pastor was so ready to let AIDS victims die for their sins, the church is now active in responding with compassion to the crisis around them through the ministry of World Relief. And this organization’s work has received a considerable amount of funding through matching funds and grants from US and international aid money.

*And already has, if you look into what happened from 2001-2008 in this area of U.S. foreign policy.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Christian Compassion and Condoms

While we are, appropriately, riveted to the current devastation in Haiti, this post relates to a humanitarian issue that has been, and will continue to be, of huge significance worldwide, and especially on the continent of Africa. It provides one “test issue” for working out thoughts on how politics and evangelism relate. And, hopefully, it reminds us that there is more to this question than just the favorite North American issues…

“Let them die!” the African pastor thundered from his pulpit. He was speaking of those living with AIDS in the village around them. “They are receiving God’s punishment for their actions,” he asserted, and so the church ought not to intervene to help any of their neighbors suffering the effects of AIDS.

In this story, recounted in an update from World Relief, the AIDS crisis was dramatically oversimplified. While many sufferers have made sinful choices that brought their condition as a consequence, myriad others suffer from HIV/AIDS and its affects because of someone else’s decisions. On the African continent, many women have been infected after their husbands contracted the disease from a prostitute while traveling - a faithful, monogamous woman could suffer because of her husband’s infidelity. Thousands of orphans are without their parents because of the virus, and other children received the virus from their parents at birth. How can these people be left to suffer without care or relief as a consequence of sin when the particular sin that caused the disease was not their own? Thankfully, it seems evangelicals are largely in agreement on this topic, as Christian groups around the world are taking action to respond with compassion to the AIDS crisis in many ways in many places. Non-religious governmental and humanitarian groups agree and are also working hard on tackling the problems of treatment and preventing on a large scale. And in prevention is where political views diverge, because of a difference in ethics based on Christian teaching.

Abstinence education is near and dear to the heart of evangelicals at home and abroad, since keeping sex within the bounds of monogamous marriage is God’s prescription for sexuality, and since abstinence outside of marriage is hands-down the most effective way to prevent the spread of STD’s, including AIDS (not to mention the difficulties that come with having a child outside of marriage). This is a clear example of how following God’s teachings keeps people from problems and suffering that come as consequences of sin. If every government and NGO made a policy of promoting abstinence apart from marriage as part of their education and health programs, and the people of the nation responded to this teaching in their behavior, the spread of HIV and other diseases would be dramatically slowed.

This all lines up for a Christian who takes the presupposition that keeping God’s law is best for individuals and for society, because there are always consequences to breaking it, whether short-term or long-term. Until we are reminded that we have t consider not only God’s ideal forms for society, but also the sad reality that people react to God’s law with the stubborn rebelliousness of the sin nature. Christian sexual ethics stand out in the world largely because it is so difficult to keep control over one’s sexual desires and behave in line with God’s law, and the greatest aid available to do so is the Holy Spirit. So if we are trying to shape public policy on this issue, should we expect that we can best protect the innocent by expecting unregenerate people to live up to the standard of self-control that comes from walking by the Holy Spirit? Is this too idealistic for the “real world” (as one of my coworkers has complained), so that it will only lead to more infections as people remain ignorant about how the virus is really transmitted, and buy into superstitions about how to avoid or cure the disease, but don‘t actually change their behavior? If distributing condoms keeps an unregenerate husband from contracting the disease from a prostitute and infecting his wife who has become a Christian, which could have, in turn, left their children orphaned, is this such a bad thing?

More to come...