The following is the introduction to Understanding the Culture, the third book in the Understanding the Times trilogy. Written by Dr. Jeff Myers, Understanding the Culture is available now! Buy it here.
Life Is More Than Raisin Rugby
Job 12:7 says, “Ask the beasts, and they will teach you.” I learned one of the most important lessons of my life from chickens. Several years ago, we purchased a home in the country. Naturally, we decided to get chickens. We didn’t expect them to arrive in the mail, but they did—via a box about the size of a frozen dinner.
We housed them in a much bigger box in our laundry room where they provided endless hours of entertainment for our children. One day while fixing lunch I heard an unbelievable racket emanating from the box. Rushing in, I found my two-year-old daughter dropping raisins into the box. One chick discovered a raisin, grabbed it in his beak, and bolted. The others gave chase. Another stole the raisin and lit out, his fellows in hot pursuit.
“Wow, Raisin Rugby,” I thought.
Then I noticed my daughter had actually dropped a handful of raisins into the box, more than enough for each chick to have one. None noticed, consumed as they were in competing fiercely for that first raisin. These chicks couldn’t contemplate abundance, even with raisins raining down on them. They had only one thought in their raisin-sized brains: others have it, I want it, I must take it.
We are not as different from animals as we might like to think. Since the fall, we tend to be takers, not givers. God, on the other hand, gives generously. One of the first things Scripture reveals about him, in fact, is how he desired abundance and flourishing in humanity and the world. He equipped us to be fruitful and bring joy to His creation and one another. Tragically, like those rugby chickens, our first parents chose to be stingy, jealous, and selfish. Humanity has followed suit ever since.
In God’s offer of redemption, however, we are offered another chance. Christ provides us with the grace and the opportunity to have our identity changed back from being takers to being the givers He created us to be. When that happens to individuals, communities, and even nations, God enlarges the scope of caring beyond merely ourselves to what God cares about.
Understanding the Culture is the third book in a trilogy. In book one, Understanding the Faith, we got to know who God is based on the Bible, and what his plan for the world looks like. In book two, Understanding the Times, we grappled with how the biblical Christian worldview compares to other prominent worldviews, and in doing so, found it to be more intelligible, reasonable, and livable than the other philosophies of our age.
In this book, we turn our attention to the needs of the world around us and ask whether what the Bible says actually matters and what we ought to do about it. You will not find in the pages that follow a manual with clever plans for saving humanity. It’s actually the opposite. This book is an invitation to stop playing God, and to start engaging the world around us based on God’s intended design for it and for us. After all, it is not enough to merely start caring. We must care well.
Most people care about what is going on in the world around them, or at least they say they do. But the form our caring takes betrays what we really believe. If a homeless person asks for a dollar, do we give it and drive away, do we give them a meal, do we engage them in conversation about what they really need, do we refer them to a homeless shelter, or do we walk away and in the next election vote for a government entitlement program to help the poor?
Ideas have consequences because we act on them. We all live based on what we believe to be true. Christians must act on Biblical ideas, not just in our personal conduct but also in the big issues of our day such as life, marriage, military force, the economy, justice, and everything else.
We won’t be the first to do so. In fact, it is impossible to imagine where our world would be today without Christians applying them over the centuries to the issues of their times. The question we face today is, are biblical ideas still relevant? We can agree that Christians ought to be nice people: if you met a group of young men in a dark alley, it ought to make a difference if they were coming from a Bible study. 1 But does this imply that we can or we ought to apply the Bible’s teachings at a cultural level? Should we try to shape culture? Should society put up with us trying to do so?
If the primary identifying characteristic of Christians is that they are nice people, then pleasantness ought to be the primary goal of our lives. But if what the Bible reveals about why we’re here on this planet is actually true, then being a caring person is much more than smiling and checking boxes on a do-gooder list. Rather, Christian caring ought to be the very best kind of caring, unleashing human ingenuity and pointing the way for people to be reconciled to God so they may be restored to a high capacity of bearing God’s image and bringing glory to their creator. So how does it start?
Caring Starts with Good Decisions
Caring starts with good decisions. All cultures, including ours, are products of decisions, both good and bad, made by people. Jim Clifton, chairman and CEO of Gallup, argues that people make 10,000 to 20,000 small decisions a day. Multiply this by the U.S. population and you have one quadrillion (a one followed by 15 zeroes) decisions being made every year in America alone. 2 Our personal legacy is the sum of our lifelong decisions. Our cultural legacy results from the interaction of all our decisions.
Our decisions have an enormous influence. Think about what you’re doing right now—reading a book. Books influence the world largely because a man named Johannes Gutenberg had ideas about the importance of books and decided to act on those ideas. Gutenberg didn’t invent printing but he did invent a printing system using movable type to rapidly reproduce words on the printed page. His innovations changed the world.
Gutenberg’s genius as an inventor is just the beginning of the story. As history professor Glenn Sunshine points out, Gutenberg saw printing as a means of rapidly spreading God’s truth. He hoped that the printing press would “win every soul that comes into the world by her word no longer written at great expense by hands easily palsied, but multiplied like the wind by an untiring machine.” 3
Because Gutenberg’s press was based on the design of wine presses he had seen in his region of Germany, wine became his figure of speech for the impact he hoped his invention would have:
Yes, it is a press, certainly, but a press from which shall flow in inexhaustible streams the most abundant and most marvelous liquor that has ever flowed to relieve the thirst of men. Through it, God will spread His word; a spring of pure truth shall flow from it; like a new star it shall scatter the darkness of ignorance, and cause a light hithertofore unknown to shine among men. 4
Think of it. A few modifications to a wine press enabled ideas to be disseminated rapidly. It dramatically changed learning and made it nearly impossible to suppress ideas. No wonder, as Sunshine points out, Time magazine named him the man of the millennium. 5 The book you hold in front of you is a direct result of one man’s invention. The ready availability of the written word is still changing the world.
Many people today no longer read on the printed page but on computer devices of some sort, like tablets or smartphones. In their most basic form, computers are nothing but complex arrangements of glass, plastic, silicone, and various metals. Their every part rises from the earth, from sand on the seashore to minerals found deep underground. Without mining, oil exploration, information theory, engineering, intricate manufacturing systems, and a well-developed system of economic exchange, you might very well be scratching drawings on a cave wall, not texting on a smart phone.
As it is, the spread of ideas enabled by technology continues to grow by leaps and bounds. The computing power in your cell phone is more than NASA possessed during its Apollo moon landing program in 1969. That microchip hidden in the singing card you got at your birthday has more computing power than was possessed by all the Allied forces in World War 2 in 1945. Your PlayStation or Xbox contains more computing power than a multi-million dollar military super computer in 1997. 6
The real genius of technology is its ability to extend power to those who without it would have no power at all. People now use handheld devices to exchange money, run businesses, and even deploy social media in revolt against undemocratic regimes. Without millions of decisions from people all over the world, you wouldn’t be reading right now. You probably wouldn’t even know how to read. You might not even have lived past infancy.
Clearly, we must learn to make good decisions about the natural world, technology, economics, and so forth. But that’s not the whole picture. In fact, just focusing on good decision-making would miss the picture entirely.
Caring Starts with Seeing the Big Picture
As we’ve seen, good decisions can lead to good results. But bad decisions have an effect as well. People can use perfectly good computers to destroy others’ dignity and reputation, or to deliver illegal drugs, or to disseminate child pornography. One or two isolated bad decisions probably won’t hurt you much. Eating a whole bag of potato chips won’t really hurt you unless you make a habit of doing it every day. Over time, though, patterns emerge that move us like a swift river current. For a while we make our decisions, but inevitably our decisions begin making us. As the prophet Joel cried out, “Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision” (Joel 3:14). Decisions matter.
Perhaps you’ve wondered about the impact your decisions have. Is it possible to somehow rise above our circumstances and gain a fuller sense of what our lives mean? Entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson thinks he knows how to do it, and as long as you have $250,000 you can join him for a ride on his Virgin Galactic spaceship for a six-minute-long view of the planet from 68 miles above its surface. 7 Justin Bieber, Ashton Kutcher, and Paris Hilton are among the 500 people who have purchased tickets as of this writing.
On their trip aboard the Virgin Galactic spaceship, these lucky few will be strapped in and lifted up to 50,000 feet in altitude by a specially designed airplane. Once released from the “mother ship” there will be a brief moment of quiet in their craft followed by “a wave of unimaginable but controlled power.” And then:
You are instantly pinned back into your seat, overwhelmed but enthralled by the howl of the rocket motor and the eye-watering acceleration which, as you watch the read-out, has you traveling in a matter of seconds, at almost 2500mph, over 3 times the speed of sound. As you hurtle through the edges of the atmosphere, the large windows show the cobalt blue sky turning to mauve and indigo and finally to black. You’re on a high; this is really happening, you’re loving it…. The rocket motor has been switched off and it is quiet. But it’s not just quiet, it’s QUIET…. What’s really getting your senses screaming now though, is that the gravity which has dominated every movement you’ve made since the day you were born is not there any more…. you find yourself at a large window and what you see is a view that you’ve seen in countless images but the reality is so much more beautiful and provokes emotions that are strong but hard to define. The blue map, curving into the black distance is familiar but has none of the usual marked boundaries. The incredibly narrow ribbon of atmosphere looks worryingly fragile. What you are looking at is the source of everything it means to be human, and it is home. 8
As a Virgin Galactic customer, you’d briefly glimpse something seen by only 500 humans prior to the advent of commercial space travel: continents, oceans, and the blue tint of the earth’s atmosphere.
Certainly some people are signing up for the thrill because they have excess wealth. According to Virgin Galactic’s website, its leaders believe their mission eclipses mere thrill-seeking or luxury travel and provides a window into what is really important in life. “We think it will be actually something of a transformative experience,” says Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. “Once the engine shuts off, the cabin will be devoid of any mechanical noise from the inside and any atmospheric sound from the outside, so people will be able to make a deep and organic connection with the universe and the planet. It should be an extraordinary moment.” 9
Maybe Virgin Galactic genuinely thinks space travel-as-a-consciousness-raising-experience will improve lives. Or perhaps their sales pitch seeks to make customers feel less guilty about spending $250,000 on a two-and-a-half hour experience rather than using that money to improve the lives and situations of starving and destitute people. What you think the big picture is makes all the difference in the world.
For many of the first astronauts, seeing earth from space did not result in a “deep and organic connection with the universe and the planet.” Colonel Jim Irwin, one of only 12 men to actually land and walk on the moon’s surface, said of his experience, “I felt the power of God as I’d never felt it before.” 10
To Irwin, seeing the earth from space did not turn his thoughts toward creation’s fragility, but toward the majesty of its Creator.
Caring Starts with what God Cares About: People
From a biblical perspective, the importance of the atmosphere, the majesty of the oceans, and the beauty of the landscape is dwarfed by the significance of God’s image-bearers. People matter most in a biblical worldview. To many secularists, though, this kind of talk is pure folly. E.A. Burtt, an American philosopher who grew up as the son of missionaries to China and later rejected his faith, said gloomily, “The ultimate accommodation necessary in a wise plan of life is acceptance of a world not made for man, owing him nothing, and in its major processes quite beyond his control.” 11
Is Burtt right? Is there no plan behind it all? You might be surprised at how many scientists disagree with him and hold that some intelligent force “fine-tuned” the universe to have the properties that make intelligent life inevitable. As Albert Einstein affirmed, “The harmony of natural law…reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.” 12
Embracing the “anthropic principle” (“anthro” means “pertaining to humanity”), many scientists argue that we can observe the universe only because it exists in a way that allows us as observers to exist. Robert Jastrow, an astrophysicist instrumental in NASA’s development (and an agnostic) wrote, “The anthropic principle is the most interesting development next to the proof of the creation, and it is even more interesting because it seems to say that science itself has proven, as a hard fact, that this universe was made, was designed, for man to live in. It is a very theistic result.” 13
If Einstein is right, that there is intelligence behind the universe, and if Jastrow is right, that the universe is the way it is so that humanity can exist, then any view of the world that misunderstands the importance of people is missing the most important fact about our existence here.
Understanding that importance is not always easy, of course. In some ways, being unable to see people from space must be a relief. For just a few minutes you wouldn’t be faced with starvation or crime or abuse. You wouldn’t feel the pain of those undergoing chemotherapy or the fear of those cowering under a table as mortar shells thunder overhead. But you wouldn’t see the majesty of humanity, either: the joy of seeing the smile on a child’s face, or the thrill of getting an acceptance letter from college, or the exhilaration of overcoming a long-held fear, or the dizzying feeling of falling in love.
The biblical witness is that people are made in the image of God and central to his plan and this changes what we care about and why. We still care about the planet, not because we see humans as a cancer, but because focusing on people is to care about what God cares about.
Why We Should Care About What God Cares About
If there truly is a God who is a supreme mind, and who has always existed, and who at specific points in time created matter and the universe, then it is reasonable, as those who were created, to ask why our creator made us.
And, as we have seen in the previous books, the Christian arguments are sound. There is strong evidence that the universe is a product of design, that the Bible accurately reveals who this designer is, and that it points us to how we might come to know him. In this book we’ll see that once these and other Biblical ideas took hold, the world rapidly began to change for the better.
Up until a couple of hundred years ago, life went on as it had for millennia. Widespread poverty reigned well into the 18th century. Deplorable working conditions, starvation, and disease were part of life for most people. Then something changed, and quickly. The amount of wealth in the world increased rapidly, as did the standard of living, safety, and health of people all over the planet. It wasn’t accidental or a matter of luck, author Sylvia Nasar points out, “but the result of human intention, will, and knowledge.” 14
What economist Cleon Skousen referred to as the “5,000 year leap” dramatically improved conditions for humanity. Today’s U.S. economy is 30 times as big as it was 200 years ago. 15 Prosperity is spreading, and people around the world are being rapidly lifted out of poverty. According to Scott Todd from Compassion International, extreme poverty has dropped in half just in the last generation, from 52% of the world’s population to 26%. 1
We don’t have to go into outer space to see what has happened and why. Beyond the sounds of cars honking, people chatting about the latest TV show or teasing each other, something really important is going on in the human race. Every religious tradition has explanations for it, for how we got here and what we ought to do. Some say it is because of enlightened thinking. Others say it is because of revolution against illicit power. Still others say it is because we are achieving higher consciousness.
But few worldviews can account fully for the dark side of progress as well. While we gain the ability to alleviate suffering and pursue stability for unprecedented numbers of people, humanity has also developed unprecedented means of destroying itself. If we want to account for all of reality, we must take this into account.
When people talk about the nature of reality, they’re engaging in an area of study philosophers call “metaphysics.” In Greek, the word metaphysics means “beyond the natural things” (“meta” means “beyond;” “physics” means “natural things”). In grappling with what is ultimately real, people tend to ask five questions. We’ve analyzed these five questions in the first two books in this trilogy, but they’re worth reviewing briefly here:
Origin. Where did we come from? Some say God created us to bear his image. Others say humans evolved through random chance processes. And there are many more views as well. They can’t all be right, but which are wrong?
Identity. Who are we? What is a human being? Does every human being have intrinsic worth and dignity, or is worth and dignity determined by some external factors, skills, or attributes? And if there is something wrong with us, what is it and how do we fix it?
Meaning. What is real and true and how do we know? What is life all about? Is there purpose to our lives, or must we contrive it somehow? Is reality real, or an illusion? Why do humans not only exist, but wonder about why they exist?
Morality. How should we live? Are there rules for the good life? Who makes them? Are they true for all times and all cultures or do they depend on our circumstances? Is morality based on feelings? Does morality change if our feelings change?
Destiny. What happens next? Where is history headed? Is there an afterlife? How do we explain what is wrong with the world, the poverty, injustice, pain, and sickness? Should we try to fix things, or merely look forward to a life beyond this one?
These five questions are ultimate in the sense that everyone answers them, if not with their minds, then by the way they live. Their answers form their worldview.
Even among those who believe the Bible, though, differing answers can lead to cultural conflict (think of the Reformation, for example). One such conflict took place in the 20th century between varying groups of people based on specific theological understandings. It so shapes the way Christians today think about cultural engagement that it would be hard for us to answer the question about how Christians should be involved in society without first understanding what transpired.
The Past Controversy: Fundamentalism vs. Liberalism
When Shane Claiborne walks on stage, the audience sees a skinny white guy with dreadlocks and a dry sense of humor and hears his message about separating from the world. “Jesus taught that his followers…should not attempt to ‘run the world,’” he says. 17 For Claiborne, Christians are citizens of heaven only. We should have no allegiance to an earthly kingdom. The best we can do is form an alternate community so attractive to people in the world that they want to join it.
In short, reform is hopeless. It’s time to bail out.
Claiborne’s approach may be new, but his message is not. More than 100 years ago a prominent evangelist named Dwight L. Moody explained his approach as follows: “I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can.’” 18 The world is passing away, Moody thought, and nothing is of ultimate value except ensuring that people go to heaven when they die. This was certainly not the way the majority of Christians in history saw it. How did this kind of thinking come about?
At the turn of the 20th century, there was widespread concern that American Protestantism was becoming liberal. America’s greatest universities, founded largely as Christian institutions, had been taken over by people who denied various doctrines such as the holiness of God, the divinity of Christ, and the truth of the scriptures. Fanning these flames, a New York City pastor named Walter Rauschenbusch published Theology for the Social Gospel which defined sin as selfishness and implied that salvation would come through the ushering in of the kingdom of God through good works that changed society. 19
Rauschenbusch openly identified himself as a socialist, which inevitably caused concern that he had rejected biblical orthodoxy and embraced Darwinian evolution and communism. The reaction was immediate and intense. If this new social gospel was in any way replacing the true gospel, there were a good many Christians who wanted to stay far away from it. It was not that they didn’t care about culture—many of them were politically active, such as social-reform-minded Democrats William Jennings Bryan, three-time candidate for president, and William Bell Riley, pastor of First Baptist Church Minneapolis and founder of Northwestern College, where Billy Graham got his start.
Rather, many thought Rauschenbusch and others like him were offering a false form of salvation. In response, theology professors A.C. Dixon and R.A. Torrey decided to set forth what they saw as the basic principles of Christianity in a series of 12 books. Entitled The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, this series was funded by a wealthy businessman named Lyman Stewart and published by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (B.I.O.L.A., now called Biola University). Featured essays were authored by well-known theologians of the time, including James Orr, B.B. Warfield, and C.I. Scofield, and copies were distributed free to pastors, missionaries, and Christian educators.
Out of the publication of The Fundamentals arose a new movement, fundamentalism, which George Marsden defines as “militantly anti-modernist Protestant evangelicalism.” 20 Fundamentalists strongly sensed responsibility for bringing maturity to the American theological landscape and also, in some senses, to be the “older brother” who helped American culture avoid self-destruction.
Unfortunately for its adherents, the fundamentalist movement unraveled due to relentless attacks in the culture, exhaustion, and in-fighting. The sense of fierce theological independence which gave fundamentalism its start made it difficult for its leaders to form a cohesive movement. 21 In the 1930s, the fundamentalist coalition, which had included Baptists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists, began splintering along doctrinal lines. Many of the movement’s leaders embraced a controversial new doctrine called dispensational premillenialism, which argued that the end of all things was coming, and that the anti-Christ would soon rise. One sign of this, they argued, was that churches would discard their doctrinal beliefs in pursuit of a misguided sort of unity, derisively called “ecumenism”. 22 To dispensational premillenialists, there was only one reasonable response: leave such churches and “be separate from them” (2 Corinthians 6:17). Associating in any way with those who disagreed was a sign of being secretly wed to liberal doctrines. 23
These conflicts are still with us today. Churches are still forfeiting essential doctrines. Pastors are still openly living lifestyles that contradict biblical teachings about marital purity. Mockery of biblical doctrines is common. Many churches have become proxies of one political party or another, or have endlessly divided themselves along increasingly fine doctrinal distinctions. Where do we go from here?
The Rise of Christian Conservatism
Out of cultural conflicts between liberalism and fundamentalism arose a new movement of Protestant Christians who claimed a born-again experience, believed the Bible is true, and were involved in like-minded churches. They called themselves “new evangelicals.” In the 1950s, leaders who wanted to see orthodox Christianity more effectively engage the culture around them, formed the National Association of Evangelicals, with Harold Ockenga as president. Joined by Carl F. H. Henry and others, evangelicals held to conservative positions on the truth of scripture and were strongly critical of liberal theology and secularism. 24 This new tradition has, since the 1950s, become America’s largest religious movement, constituting perhaps 35 to 45% of the U.S. population. 25
But then the 1960s happened. The Vietnam War. Drugs. The Sexual Revolution. Rebellion. Though only a small percentage of the population actually participated in it, their numbers were large enough to shift American culture in a very different direction. This is especially true of the sexual revolution, which led to the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade that legalized surgical abortion on demand.
Without a strong sense of what Christian cultural engagement involved, evangelicalism seemed incapable of responding to these trends. For example, the organization publishing this book (Summit Ministries) took an immediate stand against the Roe v. Wade decision through the publication of Slaughter of the Innocent by David A. Noebel. Yet other evangelical groups were neutral or even favorable toward abortion, at least at first. Shortly after the Roe v. Wade decision, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Baptist Press even celebrated the decision for having “advanced the cause of religious liberty, human equality and justice.” 26 Today, the Southern Baptist Convention is strongly pro-life, as is the larger evangelical Christian community, but at the time evangelicals struggled to figure out how to respond to cultural issues.
Then an evangelical ran for president. Not only was he a self-proclaimed born-again Christian, he was a Sunday school teacher in a Baptist church and an honored military veteran. His name was Jimmy Carter. In the wake of the Nixon Watergate scandal, the nation was craving a president whose honesty and decency seemed above reproach. Carter was elected handily.
Things immediately started going wrong. Carter’s approach to economic issues seemed to make things worse, not better. Gas prices skyrocketed. Inflation was out of control. And the people he put in charge of social policy were quite liberal in their viewpoints. For example, the Carter administration formed the Department of Education which immediately began taking steps many evangelicals felt were threatening toward the freedom of parents to educate their children in Christian schools. All of these actions left America dispirited.
One Virginia pastor had enough. He set about forming a network of patriotic, concerned Christians to respond to the secularist drift he perceived in America. The pastor’s name was Jerry Falwell, and his organization was called the Moral Majority. Millions of people signed up and the effect was immediate. Falwell’s organization and similar groups got behind the presidential candidacy of former California governor Ronald Reagan. Before an audience of 15,000 Christian leaders in Dallas, Reagan said, “I know this is a non-partisan gathering and so I know that you can’t endorse me, but I only brought that up because I want you to know I endorse you and what you are doing.”
The overwhelming popularity of Ronald Reagan enabled conservatives to enact many parts of their agenda, primarily the lowering of the federal tax rate and the strengthening of foreign policy. The effect was dramatic: lower unemployment, lower inflation, and higher economic growth. To many people who remember that era, Reagan is seen as a hero who changed the course of history.
The End of Christian Conservatism as a Mass Movement
The influence of Christian conservatism continues today, despite waning in the 1990s. As in the 1930s, it faced unrelenting criticism from cultural elites in both political parties and the media. Despite a vague sense that Christian conservatism has run its course, the movement largely succeeded in many of its aims, particularly in its opposition to abortion on demand and through the establishment of a system of Christian schools and colleges across the country, some of which became quite large, including Liberty University, founded by Falwell during the Moral Majority days. Groups like the Christian Action Council, co-founded by theologian Harold O.J. Brown and former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop not only inspired the pro-life movement but helped establish a network of pregnancy help centers that not only opposed abortion but offered counseling and practical support to women with unwanted pregnancies. 27
In the first decade of the 21st century, though, evangelicalism began to splinter, for at least three reasons. First, there was a growing resistance to the way Christians were involved. Mostly, the movement was seen as too political. This view was held not just by separationists like Claiborne, but also among a small yet influential group of Presbyterian theologians embraced what is know as “Two kingdoms theology.” These theologians argue that Martin Luther’s distinction between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of man actually represents the kingdom of the church and the kingdom of the world, and that therefore the Bible’s teachings are only relevant to the life of the church, not to civil government. Says Michael Horton, one of the two-kingdom theologians: “The central message of Christianity is not a worldview, a way of life, or a program for personal and societal change; it is a gospel.” 28
The second reason evangelicalism began to splinter has less to do with a well-thought-out theological position than with a loss of enchantment among those in the rising generation. Researcher Ed Stetzer found that of those who regularly attended youth group as teens, only about 30% continue regular church attendance as twentysomethings. 29 Often, the reason was not so much rejection as it was irrelevance. Christian faith often ceases to be seen as important to the everyday lives of emerging adults. Christian Smith, a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame, has famously suggested that most young people who claim to be Christian have very shallow roots. He refers to them as “moralistic, therapeutic deists” whose primary theological beliefs are that God loves them and wants them to be happy. 30 To this way of thinking, God is a kindly grandfather who gives us treats and chuckles at our naughty antics.
The third reason evangelicalism is coming apart is a rebranded reemergence of an old heresy called “Gnosticism.” In this view, what we do in this world is really irrelevant because ultimate reality is spiritual. Among those in the early days of the church, after Jesus’ resurrection, Gnostics went so far as to proclaim that Jesus did not really appear in the flesh, because that would mean he was evil. Gnosticism was condemned by early church leaders as a radical and dangerous misunderstanding of the gospel. In the New Testament book of First John, John the Apostle states very strongly that anyone who does not proclaim Jesus as having come in the flesh is giving a message that is not from God.
Whether it is because of embarrassment at Christian political involvement, theological shallowness, or a rising sense that what we do in the physical world doesn’t matter, many believe evangelical Christianity is declining in both popularity and influence. In fact, Michael Spencer predicted in a widely read Christian Science Monitor op-ed that evangelicalism’s collapse is imminent. 31 Others, however, take issue with such a dire assessment, pointing out that while less committed believers seem to be moving away from orthodoxy, the number of committed evangelicals remains steady. Still, it’s hard not to look at churches in Europe being converted into night clubs and skate parks and not wonder whether the same thing might be happening in America.
In this book, it is not our aim to “save” evangelical Christianity. Rather, we wish to see the difference it would make if we consistently applied a framework based on the Bible to today’s perplexing issues. To do this, we’ll need to explore a “third way” between the secular ideal, that the physical world is good and the spiritual world is irrelevant, and the Gnostic idea that the physical world is irrelevant because only the spiritual world is ultimately real. The approach we’ll test rests on the ideas that the world was created both physical and spiritual by God, who proclaimed it “good.” The gospel does not deny or trivialize any aspect of our humanity but offers its full restoration. In other words, as the Colson Center’s John Stonestreet phrases it, we are not saved from our humanness, but to it. 32 The revered thirteenth century theologian Thomas Aquinas put it this way, “Grace does not destroy nature, but completes it.” 33
As we begin, we readily admit that in addition to the opposition Christianity faces in the world, there are significant differences among Christians themselves. Categories such as “born-again” or “evangelical” or “fundamentalist,” even though they are often used in a derogatory fashion, are not monolithic. They include people of all races and political persuasions, and a bewildering array of theological beliefs. Undoubtedly, the majority of evangelicals describe themselves as politically conservative, but even this category defies description when it comes to issues like what level of government involvement is appropriate, taxes, the best way to care for the poor, foreign policy, and so forth.
Today, the question for many Christians is whether it is even possible to be actively concerned about what is happening in the world without resorting to blunt political force on the one hand or seemingly-pious separation on the other. Is it possible for Christians to care about culture without implying that we are somehow responsible for bringing about God’s kingdom on earth? Might there be a way to draw people together across long-drawn theological lines to focus on how to help people flourish in our culture without abandoning firm adherence to biblical truth?
These are not easy questions. But the answer to each question is yes. Here’s why.
What Are the Biblical Reasons for Caring?
We want to care about what God cares about, and Scripture clearly describes what God cares about.
God Cares About His Glory
In the New Testament, the word for “glory” is the word doxa which means “good reputation” or “honor.” Augustine defined glory as clara notitia cum laude, “brilliant celebrity with praise.” 34 God’s glory is so immense that all of nature proclaims it. Psalm 79:9 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” In the world to come, it is God’s glory that will sustain us. Revelation 21:23 says, “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.”
Sin has left humans short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). Even worse, in our sin, we attempt to exchange the glory of God for images of creation (Psalm 106:20, Romans 1:23). Because of God’s grace, though, we may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God (Romans 5:2) and can look forward to freedom from bondage to corruption (Romans 8:21).
This redemption was made possible by Jesus Christ, who is, according to Scripture, the glory of God. Hebrews 1:3 says, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.”
It is in and for His glory that Jesus Christ calls us and equips us for great things. 2 Peter 1:3 says “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence.” This is why, as 1 Corinthians 10:31 says, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
There is one more often-overlooked aspect to God’s glory, though, and it is this: we are to love our neighbor to the glory of God. Romans 15:7 says “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” The word “welcome” in Greek is “proslambanō,” which means “to invite into the life of.” In other words, God is glorified when we personally care for those around us. Importantly, Scripture reminds us that our ability to serve in this way comes only through God’s power, and only is so that Christ may be glorified (1 Peter 4:11).
That God is glorified when we care for those around us is no minor point in Scripture. In fact, it is a central feature of God’s plan. In the Old Testament, Leviticus 19 is just one passage that speaks of how we should love our neighbors because of who God is:
- 9 “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest.
- 10 “And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.
- 11 “You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another.
- 12 You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.
- 13 “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning. 14 You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.
- 15 “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness.”
Notice the motivation God gives them: I am the Lord Your God. It is because God is glorious that the Israelites were to serve, and this service applies to everything from agriculture to business contracts, to dealing with employees, to poverty care, to legal matters.
For those who believe the Old Testament is irrelevant today, the Apostle Paul reiterates its key commands and nests obedience to them in the very way we are to proclaim the gospel. From our economic structures to our personal conduct, Scripture clearly ties everything we do back to the glory of God and to the love of our neighbor.
Consider, for example, Romans 13:
8 “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
9 “For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
10 “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
11 “Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.
12 “The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.
13 “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.
14 “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”
God Cares That We Bear His Image
In the very name God gave himself, YHWH (Genesis 2:4), God shows himself to be the maker of covenants and the rescuer of his people. These are relational attributes, and it makes sense because God is a relational God. Right from Genesis 1:26-28 the Bible portrays God as a king who, instead of putting up statues of himself, as kings in the near east were known to do, created “image-bearers”—living, breathing humans to serve as stewards of his creation. 35
Humanity has a special place in God’s creation. In the biblical narrative, human beings are divinely created to bear the imago Dei, the well-known Latin term for “image of God.” As opposed to pagan creation stories in which only the supreme ruler bears God’s image, there is a sense in which all human beings bear God’s image. 36 And the very nature of God’s plan for human beings was, according to the text, very good. In Hebrew, the phrase is “meod towb” (pronounced MAY-odd Tōve), and it refers to something so exceedingly, abundantly, and immeasurably good that happiness is the natural result. 37
Your being, who you are as an image-bearer of God, proceeds any actions you may take. We call people human beings, and not human doings, for a reason. That humans specially bear God’s image and are not mere playthings for the gods is the single biggest distinguishing characteristic between the Judeo-Christian conception of humanity and all others. This view says human beings are actually distinct and inherently valuable persons regardless of size, level of development, environment, or degree of dependency. 38 They have a definable essence. 39
So what does this have to do with caring? It’s simple. Each and every person bears God’s image, as we do. If God cares enough about them to impart his image to them, how could we justify caring any less? Unfortunately, we humans often abuse the image of God by inviting others to worship us rather than the creator. As Dave Kinnaman and Gaby Lyons write in unChristian, this is a major problem for the rising generation:
By a wide margin, the top life priorities of eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds are wealth and personal fame. Objectives like helping people who are in need, being a leader in the community, or becoming more spiritual have much less traction among young Americans than they do among older adults. 40
These findings are corroborated by Luton First, sponsor of Britain’s National Kids’ Day, which asked British school children under age 10 “What is the very best thing in the world?” The number one reply was, “being a celebrity,” followed by, “being rich.” “God” was the 10th – and last – item on the list. 41
The term for this obsessive self-focus is “narcissism,” which is derived from a Greek myth about a boy who fell in love with his own reflection. In their book, The Narcissism Epidemic, Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell lay the blame at the feet of endlessly repeated mantras, such as, “You are special,” and suggest that this blatant promotion of self-love has become pandemic among young adults. 42
Narcissism is a personal problem that morphs into a cultural problem that Twenge and Campbell say leads to vanity, materialism, uniqueness, antisocial behavior, relationship troubles, entitlement, and self-centered religion and volunteering. 43 The last item on this list, religion and volunteering, should really shake us up. Even good things become bad when the goal is boosting self-admiration. 44 When we fail to bear God’s image, or bear it badly, even our good deeds can contribute to the overall level of evil. As Isaiah 64:6 says, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”
God Cares That We Love Our Neighbor
Loving our neighbor is the clear, unequivocal response to the reality that our neighbor is an image-bearer of God. In Matthew chapter 22, Jesus was asked about the great commandment in the law. He replied: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40). Our love for God will be evident by how richly and fully we love our neighbors.
If redeemed people do not care for others by loving them as neighbors, who will? The Christian writer C.S. Lewis was one who believed that the humility of serving our neighbors was part of displaying God’s glory: “The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.” 45 Lewis continued to say that
The dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations…. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. 46
Scripture repeatedly emphasizes the tie between our neighbors’ well-being and our love for God through the concept of “shalom”: peace, wellness, prosperity, tranquility, and contentment. At the very heart of shalom is neighborliness: we should wish shalom for others as well as ourselves. In fact, God told the Israelites in captivity that their shalom would be secured as they worked to secure shalom for those around them, even their captors (Jeremiah 29:7).
But seeking the good of our neighbors, being contrary to our sin nature, must be a work of repentance, redemption, and renewal. If it isn’t, it may actually end up looking like caring, but actually be narcissism. It may even have the best of intentions, but actually end of doing more harm than good.
How We Ought to Care
Caring based on Scripture will be focused on attributes Scripture admonishes us to pursue. We’ll look at three of these in particular: wisdom, worthiness, and words.
Godly Caring is Based on Wisdom
Wisdom is central to the Scripture’s vision of human flourishing. Yet many people find it theologically baffling because wisdom seems to have more to do with what we might call common grace—the grace of God that is available to all people so that they might live well in God’s creation—than with saving grace, the grace available to the redeemed. It is possible for a person to be wise in a particular pursuit, such as an artistic ability, and foolish in rejecting God. Scripture’s wisdom literature in Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon reveals four distinct meanings of wisdom:
- skill in a craft; technical expertise (e.g., metal worker, skilled warriors, sailors, farmers, priests, scribes, judges, counselors)
- intelligence; shrewdness – e.g., academic wisdom of Solomon (1 Kings 4:29ff); the scheming or cunning of Pharaoh (Exod 1:10) or David (1 Kings 2:6, 9)
- good sense; moral understanding – ability to apply knowledge prudently to life
- understanding the fundamental issues of life – this top level recognizes that the essence of wisdom is theological (“fear of the LORD”)
In outlining how to live well, the wisdom literature is guided by four assumptions:
- The universe is ordered and life proceeds according to a fixed order.
- This order is teachable and learnable.
- By learning the order in the universe the individual is handed an instrument with which to determine and secure his/her way through life.
- The source and foundation of the order in the universe is God himself.
We should, according to the book of Proverbs, pursue a life of wisdom even though it costs everything we have (Proverbs 4:7). Normally, wisdom’s rewards are straightforward. You reap what you sow. If you develop the right character and make right decisions, you will be successful. Cultivate poor character and make poor decisions, on the other hand, and your life will be a disaster. And yet, as we see in Job and Ecclesiastes, things don’t always work out as expected. We are affected by the presence of evil, by our own limitations, and by the poor decisions made by others. Still, we ought to care by living based on the principles of wisdom and encourage others to do so as well.
Godly Caring is Based on Worthiness
Scripture focuses on what it means to live a worthy life. Philippians 1:27 says, “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
The word “worthy” in Greek is “axios” and it means “recognized as a fitting thing.” It’s the root word of the English word axis, as in the axis on which the world turns. 47 A worthy life is one based on virtues around which the world of humanity turns such as prudence, charity, hope, and faith. 48
The biblical approach to virtue is very different from the self-help psychologies that focus on our happiness, our health, and our spiritual awareness, rather than how we can live to glorify God by loving our neighbor.
From a biblical view, there is a relationship between an individual’s mental outlook (worldview) and his or her belief about God, Christ, salvation, and eternal life. When we focus on core virtues that are truly worthy, we grow in our souls, spirit, hearts, and minds. Self-centeredness, on the other hand, shrinks us.
Christians explain that the virtuous life is possible because God, through Christ, forgives our sins, heals our sinful human nature, and replaces our guilty consciences with the fruit of the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit comes from the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and it is always outward focused. A virtuous person will literally lead out of the overflow of a worthy life.
Godly Caring is Based on Words
Twenty miles into my first marathon, I hit a wall. With only 6.2 miles to go, I suddenly felt like I might topple over. Along that last part of the route, however, volunteers stood cheering, holding signs, and offering words of encouragement. By the time I hit the home stretch I was so energized that I sprinted to the finish. It may not have looked like I was running very fast, but I felt as if I were flying. The cheering of the crowd breathed life into me at just the right moment.
Words can bring life. Proverbs 18:21 says “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.” Well-spoken words of encouragement enrich us. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver,” says Proverbs 25:11. You can probably recall a specific time in which someone gave you a blessing, even if it was as simple as “Good job, keep going.” Words can also bring death. I once studied grown-ups who related stories of teachers they had as children who, looking back, were had a bad influence on them. Stunningly, the people in my study—many of whom had been out of school for 30 or 40 years—could remember word for word nasty things the bad teacher said, words that in effect served as a curse on their lives.
We owe it to our fellow citizens to speak the truth as we understand it. To not do so is to violate at least three scriptural principles:
- Proverbs 3:27—”Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.”
- Proverbs 31:8—”Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute.”
- Proverbs 24:11-12—”Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter. If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not repay man according to his work?”
As we speak the way God designed us to speak, we bear his image well. And when we do that, we can live with wisdom and show ourselves to be worthy in a way that blesses other people. It enables us to be like the ancient Israelite tribe of Issachar, which Scripture says understood the times and knew what Israel ought to do” (1 Chronicles 12:32). Because they had understanding and used words wisely, they were apparently seen as leaders in the nation.
Some people say this kind of life of blessing is ancillary to the gospel, but it is not. There’s an old adage often attributed to St. Francis of Assissi: “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” There are two problems with this saying. First, from what we know of Francis, he most certainly did not say this. He was, in fact, a preacher. Second, and even more important, the Gospel is a spoken message. Jesus himself is called “the Word” by the apostle John (1:1). And, much attention is devoted throughout the New Testament to living and speaking in a way worthy of Him. Ed Stetzer puts it this way: “Preach the Gospel, and since it’s necessary, use words.” 49 In Galatians 3:6-9 the Apostle Paul says a life of blessing is actually the heart of the gospel:
Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’…. Those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
What was the gospel God announced in advance to Abraham? That in him all nations would be blessed. As we live wisely, walk worthy, and speak words of life, we have prepared the ground in which the seeds of the gospel grow. Caring, then, is at the very heart of what it means to live the Christian life.
What You’ll Learn in This Book
It is a daunting task to apply a biblical worldview to the issues of our culture. We’ll almost certainly have our disagreements—both theological and political—along the way. But our task is not to come up with point-by-point policy prescriptions for today’s ills. It is to develop a method of applying our faith to the culture.
This said, here’s a little overview of what we’ll focus on in this volume:
- What culture is, how it is made, and how Christians in the past have shaped culture.
- How to become a shaper of culture yourself, and one who thinks and speaks clearly and logically.
- What biblical principles look like applied to tough issues such as technology, amusement, abortion, euthanasia, bio-ethics, sexual issues such as pornography and same-sex attraction, feminism, marriage, politics, creation care, poverty care, tolerance, diversity, liberty, justice, the use of force, and community development.
Whew. That’s quite a list. Along the way it may seem overwhelming. Even as I write I sometimes feel that there are too many issues with too many angles for me to effectively care about. That’s why I’m trying to keep my eye firmly on the baseline of shalom because, as we saw earlier, shalom means pursuing the peace, tranquility, and prosperity of our communities. Shalom is the connection between the way we bear God’s image and the way we care for our neighbors’ well-being. This does not mean that all our neighbors will be grateful. It is very likely that Christians alive today—no matter where they are in the world—will be mocked, denied religious freedom, and even physically persecuted for their beliefs. “In this world you will have tribulation,” Jesus said (John 16:33). Ours is to stand for truth and fight against evil and injustice. Our central question is not, “Could I be harmed by this belief or action?” but “How can I pursue shalom so people can live in prosperous harmony with one another in a way that glorifies God?” Even if we go to our graves feeling that all our efforts have been in vain, we are not to worry because, as Jesus continued in John 16:33, “But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
Givers, Not Takers
As we saw in the introduction to this chapter, we humans base our lives on what we believe to be true. If we believe the Bible, we ought to find ourselves increasingly becoming givers, not takers. In my book Handoff I told an old story of a man who visited a farmer friend. As they sat on the porch rocking back and forth, two of the farmer’s dogs got into a fight. Startled, the visitor asked, “Aren’t you going to stop them?”
“Nah, they’ll stop soon enough. They fight all the time.”
“Which one wins?” asked the visitor.
“Whichever one I feed the most,” the farmer replied.
With every action we either feed or starve the two competing sides of our nature, the giver side or the taker side. Those who feed the “taker” ultimately live miserably. They don’t build anything of enduring value, they don’t leave others better off, and they don’t rescue the perishing. Those who cultivate the “giver,” on the other hand, learn to build and deposit and grow. They gain favor with God and man. When difficulty chips away at them, it only reveals a deeper beauty. When it comes to facing difficult issues, takers wilt quickly and slink away; givers take on challenges willingly. Takers tolerate people; givers shape them. Takers grow needier; givers become more generous. Takers fill their houses with junk; givers fill their lives with memories.
You and I develop into givers or takers through the endless choices we make every day. Of course, we can’t solve every problem or we’ll get burned out. But the solution to burnout is not to back away—it is to engage biblically. The author Parker Palmer says that burnout “results from trying to give what I do not possess… it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.” 50 Only when we have a clear sense of who God is and what he thinks can we truly care.
So let’s get to it. As C.S. Lewis said in his famous sermon “The Weight of Glory,” “Meanwhile the cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is a Monday morning. A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside.” 51 Let’s open the door and go on in, first by discussing what culture actually is, how it is created, and how Christians in the past have engaged it.