Living the Story: Western Culture 11

Picture of city by night. Yarra River. St Kilda. Melbourne. Photo by Alexis on Unsplash.

A city by night. Photo by Alexis on Unsplash.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched–this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.1 Jn 1:1

We were staying in Lake Louise village and decided to go on a walk through the forest when we heard a low-pitched growl from an animal that we could not identify but assumed was a bear. We knew little about bears or the sounds they made and did not take any of the precautions that locals would. It was like our mindset was still in Australia when we were in Canada. In a sense we were living in the wrong story, not being able to correctly interpret the events we encountered and not being equipped to respond appropriately.

One of the big questions to ask ourselves is what story are we living in? Lesslie Newbiggin, an English bishop who spend decades in India, could see that many Christians were being captivated by Western culture. This culture has a grand story that is assumed by many and the main story that has traction in the public square. Newbiggin suggested that an important way to achieve a distance from our pervasive culture was to know the grand story of Scripture, which is a more unified and better way of seeing our world, and to consciously place ourselves within it.

The question is whether the faith that finds its focus in Jesus is the faith with which we seek to understand the whole of history, or whether we limit this faith to a private worlds of religion and hand over the public history of the world to other principles of explanation”   Lesslie Newbiggin

It makes a profound difference whether we use the modern Western story as the basis from which to understand Scripture or whether we try to understand the Western story from within the Biblical story. For example, a person adopting a Western world mindset would be more likely to reject miracles, be promiscuous, focus on self, see divorce as a positive move, be driven by consumption, deny the reality of evil, etc.

Text "The big story of the Bible" superimposed on a picture of the Bible laying flat on a table.

The big story of the Bible. Image source: CanvaPro

Living within the grand story of Scripture we will find some tension with scientific findings. Sometimes this tension is because we have adopted a western mindset when we interpret Scripture. For example, it was a common view that the sun rotated around the earth based on passages such as Psalm 50:1. But this incorrect view was formed by interpreting Scriptural passages using a more rational mindset rather than understanding the style of literature. This view of the earth rotating around the sun was felt to undermine the centrality of Earth and people in God’s creation causing a questioning of the Scriptures. But, over time, this new understanding of the universe was embraced because it was seen to be consistent with the Scriptural story of creation.

The Bible is based on historical events and is fundamentally in the form of a narrative – it is this grand story that needs to be told. If we ground our faith only in the “proven” historical events (as proven by archaeology) we may well be operating with a scientific mindset. The Biblical grand story is what we follow, but some details are unclear and open to misinterpretation and some of these may well be informed by science. We do not close ourselves off from the world, but we learn to interpret the world’s findings in the context of the Biblical story. We should not get exclusively side-tracked into examining scientific arguments around a text and not explore its profound theology for life.

So how do we locate ourselves within the Biblical story? Grasping the overall Scriptural story of the history of the world and seeing our western culture from the Scriptural viewpoint are both essential. We should seek to understand where we are in the Biblical story and how it impacts our living. To live in the story will not be simply following a set of rules but will be more creative in navigating the world while holding on to the firm foundations of Scripture. We will be more like a jazz player who uses the principles of music creatively. God has given us all we need to live life in His kingdom.

A major task in discipleship is to help people see they are in the grand story of Scripture and that this is the true description of the world and its over-arching history. The grand story needs to be dialogued on many occasions from different perspectives, contrasting it with the western worldview which is deeply entrenched in many. This dialogue should not just be in a series of propositions but should be a re-telling of the stories themselves. While we may think that rational proof is something people want, we should not ignore that God does also use narrative as a means of communicating truth.

Question to Ponder: How can I see myself in the Biblical grand story? Am I helping others to develop this perspective? 

Meditation: Western Culture 10

Picture of city by night. Yarra River. St Kilda. Melbourne. Photo by Alexis on Unsplash.

A city by night. Photo by Alexis on Unsplash.

Some of my strongest childhood memories come from the times I spent on my uncle’s dairy farm. The heat of summer, the cooling of the milk refrigeration room, the sound and smell of the cows.  I would seeing them constantly chewing and later learnt they had 4 stomachs and were often “chewing the cud”. In my early days as a Christian this was used as an illustration of meditation.

Information gathering can be a position we take when approaching the Scriptures and so our Bible studies and time alone with God can be in danger of just being about understanding. It has been said that Bible study is informational while meditation is formational. It involves a mulling over a passage of Scripture locating yourself in passage, owning the emotions. Meditation, when it precedes prayer, transforms your prayer.

Prayer. Photo:CanvaPro.

George Muller, like many others, found a different approach to Scripture did indeed alter his prayer:

The difference then between my former practice and my present one is this. Formerly, when I arose, I began to pray as soon as possible, and generally spent all my time till breakfast in prayer. …What was the result? I often spent… even an hour on my knees, before being conscious to myself of having derived comfort, encouragement, or humbling of the soul. Often, after having suffered much from wandering thoughts…

I scarcely ever suffer now in this way… I began… to meditate on the New Testament from the beginning, early in the morning… searching, as it were, into every verse to get a blessing out of it…. not for the sake of preaching [to others], but for the sake of obtaining food for my own soul. …After a very few minutes my soul had been led to confession, or to thanksgiving, or to intercession, or to supplication. …When thus I have been for a while… I go on to the next words or verse, turning all as I go into prayer, …as the Word may lead to it; but still continually keeping before me, that food for my own soul is the object of my meditation. …It often astonishes me that I did not sooner see this point.

From The George Muller Treasury

I too have found that a meditative approach to Scripture to be rewarding. I follow a practice of reading a short passage of Scripture until something stands out. I reflect on this, believing what God is saying and personally embracing it, and then I determine some actions I can take for the rest of the day related to that reflection. At the end of the day I seek to review my actions and discern anything else God was saying to me about that reflection. Building on the thoughtful reflection with an action is true wisdom according to Jesus is saying (Matt. 7:24-27).

As we disciple others our practice can be to include a time of meditation in a short passage of Scripture.

Consider the following passage:

God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
Ps46:1-3

In reflecting on this passage, we would typically find ourselves personally focused on how we are safe and secure in the shadow of the wings of God. But it is more helpful to start meditating on the nature and glory of God. Dwell on the fact that God is a refuge and He is strong. He is so strong that despite surrounding devastation, He carves out a secure place in which there is safety. He is ever-present and so He is present in the mess. We must choose to trust that this is indeed our God and from this we can reflect on our situation and locate ourselves in the text emotionally. What does it feel like to find a place of refuge, for example when you shelter from a storm? That is the feeling that He can provide. He is so strong that despite surrounding devastation, He carves out a secure place in which I can dwell. In it we can experience His protection, warmth, safety and security. How will I find this place of refuge in Christ today? Do I have any anxieties about the day ahead or any other issues? How will I be aware of this anxiety? What will I meditate on to counter this anxiety? When will you review at the end of the day? What will trigger this review? In this end of day reflection, ask where you experienced refuge in God. Did I take the opportunity to Ps 46:10 “be still and know that I am God”? Also consider the opportunities that occurred during the day where you did not take the opportunity to locate yourself in this refuge.

Meditation, ruminating on the Scriptures, is one of the spiritual disciplines that many have found important to their transformation. It is something that our culture is increasingly making it difficult for us to practice. For it to be effective we will need to eliminate distractions and approach the text with our hearts and our heads.

Question to Ponder: Can you identify how to incorporate mediation into your life more effectively? Do you practice meditation in your discipling?

The Road to Freedom: Western Culture 9

Picture of city by night. Yarra River. St Kilda. Melbourne. Photo by Alexis on Unsplash.

A city by night. Photo by Alexis on Unsplash.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery… You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Gal 5:1, 13,14

There is a commercial by an outdoor adventure company where a boy asks his father “What are we doing this weekend?”. The scene then moves to a four-wheel drive vehicle in the great outdoors and depicts boats, water sports and trekking. The scene then moves back to the father who answers his son’s question with “Just the usual”.

The open road is a widely held symbol of freedom and this is used in car advertisements to directly infer that their particular car will give people the freedom they desire. Largely gone are the days of promoting the merits of the car replaced by the promotion of a lifestyle. Because human flourishing is now largely seen in materialistic terms it is a simple step to define a material object as the basis for fulfilling the desire for freedom. Of course, we know these are all lies as they are indicating something that they cannot deliver but the feeling created by the advertisement draws you in. Many people buy an SUV and never use it for the adventurous freedom they desire and so it is primarily an expression of who they want to be.

Open Road. Flinders Ranges. Photo by Michael Skopal on Unsplash.

This consumer version of freedom represents an escape from the demands of life… Photo by Michael Skopal on Unsplash.

This consumer version of freedom represents an escape from the demands of life and our responsibilities, but it has an element of slavery. To achieve such a lifestyle requires that you have sufficient income to purchase and sustain this identity (so you cannot quit your unfulfilling job). Having invested money and identity in this approach we feel under compulsion to use the goods we have purchased. When we are unable to use them, we will feel more like a slave because our sense of freedom is unfulfilled. If someone or something blocks your desire to pursue your desires, then you will feel trapped by them or you will distance yourself to remove any emotional restraints. The idol of consumer freedom is very demanding!

The Scriptures present a different view of freedom. Galatians declares it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. We are free from condemnation and free to live as God intended empowered by the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God. There is a willing urge to live within the (considerably large) boundaries that God says are necessary to live a fully prosperous life. This is one reason the Scriptures depict that we are slaves. We have given ourselves over to willingly follow Christ and so are slaves to God. Because of our freedom in Christ we choose to submit ourselves to the God of creation. This is not primarily a suppression of our true self, but it allows us to be truly who we are. Jesus said we will always have a master and so we will always be a slave to something. When we are slaves to an idol, we are seeking from it our identity, a sense of who we are and our place in the cosmos, we are seeking a guide to living, relationships, values and ethics. Making a consumer quantity of freedom around outdoor adventure or a car cannot deliver true freedom.

It is common to encounter the view that following Christ will suppress freedom and so would be considered unattractive. In communicating the Gospel and in discipling others there is a need to counter the consumer view of freedom and to depict the freedom that Christ brings.

Questions to Ponder: Given freedom and prosperity are high values in our culture, how could you address these in those we are discipling? Apart from teaching, how do our lives depict the freedom we have in Christ?

The Good Life: Western Culture 8

Picture of city by night. Yarra River. St Kilda. Melbourne. Photo by Alexis on Unsplash.

A city by night. Photo by Alexis on Unsplash.

Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Cor 12:8-10

“The Good Life” was a British sitcom of the mid 1970’s about a couple who quit the business world to become self-sufficient on their suburban block much to the anguish of their more traditional neighbours. Some have suggested this first flagged a growing movement that is about living with less, rejecting consumerism, being “off the grid”, and having a sea or tree change. This movement begs the question about what constitutes a good life, a life of prosperity and happiness.

Tocqueville makes the following observation:

there are more and more people who though neither rich nor powerful enough to have much hold over others, have gained or kept enough wealth and enough understanding to look after their own needs. Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their hands.

This form of the good life requires enough material resources, a certain social construct and can also have an element of individualism. Many would say that being happy is a key indicator of the good life. The 2020 world happiness report finds that countries that rate highly are more likely to be characterised by factors such as security, honest and equitable government, trust in institutions, social welfare, autonomy and the freedom to make life choices, trust in other people and social cohesion. But these aspects for high happiness are out of the influence of many people. So, according to this report, this means many will have no chance of living the “good life” due to their social and political situation.

Painting of a tree by a stream. Psalm 1.

Psalm 1. Image source: CanvaPro.

Christians have worked hard over the centuries, as channels of God’s grace, to build a better society, and to see all people flourish in all aspects of life. Jeremiah advises those who are exiled in Babylon to build a flourishing society:

Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Jer 29:7

It has been common in public comment to portray Christianity as the enemy of fulfillment, opposed to happiness since it was placing constraints on moral behaviour. But where Christians have supported this depiction it has been suggested that its origins are outside of the Scriptures:

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. C.S. Lewis

The abundant life that Jesus brings (Jn 10:10) is something so foreign to our cultural thinking that we may be perplexed when Paul can rejoice during his sufferings (2 Cor 12:8-10). Elisabeth Elliot said …

The world looks for happiness through self-assertion. The Christian knows that joy is found in self-abandonment. “If a man will let himself be lost for My sake,” Jesus said, “he will find his true self.”

Many will experience suffering in their lives and our culture is one of the least able to live well within these times. We are more likely to blame God for our suffering when we have the perspective that God’s primary intention is to make us happy within our cultural definition of happiness. We set up ourselves as judge and jury over God. We can only negotiate the path of grace and truth when we address our attitude to God stirred up by events around us.

So, an important aspect of discipleship is to build a Scriptural basis for embracing the good life under the knowledge of the goodness of God. While it does include a perspective on the broader social aspects it also recognises that these issues will not change immediately and living the good life within these circumstances is possible. While there is a longing for the future, the Scriptures are also applicable to our lives now. Our examples are very important, and we should ask how we are depicting what a flourishing life looks like.

Expressive Individualism: Western Culture 7

Picture of city by night. Yarra River. St Kilda. Melbourne. Photo by Alexis on Unsplash.

A city by night. Photo by Alexis on Unsplash.

An epic song in the movie “The Greatest Showman” called “This Is Me” has received almost universal praise in declaring the worth of all people. The movie, set within circus life, shows various “misfits” who have been rejected by society, made fun of, called unlovable and assaulted verbally. The song says they feel like strangers in this world, they are made to feel ashamed of their broken parts, and they are bruised. Like James 3:3-12, people’s words were deeply hurting them. The song is a rallying call to fight against this abuse and to recognise their true worth – “we are glorious”.

This degradation of people created in the image of God is clearly appalling and so it is not surprising that the song has connected to the condition of many people who feel different. Reading the Christian commentary on the song reveals a very positive response to its message. There is something here that is very much indicative of the heart of God which explains this response. However, it is worth examining how the song suggests dealing with the condition of rejection and abuse. Rightly the song promotes rejecting the assaults from others, recognising the persons created uniqueness, worth and strength. But because there is just a generic basis of human worthiness underlying the song without any reference to their heavenly Father, the song is promoting an internal look, a buffering from the views of others and then a shouting to the world who they are. They will march to the beat of their own drum and will drown out any abuse by their bold and brave declaration of their uniqueness. By repeating to oneself we are worthy and by flooding any negativity by self-expression we are going to drown out what others are saying.

Just be you. Photo by Priyanka Arora on Unsplash

Just be you. Photo by Priyanka Arora on Unsplash

There are a number of positive messages in this song that Christians will wholeheartedly agree to. But we also should be aware that it is symptomatic of the “Expressive Individualism” that is so much a part of our culture. This culture will encourage us to look internally for who we really are, buffering ourselves from others and then this must be expressed to the world around us. As life throws its spears at us, we will be inclined to look internally and then, from a buffered position giving us distance from others, we will express our uniqueness to others. This is almost going to be a “natural” response for us Christians who have grown up in this culture. But if we leave it at that response then we will merely be reinforcing our cultural inclinations. Any internal examination should drive us to connect externally to Christ and to others because there we find our image and worth. The connection to others is not to impose our image on others but to connect more deeply into communities. We will reject the assaults of others by connecting with our Creator, hearing His voice, and by connecting with others where, through mutual love, rebuke and encouragement, we can become who we are in Christ. So, as we reflect on matters internally, we should use this to look outward to God and our communities to find the basis of addressing and expressing these matters.

There is much we can affirm in this song as it does express God’s heart for people but in its approach to addressing the issue it draws on Christ’s perspective but ignores it source and true foundation. Ultimately the songs positive vibe will leave people with an emptiness and is ultimately delusional cutting people off from their true source of identity (Jn 15).

May our hurt help us to see that God is our refuge for healing and our light for understanding:

Psalm 36:3, 7, 9
The words of their mouths are wicked and deceitful;
    they fail to act wisely or do good.
How priceless is your unfailing love, O God!
    People take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
For with you is the fountain of life;
    in your light we see light.

 

Lord, help us to continue to direct people to Christ himself and to genuine community connections as they seek their identity and worth.

Question to Ponder: What are some of the popular ways of expressing one’s identity? What does this indicate about a person’s perspective? In addition to teaching, what community activities could you employ to build a different perspective?   

Expressive Individualism: Western Culture 6

Picture of city by night. Yarra River. St Kilda. Melbourne. Photo by Alexis on Unsplash.

A city by night. Photo by Alexis on Unsplash.

For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. Rom 12:4,5

I was recently learning to play the song “You are Beautiful” by James Blunt. I had only heard the song in the background but attracted by the feel of the chorus. In starting to learn the song I considered the words more deeply and was a little shocked. It is an obsessive imagining of the song writer towards someone he has no personal connection with but just briefly observes. While on the surface it looks like a compliment to this unknown person, it is really about the song-writers feelings. Apparently over the last 60 years songs have changed from singing about mutual feeling to singing primarily about the feelings of the singer giving a strong sense of alienation from the other. This observation is evidence of the more recent cultural change we have experienced. Beginning in about 1960 our Western Culture entered the Age of Authenticity or Expressive Individualism. This is the view that each one of us has their own way of realising our humanity and that we must express it rather than conform to models imposed by others (especially institutions).

Prior to 1960 it was usual for someone to discover who they were and what their purpose was by looking outside of oneself to the communities in which they occupied. But since then there has been a significant change of perspective and to find oneself people looked internally to discover the true self. To be authentic you now look inside yourself and then live according to what you discovered. It is important to express ones self-discovered identity to the outside world, often through what you purchase. According to this approach, no-one can question my identity even when it is patently absurd. For example, a person can declare their gender, even when all the physical evidence contradicts their self-defined position.

This self-determined identity can only be achieved if we are buffered from the communities we unintentionally belong to. We like to be seen to be unique and promote this uniqueness by purchasing goods that express out individuality. In choosing these goods it has to feel like you are making a choice. The only problem is these acquired goods are purchased by millions of other “unique” individuals. But this buffering means weak community connections to groups that are diverse in their make-up. Online superficial community provides a distracting relief from the underlying solitude. In addition, we struggle with having any strong connections to a large “organisation” for fear that they will exert an influence over us that will undermine my independence.

Where faith exists, it is largely regarded as individual, self-defined and non-conformist. So then we have an explosion of belief options. There are literally millions of simplistic faiths that people have self-determined which have only small variations from each other.  Robert Bellah helpfully identifies the type of faith prevalent in this culture by reference to a Sheila Larson who was a young nurse who describes her faith as “Sheilaism.”

“I believe in God,” Sheila says. “I am not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” “It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think God would want us to take care of each other.”

Woman with cup of tea looking in the mirror.

Expressive Individualism. Taking care of self. Taking care of others. Photo: CanvaPro

Like many others, Sheila would be willing to endorse few more specific points. It is not based on anything other than a vague perception of caring for self and other people. She would be unlikely to talk about this faith unless specifically asked because religion is now regarded as a private matter. And Shelia would not be open to any significant conversation around her religious views because they have been derived internally. This reference to the internal source can shut down any spiritual conversation.

Of the many aspects of expressive individualism, two we can consider concerns our inability to connect deeply with others in community and our distrust of organisations. Sin caused many things including the fragmenting and stratification of relationships and the friction between nations, but Christ’s redemption brings the potential and power for the restoration (Gal 3:28). Much of the teaching of the NT concerns community life. While our lifestyle can give us many reasons why we choose not to deeply connect with others in community, we still must ask ourselves if our attitude is simply that of our culture and because of this we are unwilling to have these deeper connections. Even within a Christian organisation, it is possible to focus primarily on the great task before us and never foster these relationships. With this individualistic attitude we can disciple people into individualism by making everything about them and not extending their perspective to an outward connection to God and to others. We also may foster a negative attitude to organisations, such as churches or even the Navigators because of our unquestioned cultural assumptions. Let the act of meditating on the Scriptures genuinely speak to our heart attitude and practices. Determine some discipleship practices that will foster the connection to God and to others. Returning to music as an example, one aspect you may consider is the worship music you choose as there is certainly more individualism present in recent songs.

“Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.” Tocqueville

Question to Ponder: What are some discipleship practices that you can employ that will help mitigate individualism?

Beyond the Age of Reason: Western Culture 5

Picture of city by night. Yarra River. St Kilda. Melbourne. Photo by Alexis on Unsplash.

A city by night. Photo by Alexis on Unsplash.

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, 
Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts”.
Isaiah 55:8-9

Western culture has made a sharp distinction between “facts”, which are believed to be universally held and openly discussed in public, and “values”, which are personal choices and to be kept private.  Building on the classical Greek elements that resurfaced in the Renaissance and re-enforced by modern science, beliefs were subject to critical and sceptical analysis. The rise of this humanist tradition meant we looked to nature using reason and conscience to determine truth.

The golden age of reason was in the 18th and 19th centuries impelled by the success of the scientific method and the rejection of religious dogma. It was thought that science would bring about utopia on earth. Autonomous reason, rejecting any external divine inspiration, became the dominant public argument and scientific proof the measure of truth. Things that could be measured became the focus. Since the concept of human flourishing was increasingly seen in terms of mutual economic benefit, which was measurable, this became increasingly important. No reference to God or spiritual forces or eternity were valid in public discussion. Moral issues had to be addressed by appeal to what was considered to be universal human principles – these were actually originally taken from Christ but their source was now ignored.

Reason was being increasingly used by Christians in an attempt to justify the existence of God but since such reasoning was largely based on the scientific method, Christians were never going to win the argument – we had submitted ourselves to a human-based scientific approach to determining the existence of God. Dealing with the problem of evil became a large defensive issue for Christians even though this problem is very much present (albeit in a different form) in the secular position. The modern age of reason influenced Christian teaching with some liberals de-spiritualising the Scriptures and dismissal miracles. Logical propositional teaching became the major form of instruction, the sermon the highpoint of church. There was more emphasis placed on the mind. Of course, reason is entirely appropriate (e.g. Acts 17:2-4) but it is not the only approach (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). We should be cautiously aware of the influence of secular autonomous reason so that we can be open to additional approaches.

Sign stating "Reason" against a cloudy sky.

Reason. Image: CanvaPro

It is clear our current culture has moved beyond the age of reason. The world wars eroded the utopian vision and many ordinary people who were not considered “experts” were left with a feeling of disempowerment. In combination with the rise of individualism, there is a waning in reason even in public discussion.  Reason will continue to play an important role in the future but we should be aware that many people will not be so inclined to propositional logic. The Navigators, with a focus on University students and professionals, display a more reason-based approach. Traditionally the Navigators were very practical in discipleship, but I wonder if this has been reduced. Perhaps this has been due to a concern about legalism, but our approach can bear a striking resemblance to our individualistic culture. This is something worthy of further consideration but for now we ask: Are we correctly integrating the cerebral with other aspects of discipleship? Does a logical argument cut it with the general population or are there additional means that we need to employ? Additional approaches to reason that we could take including the use of stories, images, and practical personal and community actions. Each of these deserves more attention but the key point is to consider using a range of approaches in our discipleship. The parables of Jesus are an example of an approach using more than propositional logic. When Nathan confronted David over his wicked behaviour, he used a story (2 Sam 12). Some of the early Gospel messages in Acts were in the form of a historical story in which people could locate themselves. The Greeks loved their philosophical discussions but sometimes the message must simply be about Christ crucified (1Cor 1:22,23).

Perhaps our discipleship has more recently been focused on reason, using logical propositional arguments from the Scriptures and there has been reduced emphasis on practical actions. While this was partly due to a concern about legalism, it is also important to recognise that this stance is perfectly aligned with our individualistic mind-centred culture which must at least flag the possibility of cultural influence. The belief that changing a person’s mind will change behaviour is not the entire story as the reverse is also true. Indeed, the application of Scripture is a loving response to God (Jn 14:21) and the outworking of our faith (James 1:22). Rom 12:1,2 combines right thinking and godly actions (presenting us as living sacrifices). A simple step to build application is to recommend smaller, shorter term, measurable, triggered, specific actions.

The world with its wisdom was unable to recognize God in terms of his own wisdom.
So God decided to use the nonsense of the Good News we speak to save those who believe. 1 Cor 1:21

Question to Ponder: Consider how you may develop your story telling ability in evangelism and discipleship. In your discipleship, can you place more emphasis on the practical application of Scriptures?

Viewing Human Achievement: Western Culture 4

Picture of city by night. Yarra River. St Kilda. Melbourne. Photo by Alexis on Unsplash.

A city by night. Photo by Alexis on Unsplash.

 

 “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
    the whole earth is full of his glory.”
Is 6:3

Each day we are surrounded by people’s incredible achievements. We can purchase almost any food at any time of the year, we have social welfare systems that assist in times of need, medical advances previously inconceivable are now everyday practices, technology surrounds us bringing new and compelling aspects to life, magnificent buildings and engineering feats are a testimony to our ingenuity and bring a sense of awe, magnificent works of art display incredible skills, scientific advances predicting and warning of potentially catastrophic events have saved lives. The list of human achievements are too numerous to mention and this is transforming our view of the world. Many of the advances that lead to prosperity and health are improving the lives of billions. Christians have played important roles in initiating and furthering these aspects of life as they were convinced of the importance that God places on people and their well-being. They recognised they were God’s agents in improving the lives of people created in God’s image and worthy of care.

The reduced dependency on the natural elements has, for some, removed a sense of dependency on God’s active presence and raised the glory of humans. It is easier to have an exclusively humanistic view of the world. Exclusive humanism is a worldview or social imaginary that accounts for meaning and significance without any appeal to the divine or transcendence. While humanism is an affirmation of humanity and the worth of human life (something Christians can agree with), exclusive humanism believes that human flourishing can only be

Man climbing upwards on spiral staircase made of books.

Progress. Image: CanvaPro.

defined in the physical world and not in anything beyond the physical life. Religion, in general, can be seen to be an enemy of this type of flourishing as it places restraints on behaviour. To re-enforce this negative view of religion, new atheists offer a powerful story of exclusive humanism that says that in the past we believed in God, angels and fairies but now we have grown up to be adults and can bravely and intelligently face the world liberated from these myths of the past.

Most will agree that, from material and health viewpoint, we are much improved over previous generations. While we are currently experiencing a moral and spiritual decline, times of revival have occurred during times of advancing prosperity. But now, with the confluence of the influences of science, philosophy, communications, and travel we are more likely to be dismissive of God’s influence and more likely to esteem the greatness of people. But the advances we have seen in prosperity are surely the general providence of God who is using Christians and non-Christians to bestow His unmerited grace on all in the fervent desire that they will acknowledge His glory. When we experience some benefit, such as receiving a medicine that cures an illness, we can thank God that He has been working through people for generations to give us this blessing. We can use such benefits to praise and thank God and the people who have been used by God. These days our “natural” response can be the latter while missing the former. So, in our own lives and in those we are discipling, be encouraged to place the achievements of humans into the context of God’s providential care and render Him praise as well as thanking His instruments of grace, the people who have worked for our benefit. We are creating idols when our praise is directed only towards people. When we see some great piece of architecture, experienced medical healing, are awed by an engineering feat, let us acknowledge God’s providential care and encourage this perspective in those we are discipling.

Let us remind ourselves of God’s gracious hand with thankfulness:

You care for the land and water it;
    you enrich it abundantly.
The streams of God are filled with water
    to provide the people with grain,
    for so you have ordained it.
Ps 65:9

Question to Ponder: This week, as we experience the providential hand of God providing for our material needs, what will trigger you to respond in thankfulness and praise?  Consider, for example, whenever you eat, when you shop, when you receive medical help, when you turn on the heater, …

Spiritual Decline: Western Culture 3

Picture of city by night. Yarra River. St Kilda. Melbourne. Photo by Alexis on Unsplash.

A city by night. Photo by Alexis on Unsplash.

As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
    When can I go and meet with God?
Ps 42:1,2

The prophet Isaiah had a vision of heavenly creatures declaring: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6:3)

These creatures could perceive the presence and glory of God when they view any part of the earth. This perspective of the filling of the earth with the glory of God is likely to be much more difficult for us today compared to people living before us. Over the last 500 years of Western culture there has been a profound shift in how we perceive the world. Charles Taylor posed the following question:

“Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?”

In medieval times, atheism was virtually inconceivable. The natural world was felt to point beyond itself to a higher reality and these spiritual forces were present and active in this enchanted world invading our lives often unexpectedly. An individual’s meaning and purpose were seen in this wider spiritual context. The very fabric of society was seen to be established in this heavenly kingdom and this worked against unbelief. The social bonds were strong and acted as a restraint to the formation of views contrary to those held at the time. The rise of what we term “Exclusive Humanism” (where meaning and significance are accounted for without reference to the divine) had to entail the removal of these perspectives and values. The social bonds have been weakened allowing individuals to disengage from the community around them – we had to be buffered from social and spiritual influences. We had to see that reality lay only in material elements and there was no higher reality. We had to redefine human flourishing to primarily incorporate this materialistic perspective. In undermining the spiritual we elevated man.

You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water.

You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water.

The pervasive influence of our culture can have a profoundly important impact on our view of God and how we relate to Him. These foundational issues must be given significant attention as it forms the basis of our living. We could incorrectly see God as uninvolved, the great watchmaker who kicks off creation and will close it down but is otherwise absent. With a strong perspective on our personal flourishing we can see God as my servant, the one who is present to help me in my life directions. We may remove elements from God’s character (such as righteous judgement) because we are of the view that God’s prime responsibility is in personal human flourishing. Flowing from our view of God are our actions: We may be too busy with our personal activities that we find little value in listening to Jesus (like Martha), we may not see the value of prayer (like the disciples), we may adopt a default position of skepticism demanding proof (like Thomas), and we may be easily swayed by the influence other others (like Peter). We can also be prone to defining God by our circumstances rather than wrestling with our circumstances from a firm foundation of faith (e.g. Ps 42).

John Piper suggests four aspects of building our openness to God, our filling of the Spirit.

  1. Meditate on the Word. Read the Scriptures, place yourself in this grand story, listen intently, let the Word fill you. (Col. 3:16)
  2. Believe what you hear, a faith response choosing that the Scriptures are giving us the true nature of reality. (Gal.3:5)
  3. Hold fast in obedience in our love for Christ to more fully experience the Father’s love, we are a people declared holy relating to a holy God (Jn 14:21)
  4. Passionately desire God, His presence. Knowing His character, we embrace a heart-felt desire for more of Him (Ps.42:1,2)

I once heard a Christian state that our first thought is from God and the second is not. This does not appear to have any solid biblical basis and my impression is that it is more likely that the first thought is from culture and we need to work on having this countered with a second thought from God (especially the Scriptures). It starts by having a greater awareness of our first thought and countering it with Scripture (eg Ps 29). These thoughts about God are generally not isolated, and when we identify them, we need to set aside some time to grasp the Scriptures that help us redirect our thoughts.

Question to Ponder: Does your attitude to prayer and mediation reflect a belief in the overarching spiritual reality that we live in?

Conformity and Challenge: Western Culture 2

Picture of city by night. Yarra River. St Kilda. Melbourne. Photo by Alexis on Unsplash.

A city by night. Photo by Alexis on Unsplash.

I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. Jn 17:14-18

As a young Christian I was a typical Sydneysider loving the outdoors and sport. The passage in 1Cor 9:19-23 about becoming all things to all people was frequently discussed and I think it may have been a reaction to the Christian enclaves that we sometimes form. But then we also had the Rom 12:2 and 1John 2:15,16 passages about not conforming to the patterns of this world. The resolution of this tension was seen to be largely around ensuring moral protection while maintaining relationships. It was primarily up to the individual to determine what was appropriate and what they could participate in without moral compromise. There was an assumption that these moral boundaries were well known and largely held in the community. Today we recognise this assumption is not valid while still believing that, as carriers of the image of God, all people have inbuilt values. However, it is now more obvious that the saturating secular influence needs uncovering so we can identify our secular based views (where we conform to the patterns of this world). It is also the case that not conforming to the world means adopting and practising Scriptural values which is in addition to not partaking in certain immoral actions.

A British Church of England Bishop, Lesslie Newbiggin, served in India for about four decades and, when he returned to England in 1974, he was struck by the immense cultural changes he saw in society and its impacts on the church. He was able to obtain this perspective by having a cultural distance from the changes that occurred due to his extended time in India. Obtaining cultural distance is more difficult for us who have not changed culture but there are two helpful approaches. Newbiggin suggested one approach to getting cultural distance which was to immerse ourselves in God’s grand story revealed in the Scriptures and to see our place within it. As we place ourselves in this story we will see more clearly and be more open to the Spirit’s leading on how to live with kingdom values.

A second approach to obtaining cultural distance is to identify the predominant cultural characteristics that surround us and to hold them up to the light of Scripture. By taking this approach we can more readily identify how we may incorrectly interpret Scripture because of our cultural inheritance. Of course, this is also important as we seek to share the Gospel and make disciples in the context of this culture. Unless we cross cultures, we are more likely to engage in the first approach than the second. These days cross-cultural training is mandatory for missionaries but rarely used by those who do not change culture. However, it seems clear that we do need to better understand our culture. We will do this by holding up elements of western culture in the light of Scripture and seek to understand how they may be impacting us. There are many aspects of society that we can agree with, but which, taken out of their Biblical context, are misapplied and can be a form of idolatry (Augustine’s thought that evil is a distortion of the good). For example, the importance that Christ places on the individual can become individualism.

When we study the Scriptures, it is helpful to understand the cultural context that they were written in to determine the intended meaning. The application of the Scriptures requires us to determine its relevance to our situation within our culture. But this process of determining application can be distorted by our unquestioned cultural values. For example, we are culturally disposed to interpret Scripture from an individualistic rather than community perspective and we are also more likely to see God as our servant available to help me in my chosen life direction. Any mission of God’s people has the potential for syncretism (adopting cultural values in opposition to the kingdom).

In future articles we will be describing some of the broader characteristics of western culture, hold them up to Scripture and identify just a few ways our culture may affect our living and discipling. As Christ’s ambassadors, we are seeking to better apply the heart of Jesus prayer in Jn 17:14-18 that we are to be in the world but not of the world.

Question to Ponder: Can you identify one area that you feel Christians have adopted a cultural rather than a kingdom view or behaviour? In what ways have you been influenced by this?

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