Has the Gospel Changed?

THE GOSPEL STORY ITSELF has not changed, but culture and society has. As a result, the Gospel is viewed against the backdrop of current culture. Culture typically evolves over time—changes in demographics, attitudes toward moral issues, drastic advancements in technology. Accordingly, the method by which we present the Gospel today needs to be such that we do not offend non-believers or appear to be holier-than-thou. Only then will people be willing to listen. It has been suggested by modern-day evangelists that when sharing the Gospel we start where and when God did—in the beginning.

ENGAGING AN EVER-CHANGING CULTURE

It is imperative that we refrain from being dragged along by culture. One of the greatest problems that has frustrated the church is the relation between knowledge and piety—between culture and Christianity. In other words, we don’t want to share a watered-down message. We must always be concerned with proclaiming the Gospel—the entire Gospel. Given the audacity of today’s militant atheists, we should expect increasing objection to the Gospel and challenges to the authenticity and inerrancy of the Bible. By using apologetics to give solid answers, we can help people listen and learn about the most important historical document of all—the whole Bible.

The Gospel should point us toward a time when we can see others—all others—truly as God sees us: as one blood, one flesh, as brothers and sisters. Remember that God truly is the Father of us all; that in Christ the division and the divisiveness between men and women, between different national groups, between different economic circumstances are done away with; that all are alike unto Him; and that even those who do not know Him are known and loved by Him.

CHRISTIANITY VERSUS CULTURE

It is common for believers and non-believers to see religion in Western society as Christianity versus culture—two opposing forces of influence. The church stands on one side of the line and culture on the other. Americans are taking notice that their country is becoming increasingly post-Christian, if not outright anti-Christian. They realize that their beliefs on certain theological and moral issues will increasingly be rejected and mocked by the political, cultural, and academic elite.

The bubble of legalism can’t keep sin out of the church, and it hides one of God’s most useful tools—us. 

If we take a literal us versus them stance, we risk turning the church into a “safe haven” where people seek refuge from the quagmire of unbelief and pluralism. Believers tend to unwittingly perpetuate this “sanctuary city” concept by trying to find the balance between immersing themselves in the world and isolating themselves in a sterile “bubble.” Christians who support this approach have good intentions—they want to preserve the church’s purity, recognizing that the church is under attack and that believers need to hold fast to their faith. They understand that a great battle is being waged (Ephesians 6:11-18); a battle that plays out both visibly in the cultural realm and invisibly in the spiritual realm.

Here’s the thing: Taking this standoffish approach tends to externalize godlessness and treats it as something that can be kept out by man-made walls. Godlessness, however, is a disease of the soul that can never be walled out. Godlessness causes rotting from within. It is troublesome to realize that this mindset tends toward legalism, and it tries to restrict interactions between believers and society. In the immortal words of Dana Carvey’s SNL character Church Lady, “Who could be responsible for this? Is it… Satan?” While it is true that the Christian life involves war against the powers of darkness, it wrongly tries to wage that war by withdrawing from the world.

You can certainly find biblical support for a view that pits the church against culture. Believers with this mentality are clinging to the biblical principle of waging war against that which is evil. They rightly recognize that we must put on the whole armor of God (Ephesians 6:11), fight the good fight of faith (1 Timothy 6:12), resist the devil (James 4:7), and cast down anything that exalts itself against God (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). Be aware, however, that this mindset still falls short—it’s too easy to see ourselves fighting against people instead of sin. God uses the church in his plan to rescue people, not destroy them. This is only a small part of God’s plan for restoration. Our social and cultural contexts are full of unbelievers—but those unbelievers are not merely enemies of God; they are also drowning people in need of a lifeboat. The church is not only a base for soldiers, but also a hospital for the spiritually sick.

But consider this angle instead. It is actually culture that is beating people up. Left to their own devices without God, people will take blow after blow—perhaps without even realizing that it’s culture delivering the pain. False promises, questionable social norms, distorted morality, and unchecked sin present in cultures across the globe can all appear good to people without God.

CHRISTIANITY OF CULTURE

I must admit that cultural changes occurring outside the scope and influence of the church are not necessarily bad. God has enabled all people—believer and non-believer alike—to make good and valuable contributions to society. The abolition of slavery and the human rights movement brought about monumental positive changes. And a thorough and honest search of the records of history will show there were Christians on both sides of these issues. Some Christians sought to preserve the status quo of “free” labor from slaves, while others fought for complete emancipation of black slaves. It’s appropriate to state that Christians who took up arms against Lincoln and the Union in order to preserve slavery were morally wrong.

I don’t believe that culture alone can set the stage and lead us in the right direction. Granted, not all cultural tenets are wrong. But culture is not always right either. Today, in a postmodern world, especially in America, pluralism is the norm. Behavior is often analyzed through the lens of moral relativism. The relativist believes that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect objective or universal moral truths. Instead, such individuals make moral decisions relative to social, cultural, historical, or personal perspectives. Under this tenet, truth is subjective. Bottom line: moral relativists believe that moral or ethical judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (e.g., a specific cultural or historical setting), and that no worldview is uniquely privileged over all others. Not even Christianity.

The Body of Christ cannot simply mirror every decision reached at the cultural level in the hope of winning others to Christ. For example, without God in the picture, culture raises up idols in His place—professional sports stars, actors, politicians, the wealthy and powerful. We must ask, Can the church embrace culture without also embracing its idols? Much of Christian doctrine is black-and-white, whereas culture often speaks in “gray” terms. Believers who subscribe to the Christianity of culture mindset rightly recognize that God created and ordered the world in such a way that left room for mankind to make culture, and that said culture exhibits real aspects of truth, generosity, goodness, and beauty. However, this mentality is misguided because it fails to sufficiently see the way in which every culture, indeed every nuance of culture, is corrupted and distorted due to human sin.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “At an early age I came to believe that the life of culture (that is, of intellectual and aesthetic activity) was very good for its own sake, or even that it was the good for man… I was awakened from this confused state of mind by finding that the friends of culture seemed to me to be exaggerating. In my reaction against what seemed exaggerated I was driven to the other extreme, and began, in my own mind, to belittle the claims of culture.” Lewis added, “I naturally turned first to the New Testament. Here I found, in the first place, a demand that whatever is most highly valued on the natural level is to be held, as it were, merely on sufferance, and to be abandoned without mercy the moment it conflicts with the service of God.”

ANTI-CHRISTIAN BIAS IN PUBLIC EDUCATION

Solomon (1996) wrote, “At the close of the twentieth century American evangelicals find themselves in a diverse, pluralistic culture. Many ideas vie for attention and allegiance. These ideas, philosophies, or worldviews are the products of philosophical and cultural changes. Such changes have come to define our culture.” This begs the question, How is a Christian supposed to respond to such conditions?

According to the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS) standards, “[I]t is clear that the dominant social, economic, cultural and scientific trends that have defined the western world for five centuries are rapidly leading in new directions.” The dominant trends that defined Western civilization are of course the Judeo-Christian worldview. So what does this mean for social studies classes in public schools? The NCSS explains, “The United States and its democracy are constantly evolving and in continuous need of citizens who can adapt… to meet changing circumstances. Meeting that need is the mission of social studies.”

Can it be any clearer? Rather than teach America’s true history and founding principles for the preservation of American liberty and Western civilization, the new mission of social studies is to prepare our children to accept the transformation of America. In fact, the NCSS are missionaries of a new religion operating in the field of American education. Unlike Christians, these particular missionaries have government backing, free reign with captive children, and operate under the guise of “education.” This is pluralism at work. It is a systematic tearing down of the “old” in order to make room for the “new.” It is nothing less than indoctrination with one purpose—to convince our children to reject out-of-hand biblical Christianity and to adopt a secular worldview.

Fiorazo (2012) writes, “Christianity is not the thriving , influential power it once was in America. With a majority of people claiming the Christian tradition, why does our godless culture barely reflect the light of Jesus Christ.” We’re living in sad times when professing Christians know less about the Bible than ever before. We live in a country glutted with biblical material, Christian books, radio and television evangelism, but many Christians are not moving on to spiritual maturity. Additionally, there is a degree of biblical illiteracy in America today. Although surveys indicate that a majority of households report having a Bible, not even 50 percent of those who own Bibles read them regularly. Only 1 percent of young Christians read Scriptures on a daily basis.

There are many whose ultimate goal is to completely eliminate Christianity from public life in America. Militant atheists shout from their lecterns that Christian parents are brainwashing their children; teaching them the “so-called truth” of the Judeo-Christian doctrine. The late Christopher Hitchens said Christian parents are committing a form of child abuse by “indoctrinating” their children with biblical principles. He likened belief in the Virgin birth and the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to believing in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. God’s Not Dead 2 tells the story of a teacher at a public school who comes under fire for answering a student’s question about Jesus. When the teacher refuses to apologize, the school board votes to suspend her and threatens to revoke her teaching certificate. Forced to stand trial to save her career, she hires a lawyer to defend her in court.

We’re faced with sentiment such as this:

“The battle for mankind’s future must be waged and won in the public school classroom by teachers who correctly perceive their role as proselytizers of a new faith…. The classroom must and will become an arena of conflict between the old and the new – the rotting corpse of Christianity, together with all its adjacent evils and misery, and the new faith of humanism.” (John Dunphy, 1983)

CHRISTIANITY UNDER ATTACK

Traditional American Christians have long been on the losing end of culture-war contests—on school prayer, same-sex marriage and other issues. But recent events, including the Supreme Court decision overruling Texas’ restrictions on abortion clinics and the mandate that employers provide access to contraception, have added to the sense that religious expression is under attack. According to recent Pew Research reports, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as religiously affiliated has shrunk while the percentage describing themselves as unaffiliated has grown from 2007 to 2014. The percentage who say they are “absolutely certain” God exists fell to 63% from 71% during the same time period.

A new vigorous secularism has catapulted mockery of Christianity and other forms of religious traditionalism into the mainstream and set a new low for what counts as civil criticism of people’s most-cherished beliefs. In some precincts, the “faith of our fathers” is controversial as never before. Some of the faithful have paid unexpected prices for their beliefs lately: the teacher in New Jersey suspended for giving a student a Bible; the football coach in Washington placed on leave for saying a prayer on the field at the end of a game; the fire chief in Atlanta fired for self-publishing a book defending Christian moral teaching; the Marine court-martialed for pasting a Bible verse above her desk; and other examples of the new intolerance. Anti-Christian activists hurl smears like “bigot” and “hater” at Americans who hold traditional beliefs about marriage and accuse anti-abortion Christians of waging a supposed “war on women.”

Ravi Zacharias said, “The Bible is a controversial book that invokes both devotion and derision. It has inspired some of the greatest thinkers this world has ever known and attracted the hostility of others. It takes a central role in any study of Western civilization and touches the most unlikely of souls.” The current challenges to the Bible are for the most part launched from the postmodern worldview. By its very nature the postmodern worldview is difficult to define. It is an eclectic movement, originating in aesthetics, architecture, and philosophy. A postmodern perspective is skeptical of any grounded theoretical perspectives. Ostensibly, a postmodern theorist believes there are no truly truthful truths. Postmodernism rejects most approaches to art, science, literature, philosophy, and religion. This worldview is about discontinuity, suspicion of motive, and an acceptance of logical incoherence. At the root of postmodernism is a strong denial of absolute authority. Ironically, the belief that there is no absolute truth cannot be true unless there is an absoluteness to the absence of absolute truth.

And we wonder why it’s so difficult to fight pluralism, moral relativism, and militant atheism.

References

Fiorazo, D. (2012). Eradicate: Blotting Out God in America. Abbotsford, WI: Life Sentence Publishing, Inc.

Lewis, C.S. (1940). Christianity and Culture. Retrieved from: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0040571X4004023702

Solomon, J. (1992). Christianity and Culture. Retrieved from: http://www.leaderu.com/orgs/probe/docs/culture.html

 

 

Advertisements

Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today (Part One)

“But sanctify the LORD God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15, NASB).

apologetics2.jpg

CHRISTIAN APOLOGETICS SEEKS TO build bridges to unbelievers by presenting reasons and evidence that Christianity is true, rational and worthy of belief. Oxford theologian Alister E. McGrath said, “…Christian apologetics represents the serious and sustained engagement with ‘ultimate questions’ raised by a culture, people, group or individual aiming to show how the Christian faith is able to provide meaningful answers to such questions. Where is God in the suffering of the world? Is faith in God reasonable?” Agnostics and atheists are quick to conclude that either God is all-loving but not powerful enough to stop the evil that exists in the world, or He is all-powerful, but not willing to wipe out evil.

goodbad

Apologetics in a Post-Modern World

If everyone already belonged to one religion, apologetics might still be necessary as a way to provide believers with the best possible grounds for their faith. But clearly that is not the culture we live in. Modernism, which became popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is rather difficult to pinpoint because it encompasses a variety of specific artistic and philosophic movements including symbolism, futurism, surrealism, dadaism, and others. Its basic tenet involves rejection of all religious and moral principles as the sole means of cultural progress. Consequently, it includes an extreme break with tradition. Specifically, modernism developed out of Romanticism’s revolt against the effects of the Industrial Revolution and bourgeois values.

postmodernism graphic.jpg

When modernism failed to cure the ills of society—war, famine, disease, exploitation, global environmental crises—postmodernism came on the scene. Postmodernists believe there is no such thing as absolute truth; rather, truth is a contrived illusion, misused by people in power to control others. Truth and error are synonymous. Facts are too limiting, changing erratically and often. Traditional logic and objectivity are spurned by postmodernists. Traditional authority is considered to be false and corrupt. Postmodernists wage intellectual battle against traditional truth and reality. They despise the unfulfilled promises of science, technology, government, and religion.

We presently live in a deeply diverse world characterized by pluralism. Pluralism is a word we encounter all the time, but few truly understand what it implies. It has at least three primary definitions. Thoroughly exploring what we mean by pluralism will help us clarify a lot of what we encounter in contemporary society. And getting the definition clear is necessary for any apologist who wants to understand and address his or her audience accurately.

Pluralism as Mere Plurality.

The basic definition of pluralism means the state of being more than one. A rudimentary example would be choices of breakfast cereal in the grocery store. Sociologists suggest that such proliferation of choices in modern society—the characteristic of various goods, services, and ideologies—is a process they call pluralization. Although discussions about pluralism are not new, all the relevant questions need to be carefully considered. What is God like? Is God a personal being or an impersonal force of energy? If Christianity is true, does it necessarily follow that all other religions are wrong? Can so many be wrong, or are all religions at least partially or equally valid? The fact of a pluralistic world has required theologians to adopt positions regarding believers in other religions.

Today’s militant atheists are no longer satisfied with simply choosing to not believe in God. They’ve taken on the “mission” of attacking Christianity and its ardent followers as religious bigots who are elitist, narrow-minded, deluded, and exclusionary in their approach to God and heaven. Granted, worldviews are mutually exclusive of all other beliefs, but it does not mean holding a belief in one true God makes the believer an elitist. Christians do not think they are morally better than people in other religions. Because Christianity does not teach salvation through works but salvation by grace through faith, all boasting is excluded (see Romans 3:27).

Pluralism as Preference.

This second definition goes beyond mere recognition that there is more than one; rather, it affirms that it is good that there is more than one. Here pluralism moves from sociological description to ideological description. Rather than “what is,” there is “what ought to be.” Pluralism can be expressed even about ultimate questions of life and death. Someone might prefer there to be more than one philosophy, more than one ideology, more than one religion in a society because the presence of competing alternatives prevents any individual or any group from asserting unchallenged claims to truth, justice and power. Such pluralism, on this understanding, also can lead to mutual and complementary instruction from each particular point of view.

In this regard, we are all pluralists. But preferring plurality in some instances does not, of course, commit one to preferring it in all instances. Consider that some individuals prefer matrimonial pluralism (polygamy) over monogamy. Someone else might support private ownership of property while others might believe in communal ownership, or the rule of law to anarchy, and so on. We must resist the illusion that pluralism means everyone is right and no one is wrong. Pluralism is often touted on the campuses of our liberal colleges as the only way to believe. In reality, most of us are pluralistic in only some matters and definitely not pluralistic in others.

Pluralism as Relativism.

Someone might recognize a situation as pluralism: “There is more than one.” Someone else might actually prefer a situation to be pluralistic: “It’s good that there is more than one.” But this level of pluralism goes further, declaring that no single option among the available varieties in a pluralistic situation can be judged superior to the others. For example, consider the claim everything is beautiful. To hold the attitude that everything is beautiful is to see every option as good. But is this truly accurate? Even on the basic level of vanilla versus chocolate, we’re talking subjective preference not objective judgment. When it comes to flavors of ice cream, all have their merits and all should be affirmed.

its all relative

This is clearly not applicable to the bewildering variety of religions. Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Native religion, Islam, Wicca—all are belief systems considered “good” by their adherents. All can be labeled as “spiritual paths.” This becomes a rather sticky situation, however, when lifelong believers of these various religions are convinced that his or her belief is in fact the best of all. Interestingly, many young college students, when pressed, tend to confess that they feel they shouldn’t think that way. Atheists such as Richard Dawkins believe parents should not be allowed to force-feed their doctrine on their children. In fact, he sees this as a form of child abuse, indicating it takes away the child’s freedom to think for himself or herself.

dawkins atheism.jpg

Allan Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind, complains that most college students today believe that everything is relative. Some are religious, some are atheist; some are to the Left, some to the Right; some intend to be scientists, some humanists or professionals or businessmen; some are poor, some rich. They are unified only in their relativism, and they take comfort in that unity. They believe relativism is vital to openness; and this is the virtue, the only virtue, to which all primary and secondary education in America has dedicated itself for more than fifty years. Therefore, openness is the great insight of modern times. The true believer is the real danger. Interestingly, the obsession that one is right no matter what has led to persecution, slavery, xenophobia, racism, chauvinism, and exploitation—not openness. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right. Instead, it is said that to think you’re right in the first place is wrong. This is precisely what has led to the modern-day concept that there is no way to tell good from evil!

It’s Not About Saying You’re Sorry!

Apologetics has little to do with how we understand the word apology today. Rather, it is derived from the Greek word apologia, which means to make a reasoned defense. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance describes apologetics as “a speech in defense” or “intelligent reasoning.” Etymology indicates apologetics was originally the term for making a legal defense in ancient courts. Accordingly, as used in 1 Peter 3:15, it means “to make a defense to everyone” or “to give an answer to every man.” It is vital that we not ignore the second part of the verse, which admonishes us to defend the faith with gentleness and respect (NIV).

respect

The question is  How can believers both defend and commend their religion without needlessly offending their neighbors and exacerbating the tensions of their community? After all, apologetics can bless and apologetics can curse. When engaging in defense of the Christian faith, we must always look for the most loving approach. Peterson (2006) says in his translation The Message, “If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all His mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, ‘Jump!’ and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing… no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love” (1 Corinthians 13:1-2, 7). It is vital that we show the ability to critique a position or argument without lambasting the other person.

Effective Apologists are Good Listeners!

Be prepared to actively listen to people with whom you are having a discussion. Seek to understand where they are coming from. Never presume to know their “character” simply because of what they’ve said or written about their religion or cultural beliefs. Let them have their say whenever they wish to speak. It is important to be wary of steamrollers, but be careful of not being one yourself. It’s better to allow them to speak too much than too little or you’ll be accused of cutting them off at the knees. Respond to what they actually said, not what you think they should have said. Try to keep them on point, however, which is not always easy.

active listening chart.jpeg

If you’re debating them about Scripture, ask them to stay within one passage and reach a conclusion with you on that passage before moving on to another. You might not realize it, but just because you disagree with someone does not mean there’s nothing you can learn from them! Every individual has unique experiences and ideas, and you never know when their thoughts might compliment yours. Remain teachable, even from those with whom you vehemently disagree. Everybody makes mistakes from time to time. When someone points out an error or mistake on your part, do not try to cover it up. Admit to it, noting it was an honest mistake. If someone insists you’ve made a mistake when you are well-grounded in what you’ve stated, promise to check your sources and get back to them on it. It takes grace and humility to admit when you’re wrong, but people will respect you for it.

Don’t be baited by personal insults. Ad hominem attacks, which are by nature leveled against an individual rather than an argument, have unfortunately become quite common when discussing sensitive subjects such as religion. We should never repay insult with insult. Remember, Christ never retaliated against or mocked those who mocked Him. 

What’s Next?

Next Monday I will present a detailed look at the classical approach to Christian apologetics. What exactly does Christianity believe? Can truth be objectively known? What are the three main arguments for the existence of God? Are miracles possible in a physical universe? Is the New Testament historically accurate? Did Jesus actually rise from the dead? We’ll also look at the hypocrisy of intolerant tolerance. For example, when our public schools shifted their policy from decidedly Christian to “neutral,” it did not take long for them to go from neutral to intolerance. Public schools have become “Christian-free zones” in the name of so-called separation of church and state. We’ve allowed our government leaders to interpret and enforce the First Amendment as freedom from religion rather than freedom of religion.

Please join me next week for Part Two of Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today.