Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"The New Evangelical Scandal" same as the Old Evangelical scandal, PART 6


This is one of the deep ironies of the young evangelical ethos. While vehemently rejecting the consumerism of 20th century evangelicalism, young evangelicals have adopted a new consumerist mindset under the guise of engagement with culture—a mindset that earns them access into the social standing they desire. The consumerism that has infected the core of evangelicalism has not been eradicated in the younger generations—it has simply been subsumed under a new teaching.

Here I believe Matthew Lee Anderson also couldn't be more right and unlike my earlier agreement this isn't going to come off as daming with faint praise because I don't think he went far enough on a certain point or was just mistaken, as I understand things, in how he reasons through a position.

Much of what passes for "engaging culture" is simply consumerism that is sanctified wth words like "relevant" or uses a term "redeem" in context to culture. Now certainly Paul was what we might call opportunistic in how he appropriated the altar to the unknown God, opportunistic in the best possible way. There is a time and place and setting in which using knowledge of a culture as a way to share the good news of Christ with someone is utterly fitting. I have friends who came to Christ precisely through this means of witnessing about Jesus.

But ... one can be a witness to Christ without taking this path of engaging culture. Ten years ago I met people at Mars Hill who described The Matrix as an allegory about spirituality. It wasn't an allegory about anything I would consider a remotely Christian spirituality (Wendy, if you're reading this I know we'll just agree to disagree about this, I promise!) Nevertheless, if something is popular enough with Christians it will be appropriated so that someone can be described as a Christ figure or so that someone can be described as pointing to a particular spiritual motiff. The problem is not necessarily that this ever gets done, the problem is that so many evangelical Christians jump to this too quickly. There is a time and place to announce that Jesus is Lord and God without having to use a segue-way.

Relevance is a single rather than a double-edged blade. It only cuts one way, forward in time up to the point the blade loses its edge and then it is either resharpened through circumstantial renewal or the blade loses any ability to cut. The sword of the spirit, Scripture,is a double edged blade that cuts whatever you apply it to and can cut you as well. This doesn't mean that "all" answers to "all" life's questions are in the Bible because that's a sort of biblicism that misunderstands the scope of Scripture. Jesus tells us we should pay taxes and doesn't address whether or not our taxes should be lower (Republicans) or higher (Democrats). There is a lot of room left for argument.

Let me indulge your time by noting that in terms of "relevance" Driscoll has become increasingly irrelevant in terms of what people might call "cultural engagement". He's a husband and father of five who mostly works form his office so he can help raise his family. Veggietales and Christian schooling and research for books and sermons and speaking engagements means that there's less stuff about Jack Bauer and 24 and sometimes stuff about Ultimate Fighting. There's a lot less about contemporary film or connections made from sermons to bits of a Dave Matthews song.

There is addressing culture by negative example by saying Jesus didn't have Mariah Carey on his iPod but Jesus obviously didn't have an iPod so the joke is just a joke. Jesus knew Mariah Carey's music would come about before time began and in His greatness and mercy chose for her music to exist. It is a mystery and I do not understand it but who am I to question the wisdom and sovereignty of the Lord who let Mariah Carey's music come into being and end up on the radio?

And by way of that joke, that's the best point Matthew Lee Anderson makes. Engaging culture is about an evangelical desire to be respectable and to demonstrate a relevance to the culture of the time. If we use our propensity to use the things we want and watch the movies and TVs we want and then attempt to turn that toward a presentation of the Gospel what is happening? Are we really turning all that we do toward Christ as an act of worship or are we sublimating what our real attraction is so that we can better indulge in it? The church in Corinth was fascinated by the spiritual gifts but badly misunderstanding the purpose from and in which they were to be used and misunderstanding the eschatological signifiance of having spiritual gifts. So it can be with cultural engagement, we can be so busy "engaging culture" or attempting to "redeem culture" we forget that the first goal is to love God and our neighbor, not to necessarily reshape either into what makes us feel like we are leaving a legacy. Not that legacies are bad but since Christ is our legacy we in Christ have an imperishable legacy already while everything we do will fade away. Again, as the Preacher put it in Ecclesiates so glumly, there is no remembrance of the past.

With all this in mind Francis Schaeffer embodied what I consider to be a noble quest, to understand the culture and the arts in a way that allowed him to address how Christians might see the thought forms of the world. I hesitate to use "worldview" because that is too much of a buzzword. I would prefer to say that as best I understand Schaeffer's own writing and his son's account of the man Francis Schaeffer engaged culture not merely to demonstrate his relevance or cultural hipness (though that may have been part of what was going on) it seemed he also did it out of love for his neighbor.

The reason I am now so critical of a lot of "cultural engagement" is because it can be so easy to not love one's neighbor through it. As an old Michael Card song puts it, He hopes that we'll realize that we love our neighbor by all that we own and that's not the way He is shown. The impulse to cultural engagement not only can conceal our own essentially consumeristic hearts it can also blind us to who our neighbor is.

Obviously there is nothing necessarily wrong with enjoying and loving things in culture but these goods must not supplant Christ as the highest joy in our lives. Very often I admit this is something I struggle with and I don't go out of my way to watch movies a lot of the time. I own a TV to watch DVDs and rarely watch television more than a handful of times a year. I dont' listen to the radio and tend to spend little time in "cultural outreach" of the sort that tries to use any pop culture trend as a path to talking about Jesus. I tend to either talk directly about how my faith guides me or I don't talk about it much at all.

Conversely, as you may surmise, the internet is a big source of me killing huge amounts of time. So while I don't understand why guys devote hours of their time to football, let alone the Superbowl, and I don't know why people spend time playing board games I realize that someone could look at the time I spend on music or blogging on the internet and ask why I waste so much of my life in these things. Good question. Our pop culture idols that we think can be avenues for bearing a Christian witness may all look and sound and smell and taste and feel different but our struggles often end up being the same.

I believe that admitting that I like to buy this or that or like to spend my time on this or that and not attempting to sanctify it is the best way to go. I don't think it's entirely honest (though it's hardly deceptive in any intentional way) to read the Gospel into things we already like. God has used pop culture to profoundly confront ways in which I have not trusted Him and problems in my life either that I have caused myself or that others have caused for me. Surely God can use anything.

After eight or nine years at Mars Hill I think the specific concern I have had vis a vis Matthew Lee Anderson's comments is that there is more that can go wrong with cultural engagement than consumerism. We can become people who have a one-size-fits-all approach to the culture we absorb. We can be so busy looking for an avenue to explain the Gospel to OTHER PEOPLE we aren't listening and watching and thinking carefully enough to recognize how God can use pop culture to correct OUR understanding of Christ and the good news. We as evangelicals may not realize that we are Abraham givign away his wife to the Egyptians and that the apparently godless Egyptians are about to reveal to us our own failures to be God's chosen people or to exemplify the character of God in our own lives.

In the long run the proclamation of Christ's kingdom does not depend on popular culture or art culture but on the proclamation itself. A guy like Macarthur may bungle a lot (and I most assuredly think he does) but in his criticism of Driscoll I don't think he's wrong if he points out that the proclamation of Christ's kingship does not on cultural engagement so much that we can't simply make the proclamation. I think Macarthur is wrong in how he understands his own criticism to apply to Driscoll specifically, but I think that there is a core element of the criticism that we all need to take to heart. None of us is likely to be culturally relevant at sixty-five and people could look at Driscoll's fondness for 24 or my fondness for Powerpuff Girls and ask, "What does that have to do with Jesus?" I think that in fairness to us both we could say, "Well, hey, I liked the show."

For me, not having any strong evangelistic gifts or anything like that I think I'll just thank the Lord that He has given me life in a world where I can enjoy little things, fleeting things, like Powerpuff Girls episodes on DVD. Driscoll can enjoy Blues Clues with his kids. Engaging culture doesn't just mean engaging stuff you like to make yourself cool, it means engaging culture for the sake of loving your neighbor. Anderson is right to be critical but I believe we should remember that if the motive for "cultural engagement" is genuine love of your neighbor that's okay. It's the engaging culture to have notches in your belt as an evangelical culture warrior who is fighting the forces of evil that stops being about love of neighbor. Just because liberals and social gospel advocates often mess this up doesn't mean we make things better by going the other way.

No comments: