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I am a 1967 graduate of The Citadel (Distinguished Military Student, member of the Economic Honor Society, Dean's List), a 1975 graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div., magna cum laude, member of the Phi Alpha Chi academic honor society); I attended the Free University of Amsterdam and completed my History of Dogma there and then received a full scholarship from the Dutch government to transfer to the sister school in Kampen, Holland. In 1979 I graduated from the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Churches of Holland (Drs. with honors in Ethics). My New Testament minor was completed with Herman Ridderbos. I am also a 2001 Ph.D. graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary (Systematic Theology) in Philly with a dissertation on the "unio mystica" in the theology of Dr. Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). I am a former tank commander, and instructor in the US Army Armor School at Ft. Knox, KY. I have been happily married to my childhood sweetheart and best friend, Sally, for 43 years. We have 6 children, one of whom is with the Lord, and 14 wonderful grandchildren.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Engaging the What? (X)

An Intriguing & Interesting Question

Like it or not, the modern Church is being forced to relinquish her obsession with entertainment and superficiality and is being forced to “put up or shut up.” Some are opting for the latter. In a provocative article in World magazine (April 25, 2009), Tony Woodlief addresses the matter of “Practical atheism” among those who call themselves Christians (p. 54). Woodlief quips, “While the vast majority of Americans claim to be Christian, in other words, a good many of us don’t seem capable of explaining what that means.” (Ibid.) The good folks at Barna Research surmise that of those who call themselves Christians only about 10% hold consistent biblical beliefs. (Ibid.) That is to say, only about 10% of professing Christians hold to the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, biblical justification by faith, and a biblical worldview concerning God, man, society, truth, knowledge, and ethics. According to the Barna researchers, only a small percentage of those claiming to be Christians believe that the Bible should play a big role in their ethical decision-making. This might explain why so many who call themselves Christians voted for a man who is so outspokenly pro-homosexual and pro-abortion. Is it just me, or are those two positions impossible to square with biblical truth?

One of the most trenchant statements in Woodlief’s article reads this way: “The way many churches respond to declining public interest exacerbates the problem. The Christian church grew when its leaders stressed biblical study and fervent prayer, each of which was considered, in the early church, a means of knowing God. The modern feel-good church, meanwhile, de-emphasizes both in favor of ‘messages’ that are ‘relevant to my life.’ (Don’t tell me what Job said about the imponderable glory of God, tell me how to have fulfilling personal relationships.)” (Ibid.) Repeated pleas have been made—to no avail—to have some of our PCA gurus clearly delineate what they mean when they instruct their congregations to “engage (the) culture.” I must admit that I have heard a number of such sermons by church planters and it remains unclear what they mean for the troops to do. The congregation walks out of the meeting place understanding that it is incumbent upon them to engage culture, but unsure just how they should go about doing it. Since I’m PCA, I designate my own church affiliation first, but not with the idea that they are the only ones encouraging (vague) cultural involvement.

In fact, I am all in favor of cultural and political involvement, but since I cut my teeth on Calvin, Bullinger, the Puritans, Bavinck, and Kuyper (just to mention a few) and not McLaren or Wallis, I tend to be more critical of the modern stuff—not because it’s modern, but because it is so deficient in substance. In addition, I am suspect of much of the admonitions to engage because it is virtually bereft of any notions of being counterculture or of the healthy notion of the biblical antithesis when it comes to culture. It’s one thing for a pastor to urge his flock to be culturally aware and to engage literature, music, movies, DVDs, TV programs, and the like, and it’s quite another neither to prepare nor warn them for the spiritual pitfalls if they are not biblically discerning and wise. One of the best recent examples of warning and preparation is Brian Godawa’s book Hollywood Worldviews.[1] Brian does an admirable job of what to look for in the movies and what to watch out for as well.

It is not as if no one besides Godawa has issued any warnings at all, however. James Davison Hunter has written several books, one on evangelicalism, and points to where Christian efforts need to be very circumspect when engaging culture[2]. D.A. Carson has also written many helpful monographs on Christianity and culture,[3] but the most helpful writer that I have found in “our time” is David Wells, from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. In his many volumes on the evangelical church, David has issued a clarion call and has sounded a well-documented warning about how the evangelical church is crumbling from within. But few seem prepared to listen and once you’ve started down a particular road, stubborn human nature makes it difficult to admit being wrong. The net result is tantamount to polishing the brass and rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Those who wasted decades in the mega-church tend to hang around still; against better judgment, knowing that something has been and still is dreadfully wrong; dreadfully unbiblical. We’re witnessing the same phenomenon in the Emergent church movement as well. The wheels are coming off, but some of those who have been emerging and conversing for a decade-and-a-half will, no doubt, continue to hang around a spiritually bankrupt undertaking that every day more and more looks, thinks, and acts like the world and the theological liberalism of the Social Gospel movement.

The upshot is that we have those who call themselves Christians attempting to rationalize casting their vote for a President who has a 100% positive rating with Planned Parenthood, NARAL, NOW, and every pro-abortion organization on the planet. These are the same folks that want us to engage culture, especially when it involves universal health care. They want us to buy into the bogus concept of global warming and hug trees and Al Gore and attempt to end global poverty, even though no president, Democrat or Republican, has effectively done so to this point in history. If we cannot solve the problem of poverty domestically, how can we expect to solve it internationally? And, oh, by the way, no European or Asian nation has solved it either in case you were thinking about asking them to help us.

Even though a number of modern day pastors will not openly admit it, deep inside they believe “that Christianity has had its day, and can no longer live with our present-day culture.”[4] Well, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say that any real pastor would never concede that Christianity has had its day. That’s fair enough, especially since Bavinck was referring to the manner in which the world thought about the Christian faith often in history. There is a point to be made, however, that the latter part of Bavinck’s statement is applicable to some modern pastors. Something has to give; something has to change in order to make the gospel relevant to modern man, is the thinking. As Bavinck points out in his lecture on “Revelation and Culture,” his day was not the first time people thought Christianity was defunct. What is being suggested by modern church planters today has all been thought, said, and done before. One of the key reasons Christians should not despair is that it is Christ who gathers, protects, and defends his Church, by his Word and Spirit (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 21, Q/A 54).

What is quite often not taken into account is that “modern culture is an abstract name for many phenomena, and forms no unity at all. Not only are there innumerable factors which have contributed to its development, but it is also in the highest degree divided in itself.”[5] What precisely does Bavinck mean? Here is his explication: “Everywhere, and in all domains, in politics, social economy, art, science, morals, instruction, education, there are parties, tendencies, and schools which stand in opposition to one another; the realms of justice and culture, church and state, faith and science, capital and labor, nomism and antinomism, combat each other, and proceed on different principles.”[6]

This being the case, a simple appeal to “engage (the) culture” is insufficient for it flattens the complexity of the matter at hand. Moreover, it provides no specific approach. What could or should it mean to the man or woman in the pew to engage politics? Social economy? Education? Morals? In addition, there is no accompanying admonition to remember that Christians are to be, at crucial times, countercultural or antithetical to culture. Culture is not “monolithic” and an encouragement to engage it without more detailed information can set untaught Christians for getting hammered or worse, absorbed by or enamored of culture. In point of fact, one of the main concerns of pastors today is that their congregants are far too worldly.

Bavinck writes that in his time “There is in modern society a striving after independence and freedom, such as was unknown in earlier times, or at least not recognized in the same degree.”[7] Allow me to put this in a Southern California/American context. Some parents do not function as parents and I’m not just talking about those who live in or near the poverty line. This is a phenomenon that crosses race, gender, and economic boundaries. Many secular—and some Christian—parents are far too interested in, to borrow a phrase from Neil Postman, entertaining themselves to death. What specifically should we do to correct that as we engage the culture? 50% of black males in New York City are unemployed. How do we effectively engage a culture of unemployment? What does it mean for Christians to engage the culture of education and the National Education Association? Does it mean that Christians ought to be leery about sending their children to government schools? Do we engage culture by being in favor of a voucher system? How do we engage a culture whose current President pushed hard for extra hate-crime legislation that favors homosexuality? How do we engage a culture where approximately 50% believe that abortion on demand is their “right,” and the President gets on national TV and espouses a culture of death? How do Christians engage a national debt that neither our children nor our grandchildren will be able to pay? Should Christians accept evolution as a viable option for life, especially since objecting to it might upset Christianity’s cultured—and tenured—despisers. Will capitulating on key doctrines make Bill Maher happy, and is that even an important consideration?

You see, up to this point, engaging the culture meant having classical or jazz music, going to art exhibitions and haute couture in general. Certainly, this can be part of engaging culture, but I’m wondering what, after all this heavy-duty engaging, has changed in culture. Has American culture changed one iota in light of our efforts? Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that we should not make attempts to make inroads into the moral, political, and economic morass of our 21st century modern culture, but are we realistically assessing if we’re doing the right thing or heading in the right direction?

Added to this is the question of whether the modern Church and the PCA in particular has become more knowledgeable in the Word, holier in her actions, and more deeply concerned about evangelizing the lost. I am convinced that it is both wrong and dangerous to proceed from the thesis that evangelism trumps everything. In Galatians 1:6-10, the apostle Paul reminds the Church that there is but one gospel. Twice in those verses, he employs a very strong word meaning anathema (avna,qema; anáthema). I recently said to our Men’s Bible Study that I am convinced that what we call Apologetics should be a sub-section of evangelism. If the one to whom we’re presenting the gospel has a question about Christianity, we answer it and then right back to presenting the gospel to them. For example, if a CEO, CFO, or UFO, asks us the Christian view of abortion, we should clearly and succinctly get back to the gospel, stating that if this person has had an abortion and repents and believes then Christ’s blood is sufficient to cover that horrific sin as well.

In our next issue we shall take up Herman Bavinck’s thesis that “The heteronomy of law and the autonomy of man are reconciled only by…theonomy.”[8]

[1] Brian Godawa, Hollywood Worldviews. Watching Films with Wisdom & Discernment, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002).

[2] See, for example, James Davison Hunter, Evangelicalism, The Coming Generation, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987).

[3] Comp. D.A. Carson, Christ & Culture Revisited, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008); The Gagging of God, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996); & D.A. Carson & John Woodbridge (eds.), God & Culture, Essays in Honor of Carl F.H. Henry, (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1993).

[5] Ibid., 251.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 253.

[8] Ibid., 263.



Blogger Pastor St. John said...

To engage the culture...I look at it this way: the culture is the world. The world is not a friend of grace. The world lies in darkness. The culture is bent and tainted by sin. Sooooo, I believe Christians in America should see American culture as shot through with evil. The culture is an enemy. So, to "engage the culture" means to "engage the enemy." How do you engage the enemy? You battle the enemy. You wrestle the enemy. You try to save people from the clutches of the enemy. You try to defeat the enemy. In the Church, and in our Christian living, we should replace the worldly culture with a Christian culture. So, "Onward Christian Soldiers." To "engage the culture," definitely must NOT mean to become a part of it.

2:12 PM  
Blogger Bradley said...

Pastor St. John:

You write this post, but the link to your profile includes your zodiac sign and astrological year of birth.

Help me with that.


6:58 AM  
Blogger Pastor St. John said...

You see, it's just as I said. The culture is my enemy! I didn't put that stuff there. It is automatically stuck in by eblogger. The culture is attacking me! :)

8:14 AM  
Blogger Jhonsun said...

@Bradley, Blogger puts that information on a profile (based on registration information) automatically. Some people don't even know it's there, especially if they never look at their own profiles or they don't know how to take it off.

1:54 PM  
Blogger Bradley said...

Thanks for helping me! One of the things I've learned from Ron's blog is ask first, attack later.

Looks like somebody needs to have a chat with eblogger.


2:41 PM  
Blogger Blank Slate said...

Great Article!

Way to long between them for my liking.

Blessings to you and yours,


7:22 AM  
Blogger donsands said...

"The good folks at Barna Research surmise that of those who call themselves Christians only about 10% hold consistent biblical beliefs."

Barna is a bit strange in his theology, isn't he? But I suppose his research is good, or even very good?

If he's right, then 90% of people who say they are Christians, are not Christians.

Wonderfully written post. Very emlightening.

I suppose I simply live my life on this earth thinking of Christ all the time. The Savior sought me and bought me in the 1984-85, and I'm a different person. I share the gospel as much as I can. Sometimes i become too timid, other times I'm too bold.

The lord alos brought my wife into the light, and my daughter, and she married a Christian, and they have three sons, who are growing up in the Church, and I hope I am a good witness to them as well.

I write articles to my community newspaper, about abortion, Obama, the war, homosxual marraige, and I also right to Obama, and have even called my Comgressman, Ben Cardin.

Just living for the Lord, and confessing my sin, and growing in His grace, while supporting my church and getting blessed by the Lord, so I can serve the Body of Christ.
I have a seamless gutter company, and so I know a lot of people. Some think I am just religious, well, most do.

Is that engaging the culture?

2:25 PM  

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