Author: Mark Johnson

Our Time (part 9)

I am sharing some thoughts from God in the Wasteland (Eerdmans, 1994) by David Wells. According to Wells, this book deals with how “cultural factors influenced the evangelical church and what steps need “to be taken to reverse the situation” (ix).

Our generation is rapidly growing deaf to the summons of the external God. He has been so internalized, so tamed by the needs of religious commerce, so submerged beneath the traffic of modern psychological need that he has almost completely disappeared. All too often, he now leans weakly on the church, a passive bystander, a co-conspirator in the effort to dismantle two thousand years of Christian thought about God and what he has declared himself to be. That is to say, God has become weightless. The church continues its business of satisfying the needs of the self—needs defined by the individual—and God, who is himself viewed and marketed as a product, becomes powerless to change the definition of that need or to prescribe the means by which it might be satisfied. When the consumer is sovereign, the product (in this case God himself) must be subservient God (101).

In a psychologized culture such as ours, there is deep affinity for what is relational but a dis-ease with what is moral. This carries over into the church as an infatuation with the love of God and an embarrassment at his holiness (114).

We imagine that the great purposes of life are psychological rather than moral. We imagine that the great purposes of life are realized in the improvement of our own private inner disposition. We imagine that for those who love God and are called according to his purpose, all things work together for their satisfaction and the inner tranquillity of their lives (114-115).

The fact is, of course, that the New Testament never promises anyone a life of psychological wholeness or offers a guarantee of the consumer’s satisfaction with Christ. To the contrary, it offers the prospect of indignities, loss, damage, disease, and pain. The faithful in Scripture were scorned, beaten, imprisoned, shipwrecked, and executed. The gospel offers no promises that contemporary believers will be spared these experiences, that they will be able to settle down to the sanitized comfort of an inner life freed of stresses, pains, and ambiguities; it simply promises that through Christ, God will walk with us in all the dark places of life, that he has the power and the will to invest his promises with reality, and that even the shadows are made to serve his glory and our best interests. A therapeutic culture will be inclined to view such promises as something of a disappointment; those who understand that reality is at heart moral because God is centrally holy will be satisfied that this is all they need to know (115).

We will not be able to recover the vision and understanding of God’s grandeur until we recover an understanding of ourselves as creatures who have been made to know such grandeur. This must begin with the recovery of the idea that as beings made in God’s image, we are fundamentally moral beings, not consumers, that the satisfaction of our psychological needs pales in significance when compared with the enduring value of doing what is right. Religious consumers want to have a spirituality for the same reason that they want to drive a stylish and expensive auto. Costly obedience is as foreign to them in matters spiritual as self-denial is in matters material. In a culture filled with such people, restoring weight to God is going to involve much more than simply getting some doctrine straight; it’s going to entail a complete reconstruction of the modern self-absorbed pastiche personality. The cost of accomplishing this may well be deep, sustained repentance (115).

What do you think? More to come.

Our Time (part 8)

I am sharing some thoughts from God in the Wasteland (Eerdmans, 1994) by David Wells. According to Wells, this book deals with how “cultural factors influenced the evangelical church and what steps need “to be taken to reverse the situation” (ix).

Worldliness, as we have seen, is that set of practices in a society, its values and ways of looking at life, that make sin look normal and righteousness look strange. It is the view of the world that puts the sinner at its center and relegates God to the periphery (86).

Technique is being substituted for truth, marketing action for thought, the satisfaction of the individual for the health of the church, a therapeutic vision of the world for a doctrinal vision, the unmanageable by the manageable, organism by organization, those who can preach the Word of God by those who can manage an organization, the spiritual by the material. At the center of these substitutions is an individualism fired by a shallow, self-centered consumerism (86-87).

It is one of the defining marks of Our Time that God is now weightless. I do not mean by this that he is ethereal but rather that he has become unimportant. He rests upon the world so inconsequentially as not to be noticeable. He has lost his saliency for human life. Those who assure the pollsters of their belief in God’s existence may nonetheless consider him less interesting than television, his commands less authoritative than their appetites for affluence and influence, his judgment no more awe-inspiring than the evening news, and his truth less compelling than the advertisers’ sweet fog of flattery and lies. That is weightlessness. It is a condition we have assigned him after having nudged him out to the periphery of our secularized life. His truth is no longer welcome in our public discourse (88-89).

When God becomes weightless, as I believe he is so often today, we lose the doctrinal signals that might otherwise warn us that some profound change has taken place—the sorts of signals that once warned of the threat of heresy. Too often in Our Time, there is only peace and quiet. The traditional doctrine of God remains entirely intact while its saliency vanishes. The doctrine is believed, defended, affirmed liturgically, and in every other way held to be inviolable—but it no longer has the power to shape and to summon that it has had in previous ages (89).

God has not disappeared in the sense that he has been abducted or overwhelmed. He is not like a child snatched away while its parents were momentarily distracted. No, God is more like a child that has been abandoned within a family, still accorded a place in the house, but not in the home (89-90).

Much of what should be understood as transcendent is either disappearing or is now being relocated to what is immanent, and what is immanent is then being filtered through the sieve of modern experience. The upshot of all this is that what was once objective in God’s being, what once stood over against the sinner, is either being lost or transformed into something we discover first and foremost in ourselves in such a way that God’s immanence is typically psychologized. These changes say a lot about our internal landscape and our worldliness, for a God who has thus lost weight is no longer the God of biblical faith or classical Christianity. A God with whom we are on such easy terms and whose reality is little different from our own—a God who is merely there to satisfy our needs—has no real authority to compel and will soon begin to bore us. This is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is scarcely even the God of the philosophers, and certainly not the God of Jesus Christ (92-93).

What do you think? More to come.

Our Time (part 7)

I am sharing some thoughts from God in the Wasteland (Eerdmans, 1994) by David Wells. According to Wells, this book deals with how “cultural factors influenced the evangelical church and what steps need “to be taken to reverse the situation” (ix).

What is going to happen when churches meet all of the felt needs of their consumers and then realize that they have failed to meet the genuine need for meaning? Meaning is provided by the functioning of truth—specifically biblical truth—in the life of the congregation. . . In their model of the religious market, they notice that “as denominations have modernized their doctrines and embraced temporal values, they have gone into decline.” In America, they say, true success has come only to those groups aggressively committed “to vivid otherworldliness” (75-76).

A business is in the market simply to sell its products; it doesn’t ask consumers to surrender themselves to the product. The church, on the other hand, does call for such a surrender. It is not merely marketing a product; it is declaring Christ’s sovereignty over all of life and declaring the necessity of obedient submission to him and to the truth of his Word (76)

The church is in the business of truth, not profit. Its message—the message of God’s Word—enters the innermost place in a person’s life, the place of secrets and anguish, of hope and despair, of guilt and forgiveness, and it demands to be heard and obeyed in a way that not even the most brazen and unprincipled advertisers would think of emulating (76).

Therapeutic models of reality tend to shy away from the concept of sin (81).

The fact is that while we may be able to market the church, we cannot market Christ, the gospel, Christian character, or meaning in life. The church can offer handy child care to weary parents, intellectual stimulation to the restless video generation, a feeling of family to the lonely and dispossessed—and, indeed, lots of people come to churches for these reasons. But neither Christ nor his truth can be marketed by appealing to consumer interest because the premise of all marketing is that the consumer’s need is sovereign, that the customer is always right, and this is precisely what the gospel insists cannot be the case (82).

It is surely ironic that those who seek to promote the church have adopted strategies that deliberately obscure its essence. The church should be known as a place where God is worshiped, where the Word of God is heard and practiced, and where life is thought about and given its most searching and serious analysis (84).

What do you think? More to come.

Our Time Part 6

I am sharing some thoughts from God in the Wasteland (Eerdmans, 1994) by David Wells. According to Wells, this book deals with how “cultural factors influenced the evangelical church and what steps need “to be taken to reverse the situation” (ix).

Because of our deep need to conform, we have in effect allowed pollsters to become our teachers and ethicists, our philosophers and theologians (58).

The past few decades have seen . . . a gradual descent into the “self” movement, a psychologizing of faith, and an adaptation of Christian belief to a therapeutic culture. . . . we have lost our focus on transcendent biblical truth (58).

It is, of course, true that all human beings are made in the image of God and are spiritually descended from the same Adam, so sin has essentially the same character in all people, whether ancient or modern, black or white, Eastern or Western, male or female, educated or uneducated. At the same time, ethnic and cultural differences do create differences in the specific contours of worldliness from one to another. Every culture makes some sins easier to indulge in and others more difficult, throws a cloak of legitimacy over some but not others. It is especially important for the church, in its own cultural location, to be able to discern generically how sin is made to look normal and normative and how righteousness is made to look strange (59).

We are nothing if not consumers—consumers of things, words, images, sex, power, relationships, experiences, and ethnicity. We are all suspended in a state of unsatisfied desire, perpetually expecting that immediate satisfaction is at hand, trying to work out the key to obtaining it. There is scarcely any available resource that has not been pressed into use to provide satisfaction, emancipation, or self-actualization; there is scarcely any part of life over which we, as a society, do not seek control in the interests of ease, security, and having plenty. Those are the hallmarks of consumption: a hunger for satisfaction on the part of those who consume and a hunger for control on the part of those who dominate the processes of production. The primacy of the consumer mentality has loosed two connected revolutions on the modern world—the therapeutic and the managerial (61).

The therapeutic and managerial revolutions presume to offer a kind of secular providence, transferring the control of the world from the hands of God to those of managers and therapists (61-62).

Evangelicals have been willing to bestow legitimacy only on ideas that work (67).

Our Time (part 5)

Last week I began sharing some thoughts from God in the Wasteland (Eerdmans, 1994) by David Wells. According to Wells, this book deals with how “cultural factors influenced the evangelical church and what steps need “to be taken to reverse the situation” (ix).

The biblical authors see everything from a theocentric viewpoint, and secular writers see everything from an anthropocentric viewpoint (44).

In a theocentric vision, all of life is understood from within the perspective that God himself has provided for its understanding; in a solely anthropocentric vision, all of life is evaluated from within the perspective that fallen human nature provides. Our choice of center, our choice of which vantage point we will choose to read the world from—whether it is that of God or the corrupted self, “this age” or “the age to come”—has momentous consequences (45).

The Enlightenment worked its dark magic by seizing such Christian motifs as salvation, providence, and eschatology and rewriting them in humanistic terms, offering their substance in this-worldly ways. It replaced the Christian virtues with the humanistic virtues of truth, freedom, and justice, promoting them as the means to social and political salvation in the here and now (47).

Richard Keyes argues that true idols are internal spiritual configurations. The heart—no less the modern heart—is an idol factory. Idolatry, ancient and modern alike, consists in trusting some substitute for God to serve some uniquely divine function (52).

Why do people choose the substitute over God himself? Probably the most important reason is that it obviates accountability to God. We can meet idols on our own terms because they are our own creations. They are safe, predictable, and controllable (53).

Worldliness is a religious matter. The world, as the New Testament authors speak of it, is an alternative to God. It offers itself as an alternative center of allegiance. It provides counterfeit meaning (54).

What is plainly missing, then, is discernment, and this has much to do with the dislocation of biblical truth from the life of the church today and much to do with the dying of its theological soul. Discernment is a spiritual capacity. It is the insight that comes with Christian wisdom. It is the ability to see “through” life, to see it for what it really is. . . . The heart of the ability to discern right from wrong in the actual circumstances of life is the rich flowering that God intends from the interactions of the truth of his Word, reflection on it, and the moral character that grows out of it (55).

What do you think? More to come.

Our Time – part 4

In the three previous “Our Time” articles, I provided you with thoughts from David Wells’ book, No Place For Truth. We need to now push forward into the follow-up book by Well’s entitled God in the Wasteland (Eerdmans, 1994). Wells notes in the Preface to Wasteland that No Place for Truth “produced only half the picture” . . . because “It offers an explanation of the cultural factors that have diminished the place and importance of theology in the church, but it offers no suggestions for a remedy of the problem” (ix). God in the Wasteland begins “developing the other half of the picture” concerning how the cultural factors influenced the evangelical church and what steps need “to be taken to reverse the situation” (ix).

“Worldliness is that system of values and beliefs, behaviors and expectations, in any given culture that have at their center the fallen human being and that relegate to their periphery any thought about God. Worldliness is what makes sin look normal in any age and righteousness seem odd” (29).

“It is one of the remarkable features of contemporary church life that so many are attempting to heal the church by tinkering with its structures, its services, its public face. This is clear evidence that modernity has successfully palmed off one of its great deceits on us, convincing us that God himself is secondary to organization and image, that the church’s health lies in its flow charts, its convenience, and its offerings rather than in its inner life, its spiritual authenticity, the toughness of its moral intentions, its understanding of what it means to have God’s Word in this world” (30).

“The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is that God rests too inconsequentially upon the church. His truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common” (30).

“There is a profound sense in which the church has to be “otherworldly.” It carries within itself a discernibly different view of life from what passes as normal and normative in society” (41).

“Truth is not simply knowledge untainted by life’s biases and conventions: it is the reality of God himself (John 7:17; 8:47; 1 John 3:10). It has the power to dislodge people from the safe and comfortable conventions of the world where these are mistaken or unethical, to wrench people free from their sin (John 8:32–34). To be in the truth is to be in God, to be free, to have life. To be separated from the truth is to be mired in darkness, falsehood, and corruption with the stink of death hanging over everything” (42).

What do you think? More to come.

Our Time (part 3)

The following excerpts are from David Well’s No Place for Truth (Eerdmans, 1993), page numbers are in parenthesis. I think they are timely. What do you think?

The moral hedges that surrounded our collective life have been trampled down. That is the paramount truth. What once was sublimated is now, in all of its raw and often violent nature, spewed forth in the name of liberty or self-expression. What once had to be private is now paraded publicly for the gallery of voyeurs. The virtues of the old privacy, such as reticence and modesty, are looked upon today as maladies. What was once unseemly is now commonplace. What was once instinct is now truth. What was once feeling is now belief. Then the best were always people of conviction; now they seldom are. Then self-control was virtue; now it is bondage. We are getting to know one another in ways we could not before, says Rieff, and what we are seeing is not pleasant. The concealment of self that was once of the essence of civility has now become a social and psychological problem to be resolved through release. In short, . . . we are now being directed by a culture that has learned its habits from the psychologists—and evangelicals in large numbers have come to assume that this is actually what faith is all about (168-169).

Western culture once valued the higher achievements of human nature—reasoned discourse, the good use of language, fair and impartial law, the importance of our collective memory, tradition, the core of moral axioms to which collective consent was given . . . These are now all in retreat. Reasoned discourse has largely disappeared; in a nation of plummeting literacy, language has been reduced to the lowest common denominator, to the vulgar catch phrases of the youth culture; the core of values has disintegrated; the arts are degraded; the law is politicized; politics is trivialized. In place of high culture, we have what is low. Unruly instinctual drives replace thought; the darker side of human nature destroys the nobler, leaving a trail of pornography, violence, and indifference.  . . . certainly it is the passing of the old order and the ascendancy of a new order that celebrates the collapse of the barriers that once held back the darker reaches of the human spirit. In a strangely perverse fashion, many now maintain that it is precisely in giving expression to those darker reaches that we will find release from our guilt, anxiety, and alienation (169).

What is now in place is not exactly an alternative system of belief. What is in place is no system of belief at all. It is more like a vacuum into the quiet emptiness of which the self is reaching for meaning—and finding only itself. But this is to put the matter more passively than is warranted. Vacuums may be empty, but they are highly destructive. The “systematic hunting down of all settled conviction,” writes Rieff, “represents the anti-cultural predicate upon which modern personality is being organized.” Its essence is not right doctrine, values, and behavior; its essence is the freedom to have no doctrines, no values, to be free to follow the stream of instinct that flows from the self wherever it may lead (169-170).