Author: Mark Johnson

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).

Our Time (part 2)

In part one of “Our Time,” I shared with you some information concerning the Reformation theologian David Wells and his multivolume critique of American Evangelicalism. I also shared some quotations from Wells’ book No Place for Truth, Or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Eerdmans, 1993). The following excerpts are also from No Place for Truth and page numbers are in parenthesis.

That Our Time is characterized by (and has become a distinct period because of) mass wars, mass consumption, mass education, and mass knowledge is hardly debatable. The question is what all of this means (76).

And discrimination against minorities is hardly uniquely American; it is known in probably every other country in the world. What is new is that the vision of forging a center strong enough to support this cultural diversity is now being challenged. Only time will tell whether the American character, with its unique blend of individualism and conformity, will be able to hold, whether it will be able to hold within itself these new social impulses with their strident ethnicity (140).

In a secularized age, with its low cognitive ceilings and lost moorings, we have turned in on ourselves. We now seek our access to reality only through the self, having decided that neither God nor his revelation is any longer pertinent. This is to say that when we emptied our world of God and of the absolutes that had directed human life, we did not thereby open up large holes in the architecture of our inner life; rather, we rearranged things to accommodate for these losses. We compensated for all we lost by turning within ourselves (154).

The quest for the self is now undoing both private and public life, and this undoing is evident even in our schools, one of the purposes of which has always been to induct children into this external culture. Our schools now decline to educate students regarding matters of right and wrong, preferring instead to preserve and explore human relations. As Gerald Grant has observed, a teacher is less likely to insist that cheating is wrong than to ask why a cheater cheats. Moral questions thus disappear into psychological speculation, and, in the process, consideration of one’s responsibility to others gives way to concern for one’s responsibility to oneself. Returning to the example of the cheater, the assumption seems to be that the problem can be resolved if the individual is detached from responsibility to the community—but that is precisely the opposite of what the moral wisdom of the West has known to be true for centuries. What has happened, of course, is that all the external demands have collapsed, leaving only the self, and then, in a surprising and painful turn of events, the self has proceeded to disintegrate. Perhaps, writes Richard Weaver, “the most painful experience of modern consciousness is the loss of center; yet, this is the inevitable result of centuries of insistence that society yield its form” (168).

What do you think? More to come.

Our Time (part 1)

One theologian that has influenced my thinking is David Wells. Wells resides solidly in the Reformation stream of thinking, so there some (many) things that I do not agree with him about. Having noted that, I have learned much from Wells. His writings were what clued me into the importance of holiness in the Bible (which convicted me enough to write a doctrinal dissertation concerning holiness). Beginning in 1993, Wells wrote a series of six books critiquing American Evangelicalism. The first book that he wrote, No Place for Truth, Or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Eerdmans, 1993), takes the reader on a journey through the cultural changes in this country, diagnosing the problems biblical faith deals with.

The following excerpts are from No Place for Truth, page numbers are in parenthesis. Even though they are almost thirty years old, I think they are timely.

That “Our Time” is characterized by (and has become a distinct period because of) mass wars, mass consumption, mass education, and mass knowledge is hardly debatable. The question is what all of this means (76).

In the past, Western society was held together by three sinews: tradition, authority, and power. To change the image, these were the garments that covered Western society, and without them it has become indecent. Of these three, tradition might have been the first to go, although it went hand in hand with authority. Tradition is the process whereby one generation inducts its successor into its accumulated wisdom, lore, and values. The family once served as the chief conduit for this transmission, but the family is now collapsing, not merely because of divorce but as a result of affluence and the innovations of a technological age. . . . So it is that in the new civilization that is emerging, children are lifted away from the older values like anchorless boats on a rising tide (84).

Tradition and authority have been severed; only power remains. It is power alone that must direct our corporate life, power severed from a moral order that might contain and correct it and from the values of the past that might inform it. In a strange testimony to this inner vacuum, the profession of law has risen to such prominence in America that 70 percent of all the lawyers in the world practice here. In the absence of moral obligation and a sense of what is right, disputes are extraordinarily difficult to resolve, and so the set of rules that has emerged under the law must take on duties that were once shouldered by a variety of other institutions—the family, the schools, the church. Now we are left with only the lawyers. It is a terrible thing, Solzhenitsyn said, to live in a society (such as that in the former Soviet Union) where there is no law; it is also a terrible thing to live in a society (such as that in America) where there are only lawyers (85).

What do you think? More to come.