Why do we care if our culture is doubtul about truth?

I want to address this question, because it arises out of Steve’s comments on my post about living in an age of BS, and it brings up an important issue: what is the church’s relationship to the world? I am happy to pursue this conversation.

Steve wrote: “If we are sons of God, we invite and advance the Kingdom of heaven upon the earth, a Kingdom of truth. Focusing on what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy is what Paul exhorts us to do (Phil 4:8). If one claims to ‘live’ in an age of the opposite, that is his/her choice. The environment surrounding a son of God will be filled with light, the radiance of our Lord Jesus. Let's live from heaven, and be salt and light to those around us!”

Here are some thoughts…

Great question! What is our relationship to the world around us? Since we are called to be salt and light, does it matter what the world is like? My instinct is to examine the Scriptures and see how our role models related to the world around them. For the sake of brevity, let’s take a quick look at Jesus and Paul.

Foremost in Jesus’ mind was that he had a specific mission to save and transform the world (I say “save and transform” because in biblical terms, “save” includes “transform” not just “forgive”). He was sent by the Father to do that (Jn 3:16-17). But he didn’t just go directly to the cross and “get ‘er done.” He took three years to build relationships, preach, and work miracles – all of which expressed his heart and character. In fact, the cross only takes its true meaning in the context of Jesus’ love, expressed in person-to-person relationships. And in the context of those relationships, Jesus took an interest in how people thought and what kind of worldview they had. Take the woman at the well, for instance. Jesus conversed with her, talking about her life and about why he, a Jew, was talking to her, a Samaritan. He showed a great deal of cultural sensitivity in the way he spoke to her. He was informed about Samaritan theology, and out of his compassion, he took a genuine interest in the woman, even though she was a Samaritan. Granted, he was "called to the lost sheep of Israel," but he still went out of his way to bring new life to that woman and her village.

Following Jesus’ footsteps means taking a genuine interest in the culture we live in and the people we encounter every day. These people are prone to have a contemporary American worldview, and in that worldview, the question of truth and a tendency toward BS loom large. We live in a skeptical culture. Compassion means understanding that and finding ways to address questions of truth.

What about Paul? When in a synagogue, he talked about the big issues of the Jews – things like whether Jesus could have been the Messiah. When in Athens, he talked about the big issues of the Athenians – their quest for wisdom, and their desire to worship the gods faithfully. Paul understood his audience. He evangelized people by presenting the gospel clearly, speaking in a way that addressed the important issues of his audience. It seems like a good idea for us to do likewise.

Scripture, history, and personal experience have taught me that whatever the issues are in a cultural worldview, they will want to be imported into the church wholesale. Legalism was a part of the worldview of many Jews in Paul’s day. He had a tough time with some of his churches keeping legalism from being imported. We get to eavesdrop on his struggles over legalism in the church in his letter to the Galatians. In Corinth, it was the Corinthians’ love of flashy rhetoric that caused Paul so many problems. He refused to use flashy rhetoric in his preaching there, and the Corinthians came to wonder whether he was really a first-rate apostle. We get to read about this debate in 1 and 2 Corinthians.

What about our world? If Frankfurt is right, and I think he is, two issues that will want to imported into the church are irresponsible speech (what he calls BS) and skepticism (the belief either that there is no truth or that we have no reliable access to truth). There are other issues we could also talk about -- individualism, consumerism, narcissism, etc. We need to pay close attention to what is being imported into the church. God is able to overcome all cultural weaknesses, but Paul shows that our diligence to address real problems is a necessary part of the solution.

So while I agree that we are to be salt and light, I disagree if it means not engaging the big issues of our culture. We are called to reach this world with the good news that God loves us and wants to receive us into his kingdom. Mission defines who we are as Christians, and mission requires an open and honest connection with people. This kind of approach with people actually makes us saltier and, uh, light-ier.

Comments

  1. Power coupled with sensitivity

    I have enjoyed reading Dave’s insights, and agree wholeheartedly regarding the need for those who are exhorted by Jesus to be “salt and light” in their environment to be culturally aware and sensitive, in order to be effective as they share, in the manner of Jesus and Paul, the kindness of God toward all who are lost and thus in desperate need of their Savior. My intent was not to ignore this need, but to highlight the importance of not being unduly affected by the cultural norms of the day, and to remember the Kingdom in which we have citizenship. Thus, my comment was motivated by the hope that we would not, in any way, fall prey to the deception that we are subject to the kingdoms of this world and their concomitant “norms” such as irresponsible speech or skepticism about the existence or evidence of truth.

    Rather, as sons of God through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and re-birth by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are “dread champions, ambassadors of a Kingdom that is not subject to the belief systems and cultural paradigms that have set themselves up against the knowledge of God [2Cor 10:5]. Indeed, let us ask the question: “Are the people that I’m trying to reach with the Truth able to see by my life and demeanor an example of freedom from the cultural “norms” such as those mentioned?” Am I only speaking words of compassion and understanding, or am I also demonstrating the existence of a Kingdom that has power to set them free also?

    Let’s take the example so wonderfully chosen by Dave of the Samaritan woman who encountered Jesus at the well in John 4. Not only did Jesus demonstrate understanding of her culture and his genuine interest in the woman, but he also demonstrated that he was of another Kingdom. For example, by her own testimony [Jn 4:39], he “told [her] everything [she] did.” She had declared to him directly that she could see that he was a prophet [Jn 4:19]. Jesus was living “from” heaven, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and coupling compassion and understanding with the authority to speak truth to this woman. Jesus was “salt and light” to her.

    Do those around us see that something is “different” about us? Do we exhibit the power of the Gospel we profess? [Paul emphasized the importance of this in 1Cor 2:4-5.] Are we able to demonstrate the reality of the hope we offer to those who are “trapped” in the world’s ways of irresponsible speech and skepticism? Do we let our “Yes!” be yes, and our “No!” be no [Js 5:12]? Do we exemplify belief in the Way, the Truth, and the Life? When we speak, do those around us perceive that truth has been spoken, or do they continue in their skepticism because of a lack of demonstration of the power of the Holy Spirit?

    Beloved, we can prove, as Jesus and Paul did, that there is in fact a better way. By living “from” heaven instead of just pointing to it and claiming that it exists, we can do something about the tendency of the world to fall into cynicism and mockery of truth. We can show that the world is subject to the Kingdom of heaven, not the other way around. “As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.” [Mt 10:7-8]

    All of creation is waiting for you to be revealed [Rom 8:19]. Why?

    Steve Trullinger
    August 13, 2009

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  2. Thanks Steve! (Sorry it took me so long to respond to your response. I have been away from blogging for a couple of weeks.) We are indeed of another kingdom. It seems there are two questions at hand.

    First, how can we more fully manifest the divine kingdom to which we belong?

    Second, in our compassion for people who do not belong to the divine kingdom, how much should we attempt to identify with or understand their views and way of life?

    Both questions are important for us to ask.

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