This Little Light of Mine
For close to a century Christians have increasingly seen it as a badge of honor to retreat from engaging their culture. It is as if Jesus’ words have been turned on their head to read, “Blessed are those who hide their light under a bushel.” About the only time many believers choose to come out of their hiding is to throw rocks at those whom they believe are debasing the culture that they, the rock-throwers, have abandoned.
The radical pietists retreated because such worldly concerns as politics, philosophy, and art were not holy pursuits. Pietists think that the normal Christian life consists of all things religious, i.e., prayer, Bible study, witnessing, and going to church at least three times weekly. They evaluate themselves and others by subjective experiences, ignoring, for the most part, the Bible’s call for Christians to be salt, light, and leaven in the world in which they live.
The anti-intellectualism that followed in the wake of such men as Finney, Moody, and Sunday was a terrible blow to the church’s ability to influence culture. While Paul understood the foundations of the classical world, quoted the poets, manipulated the political and legal system, and artfully debated the philosophers of his day, few evangelicals today see the power of intellectual pursuits. If anything, the intellect is often seen as an impediment to true spirituality. It seems that ignorance is not only bliss, it is an avenue to holiness.
Add to the above the zillions of evangelicals who think that the church will soon be raptured, and you will begin to understand why our culture is so void of a Christian witness. People who treat the world as if it were an overnight stay in a cheap hotel are not going to make much of an effort to transform culture.
What stuns the mind is reading about people who say that they are postmillennial yet act as if the end of the age is upon us. “Run for your lives; the pagans have taken over.” “With the dawning of the century a new Dark Age is going to fall!” It is almost comical to watch these folks try and tear apart anything that appears to point to a positive future. Whether it is the booming economy, the drop in abortion rates, or the failure of the sky to fall on New Year’s Eve, these declinists refuse to acknowledge silver linings.
But there are other reasons for our paltry witness. Take, for example, the idolization of history. We see this when some Christian finally does try to make an impact on culture by holding up art or institutions or traditions from the distant past — not as simply things we may learn from but as The Standard to which we must return. It is not a Christianized future these people are trying to move the culture toward but, rather, an idealized past to which we must return.
In Virginia Postrel’s seminal work. The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress, she refers to “reactionaries” who fear the inevitable and necessary instability of progress and, so, seek to move culture back to an era of perceived stability and hold it there:
The characteristic values of reactionaries are continuity, rootedness and geographically defined community. They are generally anticosmopolitan, antitechnology, anticommercial, antispecialization, and antimobility. They draw on a powerful romantic tradition that gives their politics a poetic, emotional appeal, especially to people with literary sensibilities. With some exceptions, they oppose not only the future but the present and the recent past, the industrial as well as the postindustrial era. The reactionary vision is one of peasant virtues, of the imagined harmonies and, above all, the imagined predictability of traditional life. It idealizes life without movement. In the reactionary ideal, people know and keep their places, geographically as well as socially, and tradition is undisturbed by ambition and invention. (8,9)
Such people may have a temporary chilling effect on cultural progress but, sooner or later, they will be cast aside with all that is truly irrelevant to the future. What is particularly sad is that many will consider themselves martyrs when, in fact, they were idolaters and enemies of the future of God’s kingdom.
Standing Before Kings
There is also the challenge of not understanding the times we live in. As I listen to many of our leaders today — whether in the church, the arts, education, etc. — it is as if they are utterly unaware of their culture’s intellectual shifts. While they are at least seeking to engage culture here and there, too many of them are answering questions and challenges that no longer exist for the majority of Americans. Such leaders are tilting at windmills that fell long ago. Modernity has passed, postmodernity is upon us: yet how many Christians today still live, teach, preach, do philosophy, apologetics or approach science as if they were living in the 1950s or the eighteenth century?
Where is the educated Christian engagement of quantum physics and its challenge to our perceptions of reality? Where is the serious study of the mind-body connection in regard to the body’s healing and aging process (rather than the mindless accusation that it is all New Age hype)? What about the fields of literature, psychology, or jurisprudence? And it doesn’t wash to say, “Well, we’re Christians and are not given entree into these fields.” Remember Daniel and Babylon? Remember the promise to those who excelled in their field of expertise? It is written that they would be brought before kings.
The Failure of Christian Parents
Lack of support, guidance, and encouragement for cultural engagement within the families and churches that claim to believe the cultural mandate is also a serious problem. Our young people — those who want to make a difference for God and His kingdom — are rarely encouraged to go into the arts, or to excel in physics, or medicine, or anything other than, possibly, education or ministry. As I travel around and speak to parents who believe we are to influence our culture, I am shocked at how few of their children have any aspirations for higher education or ambition to become a cultural leader. What have the parents been doing? What sort of guidance have their churches offered to them?
My five children will tell you that some of their earliest memories of their parents are discussions of formal education, vocation, and calling. There were no doubts that they would go to college and that they would be studious enough to earn scholarships. There was no debate. They were constantly encouraged toward politics, law, business, economics, the arts, engineering, etc. Why? Among other reasons, because I believe Christians are to excel in these fields and earn the right to influence and shape their parts of the world.
I understand, of course, that not all people are called to pursuits that require higher education. My point is that the church offers so little encouragement for those who are called.
The Failure of the Churches
The evangelical church has also shamefully neglected art — whether high art (visual arts, poetry, music, literature, and drama) or pop art (pulp fiction, television, movies, and popular music). This neglect has left us bereft of a powerful tool for glorifying God and influencing culture. Rather than encouraging Christians in this field we actually warn them away. At best we confine their creativity to explicitly “religious art,” as if all art were not explicitly religious. The dance has to interpret Miriam’s dance before the Lord. The novel must be about the conversion of sinners. The music has to be praise or worship. The movie must be about Armageddon . . . but the producer would have to be careful because we all know that anything that smells of fantasy or science fiction is evil. Correct?
Appreciation for art begins in the home. Appreciation for beauty, self-expression through creation, and the education of our senses should be part of every child’s education. These things expand the soul and increase our capacity for glorifying God. However, families need help. Churches must begin paying more attention to art and aesthetics, not only in their worship but also in their family support systems.
Tell me of a more influential medium in our culture today than the arts (high and pop). Tell me of a more neglected sphere by evangelicals.
Another reason for our lack of cultural influence is the evangelical church’s failure to fulfill its prophetic calling. To remedy this situation many things must take place. For example, we should pray for a revival of love for and obedience to the Word of our King. Prophets don’t freelance: they declare and apply His Word. We also need to disentangle ourselves from partisan politics. (Please note that I am not speaking of individuals but of churches.) When representatives of the church speak, they must be seen and heard as Ambassadors of the kingdom of God, not as voices for a particular political party. We could learn a lot in this regard from John Paul II. (“I knew it, Edith! Monte is a closet papist who is seeking to covertly turn us toward the whore of Babylon!”)
Of course, churches will not do this unless they believe, it is their calling to help disciple the nations, to permeate culture with the gospel to such an extent that every sphere of life is a place of worship.
Thirty years ago, men like R. J. Rushdoony and Francis Schaeffer were calling on the church to re-engage culture. Much of what has happened positively in our nation is a result of their work. Yet there are far too few with the vision, the belief-system, and the intellectual equipment to make much of a difference. This is why we must do everything in our power — through prayer, personal involvement, and financial support — to uphold those churches, ministries, foundations, and individuals who are committed to permeating the culture with the glory, beauty, truth, and love of the Triune God.