Archives For Culture

It’s the end of the world as we know it.
And I feel fine.

Those words famously crooned by Michael Stipe in R.E.M.’s eponymous 1987 hit song have come to mind this week as the Supreme Court of the United States ruled gay marriage should be legally recognized in all 50 states. Some might think I’m lamenting the end of defining marriage in a way that, as the Supreme Court itself has noted, has been embraced by virtually every culture in every age.[ref]It is lamentable and I have spoken about it.[/ref] But R.E.M.’s tune comes to mind because the SCOTUS’ action confirms what has been in the works for a while: it’s the end of Christendom.

I grew up in a world where the majority was fairly defined by biblical modes and means. The Bible was esteemed, not mocked. Evangelical Christians were embraced, not marginalized. Christianity and its moral ethic were exemplary, not just “someone’s truth.” For the most part, American culture and Christianity more than got along, the former was highly influenced by the latter (aka, an Evangelical Christian majority). But that wasn’t always a good thing. For one, it produced cultural Christians who thought they were believers simply because they adhered to a certain moral code, offered attendance at a church, and agreed to certain ideas about Jesus. However, it was a “faith” which didn’t penetrate the heart. Essentially the church was seen as a club. To say you were a Christian was like saying your were an American…later, a Republican. But repentance, spiritual growth, missional living, and a sense of personal holiness were absent. In fact, being a good church attender was simply a shrewd thing to do – it might help you get more business or raise your social status – everyone can trust you’re a stand-up person. So you joined the church (and Christ) with your body but not your heart.

But the Supreme Court’s verdict sends a clarion call to everyone that Christendom in America is gone. That way of life, that type of culture, and the socially beneficial dynamics that went with it have quickly evaporated. It’s the end of the world as we know it. What do I think about it all? Well, just continue Stipe’s words.

It’s the end of the world as we know it. And I feel fine.

Now we will enter into a Christianity that is closer to the one that began 2,000 years ago. It won’t be popular to follow Jesus as King, to espouse a biblical ethic that’s lasted more than two millennia, and say that biblical authority is our rule and faith. We will have to lovingly and graciously demonstrate the gospel in both word and deed by the Spirit’s work instead of being tempted do it by the tools of political power or social coercion, the two things you lose when Christendom dies. Indeed, in the future, becoming a Christian may hurt your business or, at least, lower your social status among other negatives. In short, it will cost you something to follow Jesus. And I welcome it.

Why? It will purify God’s church, make her stronger, and penitently see the errors and compromises of her past. It will reveal those who truly wanted to follow Jesus and those who merely wanted to wear the t-shirt until it cost them something. Real Christian churches will likely get smaller, but they will also be more authentic, truer to Christ, less show/more substance. This is cause for me to rejoice, not at the Supreme Court’s decision but at the chapter it likely closes for the American evangelical church. The death of Christendom. A death that may mean new life for the Bride of Christ. Frankly, I’m glad I’m alive to see it. It may just mean that God isn’t finished with the American church but has in store a long needed revival for her. Oh, do I hope so! It would give me one more reason to sing…

It’s the end of the world as we know it. And I feel fine.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching,
for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,

that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
– 2 Timothy 3:16-17

It was a moment indelibly imprinted in my memory. I was an undergrad student at Baylor and speaking with one of my religion professors about the exclusivity of salvation in Christ. The professor was kind to entertain the dialogue, and it was a friendly, good-spirited encounter. But what stood out in our conversation was a comment he made. In our discussion I referenced a Pauline passage in support of the idea that God saves people solely through the Person and Work of Christ and asked what he thought about that specific biblical text. He simply responded, “Well Yancey, I hope Paul was wrong.” It wasn’t a debate on whether the text in question was genuinely scriptural of whether I might have misinterpreted the passage, my professor simply believed that the apostle was wrong. I was taken back by his frankness but appreciated his honesty.

As an evangelical Christian, I believe the entire corpus of the Bible is inspired by God. The technical definition is verbal-plenary inspiration. In essence, I believe the original writings of the Scriptures (known as the original manuscripts) contain all the words God wanted for them, and none that he didn’t. In short, it’s all the Word of God. My job as a follower of Jesus is to read it faithfully, interpret it soundly, and apply it sincerely. There is no question in our studying the Bible we will encounter difficult to understand passages (cf., 2 Pt. 3:16) or sections which push against our worldview, yet our call is to know what the Bible says as God’s Word and apply it as such. The option followers of Jesus don’t have is to dismiss any Scripture simply because we disagree with it.

That’s why when I hear professing Christians today offer explanations for their rejection of positions or beliefs God’s people have held for literally millennia from reading their Bibles (e.g. sexuality, gender roles, marriage), I hear the echo of my old professor’s voice belying his trust in the total inspiration of Scripture. But culture is a mean mistress, for in order to be embraced by her, she calls followers of Jesus to separate from biblical authority by either deluding them to conjure fantastical if not bizarre exegetical claims of fairly straightforward passages or, as in the case of my professor, to simply deny their inspiration altogether. Consequently, the Bible is treated like the drunk uncle at the family reunion. You have to keep him around because he’s family, but you’re embarrassed by him every now and then for what he says and does. Thus, you’re always either having to tell your friends “what he really means” or just ignore him altogether.

This exposes not the weakness of Scripture, but the one who, in trying to be embraced by the world, seeks to tweak it, silence it, or apologize for it. In their attempt to “dress up” the drunk uncle of Scripture with new interpretations and understandings that no believer in two millennia would ever conclude, they merely display their embarrassment of the Bible. It says things that now might make us persona non grata in the public square, marginalize us in national conversations, or just keep us from being the cool kids anymore. That’s why if we can’t make certain biblical passages disappear, we invent ways to make them more socially palatable, hoping the culture doesn’t shift any further lest our drunk uncle embarrass us even more.

Others take the route of my old professor. Instead of looking silly trying to convince everyone that the Bible doesn’t say what it clearly says, they advocate biblical authors were simply wrong. Recently Rob Bell, the former pastor and current self-help guru for Oprah, when asked what he thought of the church’s refusal to embrace same-sex marriage, replied, “I think culture is already there [with same-sex marriage] and the Church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense.” [ref][/ref] The Bible? Listen, the Scriptures are wrong on this. Christians need not look to it as an authority on this issue and follow the culture. At least Bell is honest, the rest give off the idea they’re simply embarrassed.

Neither of these approaches to Scripture cut it. The Bible doesn’t give an easy way out for those who claim to follow Jesus. Passages like 2 Tim. 3:16-17 affirm the totality of the Bible’s inspiration, not to mention Jesus’ own endorsement of Scripture (cf., Mt. 5:18) and its authority. I’m mindful of John 6 where, after Jesus taught some “hard sayings,” verses 66-68 record, “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.'” Wrestling with what God’s Word says is part-and-parcel of following Jesus, but rewriting or rejecting what it says, isn’t.

It’s only embarrassing.

“I just need to find some balance in my life.” If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a million times. It’s a favorite mantra for busy Christian suburbanites in their search for the Holy Grail of a well-lived life. But aiming for balance is wrong. Dead wrong.

It’s a bad criterion for life because it deludes followers of Jesus into viewing one’s ‘spiritual life’ as merely another area among many needing to find its proper time allotment within the schedule. Consequently, we open our Day Runners to see in the morning we’re booked up with our occupation, then it’s the gym afterwards. Next, it’s off to grab a quick dinner with the family before running junior to baseball practice as our spouse takes the other kiddo to gymnastics. If we’re lucky, we might get in a little SportsCenter or Tonight Show before hitting the sack. Seven hours later we wake up to to the same routine again.

When life is seen as a series of boxes to be checked (e.g., job, exercise, kids’ activities) we figure we can cover the spiritual box by squeezing in a church service once or twice a month. Maybe, if we’re really committed, we can spring for a five minute morning devotion here and there. All of it done in the name of balance. This is why aiming at a “balanced life” will stunt our growth in Jesus and make spiritual maturity hard to come by because it falsely partitions Jesus off from the rest of life. But the truth is Christ isn’t an add-on to life but our very life itself (Col. 3:4). Jesus blew up the idea of life as a series of boxes to be balanced when he said in Mt. 6:33, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” To him, there is only one box – the kingdom of God – in which everything in our life is to have a place. And why…

Followers of Jesus shouldn’t aim for balance but effectiveness.

Ask yourself, How can I live in such a way that I make the biggest impact for the Kingdom of God? This goal uproots the idolatrous suburban lie which tries to convince us we have to be involved in this, that, AND the other in order to have a full life. The truly full life is the one surrendered to God in every square inch of it. It’s the life packed in every nook and cranny with Christ as Lord, the gospel our hope, and the Kingdom as mission. The effective, unbalanced life may not remove our job, kids’ practices, or even an hour at the gym from our schedule (although it could), but it does put them all in the one big box of living on mission for Jesus.

So, look at your calendar ask yourself, “How can I best organize my life for the greatest impact for the Kingdom of God?” Maybe you’ll find you’re too busy or not involved enough. It will look different for each of us:

  • You may decide to DVR your favorite sitcom because it airs during the same time your neighbors who are far from God hang out in their front yard. Effectiveness not balance gives you clarity to see how much of a great opportunity it would be to deepen your relationship with them for the sake of the gospel.
  • You may decide to give more of your resources for Kingdom endeavors. Effectiveness leads us to see how the blessings God has given us could be better distributed for his kingdom. For example, maybe instead of getting a new car every other year you decide to forgo that new ride and use the money to help support a new church plant overseas. That’s aiming for effectiveness.
  • You may decide you’re going to dial down your kids’ level of involvement in sports because you realize when they leave for college while they may able to spike a volleyball, nail a 3-pointer, or throw a football on a rope for 30 yards, they will do so with little hearts for God. Thinking effectiveness instead of balance can spur you to ask, “How different would my kids’ spiritual life be if I dedicated half the time they spent on sports to discipling them in the gospel?”

Sound like tough changes? They are easier to make if your aim is effectiveness for the Kingdom of God. They only appear insurmountable if we seek balance.

Follower of Jesus, don’t believe the myth of balance.

If anyone would come after me,
let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.

– Luke 9:23