Archives For Culture

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.” 1 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

Stephen King, in his introduction to The Stand, writes on the effect a movie has on the audience’s imagination when they later read the book, especially in how it impacts their view of the characters. King’s keenly articulates one big reason behind my general practice of not watching the cinematic version of a book I really want to read:

Bad or good, movies nearly always have a strange diminishing effect on works of fantasy (of course there are exceptions; The Wizard of Oz is an example which springs immediately to mind). In discussions, people are willing to cast various parts endlessly. I’ve always thought Robert Duvall would make a splendid Randall Flagg, but I’ve heard people suggest such people as Clint Eastwood, Bruce Dern and Christopher Walken. … But in the end, I think it’s best for [my characters in The Stand] to belong to the reader, who will visualize them through the lens of the imagination in a vivid and constantly changing way no camera can duplicate. Movies, after all, are only an illusion of motion comprised of thousands of still photographs. The imagination, however, moves with its own tidal flow. Films, even the best of them, freeze fiction – anyone who has ever seen One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and then reads Ken Kesey’s novel will find it hard or impossible not to see Jack Nicholson’s face on Randle Patrick McMurphy. That is not necessarily bad…but it is limiting. The glory of a good tale is that it is limitless and fluid; a good tale belongs to each reader in its own particular way. 1

This is one of the reasons I intentionally read through J.R.R. Tolkien’s entire The Lord of the Rings trilogy over the summer before Peter Jackson’s initital installment of The Fellowship of The Ring debuted the following winter in theaters. I wanted to watch the movie opening day, which meant I needed to read the books before then, because I knew if I saw the film first, Orlando Bloom, Viggo Mortensen, Elijah Wood, and Ian McKellen would fill the mental blanks of my imagination when I finally got to Tolkien’s work. I believe, as King notes, it would have “limited” my reading of one of the greatest fantasy series of the modern era.

There are other reasons that push me away from seeing a movie before reading the book. Cinematic adaptations may:

  1. Cut important content and characters which are central if not critical for the storyline because of the inherent need to abbreviate the story to a reasonable viewing time.
  2. Miscast the characters either with the wrong actors or give them completely different personalities than their literary counterparts
  3. Change the emphasis of the story if not the entire story itself in order to make it more marketable to the general public

I’m sure my more literary-minded friends could pile on, but it simply proves the general rule: the book is better than the movie. It is also why, in principle, when it comes to stories I really want to read, I’ll put the theater off until I’ve hit the bookstore first.

Notes:

  1. Stephen King. The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition. New York: Doubleday, 1990, xii.