You are what you read

"You are what you read" Continued...

Issue: "Summer Books 2002," July 7, 2002

To the great credit of CBA, there is nothing that goes this far in its top 100 bestseller list. Evangelical publishers, however, are indeed putting out theological books that call for accommodations to the postmodern mind. The raft of "open theism" books that are all the rage in many evangelical seminaries question traditional doctrines about the almighty God Himself. Many evangelical thinkers are calling for Christians to change their doctrines and practices, to follow the current culture when it comes to feminism, gay rights, and other politically correct shibboleths.

So far, the overt cultural appeasers appeal mainly to theologians, academics, and intellectuals, not to the average churchgoer in the pews and in the Christian bookstores, most of whom would be scandalized if they knew such things were taught in the seminaries they support. And yet seminaries produce the next generation of pastors, so there is reason to worry. The one book about church that did make the bestseller list is one of a plethora of "how-to" books on church growth, and the essence of their message is that the church needs to change its ways to appeal to-or appease-the dominant culture.

In a broader sense, the CBA bestseller list illustrates how far Christians, even those who think of themselves as conservative theologically and culturally, are already aping the unbelieving culture. While modernists tended to oppose all religion in the name of scientific rationalism, postmodernists in their relativism and anti-rationalism are quite open to any kind of "spirituality." That is to say, they are fine with spirituality as long as it remains inside the believer's head and makes no claim to be objectively true and valid for everyone.

The Christianity of the bestseller lists, with its subjectivity and pragmatism ("this is what works for me"), its overall indifference to theological truth, in favor of interior, psychological experiences, fits seamlessly with contemporary culture.

Cultural separatists

Niebuhr's second option for how Christians historically have related to their cultures is "Christ Against Culture." This view sees society as being hopelessly sinful and corrupt. The church and the world are completely incompatible. Christians are to separate themselves from this sinful world. The church is to become a culture unto itself, a community of holiness set against the Godless unbelievers, who, despite any apparent achievements, are merely awaiting the judgment of God.

Some people accuse the very existence of the CBA market as exemplifying cultural separatism. Christians set up parallel institutions-schools, colleges, publishing companies, even businesses-as a way to keep themselves "pure" from the secular marketplace of goods and ideas.

This may have been true at one time, though, as has been seen, the similarity of the Christian subculture to its secular counterparts makes this less valid today.

Separatism at least has its integrity, from the anti-technological Amish to modern fundamentalism. The problem is that Christ calls Christians to be "in the world," though not "of the world" (John 17:15-18). This requires a delicate balancing act that is easy to tip to one side or the other. Christians do have vocations in the secular arena, and they are called to love and serve their neighbors where God has placed them. They are also to be salt and light to a sinful world, bearing witness to their faith among unbelievers and influencing their societies for the good.

Another problem is that if the church becomes a culture unto itself, the same old cultural problems manifest themselves-conformity, oppression, conflict, worldliness-only this time within the church.

Political activism? Pro-life demonstrations? Compassionate conservatism? A waste of time, if the separatists are right.

Movies? Music? Books? Only if they are Christian.

Cultural separatism can be found in six of the top 10 bestsellers: The Left Behind series. In these apocalyptic soap operas, there is no question of Christians organizing to vote the Antichrist out of office. The Devil has his way, and Christians must simply ride out the time they have on earth, until Jesus comes back to put everything right.

Wheaton English professor Wayne Martindale, in an essay in Christ and Culture in Dialogue, proposed a variation to Mr. Niebuhr's options. Speaking about the persecution of Chinese Christians, he observed that the issue is not always "Christ against culture." Sometimes, it is "culture against Christ.

For all of our unprecedented religious freedom, Christians need to realize that the culture is growing more and more hostile to any kind of biblical worldview. The separatists have a point when they excoriate the sinfulness of the world. Indeed, in many parts of the world-and perhaps the time will come in the United States-Christians may not have a choice to engage or not engage their culture. The culture will have nothing to do with them and, indeed, wants to stamp out their very existence.


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