Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the rare U.S. senator who was also a thinker, once said, "The central conservative truth is that it is culture not politics that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself."
Conservatives have the better of that argument, but both fall short of the central Christian understanding, which is that only Christ saves us from ourselves, and that neither culture nor politics is of any help apart from God's grace.
I recently moderated at The King's College in New York a discussion between two thoughtful Christians that encompassed many topics, but particularly the importance of culture. Richard Land has served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission since 1988, hosts two national radio shows, and is a fan of Woody Allen. Eric Metaxas, founder and host of Manhattan's Socrates in the City ("Mission to Metropolis," Feb. 14), has written two biographies, 30 children's books, and humor articles that Woody Allen called "quite funny."
Here are excerpts of the discussion.
LAND: When we look at our culture today, we have to try to understand, and ask God to help us learn, how to explain the gospel to people who don't have ready biblical references. I read an article in Time magazine about the lack of religion in some parts of America. One couple came to see an Episcopal priest after they had been to a service, and they said, "Our teenage son wants to know who the man is hanging on the plus sign." They didn't know it was Jesus and they didn't know it was a cross. That sounds far-fetched to some of us, but I've been some places in our country where it's not as far-fetched as you might think.
We have an obligation and a responsibility to live a whole gospel before that world out there. The idea that there's a social gospel and a spiritual gospel is an invention of the devil. There is only one gospel, and it is a whole gospel for whole people. It is blasphemous to go out and seek to feed the hungry and not tell them about the bread of life, or to seek to house the homeless and not tell them that in our father's house are many mansions, or to seek to give water to the thirsty and not tell them about the rivers of living water. It is also a denial of the incarnation to go preach the gospel and ignore the fact that people are hungry and thirsty and naked and homeless. We are to do both.
METAXAS: You have to realize that you're speaking into a culture that in some cases is wildly ignorant, just amazingly, staggeringly ignorant of some things they should know. About four years ago, Dick Cavett, the former talk show host, walked into a Park Avenue bistro. Cavett is totally brilliant, knows everything there is to know about everything-except that he has lived in New York City since he left Yale in the late '50s, so he has been part of the epicenter of secular culture. In the back of the bistro there's Father Rutler, a Catholic priest and a true intellectual. I think, "This is the Lord!" because I would love to introduce Dick Cavett to this guy. So we go sit with him and Dick Cavett turns to Father Rutler: "I've got a question for you, Father. Where does the Golden Rule come from?"
Father Rutler is so smart that he thinks Dick Cavett is asking him some deep theological question. He thought there was no way that someone could not know that Jesus said the Golden Rule. But Dick Cavett is the poster boy for people who seem to know everything-but in Manhattan most people are absurdly ignorant of the things that evangelicals know incredibly well. If you want to reach the world with the gospel, move to New York City.
LAND: If you showed American television to a sociologist, they would be hard pressed to conclude that 61 percent of Americans say that religion is a very important part of their lives. It just wouldn't compute, given our sitcoms and films.
METAXAS: And the 12-year-old girl in Topeka goes up to her room and turns on her TV and effectively gets the worldview of Hugh Hefner and Baywatch. If the invisible hand of the market were working when it comes to media, a third of every sitcom, talk show, and movie that you watch would come from the perspective of conservative, evangelical Christians. But somehow the market isn't working, because we have been out of the game for 50 or so years.
LAND: When Muslims come to America and get out of New York City and Washington and go into the real country and see people who are actually religious, it stuns them. I've talked to some Cuban Christians who are very ambivalent about the ending of the embargo, because they say that if the embargo ends, a lot of what will come into their country from America will be very harmful to their families and their faith. . . . We do need to do a better job. We desperately need Christians to engage the media.
LAND: I'm a Woody Allen fan. Woody Allen movies come to Nashville three weeks after they're released, and they stay there for one week at one theater, so all of us who like Woody Allen know each other. I think people will be watching Woody Allen films a hundred years from now to figure out how a particularly influential subset of American culture lived and what they were like in the late 20th and early 21st century. Woody asks all the right questions; he just doesn't have any answers. His central question is, "If God doesn't exist, what meaning does life have?"
METAXAS: In a number of his movies it's as if it's the gospel without the ending. He makes you see that life without God is agony, it's undoable.
WORLD: If you were sitting next to Woody Allen on a plane, what would you say to him?
METAXAS: I have to somehow figure out how to connect with him. . . . If you come across as morally superior, that's unbiblical, that's wrong, it's a lie, so you're confused. But also you'll push the person away. You've got to find a point of connection, otherwise they won't hear you. If you walk around New York you might see someone, semi-homeless, almost always from out of town, with a hat and a Bible "preaching the word" on the street. Nine times out of 10 they are not preaching the Word any more than Satan was when he was quoting the Bible to Jesus in the wilderness. The words are not magic. Some people will respond, "The word of God will not return void," and yes, the capital-w Word of God, the Logos, will not return void-but the words of the Bible can certainly return void unless they're anointed by the Holy Spirit. Many people think that if they just spew out Scripture or something that people are hearing them, but it's not true. Jesus never did that. He always connected with everyone around him.
LAND: I would say make a connection with him as a person. I would start with his movies and tell him how much his movies had meant to me and spoken to me as a human being. It's very clear that he's a very vulnerable man; he does have no hope, and he's very disturbed by having no hope.
METAXAS: He should be, but there are a lot of people who just float through life. The thing about somebody like Woody Allen is that he has thought this through and he sees the bleakness of it. A lot of people haven't thought it through; they're not logical. Logic is good.