I’m participating in a Bible study at our church called Counter Culture based on a book by David Platt (see my previous post). I’m trying to work through this material fairly intensely, which means critiquing it as I go, to decide what I agree and disagree with. When I do that kind of thing, I tend to learn a lot.
Anyway, here are the most important thoughts I had as I worked through the first section (about 3 weeks worth of meetings).
The free-climbing story
During my grad school days, our church had monthly couples meetings in which the pastor would give a short devotional designed to encourage us in our marriages. One time the pastor showed a 15 minute video about someone doing “free climbing”, which apparently means climbing a cliff without a rope or any equipment. After commenting on the climber’s courage and perseverance, he used it as an example of the kind of commitment we should have within our marriages.
That threw me, because it was the exact opposite of what I had come to expect. As an undergrad, I’d attended a different church (in a different state) with a pastor whose specialty was pointing out how foolish and unbiblical the world’s approach to everything was. If he’d shown the video, he would have pointed the folly of risking your life for something as inconsequential as rock-climbing. He would have emphasized how desperately the world searches for meaning and joy, and what dangerous thrill-seeking it leads them into.
So I was left with this question, which really bothered me at the time: when we see an example like the rock-climber, are we supposed to emphasize the good things about the example or the bad things?
I finally decided that the simple truth is that every thing the world does always has some aspect or other which positively demonstrates the truth of the gospel and another aspect which contrasts with it. We should notice both, and then we should use whichever is relevant to the situation in which we find ourselves (Colossians 4:6). If there must be a bias, let it be toward looking for the positive, as instructed in Philippians 4:8-9.
The study guide for our first week tended to emphasize the negative side of things throughout the first week’s material. I think we must be aware of the negative, but I would rather use the positive in most cases.
Integrating Christianity into our entire lives
Platt exhorts us to take what we believe about the gospel and think about everything in our lives in its light. I love that! We must get away from compartmentalizing everything. In my opinion, when our response to our culture is inadequately Christian, the problem is usually that we have not figured out how Jesus is relevant to it.
From time to time Platt makes the “anti-self” error. The answer is to read John Piper’s Desiring God.
How do we integrate our understanding of God as creator into our world view? How do we counter the culture using that understanding?
The answer most Christians at our church would give is to fight against evolution. I don’t think that is particularly important for most unbelievers, though. I think there are two other points which are far more relevant to the average unbeliever’s life. The positive point is that if God is our creator, then there is a Great Storyteller for our lives. That is a beautiful thing to be able to honestly believe, and as Christians we get to! The negative point is that if God created us, then he “owns” us in some sense. He designed us for his own purposes, and he has the right, not we, to say what we are created for. We are behaving irresponsibly if we just wander off script and try to write our own story. We have a responsibility, and can be held accountable, for failing to live up to our design.
How do we integrate the understanding of the fall into our world view? How do we counter the culture using that understanding?
The essence of the fall was that Adam and Eve claimed the right to determine right and wrong for themselves in complete independence from God. Platt makes use of this idea by focusing on moral relativism. He argues that anyone who rejects belief in God cannot consistently believe in objective moral absolutes. Setting aside that there are many people who think that they can believe in absolutes without being believers in God, I still think this runs the risk of missing the point. We don’t want to get embroiled in technical philosophical debates about the connection between theism and morality.
Here’s the thing: most people, even those who claim all morality is relative, still have strong, deeply held moral convictions. That’s what we should have expected, according to Romans 2:14-16. The moral absolutes approach minimizes these feelings of morality, by telling people they have no right as unbelievers to have them. That doesn’t make sense to me; wouldn’t it be better to emphasize their sense of conscience, and then show them that even according to their own moral standards they are sinners in need of a savior?
The study guide uses the second half of Romans 1 to explore the topic of idolatry. Platt defines idolatry strangely, though. He says that we bow before things as idols when we “look to them for our hope, meaning, satisfaction, comfort, pleasure, or prosperity and when we think they’ll make our lives better.” God often uses things and people to give us hope, meaning, etc, though, and when he does it is completely legitimate to look to what he gives for what we need — especially if we see that he is behind them and give him thanks for them.
I think I know what Platt means — he means that idolatry is when we look to those things in some ultimate sense that should be reserved only for God. I would rather define idolatry as when we use any other thing or person, including the instruments of God’s blessings to us, as a substitute for God, so that we do not have to look to him.
Platt points out the obsession of the Athenians with whatever is new (Acts 17:21), and explores the possibility that they made an idol of the new. I think this could be true, but I would like to point out that it is just as common to make an idol out of the old (as in Mark 2:21-22 and 7:8). Furthermore, Paul didn’t reprove the Athenians for their attitude toward the new — it was that very attitude that made them willing to listen to him!
Similarly, in our case, I don’t think we should quench the desire for novelty. We should just be sure that people are willing to actually act on what they discover. The Athenians didn’t really want answers; they just wanted to play around with ideas. We probably do need to challenge people to avoid that.
Platt asked us to list some of the most important idols in our day. My list is
- Success / drivenness / the ability to get things done at any cost
- Being able to provide data / scientific proof for everything
How should we respond to culture?
Platt considers four alternatives: conform, check out, combat, or counter. When we counter, he says, we seek to redeem, not conquer. I think that is wise.
When he talks about conforming, he finds fault with our desire to make the gospel appeal to the surrounding culture. The gospel, he says, is inherently offensive. I agree that there are parts of the gospel which will offend, but it is equally true that the gospel, if we present it correctly, speaks to deep yearnings in people. It draws them. It’s beautiful. If we don’t see that, we will miss lots of opportunities. He is right, though: we must not try to water down the hard parts of the gospel. In fact the beautiful parts of the gospel usually are the same as the difficult parts. If we soften what seem hard in it, we at the same time dilute what is good in it.
There is a difference between using culture to redeem people and redeeming culture. Platt shows how we can do the first: we can take popular ideas as expressed in movies, songs, and so on, and use them to build rapport and then discuss the gospel. I think we can do the second, actually redeem the culture — not REDEEM it, in the sense of saving it, of course, but redeem it, in the sense of bringing something good out of it. The culture isn’t just a bunch of individuals, but a system, and there is evil that is systemic. We can bring about real, though somewhat superficial, change to the system. (Deep changes are coming when Jesus returns.) Just think about how the church changed slavery or the treatment of orphans, for example, or the role it had in establishing democracy. It isn’t a waste of time to seek similar transformation in our own society today, as long as we keep proclaiming that Jesus is still only ever the real answer.
We are all in the culture. If we want to counter and redeem it, then we have to live in it. Some Christians use movies, songs, and other cultural expressions merely as rapport-building gimmicks for the gospel. I think we must go further. We must allow ourselves to be moved by the movies and the songs, to find them meaningful, but to do so discerningly.
Platt asked us to think of a popular song, show, or movie, to analyze it to see what desires, needs, questions of values of popular society it expresses, and then to show how Jesus meets those needs. Here is my example.
The movie Inception (spoilers ahead) has at its core the following problem: the protagonist Cobb and his wife are deeply involved in dreams that seem completely real. As a consequence, they begin to wonder whether real life is real. His wife, driven by her obsession with the question, loses all connection with her family and eventually dies because of it. He is faced with the same danger. At the very end of the movie, he spins his totem, which is a small top. If it falls over, it is supposed to prove that he is not in a dream. At the last minute, he looks up, sees his son out in the yard, and goes out to be with him, leaving the top still spinning. The camera closes in on the totem for a moment, and then the screen goes dark without letting the audience see whether it has fallen, leaving us in doubt ourselves about whether the final scene was a dream or in real life.
Why did the movie leave the final question (Were they still dreaming?) unresolved? Not just as a gimmick, I believe. I think it was to emphasize for us the emotional state of the protagonist. He walked away because he decided he didn’t need to know after all. The movies is asking us as viewers to make the same decision, to realize we don’t need to know either. We can just live life.
There are times when we just can’t know everything for certain. When that happens, we can get stuck in skepticism and doubt, or we can move on with life.
Hopefully, none of this would be me just preaching; it’d be a conversation.
At some point I would tell them about the dwarves in The Last Battle, the final book in the Narnia chronicles, who were offered the chance to enter heaven but turned it down because they didn’t want to take the risk of trusting what they were being told.
I’d challenge them to consider their own attitude toward the gospel in this light. Some people pride themselves on being unwilling to consider any belief in God that does not come attached to absolute scientific proof. I’d challenge them to stop thinking of God as sitting out there passively while they work their way to him by intellectually proving his existence. Instead, they should ask God, if he is there, to reveal himself to them, using as much evidence as he realizes they should need to make trust in him reasonable. When he does so, they should be open to it. I’d also explain that Christians believe God revealed himself in the person of Jesus. I’d suggest they read the gospel of Mark and try to see what kind of man this was, and whether he seems like someone they can trust.
As always, I’d welcome additional thoughts in the comments.