In his book Confronted by Grace, John Webster has some great insight into the way Jesus’ famous teaching about worry and anxiety in Matthew 6 applies to our current situation:
“Do not be anxious,” Jesus tells us. What’s the anxiety in mind here? The anxiety which Jesus here exposes to the light of his judgement has two elements: It’s a state of the soul, and it’s a form of activity.
The anxiety of which the gospel speaks here is more than simply feeling worried; it’s more than the passing apprehension which all of us feel about going to the dentist or facing a difficult interview. Those kinds of apprehensions are a matter of fear; we know what troubles us, and with the right sort of determined effort to screw up our courage, we resolve to face them. But anxiety is a sickness. Anxiety is that sickness of the soul in which what might happen fills us with dread. When we’re anxious, our future as a whole, the possibilities which stretch out ahead of us, becomes a matter not of hope but of terror.
Anxiety is a terrifying shadow of our uniquely human capacity of hope. When we hope, we project ourselves into the future, imagining what it may be and stretching out toward it with longing. But when we’re anxious, our imaginations busy themselves with images of threats which the future has in store for us. We fill in the gap between now and the future with all sorts of disturbing possibilities, and they eat us up. Anxiety makes us feel that the world has somehow slipped through our fingers and that we have no control over our own destiny.
It’s this fear which drives anxiety into activity. Fear properly issues in resolution and courage; anxiety produces a sort of helpless, unfocused busyness. Courage is a gathering of myself and my resources so that I can face what makes me afraid with a kind of single-minded clarity of purpose. Courage, that is, clarifies and concentrates the soul. But anxiety does the opposite; it dissipates our energies. Above all, it makes us think we can survive only if we take charge. We have to be omni-competent if we are to shed our anxieties, and so we climb onto the merciless treadmill of working harder and harder, somehow to keep everything together. Above all, anxiety is bound up with our desperate need for security – the need to know that we will be OK, that we will survive intact, that at the end of the day we will be.
This sickness of the soul is, of course, not only a private grief. It takes cultural and political form, too: Societies and institutions can be anxious in their way, driven by a need for reassurance in the face of the uncertainties of the future. Institutional rigidity, the demarcation of the world into friends and enemies, competitiveness, and the elaboration of forms of social control, all express the same deep-seated worry that we may not have a future unless we make one for ourselves.
This was written in 1998. Doesn’t that last paragraph sound like it was written this week? Driven by a need for reassurance in the face of the uncertainties of the future. That’s our world, right? And it was Jesus’ world, too. Famine, plague, foreign occupation. And yet, there he sat, saying, Can you add even one hour to your life by worrying? Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. Like it was so obvious.
…to those terrors, too, as well as to our personal nightmares, Jesus says: “Do not be anxious.”
How on earth can he say that? How on earth can he expect us to take him seriously? To answer these questions, we need to listen very carefully to what’s being said to us here in the gospel. Jesus isn’t reinforcing some bit of conventional human wisdom. He’s not, as it were, coming into the midst of the human situation and lending the weight of his authority to a truism which has been known all down the ages – that fussing and fretting damages the equilibrium of human life, that anxiety distracts and hurts us. No: He is telling us, his hearers, that what rules out anxiety is the sheer fact of himself. He himself, Jesus Christ, the presence of God’s kingdom, the rule of God in creation – that’s what finally shows the truth of our anxiety. In him, it’s finally shown to be the sickness which it is.
What is, then, the anxiety from which Jesus seeks to detach us? Very simply, it’s our failure to grasp and live out of the significance of Jesus Christ. Anxiety is our failure – sometimes from fear, sometimes from pride – to allow that, in and as the man Jesus, God rules all things in heaven and earth, and therefore that our lives are in God’s good hands. When Jesus summons us from anxiety, he injects into the world of our responsibilities something utterly new, utterly different. He breaks the world of anxiety apart by saying that this world – the world of daily life and care, the world of work and responsibility – isn’t a world in which we and we alone have to bear the burden of ensuring that we survive. This world is the place of God’s kingdom; here, God’s rule in Jesus Christ is the great new factor.
Because this is true, Jesus tells us, we may come to learn that daily life is not a place where we’re devoured by the need to shore ourselves up against disaster. Daily life is the place where we encounter God as the one whom he calls our “heavenly Father.” Who is this Father? He’s the one who knows our needs, because we are not hidden from him; and he’s the one who provides for our needs, because he loves what he has made in all its fragility and impermanence – because he desires that we should flourish. And if God is like that – God isn’t a threat hanging over us but the astonishing Father of lavish grace – then anxiety is a kind of illusion: It doesn’t match up to what reality is truly like.
What does match up to reality, Jesus tells us, is faith.
Faith sees the truth about God and God’s merciful, gracious kingdom which is embodied for us in Jesus Christ.
Faith is not just some crazy hope against evidence (indeed, when it becomes that it is itself a kind of sickness). Quite the opposite: Faith is that deeply healthy state of the soul in which we let God be God. It’s that free, unhesitating, joyful assent to the one in the midst of whose kingdom we stand secure.
Around 1650 years ago, John Chrysostom taught verse by verse through the book of Matthew for the church he pastored. When he reached the famous beginning of the Lord’s prayer,
“In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father in heaven…”
…he said this:
He teaches, moreover, to make our prayer common, in behalf of our brethren also. For He says not, “my Father, which art in Heaven,” but, “our Father,” offering up his supplications for the body in common, and nowhere looking to his own, but everywhere to his neighbor’s good.
And by this He at once takes away hatred, and quells pride, and casts out envy, and brings in the mother of all good things (charity), and exterminates the inequality of human things, and shows how far the equality reaches between the king and the poor man, if at least in those things which are greatest and most indispensable, we are all of us fellows.
For what harm comes of our kindred below, when in that which is on high we are all of us knit together, and no one hath aught more than another; neither the rich more than the poor, nor the master than the servant, neither the ruler than the subject, nor the king than the common soldier, nor the philosopher than the barbarian, nor the skillful than the unlearned? For to all hath He given one nobility, having vouchsafed to be called the Father by all alike.
That’s a lot to get out of the opening to a prayer, but, doubtless, it’s all there. The words of Jesus have what we need. Followers of Christ all call God Father, so, we must all be His children. Equally.
Want to be a good leader, according to the Bible’s standards?
In keeping with a fundamental tenet of biblical leadership, the primary function of leaders is not defined in terms of the tasks they are expected to perform but in terms of the kind of persons they are to be.
If the primary function of the head of the nation was to embody the ethical and spiritual values of the community (Deuteronomy 17:14-20), the same was true for heads of households.
The household’s members should be able to observe the head and know what kinds of persons they were to be.
— The Triumph of Grace, p. 232
I imagine this goes for every area of life, right? Family, Church, Business, Nation. And of course, Jesus was the ultimate example of this… being and embodying what he called his followers to. Jesus is the leaders of leaders.
“You are the light of the world,” said the Lord, “A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.”
You know the rest: “Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.” Jesus said so much, with so few words. Here’s some insightful thinking about this teaching:
Because they have committed themselves to follow Jesus and so to adopt the new values of the kingdom of heaven, [Jesus’ followers] are now going to stand out as different from other people.
This much we are familiar with. But there’s an important detail in the original (Greek) text that doesn’t come through well in the English translations. The word “you” is a plural form of the word you. When Jesus says “you” here, he’s not pointing at any specific person, or even directing everyone listening to him to think about himself or herself individually:
The address is in the second-person plural not only because more than one person is being addressed, but because it is the corporate impact of the disciple community, as an alternative society, which is here in view.
The hilltop town…is a symbol not of a conspicuous individual but of the collective impact of a whole community.
Modern Western individualism is such that we easily think of the light of the world as a variety of a little candles shining, “you in your small corner, and I in mine,” but it is the collective light of a whole community which draws the attention of the watching world.
When Jesus said these words, his main audience was the little group of followers he had collected—those specifically dedicated to being his students. In other words, Jesus said, “You all, this community, this group, this family…all of you, together, as one… this is the light of the world. This family is the city set on a hill.”
Corporate impact. Alternative society. Collective light. Whole community.
So… you can’t be the light. But we can.
Here is a helpful, proactive thought. What if the answer to our anxiety was not less fear, but more? What if the problem is not that we have fear, but that we have the wrong kind of fear? What if it’s not that we get afraid, but that we fear the wrong things? What if, after all is said and done, our deepest pathology is that we don’t fear the One being in the world we need to fear, and that we don’t fear him in the one, right way, and that is why we’re so afraid of everything else?
I have to admit I had begun to wonder if the fear of God was the answer to all our anxieties. After all, a chief way to attack a problem is to find everything the Bible says about it (and then meditate on those things, and pray over them), and when you do that work, you can’t help but notice how much the Bible has to say about about fear in two directions. The Bible talks about letting go of fear of the future, and fear of man, and other fears like that, and also of embracing the fear of God.
And that is why I was excited when Dan Unger told me about Michael Reeve’s new book, Rejoice & Tremble, and especially about its subtitle: The Surprising Good News of the Fear of the Lord. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It is both an accessible yet thorough study on this important Bible doctrine, but also a very practical guide to hearing what the scripture says about defeating Fear, our enemy. For instance:
Moral confusion is not the root of our anxiety: our moral confusion today and our general state of heightened anxiety are both the fallout of a cultural loss of God as the proper object of human fear. That fear of God (as I hope to show) was a happy and healthy fear that shaped and controlled other fears, thus reining in anxiety.
With society having lost God as the proper object of healthy fear, our culture is necessarily becoming ever more neurotic, ever more anxious about the unknown – indeed, ever more anxious about anything and everything. Without a kind and fatherly God’s providential care, we are left utterly uncertain about the shirting sands of both mortality and reality. In ousting God from our culture, other concerns – from personal heathy to the health of the planet – have assumed a divine ultimacy in our minds. Good things have become cruel and pitiless idols. And thus we feel helplessly fragile. No longer anchored, society fills with free-floating anxieties. (Where fear is a response to something specific, anxiety is more of a general condition, like something in the atmosphere. Anxiety can therefore latch on to anything and morph effortlessly in a moment: one minute we are concerned about knife crime, the next about climate change.)
A happy and healthy fear. If that sounds paradoxical to you, or just downright odd, I encourage you to grab this book and press into the truths Reeves unpacks. A few pages later, he goes further, discussing the idea of discomfort in general:
Where discomfort was once considered quite normal (and quite proper for certain situations), it is now deemed an essentially unhealthy thing. It means, for example, that a university student can say, “I am uncomfortable with your views,” and consider that a legitimate argument for shutting down further discussion. For it is not acceptable to make someone uncomfortable.
It means that in a culture awash with fear and anxiety, fear is increasingly seen as a wholly negative thing in society. And Christians have been swept along in that greater tide of opinion, adopting society’s negative assessment of all fear. Small wonder, then, that we shy away from talking about the fear of God, despite its prominence in Scripture and in Christian thought historically. It is completely understandable, but it is tragic: the loss of the fear of God is what ushered in our modern age of anxiety, but the fear of God is the very antidote to our fretfulness.
So here you go: Lose the fear of God, plunge into anxiety. Find the fear of God, find the antidote to anxiety.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. You can pick it up at the bookstore, or online, or you can listen to it free on hoopla with a library card. (The author reads it himself, and he’s one of the best audiobook readers I’ve heard.) And…if you really don’t want to commit to the full 150-page version, there is also a scaled back, small, 60-page paperback version. It’s also free to listen to on hoopla. Enjoy.
Have you ever wondered why the list of laws we know as the Ten Commandments is made up of those specific commandments? I recently found this very interesting explanation in Duane Garrett’s commentary on the Book of Exodus. They’re not random at all, he says, and in fact, their significance goes beyond even the ten areas they address. For instance, Exodus 20:12, commonly called the fifth commandment, reads: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” Are we just being told that there’s a connection between being a good kid and living a long time? Well, maybe that’s part of it, Garrett observes,
But even as a proverbial truth, how is it that respect for parents contributes to a long life? The answer, I believe, is that parents are the first and foremost representatives of the authority structures of life. That is, those who respect their parents will not have trouble dealing with another authority in life, be it in government, business, the military, or society in general. From a habit of respecting parental authority, one learns that there are rules that govern life and that there are people who rightly are in a position to enforce the rules. Such a person will respect laws, school rules, and company policies as well as the police, teachers, and employers. He will not have in his company file the notation “has trouble with authority,” and is therefore less likely to be fired. He will not be expelled from a university for disorderly behavior or cheating. More generally, such a person will understand that rules govern all of life, and will not do such things as truing to drive a car while intoxicated. In short, those who, out of their relationship to their parents, learn to respect for authority avoid the calamities that befall people who do not, and so are far more likely to be healthy, at peace, and to live long. [pg. 479]
Wow. From a simple command to honor your parents, to success in school, business, the military, and life in general. In other words, God knows how to do a lot with a few simple words. Learn well how to honor your father and mother, and you’ll experience blessings that stretch across your entire life.
Or consider Exodus 20:14, commonly known as the seventh commandment: “You shall not commit adultery.” Again, is this saying that other sins of this nature ore OK, as long as you’re not married? Not at all:
We must…ask why the Decalogue explicitly forbids adultery as opposed to more generically forbidding sexual immortality. The reason, I believe, is that marriage is foundational for the survival of the family and of society. It is not that other forms of sexual immortality are less evil. Rather, it is that the focus of the text is not on describing generically every kind of sin; the focus is on sins that destroy the fabric of society among the covenant people. There are other sexual sins, but the pastor who expounds on this verse should give special attention to the special place of marriage in human society and to how adultery destroys that institution. [pg. 481]
So the simple command to not commit adultery is for nothing short of…the survival of society. God does not care only for individuals, but also the kinds of structures and networks and connections that individual men and women actually need in order live and flourish. So God warns us specifically against the kinds of sins, and even, the specific sins, which will destroy the fabric of society.
This, says, Garrett, is the purpose of the Ten Commandments as a whole:
It is not simply a list of ten broad and generic types of evildoing.
It is ten specific sins that will destroy the covenant community.
And this is why we would do well to study it, to meditate on it, and in fact, to seek a deep understanding of all of God’s commands. God knows much better than we do the effects of misusing the world he made. He knew the thousands of years of pain wrapped up in the statement, “You shall surely die,” more than Adam ever could have. And when we find words as clear and simple as the Ten Commandments, we would do well to trust God, and hear. And then, with the Psalmist, we’ll find ourselves saying:
Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day.
You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies;
For they are ever with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers,
For Your testimonies are my meditation.
I understand more than the ancients, Because I keep Your precepts.
Ever notice how much of the material in the Psalms speaks about judgement, in a completely unapologetic way? Maybe, as you steep yourself in the teachings of Jesus, especially, Jesus the Gentle and Lowly, you might even think that these thoughts are somehow out of step with Jesus–like, they’re for the Old Testament, but not our New Testament. But no–they’re God’s word, just as much as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And besides, you know you love the Psalms as much as anything in the Bible, right? So, how can Christians learn to read, feel, and even sing all of the Bible–even the Psalms that sound, well, mean?
Peter Leithart offers some great thoughts on this these Psalms, which are often referred to as “Imprecatory Psalms.” He observes that these Psalms
…aren’t a barbaric residue, but express fundamental biblical convictions about God and the world. When we pray for justice, we’re praying for God to be what he truly is—Judge of all the earth.
Do you hunger for justice? Do you wish you could see evil eradicated? So does God. And so do the people of God. And so they have, for all of history. I encourage you to read the article, and even to look up the scripture references. It would make a great mini-bible study through these things. Leithart says these Psalms can even help ground us more fully in the real world, and the global plan of God:
Singing the “mean” psalms is thus part of the church’s mission. These psalms arouse a hunger and thirst for justice, as we take up the prayers of the destitute as our own. They expand the scope of our prayers. We may not be under threat, but these psalms keep before us the daily dangers of persecuted brothers and sisters. Imprecatory psalms ground us in the real world, counteracting our instinct for over-spiritualized, anodyne, Pollyannaish piety. They’re a form of church discipline, as we ask Jesus to uproot liars and predators from his field, the church. Through these prayers, we defend the house and kingdom of God, and participate in the Lord’s work of establishing justice, vindicating the innocent, defending the helpless. As we sing the “mean” psalms, Satan is trampled under our feet (Rom. 16:20).
I hope you’ve been able to join us as Pastor Joe has been teaching through the book of Revelation here on Sunday mornings. Recently, I read these encouraging thoughts on how helpful it is to study Revelation, from the preface to Buist Fanning’s commentary:
My grasp and appreciation of the other portions of Scripture have been amazingly enhanced by digging into Revelation. I thought I knew the Gospels and Romans and Hebrews well after teaching them in the church and in seminary classroom for over forty years, but I understand them so much more after studying Revelation. The same goes for Genesis, Samuel, Kings, the Psalms, and the prophets of the Old Testament – especially the prophets! And I don’t mean just an intellectual grasp of the Bible but deep appreciation and commitment to obey it and see others respond in the same way.
Revelation is a book that elicits a response of heart and life. In its pages one sees and this helps us read the whole Bible with a fresh intensity…
It makes sense that Revelation could bring such blessing even today. If ever the world needed a message about people from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (5:9) formed by Christ’s redeeming work into a diverse community that bears witness to God’s ways in a broken world, it is today.
People need Revelation’s message about God bringing real justice to bear against evil and real restoration of his creatures and his creation, so that human life can flourish as he intended from the beginning.
They need to see that God is almighty yet seeks direct communion with his people, that he is faithful to his age-old promises to make things right, and that the godless ideologies of our day have nothing to offer compared to the pathways he has for us as humans.
They need to understand God’s desire for his people to engage faithfully with the world around them even now instead of yielding to assimilation, isolation or escapism.
When we grasp our real identity and what our future holds, we are better quipped and motivated to live different lives in the present.
“Why do we tell lies?” asks John Webster. “We lie to evade reality; we lie because the truth is too painful or too shameful for us to face, or because the truth is simply inconvenient and has to be suppressed before it’s allowed to disturb us. We invent lies because, for whatever reason, we want to invent reality. And the false reality which we invent, the world we make up by our lying, has one great advantage for us: It makes no claims on us. It demands nothing. It doesn’t shape us in the way that truth shapes us; it faces us with no obligations; it has no hard, resistant surfaces which we can’t get through. A lie is made-up reality, and so never unsettles, never criticizes, never resists, never overthrows us. It’s the world, not as it is, but as we wish it to be: a world organized around us and our desires, the perfect environment in which we can be left at peace to be ourselves and to follow our own good or evil purposes.”
Tell me this doesn’t describe our world in 2021. And it’s not without consequence. Webster continues:
Lies are a desperately destructive force in human life. When they take the form of private fantasy, they rob us of our ability to deal truthfully with the outside world; but when lies go public, when an entire social group replaces reality with untruth, then the consequences are deadly. Sometimes, indeed, they can be literally deadly: Lies can kill.
Lies work only when they remain unexposed. Once truth is allowed out, once reality is let in, then the lie vanishes; the whole world of falsehood just crashes to the ground. And if the lie is to be maintained intact, then anything which speaks the truth has to be got rid of.
Totalitarian societies, dishonest businesses, abusive human relationships – they all depend on the exclusion of truth and truth-speakers, making sure that what really is the case isn’t allowed to come to light. Lies only work when they aren’t shown up for what they are; and that’s why lies always breed more lies, as we try to protect the world we’ve invented from being exposed.
This is pretty searing stuff. Pretty exposing for our culture. But Webster is not simply a critic. He is a preacher of the Gospel. And so, like we must, he turns to apply Gospel medicine to this very human wound:
At the heart of the story of the passion, therefore, is the confrontation of truth and falsehood. Why does Christ die? Why is he suppressed, cast out and finally silenced by death? Because he speaks truth. He dies because in him there is spoken the truth of the human condition. He is the truth. In his person, as the one who he is, as the one who does what he does and says what he says, he announces the truth of the world, and thereby exposes its untruth.
He shoes up human falsehood in all its depravity. And he does so, not as a relatively truthful human person, nor even as a prophet inspired to declare what is hidden, but as God himself. His words, his declaration of the truth, are God’s declaration. He is therefore truth in all its finality; truth unadorned, truth which interrupts and casts down every human lie, every obstacle to seeing reality as it is. In him there is a complete judgement, an unambiguous showing of the truth from which we may not hide. It’s this which is at the core of the conflict between Jesus and Israel; and it’s for this that he is sent to his death. What is the final terror which he evokes in those who hear him? Simply this: “they perceived that he was speaking about them.”
This, of course, is the truth of the cross, the truth of what we call “Good Friday.” It is the beginning of the way out of our lies–to acknowledge the truth of Jesus, and especially this truth–that when Jesus hung there on that cross, it was because we deserved to, and not him. That truth is big enough to unravel all the lies. And it unleashes the first rays of hope, as Webster observes:
What is the only hope? That the face of God may shine upon us. That God may so present us with the truth that our falsehood is put away. That God may restore us by interposing himself between us and our destruction. That God will intercept our death-dealing ways and give us life.
It’s the conviction of the Christian faith that that prayer has already been answered, finally, fully and with absolute sufficiency, in the events of Good Friday and Easter Day. It’s the conviction of Christian faith that Israel was not allowed to destroy itself or to reject its God. It’s the conviction of Christian faith that human falsehood has been set aside once for all, that God’s covenant stands, and that we stand within that covenant by his mercy alone. And that is why we may approach Holy Week with this prayer in our mouths:
Turn again, O God of hosts! Look down from heaven, and see…Then we shall not turn back from you; give us life, and we shall call upon your name. (Psalm 80:14, 18)
You can read this whole chapter, and a few others, for free, here.
A few months ago I finished Carl Trueman’s book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. It is full of detailed, helpful explanations of the roots and causes that have led to some of the most powerful ideas shaping our culture right now. Near the beginning of the book, he writes:
What past times were better than the present? An era before antibiotics when childbirth or even minor cuts might lead to septicemia or death? The great days of the nineteenth century when the church was culturally powerful and marriage was between one man and one woman for life but little children worked in factories and swept chimneys? Perhaps the Great Depression? The Second World War? The era of Vietnam? Every age has had its darkness and its dangers. The task of the Christian is not to whine about the moment in which he or she lives but understand its problems and respond appropriately to them.
If you want a deep understanding of why people think the way they think in 2021 America, Trueman’s book is the place to start. It’s not a light read, but it’s not boring or dense either, and it’s absolutely worthwhile. I wanted to post an excerpt, and was having trouble finding something that really summed up the book, so I decided to share one particular insight I gleaned from it instead. One of the concepts Trueman discusses early on is the idea of a “deathwork,” which is a term that was coined to describe a certain kind of work of art, or anything a culture produces, really, that is an indication of an unhealthy culture, to say the least. Trueman notes that deathwork has been defined as anything that represents “an all-out assault on the objects of its admiration.” When you look at, or contemplate, a deathwork, it assaults you. You might think this sounds a little over-the-top, until you really get into the concept, and then I think what occurs to you is something more like, “Oh, I see this all the time.”
For instance, Trueman notes the idea that cultures are made of, and defined by, what they forbid. The result of this forbidding is that certain drives or desires are frustrated, and, as the theory goes, “the frustration that such rules create finds an outlet in art; thus, works of art are also constitutive of the culture, reflecting in some way the [prohibitions] that are in place. A deathwork, by contrast, represents an attack on established cultural art forms in a manner designed to undo the deeper moral structure of society.” The art, or any creation, that can be called a deathwork is not an expression of some deep reality from within the boundaries of a culture, it is, instead, an attack on the whole culture.
Deathworks make the old values look ridiculous. They represent not so much arguments against the old order as subversions of it. They aim at changing the aesthetic tastes and sympathies of society so as to undermine the commands on which that society was based.
The highest authority of the [older] world, God, is literally cast into the sewer, the lowest of the low. The sacramental is made into the excremental. And just to be clear – this is not simply an assault on the private religious sensibilities of Roman Catholics; it is an assault on the very authority, the sacred order, by which second worlds are legitimated. Its power lies not in any argument it proposes but rather in the way the clean is subverted by the vile. Religion is not rendered untrue. It is made distasteful and disgusting. [p. 96-97]
Reading the passage above, listening to Trueman dig deeper and deeper into the idea, I was struck by how much of what our culture creates, from “high” art to our popular entertainment, from music to most of what’s on YouTube, is exactly this–it’s not a celebration of beauty, it’s an attack on beauty, and the very concept of beauty. Why do recording artists sing about death, and abuse, and exploitation? It’s an attack on the idea of human dignity, of the true relationship, of friendship, of any purpose in life beyond momentary pleasure at the expense of others. It is not meant to give any kind of life at all–it’s a deathwork.
I think that last two sentences of the quote above are key for understanding the moment we Christians occupy. “Religion is not rendered untrue. It is made distasteful and disgusting.” A moment’s reflection will reveal how true this is for us. By all means, let us study apologetics–let us be able to answer any and every question and objection from an honest inquirer or obstinate adversary. But let us also be aware that, more likely than not, whenever we’re in any kind of public space, we will typically not be involved in intelligent dialogue with skeptics. Instead, we will simply be dismissed, ignored, or ridiculed by the culture around us. After all, the idea goes, you don’t dialogue with someone who’s not worth talking to, especially if they’re evil. To get into a conversation would be to lend legitimacy to their ideas.
The entire book works through these themes to help us understand the lay of our land. And just to be clear–it’s not depressing at all. It’s bracing and clarifying, but then, Christians should never be afraid to be open-eyed about their world. We have nothing to be afraid of. And besides, Jesus has love to extend to everyone around us. He’s got this.
Trueman ends his book with a few brief reflections of how Christians might think and move forward in faithfulness. The church, he says,
should reflect long and hard on the connection between aesthetics and her core beliefs and practices. I noted above that one of the hallmarks of ethical discussion today is its dependence on personal narratives. Our Bodies, Ourselves, the feminist bible, is full of personal testimonies presented as incontrovertible precisely because they are personal testimonies – highest form of authority in an age of expressive individualism. And this aesthetic concern reflects the perennial power of sympathy and empathy in shaping morality…
We lived today in a world that embodies the culmination of this tendency… [A] central characteristic of our contemporary culture is the impoverishment of ideas as a driving force of cultural life. Today images have primacy over ideas. For that reason, cinema, television and now the Internet have left books to one side…
The church needs to respond to this aesthetic-based logic, but first of all she needs to be consciously aware of it. And that means that she herself must forgo indulging in, and thereby legitimating, the kind of aesthetic strategy of the wider culture…
If the church is to avoid the absolutizing of aesthetics by an appropriate commitment to Christianity as first and foremost doctrinal, then second, she must also be a community…
This makes Christianity look highly implausible at the current time. If the message about the self is that of expressive individualism or psychological man, and if that message is being preached from every commercial, every website, every newscast, and every billboard to which people are exposed on a daily basis, the task of the church in cultivating a different understanding of the self is, humanly speaking, likely to provoke despair.
Yet there is hope: the world in which we live is now witness to communities in flux. The nation-state no longer provides identity, as the globalized world makes it seem impotent and ineffective and as decades of being told in the West that patriotism is bad have taken their tolls on the social imaginary. Many cities are anonymous places, and suburbs function as giant commuter motels. The loss of commercial town centers and the rise of the internet have detached people from real communities. Now bizarre phrases such as “online community” and “he pledged allegiance to ISIS online” actually make sense because we know how the very idea of community have been evacuated of the notion of bodily proximity and presence…
One might indeed be tempted to despair at this point if it were not for the fact that human beings still need to belong, to be recognized, and to have community…And communities shape consciousness. There is a reason why Paul comments in 1 Corinthians 15:33 that bad company corrupts morals. Our moral consciousness is very much shaped by our community. And for this reason, the church needs to be a strong community. Yes, this may be hard in an era when the proliferation of denominations and churches had made ecclesiastical commitment potentially just one more form of consumer choice. But we have no power to change that general context, and we cannot allow it to excuse us from behaving in a community. [p. 403-405]
This is just a taste of the book. Look, it’s February. We’ve still got plenty of those rainy 40-degree days ahead, and maybe even a couple of our signature March snow dumps. It would be worth your time to hit up the bookstore, or Crossway’s website, and grab a copy to read before the Summer really gets into full swing.
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