Preaching to the Late Modern Mind: Five Cultural Narratives to Know

preachingIn his book Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism, Tim Keller addresses how Christianity confronts culture. Wisely he speaks of the way we must (1) affirm truth in culture, (2) confront idols in culture, and (3) show how truth in culture is derived from and only satisfied by the Christ who reigns supreme over all cultures. Thus, instead of just being for or against culture, Keller describes a “Yes, but no, but yes” approach for preaching Christ to culture.

Approaching culture in this nuanced way means understanding the modern world in which we live. In a chapter entitled “Preaching and the (Late) Modern Mind,” he describes the difference between the pagan, pre-Christian world and the way in which Christianity brought dignity and personal value to the West. In other words, before Christianity emerged in the West, the pagan world with its philosophers conceived of the world as an impersonal universe. Belief in a tri-personal God, sovereignly directing history and seeking to redeem humanity changed all of that. And the bounty of the Western world, therefore, is a byproduct of Christianity’s influence.

In one place, Keller nicely summarizes five differences between the pre-Christian world with the Christian West. He then goes on to explain how secularism has taken Christian values to the extreme, making them idolatrous falsehoods. But in explaining how Christian values have gone rogue, he doesn’t include them in his compact table. On page 128, there is one column missing (that would help flesh out his argument on pp. 128–33).

So, I added the third column to the table below to help show the way in which the West has left Christianity behind and distorted many of the values it provided. By seeing in our culture post-Christian culture the traces of Christian thought, we can as Keller points out, begin to lead people back to the source of the values (e.g., science, individualism, personal choice) they embrace today. Indeed, if you value and enjoy science, justice, or personal choice today, it is worth noting where those cultural gifts derive. Keller’s chapter on preaching Christ to culture is an excellent place to begin thinking about that relationship.

Five Chief Narratives of Western Thought[1]

Before Christianity Emerged [in the West] After Christianity Came to the West After Christianity ‘Left’ the West
The body and material world are less important and real than the realm of ideas The body and material world are good. Improving them is important. Science is possible. Science is absolute. Materialism is absolute. Technology is sufficient to solve our problems.
History is cyclical, with no direction. History is making progress. Progress means history is unimportant. Everything novel is superior to the past.
Individuals are unimportant. Only the clan and tribe matter. All individuals are important, have dignity, and deserve our help and respect. Individuals are supremely important. Individualistic expression should never be questioned, even when detrimental to the group.
Human choices don’t matter; we are fated. Human choices matter and we are responsible for our actions. Choice is sancrosanct and must be guarded and guaranteed at all costs.
Emotions and feelings should not be explored, only overcome. Emotions and feelings are good and important. They should be understood and directed. Emotions and feelings are determinative. To feel authentic I must express my desires and never suppress them.

In sum, these “five axes,” which Keller adapts from Charles Taylor (The Secular Age), help diagnose some of the challenges in front of us. Together these five narratives can be classified as follows:

  • rationality (and an explanation of where the world came from and what we can know about it),
  • history (and the meaning of life),
  • society (and the relationship of individuals to groups),
  • morality (and who gets to determine right and wrong), and
  • identity (and where we get our sense of value and purpose).

To be sure, these realities do not drive our exegesis of the biblical text, but in communicating that text to others we must be aware of these ideas. Knowing these cultural baselines helps us affirm and deny the beliefs we find in individuals and in our surrounding culture. Preachers must be aware of these realities to wisely apply God’s Word.

Indeed, all Christians should have a growing awareness of cultural presuppositions. Why? So that we will not be ensnared by them, and so we can communicate the gospel by rightly affirming some cultural desires as finding their telos in Christ and by confronting others cultural idols as errant promises that ultimately lead to death (Prov. 14:12).

In short, Keller’s sections on preaching Christ in a post-Christian culture are worth considering. They challenge the faithful witness to love his neighbor(s) by knowing what his neighbor believes and loves. Therefore, while planting ourselves in God’s unchanging Word, we must also learn how to share Christ with others who embrace various aspects of the aforementioned narratives.

To that end, let us continue to give ourselves the Word and the world, so that we can take the good news of the former to meet the dire needs of the latter.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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[1] Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Viking, 2015), 128. First two columns are verbatim; the last column summaries Keller’s prose.

How Should Christians Engage Culture?

christandcultureIn 1951 Richard Niebuhr wrote a book called Christ and Culture. In it he listed five ways the authority of Christ relates to the ideas, influences, and authorities of the world—what might be called “culture.” These include Christ against culture (e.g., Amish and hyper-fundamentalists) on one side and the Christ of culture (e.g., “cultural Christianity,” be it conservative or progressive) on the other.

In between these poles, Niebuhr also observed places in Scripture and church history where Christians have put Christ above culture. He rightly remarks that this is where most Christians live, vacillating between various forms of synthesis and separation from culture.

Evaluating Christ and Culture

To this day, Niebuhr’s book remains the historic guide to thinking about Christ and culture. However, more recently and more biblically, D. A. Carson has updated the conversation by evaluating Niebuhr’s book and presenting his own “biblical theology” of culture (see his Christ and Culture Revisited). Carson shows that Niebuhr’s conclusions suffer from his own Protestant liberalism, that at times he forces Scripture into his mold, and sometimes Niebuhr includes in the wide-tent of Christianity things at are not (e.g., Gnosticism).

Nonetheless, Niebuhr’s five-fold taxonomy (or four-fold is “cultural Christianity” is excluded) helps us think about Christ and culture. As Christians, we must have a multi-pronged approach to the world: we must resist the world without retreating from it; we must love the world (John 3:16) without becoming friends with the world (James 4:4; 1 John 2:15); we must appreciate God’s common grace in the fallen world, even as we seek the conversion of the lost, such that these new creatures in Christ might go into the world as salt and light to better preserve, purify, and improve the world.

All in all, the Christian’s duty to be in the world but not of the world is perplexing. Like the Jews living in exile, we must seek the welfare of our secular city (Jeremiah 29), but in seeking the good of our neighbors, we must not seek the city of man more than we seek the city of God, the city whose architect and builder is God.

But how do we do that? Continue reading