The Empty Church

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A BOOK REPORT ON

THE EMPTY CHURCH:

The Suicide of Liberal Christianity

by Thomas C. Reeves

(Reviewed by Rev. Brett Best, July, 2017.)

THE BIG IDEA

Reeves writes with an uncompromising but reasonable style to explain how Liberalism has plagued the American mainline denominations almost to death.  The death of individual churches is beyond dispute and happens daily; the effects on the national groups are indisputably taking their toll.  While Christianity isn’t threatened, these denominations certainly are.  For the record, he calls these denominations the “Seven Sisters of American Protestantism” and they are, the American Baptist Churches in the USA, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church.

In his own words, “This study places liberal Protestantism in a historical context, describes its current plight, and makes recommendations for its revitalization.” (p. 1)  As you might guess, it is the first of these three goals that takes up most of the pages of the book, but it’s such a tightly-woven, expertly concise telling of history it makes good and informative reading without bogging the reader down.

THE LITTLE IDEAS

First, a couple words about opinion polls and other statistics: one, I am not a believer in opinion polls.  There’s a certain falsehood that’s built into polling.  Regardless of how much science there is the data collection, it creates a false impression that we’re accurately gauging what people think/feel/prioritize.  Statistics of this sort are a more malleable medium than pollsters care to admit.  Have you ever heard a couple diehard sports fans debating whose team is greater?  Statistics fly about the room as proof that convinces no one.  Numbers are not always objective and they can be selectively used to make a point without ever proving a point.  To me, the most genuine numerical evidence is where people are spending their money and their time.  Maybe how they vote, although that can be too small a sample to be reliable.

Second, Reeve’s statistics are two decades old.  When you rely on statistical data, the other edge of that sword is that it ages.  I do not believe the situation has changed enough to repudiate any of Reeve’s points, but you understand my meaning: when you read the statistical parts of the book, you think, “Yeah, but these numbers are so OLD.”

“As is quite well known, the mainline churches have been shrinking dramatically during the last three decades and appear to be confused and helpless at a time when the nation is crying out for inspiration and guidance.” (p. 9)  “Confused and helpless” is the title of the first chapter and is an apt summary of the condition of the mainline denominations.  Between the youngest adults opting out (it would be another decade or so before we started calling them the “Nones”) and the graying of the oldest members, the mainlines face enough losses of membership.  Factor in the distress caused by liberal denominational leaders and policies, you have an explanation for the hemorrhaging of people, churches, and money.

“The obvious question is, Why do liberals dominate?  As we have seen, liberals have long been prominent in the mainline.  But there is also an important principle of group dynamics involved here: moderate, otherwise busy people are no match of zealous, ideological interest groups eager to attain power.” (p. 15)  He goes on to explain something I’ve wondered about for a long time; why denominational leaders tend to be liberals.  Liberal clergy disconnect from the local church because people in the pews don’t want to hear their nonsense; they tend to be more conservative.  So, when parish ministry isn’t an option, what does a theologically trained person do except go to denominational HQ?  To paraphrase a familiar adage, “Those who can, preach.  Those who can’t, administrate.”

Here’s a sign of the disconnect between liberal clergy and conservative congregations: “Complaints about the political partisanship, character, and competence of clergy are commonplace in many denominations.” (p. 23)

Liberals blame the folks in the pews for the demise of their congregations and denominations.  They cite the anachronistic nature of a faith derived from an ancient book (the Bible) as making them irrelevant to modern audiences.  Reeves will spend the remaining chapters explaining how the liberals’ abandonment of history and tradition in favor of trendiness and cultural accommodation is the real cause.  At liberal and conservative extremes, people are lost when there is an over-emphasis on politics.

Why should anyone bother renewing the mainlines?  If they are dinosaurs, why not let them go extinct?  Reeves offers some good motives.

  • The people in the pews still revere the church’s traditions, history, and doctrines, which can provide the inspiration and guidance our culture needs and occasionally wants.
  • The local church is still important to local people.
  • If denominations fall, what is the alternative? DISorganized religion?  This kind of chaos invites more drop-outs from the faith.
  • The secular culture liberals adore has been clearly proven to be morally poisonous.

With specific statistics and quotes along with sweeping generalizations, Reeves paints an unflattering portrait of the Church in America.  He notes the causes of liberalism (i.e., an uncritical accommodation to culture) and its effects (killing churches).  He explains how the “Seven Sisters” have declined and contrasted how liberals and conservatives explain a decline that is obvious to both.  The situation has not changed much in the 20 years since the publication of The Empty Church, with the possible exception being that liberals are becoming bolder and more inclined to use their media and education system advantages without being limited by nagging details like truth.  Reeve’s analysis is logically more applicable to Boomers than their Millennial grandchildren.  The first chapter is one of the most quotable in a book that fairly blossoms with good quotes.

Popular culture is the bane of true faith in the sense that it has created what Reeves calls “consumer Christianity,” the title of his second chapter.  When Modernism moved the center of the faith to the individual (from its Pre-modern focus on the Church), self-centered manifestations of doctrine and practice began to be codified in how we understand and do church.  The tension between culture and Christianity is a frequent topic in this book.  Liberals accommodate themselves to, and even celebrate secular culture while conservatives resist, even vilify it.

On a parallel track, American Church history is a cautionary tale about how culture (and its fossilized form, government) has related to Christianity.  I don’t think people who argue for a “return” to a “Christian America” or propagate a “secular America, like the Founding Fathers envisioned” really understand history.  Once again, the bias of the extremes fouls the well of truth.  Reeves devotes a lot of pages and statistical evidence to back up a more moderate and realistic view that America has always been a culture of individualism, with individuals who backed or opposed Christianity, as their inclinations lead them.  “Religious individualism, to repeat, is at the core of American Christianity.” (pp. 61-62)

In chapter two, Reeves characterizes American Christianity with these broad strokes.

  • “First, our faith is not tied to our churches.” (p. 61) Think of Billy Joe who insists he can worship God just as well in the woods or in a boat (usually with a six-pack) as readily as in a church.
  • “Second, Christianity in modern America tends to be superficial.” (p. 63) Biblical illiteracy, the statistically insignificant difference between the behaviors of churched and unchurched people, and the gap between claims of faith and acts of faith are examples of this superficiality.

Individualism is something Christian and non-Christian Americans share with each other.  What divides us is the Left’s stranglehold on media and education, which they manipulate to justify their actions and the philosophy that supposedly gives rise to them.

Historically, Reeves blames the Enlightenment for birthing Modernism and Post-modernism, philosophies that establish the individual as the center of all things, relativising morality and nullifying the true authorities of the Church and Scripture.  “The point is, to repeat, that this secular religion tended to focus on the self and its desires.” (p. 74)

Intellectuals are fond of social engineering and, to use Rousseau’s classic phrase, they have little difficulty countenancing schemes that ‘force people to be free.’” (p. 79)  The third chapter is about the three “secular religions” Reeves identifies as the Enlightenment, Marxism, and science.  These three historical movements have been perpetrators of grave persecution of individual Christians as well as Christianity as a whole.  None of their attacks have succeeded in gravely injuring Christianity, but is from their toxic cesspool that Liberalism has spawned.  It has done from within the Church what these secular religions have failed to accomplish by working against us from outside.  What’s especially subtle is how the individualism of these secular religions has been blended into American Christianity, making it the consumer-oriented organization it is today.

Chapter three covers American church history up to 1920, chapter four from 1920 to 1960, and chapter five sees us from the 60s through 1996, when the book was published.  The final chapter sets forth some suggestions on how the mainlines could be reformed.  The Empty Church is well-researched and written, presenting these historical periods with just enough detail to substantiate the author’s generalizations.  Space in this humble review does not permit even a bald listing of the movements and persons of these eras.  Such a summary is not necessary as Reeves has done such a commendable job cataloguing and commenting on them in The Empty Church.

Liberalism in the American Church started the mainlines on their decline in the 1920s, with a brief respite in the fifteen years following World War II.  Remember, one way to scale Liberalism is the degree to which liberals condone the culture of the time, whatever it may be.  “Without a Bible or a church tradition to provide, in their [liberals’] judgment, dependable spiritual or ethical authority, most liberal Protestants went along with the flow of events in the secular world.” (pp. 145-146)  Proving once again it is easier to let the river push you than to row against the river.

Clergy were not immune to the siren call of “relevance” achieved by cultural conformity.  Reeves quotes historian Edwin S. Gaustad who captured the feelings of clergy of the day and into our own time; “In the struggle over image, the clergyman unsure of his role as a prophet or moral leader as citizen or therapist, found little reassurance in observing the swift deterioration of his economic and professional standing.” (p. 106)

One trait common to all extreme positions is the tendency to go overboard if left unchecked by anyone with common sense or an actual alternative point of view.  In his chapter “Stuck in the Sixties” Reeves shares a few anecdotes of the excesses to which liberals have gone when they are unfettered by sensible folk.  The “ReImagining 1993” conference held by liberal feminists is one example of the silliness that has been offered in place of orthodox theology and behavior.

In his chapter on renewing the mainlines, Reeves offers several observations and suggestions for ways in which the mainlines might be moved back from extinction.

  • Urbanization is both a bane and a boon to the mainlines. Urban culture seems to favor secularization and liberalism, but statistics show it also increases the opportunities for church involvement.  Urban ministry needs to cease being the domain of the left and moved more toward the center.
  • Educational centers have long been nesting grounds for liberals. But statistics show that more education tends to increase church participation.  Reeves advocates bypassing existing liberal seminaries and other institutions of higher education to create new, more orthodox educational institutions.
  • Liberals and church growth experts have sought to convince us that “outmoded” worship styles and worse, biblical literacy, are offensive to moderns. Again, statistical data tells the opposite story.  Mainlines need to ditch the 50 year-old notion that “relevance” is achieved by simple-minded, uncritical incorporation of popular culture into worship forms.
  • Because the mainline leadership has yawed so far to the left, politics is a subject that should largely be banned from Sunday mornings. The mainline leaders are so thoroughly wedded to the Democratic Party which has been completely dominated by liberals, a stern corrective course needs to be taken.
  • People are opting out of church because they see it as irrelevant. “Irrelevant” does NOT mean, as liberals suggest, outmoded, archaic, ancient, or traditional.  It means – because of the folly of liberals – that it is no different from the world.  The emotional/spiritual felt needs of many people of all ages can be more conveniently found in the world, and so people have reinvested their time and resources in other institutions.  To win them back, the American Church must hew to the right and reclaim our history and traditions and our orthodoxy.  Accommodation to culture is killing us; confrontation of culture will save us.
  • “Here we are at the root of things: the submission of liberal Protestantism to a secular gospel rests upon a failure to accept the essentials of the Christian faith.” (p. 175) We can have a lively discussion of what constitutes the “essentials,” but we can come to agreement if we limit our discussion to the things that are truly important to our faith; the distinctives that we share.  Historically, we have suffered the splintering into denominations because we have allowed non-essentials to be treated as essentials.
  • Reeves calls for “vigorous spiritual formation” on page 178. By this he means rejecting the Pragmatism and Literalism of Science (and all the offspring of the other Secular Religions mentioned earlier), in favor of a return to the miraculous, supernatural, and divine.  Otherwise, church is just another club.
  • Return to a strict moral code will revitalize the mainlines if such strictures are based on Scripture, the spiritual formation previously mentioned, and a dose of common sense. We don’t need a return to the silly fussiness of Fundamentalist prohibitions; that would be an overcorrection.  One thing most people respect is integrity.  The American Church has lost respect because liberals have argued for a dumbing down of Christian morality until church folk are no more moral than unchurched folk.
  • We need to advocate for “common grace” in our culture, genuine respect for all views, not the shallow “tolerance” the left has as its sole virtue and practices with unblinking hypocrisy. We are not in competition with the Secular Religion of Science, but respond reasonably and graciously to those who disagree.  The American Church will earn respect if she sticks to her guns without sticking it to the “other guy.”
  • “Rejuvenated mainline churches must also become engaged actively in evangelism.” (p. 188) This simple sentence underscores the main thing that is wrong with mainline churches.  Evangelism is one of the most exciting and fulfilling aspects of Christian life and is the most neglected aspect of church life, to our shame.  Part of the reason for this is psychological; if there is no real difference between the church and the world, why invite anyone to step across the threshold?  If sin is not a problem and the cross is a myth, why put up with the stuff that accompanies church life?  It’s easier to stay home and more fun to invest our time elsewhere if none of this makes any real difference.  Emptied of the supernatural, we can find better ways to get our coffee on Sunday morning.
  • A return to Scripture and an emphasis on biblical literacy in and outside of the church walls will facilitate both evangelism and discipleship. Liberals forsake the authority of Scripture to exalt reason.  Fundamentalists exalt the authority of Scripture and forsake reason.  We need to find a middle ground between these false extremes and stand firmly on it.
  • “Renewed mainline churches should also take immediate steps to stem the flight of their young people.” (p. 192) Conservative churches raise up young people who generally remain true to their faith.  The liberal near-monopoly on education makes adolescence a vulnerable time and our culture is doing everything it can to extend adolescence.  We need to prepare and undergird young adults by confronting the culture they face and by which they are influenced most of their waking hours.  The proliferation of cell phones has heightened their exposure to media and the Church has done little or nothing to help them sift the good from the bad.
  • “Renewed mainline churches will also accelerate their social and charitable institutions.” (p. 165) This is another aspect of American society that has been abandoned to the devices of liberals who take advantage of their captive audiences.  Charitable institutions in this country began as extensions of the Church, but we abdicated that kind of service to secular and governmental agencies who use them to expand the liberal agenda.
  • Reeves takes a hard line on mainline clergy as well. He urges a return to more traditional forms of pastoral ministry, leaving the political activism and moral relativism predominant among the mainlines behind.

“Finally, how difficult will it be to renew the mainline?  An abundance of evidence suggests that the task is extremely formidable.  For one thing, as we have seen, many liberal Protestants, especially at the leadership levels of the mainline churches, are pleased with the current situation.” (p. 200)  “It is extremely unlikely that efforts to renew the mainline churches will start from the top down.  Meaningful reform will no doubt have to come, as it has in the past, from the rank and file.” (p. 201)

We need to decide whether or not the mainlines are worth saving.  Considering the alternatives, I’d say so.  Then we need to decide that the renewal of the mainlines will only happen with God’s Spirit at work in the pews and work its way out from there.  It then needs to involve the local clergy and skirt the denominational office as a lost cause, working in regions as a leaven.  Person to person, church to church across localities, eventually the tide will turn even the vast rudder of the denominational leaders and the ship may yet avoid the inevitable iceburg.  We can either act or let the inevitable demise happen.

MY GRADE: A.

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A Review of Heath White’s Postmodernism 101

postmodernism

by Rev. Brett Best, June, 2016

In several years of teaching a class on worldviews, I encountered a few students who, despite being enrolled at a Christian college, had negative views on the Bible.  A few even resented having to take the course I taught because they saw it as the college’s attempt to force Christianity on them.  Fortunately, the way that I taught the course rehabilitated even these prone-to-be-combative attitudes.  We had good discussions and I treasure all those opportunities to teach.

However, I had opportunity to teach during a fourth of the time I have been in ministry.  In the thirty-plus year scope of my service in professional church ministry I have had opportunity to wrangle with an issue that has grown and morphed into a political force: homosexuality.  When it first came up during my ministerial training, my naïveté was in evidence as I was first shocked that confessed Christians supported homosexuality and then immediately wrote a letter to the editor of the paper and wanted to preach on it.  Thank God I sought advice on the subject and received good advice and curtailed an aggressive response.  In thirty years my view on this issue has not changed.  I humbly pray that’s because I received godly instruction and have stuck to it, not because I’ve been stubborn or reactionary.

I mention these two things for two reasons.  One, I’ve come to understand that postmoderns prefer micronarratives to metanarratives and so I’m dabbling in it.  Two, these are two personal experiences with something that has only recently been named: postmodernism.

One of the chief characteristics of postmodernism has been provided for us by Jean-Francois Lyotard in his 1979 book The Postmodern Condition; “incredulity toward metanarratives.”  Some of my students’ views of the Bible suffered deniability of authority and even trustworthiness because of this predilection toward incredulity toward arguably the most pervasive metanarrative in human history.

My colleagues in ministry, activists, and social commentators in the media supported homosexuality because they figured the biblical metanarrative on the subject hand been traditionally manipulated by homophobes.  Of course there are many other strands of thought and motive in this complicated social epoch, but I believe I’ve gained some perspective on people who, to my thinking, had only ulterior motives for endorsing this lifestyle.

Of course, my thinking on this subject is still new, but as I publish my thoughts on White’s very helpful book, perhaps you will benefit in some way from insights I have received.  All that to say, “I pray my processing will help your processing.”

One of the things the text helped me understand is the scope of the worldview called “postmodernism.”  White has a genius for reducing sweeps of history and philosophy to accessible portions and I believe it fulfills it’s goal to introduce the subject to Christians who are intellectually curious enough to read his book.  It’s impossible for me to gauge the influence of postmodernism on our society, but I believe most observers of this worldview would take it as a fact that it is growing and is possessive of the last two generations of Americans.  For example, if you find the dismissive sexual ethic of the last fifty years difficult to understand, if you find the ease with which traditional ethics of all kinds have been left discarded, you have been observing the effects of postmodernism without knowing the name of the litterbug.

In his introduction, “Why Read about Postmodernism?” White introduces the topic with these words, “Postmodernism is not a theory or creed: it is more like an attitude or way of looking at things.  It didn’t drop our of the sky – it showed up at this juncture in history, in Western culture, for specific reasons that have to do with the history of the West.” (White, p. 11.)

He goes on to develop in the book the three worldviews that have dominated Western culture.  “Premodernism” was the prevailing view from year 0 to about 1500 A.D. (or C.E., which, when you think of it, may be another effect of postmodernism).  This view might be described and “retro-evolutionary” because it believed in tradition and antiquity, that the most true things were revealed in the past.  It is our intellectual and moral duty to accept and accommodate ourselves to what our forefathers passed on to us.

“Modernism” arose when the promises of the fruition first made by our ancestors failed to come to pass.  Reason replaced faith as the central aspiration and asset of our species and science increasingly took over dogmatic authority.  Christianity changed during that time, going from the centralized-authority and tradition-driven Catholic and Orthodoxy churches to the decentralized and theology-driven Protestant churches.

These are grand strokes, I grant you.  Exceptions abound, but they prove the rule.  Then, in the last fifty years of the Second Millennium and continuing on today, is “Postmodernism,” a reaction against the failed promises of reason to improve humanity or the condition of our home.

For Christians, White identifies three reasons to study postmodernism.  The moral concern is first.  Postmodernism’s relativism and situationalism are manifest in rejection of the moral absolutes we practice because we’ve inherited them from our spiritual forbears and because they are a reasonable outworking of biblical teaching.

In my personal experience, the evangelistic concern used to be manifest in worship styles and in charismatic renewal.  Then I saw it appear in the “seeker friendly” approach and other forms of the church growth movement.  But now it takes on all of that and more – remaking our churches so that they appeal to people outside them.  Is that what evangelism really requires?  If church is virtually indistinguishable from the outside over-culture, then when is the new convert to be aware that they are a convert?

The theological concern is based on the fact that the newer denominations have their roots in the Enlightenment, an expression of modernism.  But postmoderns are coming along and saying that the exercise of reason in clerical garb has done nothing more to allay the human condition than it’s exercise in a lab coat.  We’re being made to feel bankrupt, and that is understandably disconcerting.  (I wonder if the Emergent church isn’t postmodernism in church settings.)

White’s development of premodern and modern views is well done.  A table that simplifies points of comparison would be enormously helpful here, but I don’t yet have one to offer.  The chapter is well written and I came away with the sense that the Church retains aspects of both views.

The chapter entitled “The Postmodern Turn Against Reason” may sound indemnifying, but White’s point is simply that modernism placed its hope in reason and though it took us 450 years to become disillusioned, reason has failed to deliver the goods.  “In the eyes of postmoderns, then, modernism has failed, both as a prediction of progress and as a moral framework for culture.”  (White, p. 45.)  My first reaction is that it is lazy, irresponsible and immature to simply find fault and have nothing to offer as an alternative.  But, to be fair, postmodernism is relatively new and its decentralized and skeptical nature make it difficult to form a more cogent and comprehensive response to modernism, let alone offer a new hope.  White observed that postmoderns can be nihilistic, relativistic, constructivistic, or pragmatic in their approach.  It makes sense that a movement so individualized would have a diversity of orientations within its own fold.

The supposition that guides a postmodern’s incredulity toward metanarratives is the suspicion that they are exercises of power.  As it is usually quicker to dispose of bath water and baby, postmoderns dispose with metanarratives.  Logically, they are loathe to offer any of their own.  As the chapter “Truth, Power, and Morality” shows, these three subjects are objects of suspicion in the eyes of postmoderns.  White develops a thoughtful response by the Church on these subjects, then offers homosexuality as an example of a current issue that exhibits the differences between these worldviews.  I found that particular section to be too brief.  In my opinion, homosexuality has been made THE issue of our time and I fear it is the handle to the club with which an increasingly anti-Christian culture is going to use on the church.  This may be alarmist.  But that conviction left me unsatisfied with White’s treatment of the issue.  It could have been of greater use as an example of how the Church might hope to synthesize, premodernism, modernism, and postmodernism into a viable alternative to our seemingly hell-bent culture.

The chapter on “The Self” did a good job of using that vantage point to compare the three worldviews.  To me, it exposed what I call the “Satanic Conspiracy” of our time, “divide and conquer.”  In my lifetime we have become “atomized;” rendered more alone and lonely by the effects of culture and technology.  Consider an example.  When my parents were teenagers and wanted to be entertained, they joined their community in a movie theater where they received information and entertainment together.  In my growing up years, families were sequestered in their homes as they watched the family television together.  In my children’s years at home, we had multiple TV screens and computers, so we further split into different rooms of the house.  Now cell ‘phones and other devices bring all the entertainment and news we can consume to the individual.  We’ve shrunk from community to family to individual.  Indeed, one of the things about postmodernism that troubles me most is its atomizing effect by enshrining micronarrative and denying metanarrative.

The chapter on “Language and Thought” presented the most difficulty to me.  Not on agreement, but on understanding.  The gist of it is that postmoderns are as skeptical of speech as they are of history.  They see language as one of the oppressor’s tools, a possible infringement on their individuality.  White quotes a paragraph written by French postmodernist Jacques Derrida as an example of the linguistic gymnastics practiced by postmoderns just to upset the linguistic wagon.  It was truly dizzying and meaningless, which may’ve been the point.  A more pragmatic person would dismiss this aspect of postmodernism as “BS.”  I’m tempted…

“Inquiry and Interpretation” is introduced with this thought, “For postmoderns, no knowledge is fully reliable and no concepts are absolutely indispensable.” (White, p. 103.)  Suspicion of what has come before runs deep in this worldview.  More than that, postmoderns’ rejection of reason alone has lead to the embrace of less subjective, more affective sources of information.  As Christians whose life is based on faith (related to reason but not based on it and sometimes existing in defiance of it), this should be a refreshing relief from our servitude to the Enlightenment.  White has a fantastic quote from a medieval monk named Bernard of Clairvaux on page 105 that expresses the premodern view of knowledge and may be an expression of truth many church folk would applaud.

Sometimes premodernism seems smoke and mirrors and attempts to complicate the issue into absurdity.  For example, White summarizes, “postmoderns have lost faith in the idea of objective verification.  Instead, they focus on the persuasive power of the stories we tell…  Thus, for a postmodern all disciplines produce a form of literature…”  (White, p. 108.)

Ever argued about the meaning of a poem?  That’s what our discussions about Scripture feel like to a postmodern.  It’s a matter of indifference to them because it exists only in the realm of opinion, where individuals are free to disagree, even to extremes, because it doesn’t really matter.

One chapter is titled “Culture and Irony.”  Here White rightly reveals the increased exposure to global cultures and the shrinkage of our world through media as part of the fuel that has fired postmodernism.   Part of what defines who we are is what we have experienced.  Premodernism was served by a sphere of experience that was community oriented.  Modernism was served by a sphere of experience that was national.  Postmodernism is served by travel, language and culture that is more global than ever.  When all cultured are viewed as equals, the parts of morality and religion that are harnessed to culture are also viewed as equal by association.

The “irony” part was less clear to me.  I guess that the irony is that when all cultures are equal, my preference for any one is simply that, a preference.  It carries no authority and there is no need for a decision on which is the most true, helpful, or civil.

In the Church, this is manifest in the breakdown of denominations, the structure of authority that mandated and enforced divisions between folk who basically agree with one another.  I’m not ready to accept “irony” as a virtue, but I can see the value in spinning down the difference between the streams of Christianity and emphasizing the similarities.

The chapter “History and Hope” provided yet another helpful vantage point from which to survey the points of similarity and difference between these three worldviews.  One of the downsides to postmodernism’s rejection of metanarratives is the loss of hope.  Premoderns hoped in god, moderns is reason, but for postmoderns, both these hopes are disappointed.  If anything is to be hoped for, it is on an individualistic scale, which lends to the atomizing I have already observed in our culture.

In his Epilogue, White does a good job of assaying the effect of postmodernism and its future as a philosophical system.  He wryly observes that the next philosophical mode will be searching for a name as we’ve covered the permutations of “modernism.”

Near the end of the book White identifies the big idea, the critical issue between postmodernism and Christianity.  This means, of course, that he does not develop the question or offer any answers.  Here, for the benefit of the reader, is the question; “So here is the numb of the issue between Christianity and postmodernism: what is freedom?”  Christianity answers that question theologically and authoritatively while postmodernism answers it emphasizing individuality and irony.  I hope this will be the subject of a future book.

To conclude, I have benefitted personally from White’s book.  I don’t believe I have taken hold of this subject, but have at least found a handle and a reference to orient myself in the discussion.  As I continue to read and study on the subject, I can refer back to Postmodernism 101 for a framework by which additional learning can be organized.  It is a book I recommend reading and digesting.

Your are a Pontifex

INTRODUCTION

          The title of this message is “You are a Pontifex.”  I want to be clear – I have not just insulted you.  Pontifex is the Latin word for priest; it literally means “bridge-builder.”  Priests were seen as living bridges between God and humanity.  The Bible makes it clear that we are all bridge builders; this calling is not reserved for a set of religious specialists. Every disciple is supposed to be a means of drawing people to God.

Every Christian would agree with what I’ve just said.  Where we’d disagree is how we accomplish this bridge-building task.  For the last 60 years, the church in America has been told that you build bridges by being “relevant.”

Too many people have assumed that ambiguous term means that we gain a hearing in the minds of unsaved folk by looking and sounding just like them.  If the church wants to be relevant, it must borrow from the culture.

Today’s American culture is oriented toward youth, is urban, evolutionary (assumes the future is brighter), emphasizes tolerance on social issues, and is infatuated with technology.  Contrast that with traditional churches that are oriented toward senior citizens, rural, historical, emphasizes biblical morality and has little desire for the latest tech whiz-bangs.  It’s no wonder church folk feel increasingly alienated in their own communities.

The dominant church growth philosophy is “Go young or die.”  You wouldn’t believe how often I hear people acting and speaking out of the assumption that the only churches that will survive are those who direct their whole ministry at youth and young adults.  It seems that no price is too high, that you can’t go too far in this drive to be relevant. There are at least two problems with this philosophy;

One, it you become just like culture, you become invisible.  If there’s no difference between the Church and the other places people hang out, why bother with the Church?

Two, this pursuit of relevance has been an occasion for watering down the Gospel.  For example, only sinners need a Savior.  Because “tolerance” is the one absolute virtue in our culture and it means “I won’t confront you about your sin if you don’t confront me about mine,” we’re told to ignore or sugar-coat the part about people being guilty of sin.  Let me ask you, if the worst thing you’re guilty of is “making maladaptive lifestyle choices,” then why would Jesus have to die for YOU?!

Today I’m going to advocate for a different approach to relevance.  I want to use Paul’s preaching in ancient Athens as an example of a confrontational approach to culture. I may be like Don Quixote, but I believe that relevance is best achieved by being counter-cultural.  We may gain more enemies than friends, but I think what’s most important is whether or not we’re staying true to God’s word and all of God’s word, not just the parts that are easy and are approved by our so-called post-Christian culture.

Here’s the Eternal Truth we can observe in today’s passage = When culture collides with the truth, we must build bridges to allow people to cross over.  This must be done without compromising the truth.

Step One = Compare the cultures to find points at which to anchor the two ends of the bridge (16-23).

  1. 16 reveals Paul’s reaction to the city of Athens; HE WAS GREATLY DISTRESSED TO SEE THE CITY WAS FULL OF IDOLS.
  2. 17 details Paul’s solution to the problem; he REASONED with the residents of the city. He went to the synagogue to meet the Jews and Gentile converts. He went to the marketplace to meet with everyone else.

PRINCIPLE #1 = Paul went where the people were; he met them on their turf, but on his terms.

          In v. 19 he took advantage of the opportunity presented him to take the discussion to the next level; THEY BROUGHT HIM TO A MEETING OF THE AREOPAGUS. The Aeropagus was a courtyard situated on a hill NW of the marketplace in Athens. It had historically been a place where court was held in session, but by Paul’s time was more of an educational, religious, and cultural center. This opportunity didn’t suddenly fall out of the sky; it came as a result of the discussions Paul had already been having in the synagogue & marketplace.

PRINCIPLE #2 = We don’t JUST wait on the Lord to provide unexpected opportunities; we create opportunities by faithful service and being proactive.

          In vs. 22-23, Paul compared the Christian faith and the Athenian culture and pointed out one thing held in common and one thing that was different. The point of commonality; Church culture and Athenian culture were both based on Theism: the belief that a god/gods exist.

Even though he was emphasizing something important held in common, based on his choice of words, we know Paul’s approach was confrontative. VERY RELIGIOUS is a 19-letter word in the Greek! It is better translated as “superstitious.” It is actually an insult, a word that the Romans and Greeks – who could b religious snobs – liked to throw at Jews and Christians. Paul used one of their fancy words against them.  Tongue in cheek?  Irony or sarcasm?

Paul also pointed out one difference: The God unknown to them was known to the Church. Pointing out their ALTAR TO AN UNKNOWN GOD gave a visual representation of a vital difference. The God that was still unknown to them had revealed Himself to the Jews and Christians. Paul offered this as an example of their “over-religious” behavior, their superstitions.  The Athenians were so diligent about religion that they sought to cover their assets by erecting an altar to any god they might’ve otherwise missed.

PRINCIPLE #3 = We become relevant by finding points of comparison, not by compromising.

Step Two = Build the bridge by revealing the truth (23-31).

          In verse 23 Paul asserted that God can be known; He’s revealed Himself: WHAT YOU WORSHIP AS UNKNOWN I PROCLAIM TO YOU. God has revealed Himself in many ways.

  • Generally – in nature.
  • Morally – in the human conscience.
  • Spiritually – in the circumstances of life, dreams, visions, all arranged by the Holy Spirit.
  • Objectively – in the Bible.
  • Personally – in Jesus’ life & teachings

But Greek philosophers defined God as an impersonal, unknowable force.

Greek religion had developed many gods.

Verses 24-25 point out another contrast; that God is the Sustainer of life; we depend on Him, not the other way around. God made the world and He lives in all of it, not just in temples.  He doesn’t depend on us.

In Greek religion, the gods had to be placated with offerings, worship, and temple-building. Their very existence depended on receiving worship.

Greek philosophers saw a moral distinction between the physical and spiritual. Their notion of god had nothing to do with the physical universe as physical matter was inherently evil.

Contrary to those notions, as vs. 26-27 show, God rules over all creation and yet is personally involved in it at every level, every moment. Paul told them about God’s involvement:

  • He is Creator: [God] MADE EVERY NATION OF MEN.
  • He is Sovereign: AND HE DETERMINED THE TIMES SET FOR THEM AND THE EXACT PLACES WHERE THEY SHOULD LIVE.
  • He is Savior: HE DID THIS SO MEN WOULD SEEK HIM & FIND HIM, THO HE’S NOT FAR FROM US.

Greek philosophy stated that as a force, god is known only in the after-life. In Greek religion, the gods couldn’t be counted on to act consistently or for our betterment.

PRINCIPLE #4 = You can’t tell the truth if you don’t know the truth.

          God is the Father of all humanity (vs. 28-29); we are not illegitimate children; life is not random. Human beings have their origin & outcome in God.  He made us in His image. Therefore, manmade idols must never be the objects of worship. In a nod to popular culture, Paul turned quoted one of their own poets. In Greek religion, the gods were created in the image of man; mythical, exalted versions of us.

Verses 30-31 reveal that God is not capricious; He judges justly. Connecting their altar to an unknown god with idolatry, Paul gave the Athenians a warning; God used to overlook their kind of idolatry because it was based on ignorance, but now all people must repent. Repentance is the only way to avoid judgment; we can’t ignore God’s justice foreve. To be perfectly fair, God has revealed His standard for judgment in the perfect life Jesus lived in this world.

Greek philosophers saw history as an endless cycle of repetitive events; death was the only escape.  What you did in this life didn’t matter. In Greek religion, the gods gave their permission or commanded sinful behaviors.

PRINCIPLE #5 = We must be assertive, but never aggressive or obnoxious as we present the truth.

Step Three = Be prepared for a variety of reactions (18, 32-34).

          Rejection, even persecution are possible reactions to the truth. Some people will argue with you – or worse. In verse 18, the professional philosophers called Paul a BABBLER and accused him of pushing FOREIGN GODS.

In verse 32, some people SNEERED at Paul.  When a person’s view is based on pride in their big brains, this is a typical reaction.  They have no honest debate, so the resort to ridicule to try to discredit the truth. There’s hope for those who will engage in honest debate, because they will hear the truth.  However, the reaction described in these verses is nothing like honest debate.

A second kind of reaction is also described in v. 32: a mixed one. These people were open-minded, but not ready to commit. “WE WANT TO HEAR YOU AGAIN,” they said. Similarly, our task is to present the truth, not to press for conversion.  Only God saves people and He waits patiently; we should do exactly the same.

The third and most desirable reaction is found in v. 34: Acceptance (repentance and conversion). It is written; A FEW MEN BECAME FOLLOWERS OF PAUL AND BELIEVED. They accepted t truth and were saved. Luke names some of the new converts, founders of the church in Athens.  Note that one of them was a public official.

PRINCIPLE #6 = We don’t judge our faithfulness on the type or amount of response, but on our degree of faithfulness to the truth.

CONCLUSION

          A sixth-grader stood up in class and gave this politically correct report on the origins of the Thanksgiving holiday:

“The pilgrims came here seeking freedom of you know what.

“When they landed, they gave thanks to you know who.

“Because of them, we can worship each Sunday, you know where.”

(The Joyful Noiseletter, November 2007, p. 2.)

What makes that joke both sad and funny is how likely it is to be true.  You may have read about the public school somewhere that decided, to combat the evil of gender bias, they would stop referring to their students as boys and girls and call them all “purple penguins” instead.

Let’s be honest.  Nobody respects a fake.  Nobody respects foolish denial of who you are in order to fit in.  Whenever a church is guilty of trying so hard to blend in that they hide or dilute the truth, they have failed to be the church.  They have lost their potential hearing by attaining perfect camouflage.  When you can’t see the border between the church and the world, the church has ceased to exist.

So – be loving.  Be positive.  Be respectful and patient.  But balance each of those virtues with being honest.  This world will one day be destroyed with fire and pretending it is not so will not fire-proof a single individual.

We need to emphasize our distinctiveness, we need to maintain the boundaries of our biblical identity.  There are parts of church life that are only cultural, not biblical, and they can be reevaluated.  But the center of who we are must be maintained without compromise and without apology.