Relevance in the Eye of the Beholder

A book on chastity may not seem relevant to teenagers necking in a parked car. First-aid kits don’t seem relevant to two boys beginning a scuffle. Wedding vows don’t appear relevant to a person plunging into an affair. When we are morally committed to a course of action, it narrows the horizon of what we see as important, practical, or useful.

We live in a culture which is furiously committed to sexual perversion, to a life of diversionary amusements, and to the accumulation of creature comforts. Avid participants in this culture will have a very different view of relevance to that of a faithful Christian.

For a Christian, relevance is determined by a permanent standard: what pleases God, as revealed in Scripture. This standard is nuanced by our historical understanding of the Christian faith. With this in place, a Christian rejects several mangled forms of the idea of relevance.

First, relevance is not determined by how current or novel something is. The idols of contemporaneity, “progress”, and innovation have no intrinsic purchase on whether something is valuable, useful, or pertinent. To equate relevance with novelty is a sub-Christian understanding of the world.

Second, relevance is not determined by how popular and useful something seems to a generation wise in their own eyes. If Proverbs teaches us anything, it is that fools feel quite justified in their self-destructive path, and openly scoff and mock the way of wisdom.

Third, relevance is not determined by how easily understood and plausible something seems to others. A lack of spiritual understanding is charged as spiritual dullness and immaturity, not as a faulty message or failure to connect.

Fourth, relevance is not determined by how notorious and famous something becomes. The cream rises to the top, they say, but so does the scum. When all men speak well of you, you are in mortal danger, said Jesus.

A Christian understands relevance because he understands what man is, and what man is for. If you understand man as a creature made by and for God, you can understand what has, as Webster’s defines it “significant and demonstrable bearing” on his existence.

In this sense, relevance is determined by whoever is making the judgement. If the beholder is an unbeliever committed to self-rule and self-indulgence, you can be sure the claims of Christianity will seem “irrelevant” to him. Our goal is not to “make Christianity relevant” to him. Our goal is to show him his whole concept of what is valuable is skewed and rebellious. In other words, the only way for a rebel to consider Christianity relevant is if he becomes, by regeneration, a worshipper.

On Baby Grands and Expensive Hymnals

“Why this waste?”, said the greediest member of the Twelve. Judas’ supposed concern with helping the poor and for efficient use of ministry finances was really a facade for his unvarnished envy. Judas wanted money, and like every jealous soul, disliked money being spent lavishly on someone else.

The sentiment that it is frivolous waste to spend money on anything except dire need is popular among some Christians. It’s an easy sentiment to have, even a lazy one, perhaps. What could be a better use of money than giving it to those who have the least, right? And what could be a more wasteful use of money than spending more on those who already have enough, correct? Such “automatic-entitlement” functions rather like the Left’s politics of victimisation. Find a race, gender, or ‘sexual orientation’ that has been supposedly oppressed, and such a group automatically receives the unassailable position of victim, requiring special treatment, and requiring no defence of its now-privileged status. The same Leftist sentimentalism often brews within Christianity, and bubbles out when spending is on anything except extreme need.

My church is not wealthy, relative to some others in the city. Our monthly budget is exactly half of some of our sister churches not far from us. Of course, that same budget is several times larger than some of the other churches we know and fellowship with. That’s simply life, and as anyone who understands biblical economics knows, inequality is not injustice. 

But given our middle-sized budget, what justification is there for spending a considerable amount of the hard-earned and saved money of our church on a very expensive musical instrument, and on hard-cover hymnals?  How could we do this, amidst a sea of poverty? “Why this waste?”, one might opine. Why not a few guitars and a simple Powerpoint projection?

One of the best answers comes from C.S. Lewis, in his essay Learning in War-time. Lewis faced a similar criticism during World War 2. What was the point of having scholars study medieval literature or Anglo-Saxon linguistics when there were Nazis bombing European cities? Wasn’t this an almost literal enactment of fiddling while Rome burned?

Lewis first countered that the ‘need’, be it wartime efforts or a crying social need, has never been enough for humans to suspend humane learning.  “Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never came. …They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.”

But what of the Gospel, missions and church-planting? Lewis realised that the sentiment that what is ultimate must capture all our thinking and acting is superficially compelling: “How can you be so frivolous and selfish as to think about anything but the salvation of human souls?”

Lewis answered in two ways. First, he pointed out that conversion does not make one a monomaniac, possessed of only one goal and activity. “Before I became a Christian I do not think I fully realized that one’s life, after conversion, would inevitably consist in doing most of the same things one had been doing before: one hopes, in a new spirit, but still the same things.”

Second, he recognised that were Christians to supposedly give up these ‘frivolous’ activities, the vacuum would only draw in inferior substitutes. We cannot escape our nature. “If you attempted, in either case, to suspend your whole intellectual and aesthetic activity, you would only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better. You are not, in fact, going to read nothing, either in the Church or in the line: if you don’t read good books you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions you will fall into sensual satisfactions.”

Christians must continue to pursue the highest and best, even in the presence of dire need. No period of undisturbed tranquility is just over the horizon, the arrival of which will then permit a Golden Age of pursuing the best that has been thought or written. The time for beauty, higher learning, and the pursuit of excellence is now, whether we are in Monaco or Monrovia. If we, in the name of wartime-lifestyle-Gospel-centred-radical-whatever-you-call-it, eschew beautiful instruments and quality hymnals, all that will happen is we will sing inferior songs on inferior instruments.

Certainly, there is the danger of contented complacency, enjoying Laodicean luxury. Certainly, there will be vast disparities between what one church can do as opposed to another. But it is a fallacy to equate the pursuit of beauty with elitism or self-pampering. If a church gives a serious chunk of its monthly budget to missions, church-planting  and to needs within its church, while spending considerably to sing with excellence, it is simply doing what Christians should do, whatever their circumstances: love God as best you can, and love your neighbour as best you can.

On the Value of (Most?) Internet Discussions

One day, the owner of a disreputable inn, The Dog-Fighter, approached a preacher. “Come and preach at my inn. I think your message is important and should be heard by more people.”

The preacher hesitated. “I am not sure. From what I have seen, the patrons of your establishment seem interested only in conflict, for the mere sake of it.”

“Forget about that. A message like yours is rare and hardly heard these days. Don’t dark places need light? It’s important that they hear it,” said the inn-keeper.

“But I have preached those messages to people prepared to hear, in more appropriate venues. I am uncertain if your audience will hear it.”

“Don’t be so pessimistic. Listen, just come and preach one of the sermons on how we should worship God and behave in this world. My patrons need to hear it.” The preacher reluctantly agreed.

On the appointed day, the preacher arrived and went to the mess hall where the patrons were seated around tables, mugs of mead in hand. The room was dimly lit only by a fireplace and by wax candles in wine bottles on each table. The barely visible floor was sticky, and the reek was momentarily overpowering to the preacher. As he made his way to the centre, where a space had been made for him, he felt the cynical gaze of the patrons and heard rough chortles that led to wheezy coughs.

He began his sermon. He kept his remarks short and pointed, and for a time, not much was heard except his voice. Upon the sermon’s completion, the preacher remained in place to see if there would be questions or responses.

The silence was finally interrupted by a large, disheveled man, who slowly stood up, mug in hand, and growled to the group, “Gentlefolk, and noble patrons of The Dog-Fighter, this man has just insulted us. He is here to exalt himself, and belittle us.” Nods and grunts of agreement began.

“Thatsh right! Nothing but scorn and contempt for peoples like us!” said another. A chorus of approval went up.

“He shouldn’t be allowed to preach!” screamed a third. A unanimous, drunken roar of resentment was now filling the inn.

By this time, pieces of food were beginning to be thrown at the preacher. When his arm blocked the first bottle, he decided it was time to go. Before he could reach the door, he had been jostled, punched, and dowsed with some mead. There was laughter and back-slapping all round, and songs with obscene lyrics were now being bawled in unison by patrons swaying with their arms around one another.

As he reached the door, he saw the inn-keeper leaning against the wall, dishtowel hung over his folded arms. He looked pleased.
“I thought you said your patrons needed to hear this!” said the preacher.
“They do,” smiled the innkeeper. “But this is The Dog-Fighter, you know.”

Relevance and Notoriety

One of the powerful spells cast over the modern world is the charm of celebrity. One quipped that a celebrity is someone who is famous for being famous, but few stop to notice that. Celebrity culture is the true opiate of the masses, and if it were not so, the word paparazzi would never have become an English noun.

Celebrity culture assaults us everywhere: advertisements using celebrities to hawk their products, reality talent-shows with the ‘prize’ of becoming a “pop idol”, magazines unashamedly titled “Vanity Fair”, and click-bait links to online tabloid-gossip. Most mainstream news sites have an entire section devoted to the habits and happenings of celebrities, just to be able to compete with other news outlets.

Fame is an unquestioned good in our society. In pre-modern times, fame was accorded for outstanding accomplishments: the Roman general, the philosopher, the inventor. Today, you can become famous for being famous.

Added to this soul-sickness is the idea that everyone can and should seek fame. Self-promotion is no longer frowned on as vanity; it’s become a quite acceptable, and even required, social behaviour. The preposterous poses of many a Facebook profile display the utter shamelessness and unselfconscious egotism of a person in “I’m a celebrity too” mode. All that posing and lip-pouting is just tongue-in-cheek, of course; except that it’s not. Just a few decades ago, such peacock-strutting would have been considered pathological.

Much of this is the fear of anonymity. Ironically, the Internet has not created a ‘global community’, as much as it has intensified the sense that you are just one soul among seven billion strangers. Perhaps like never before, a sense of significance is only achieved when some kind of notoriety is gained. Becoming a celebrity, even if for a few moments, lends some meaning to the chaos, and some weight to an otherwise weightless life. To avoid the pain of anonymity, you need to be someone (as if you are not, until many other people know you). Everyone understands that to “be someone“, you must become notorious.

A church captive to the culture is just as charmed by celebrity. This is hardly a new development. Tozer wrote this over fifty years ago: “We swoon over celebrity. Whatever they say, we accept as the important word for the day, even if it goes contrary to plain biblical teaching. St. Ignatius said, ‘Apart from Him, let nothing dazzle you.’ But we allow everything but ‘Him’ to dazzle us these days. We have become rather bored with God and the truths of Scripture.”

Christians are just as interested in the antics of the famous godless. Witness how sweaty-palmed Christians become if a famous sportsman, actor, tycoon, or media personality openly admits some kind of faint affinity to Christianity. A near stampede breaks out to have the celebrity come and ‘give his testimony’ in church. Why the raised pulses and baited breath? Because if a famous person endorses Christianity, that will surely show how “relevant” it is to the average man.

Of course, when we can’t entice or pay an unbelieving celebrity to patronise Christianity, the next best thing is to create our own, right? Evangelicals are happy to then create their own superstars: usually pastors of large churches, with their own TV shows, podcasts, syndicated radio shows, thousands of Twitter followers, and plenty of book deals. Let’s not forget our musicians: if pagans can have rock stars, so can we. And what do we do with our celebrities? Conferences, of course. We use their names and faces on the posters, draw the crowd, and celebrate our celebration. That way, we’re displaying our ‘relevance’, particularly to the youth. (Hard not to laugh at the consternation of the Christian hooked on celebrityism when he moves out his ghetto for a day, and finds most people have never heard of his stars. “John who? Who’s he?”)

What has relevance to do with celebrity? Nothing at all, rightly defined. Something’s importance and practical value is not determined by how popular or well-known it is. Seasons in Israel’s history show that truth is sometimes a minority report. Church history shows the same. Scripture even seems to suggest that mass appeal may be a sign of error and looming destruction (Lk 6:26; Mt 7:13). Confusing relevance with celebrity would be confusing widespread evangelism with mass influence or political clout. It’s assuming that what is well-known among the populace will have moral traction and influence upon them. Therefore, to this thinking, Christians must become celebrities, or find celebrities who will endorse them. Evangelicalism has being doing this since the days of Billy Sunday.

Christianity is no less relevant if it goes into near-eclipse. Christianity remains relevant whether it is in season, or out of season. Christianity is relevant if all the world rejects it, yea, Athanasius contra mundum. Christianity will be relevant if God continues to call people who don’t qualify as celebrities:

For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called (1 Cor 1:26).

Relevance and Intelligibility

Modern Christian champions of relevance mean many things by the term. One use is the concept of intelligibility. When calling for the church to be relevant to this generation, they mean that its message must be understandable, clear, and intelligible.

Thus far, no objection. No command exists to make the Gospel obscure or arcane. If the Christian message is to be applied to anyone’s life, it’s necessary that it be intelligible.

But it’s at this point, as Christians think about not only communicating accurately but successfully, that many a Christian takes his eye off the ball, and the meaning of relevant shifts from intelligible to plausible.

Intelligibility and plausibility are related, but quite distinct. When something is intelligible, it can be understood by the average, rational human. When a matter is intelligible, nothing is incoherent, garbled, or indecipherable to an average intelligence. Plausibility refers to how likely something is to be true. It describes something qualitative: how believable something seems to a person. Why something is plausible to a given mind has to do with many things, not all of which are related to its intelligibility: the presuppositions or worldview in place, the inclination of the heart, and the often unrecognised motives and desires. We find something plausible both because of what we think could be true, and because of what we desire would be true (or untrue, as the case may be).

When churches do not make this distinction, they can make critical errors in evangelism, missions, and discipleship. Making the Christian message intelligible is a question of good communication. Making the Christian message plausible to an unbeliever is a question of moral persuasion. The Christian message is relevant, so therefore it ought to be made intelligible. But its relevance does not always mean it will be plausible.

Christians should seek to persuade. Paul certainly did. At the same time, Paul made it clear that certain forms of persuasion were morally unacceptable.

But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Cor. 4:2)

For we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ. (2 Cor. 2:17)

“Craftiness” “deceit”, and peddling, all speak of methods of persuasion that are manipulative, deceptive, or subversive to the Gospel.

Manipulative techniques get one to decide in favour of the message through the introduction of other motives: fear, guilt, carnal lusts, are the bait. Manipulative altar calls, appeals to self-preservation, or desires for wealth and comfort may be persuasive, but they fail as Christian forms of communication.

Similar to manipulation is deception. The idea that the Gospel message can be hidden, or smuggled in, while masquerading as another message is deceptive. Clothing the Gospel in popular entertainments, games, amusements, and other pleasures, so as to insinuate its message, is deceit. Paul refused to persuade through deception, and insisted on being open with his motives for preaching the Gospel.

Finally, if the message is subversive, it undermines the meaning of the Gospel while simultaneously claiming to promote it. By appealing to sinful desires, endorsing worldly attitudes, or encouraging what the Gospel saves us from, such a presentation subverts the entire message of the Gospel.

When some Christians say the Gospel must be relevant, they mean using “staged wrestling matches, pie-fights, special-effects systems that can produce smoke, fire, sparks, and laser lights in the auditorium, punk-rockers, ventriloquists’ dummies, dancers, weight-lifters, professional wrestlers, knife-throwers, body-builders, comedians, clowns, jugglers, rapmasters, show-business celebrities, reduced length of sermons, restaurants, ballrooms, roller-skating rinks, and more.” (MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel)

None of this will make the Gospel relevant. In a twisted way, it will make the Gospel seem more plausible to those for whom it is foolishness. But the irony is, by trying to make the Gospel plausible to those for whom it is foolishness, the church must use, yes, you guessed it – foolishness. Which in turn, makes the users of foolishness…fools. Paul chose rather to be a fool in the world’s eyes by preaching the wisdom of God, than a fool in God’s eyes for preaching the wisdom of this world.

Relevance and Importance

When some people speak of “making Christianity relevant”, they are referring to demonstrating Christianity’s importance and applicability. They fret over the fact that unbelievers and the wider culture dismiss Christianity and religion so easily. Secularism provides people with enough food, shelter, conveniences, comforts and sufficient diversionary amusements to keep them morally anesthetised from the pain of contemplating ultimate questions. Today’s secularist finds it all too easy to ignore questions of eternity and Christ, an attitude which was less common to previous generations who felt their mortality more acutely. When noticing the disturbing ease with which unbelievers ignore God, some Christians feel that ‘the church has become largely irrelevant’ and that it must ‘establish its credibility and demonstrate its relevance to unbelievers’.

Here is a jumble of truth and error. On the one hand, it is clearly true that few ages in world history have possessed such irreligious attitudes. Today, you can grow up in a secular culture and live most of your life feeling that religion is a strange practice performed by strange people. It’s undeniable that the average secular unbeliever does not see how church, Scripture, or worship is germane to his life. In that sense, the things of God indeed seem irrelevant to him.

On the other hand, the Bible explains this phenomenon. It does not say that the fault is with the church for failing to contextualise the Gospel adequately by adopting every available cultural form to clothe the Gospel in. Instead, it describes human beings as intractably set against the lordship of God. Romans 1:19 explains that the knowledge of God is part of created human nature. John Calvin put it this way, “There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity. This we take to be beyond controversy. To prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance, God himself has implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty.”

What does man do with this knowledge? Verse 18 tells us. He suppresses it. What dictators do with bad press is what the human heart does with continual evidence that God is, and God is a judge. Secularism just makes it easier for people to do what they have always preferred to do: ignore God.

In other words, the problem is not that an unbeliever cannot see how Christianity is relevant to him, because of some inadequacy in Christianity or its evangelism. The problem is that a man cannot see Christianity’s relevance after deciding that he will not see its relevance. This is a willful overlooking (2 Pet 3:5), a chosen rejection, and a blindness by shutting one’s eyes. And if this natural, stubborn blindness isn’t enough, Satan compounds this with added blindness (2 Cor 4:4).

When a man is blind, we don’t speak of making potentially dangerous obstacles in his path relevant to him. They are relevant to him! Given his propensity to injure himself by walking into them, nothing could be more germane, important, applicable or relevant to him than those obstacles. A neighbourly thing to do would be to tell the blind man what he’s about to walk into.

Christianity does not have to be made relevant. It is relevant. Nothing is more relevant to a creature made in God’s image than his standing before his Creator. Matters of life, death, eternity, goodness, evil, justice, and the soul are relevant to every man. Christians cannot make these things more relevant to a man than they are. We can only speak of them clearly, and live soberly and righteously in this present age. The Holy Spirit is the only one who can change one’s perception of the message from foolishness to wisdom (1 Cor 1:18).

Having said that, there are ways that the church can make the message of the Gospel seem less relevant. When it clothes its message in trendy slogans and commercial schtick, it appears as if it is one more product being marketed. When it uses entertainments and amusements to create interest, it appears as if its message is weak and in need of marketing props. When it tries to appear wise and noble in the world’s eyes (or cool, hip, trendy, sick, whatever the word), it appears as if it is a sycophant of the world, limping between two loyalties. All of this shouts louder than words can say, “Yes, unbeliever, your dismissal of God is justified and normal! We, too, are bored with the plain Gospel! But look! We have some shiny attractions which we’ll give you, if you deign to patronise us with your attention!” Instead of confronting the believer with his moral rejection of God, we treat his sin as natural and normal, and beg him to come for other reasons. Christianity does not become less relevant when Christians act this way, but it does compound the problem by giving unbelievers even more hardness to their hard hearts.  The unbeliever intuits, “The Christian doth protest too much.” Such ways and words do not sound much like Paul:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. (Rom. 1:16)

Relevant or Current?

When some people speak of the importance of relevance, they don’t mean relevance at all. After all, relevant, strictly speaking, merely means ‘pertinent to the matter at hand’. Relevance needs an object: relevant to whom or what matter?, we may ask.

The fact that some people use the word relevant as a quality not requiring modification demonstrates that they really mean something else by it. One particular usage is perhaps the most common: describing whatever is current as ‘relevant’. If something is current, it could have several qualities. It could be something currently in use. It could mean it is a new development. It could mean it is fashionable, trendy, en vogue. It could mean it has been adopted by the youth, the trend-setters, the celebrities (those famous for being famous). Yet all of these share one unquestioned value in the minds of the relevance-devotees: novelty is good.

Ours is a world where “new!” on the product’s packaging boosts sales. “Brand new season” is supposed to invite wide-eyed excitement. “Never before seen” is a moniker of greatness. We check our phones for updates hourly. This is the age where the new is true, and the true is new. Only the recent is decent.

We shouldn’t be surprised. If Darwinism is true, then the latest development is always the most advanced. If science is man’s saviour, then the newest gadget is necessarily the best. In such a world, you are permitted to say these words with a sneering disdain: old, tradition, custom.

Actually, the logic behind equating relevant with current contains three premises.
1) We need to bring practical value to this world.
2) What is of practical value to this generation must be current.
3) We are only relevant to the degree we are current.

With some qualification, the first premise is hardly objectionable. The second is the most problematic, but it represents the spirit of the age. Our culture practises chronological snobbery, a term coined by C.S. Lewis and defined by him as, “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”

Lewis goes on: “You must find out why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also ‘a period,’ and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”

The Christian view of reality has no partiality toward the current age. The fifth commandment itself, in commanding reverence and obedience to parents, is implicitly demanding respect for the past: honouring the accumulated wisdom of one’s parents gained in the decades they are in advance of you. And to be sure, their wisdom was not self-taught, but came from their parents, who received some from theirs, so that we find the command to honour one’s immediate parents is really a command to honour one’s ancestors. God’s people were even to honour ancient landmarks, to rise in the presence of the aged, to regard the gray head as a sign of gathered wisdom. So convinced were the Jewish people of the value of tradition, that Christ had to confront them with their unwarranted obedience to man-made traditions. This seems a far cry from modern evangelicalism, with its anti-traditional tradition. At least we can say that enough Christian voices are out there reminding believers that a church with no understanding of the past is amnesiac.

While no Christian would argue the importance of bringing value to the world, a Christian steeped in Scripture recognises the difference between what is permanent and what is current. Permanent things may or may not be currently popular (2 Timothy 4:2-4). But what is true, good, and beautiful is permanently pertinent to the life and well-being of a creature made in God’s image. Something current, on the other hand, may be one of countless spasmodic experiments in novelty that a godless culture will produce. The church that weds itself to a particular generation finds itself a widow in the next. Nothing is as irrelevant as a trendy church.

Those who build with gold, silver, and precious stones, are permanently relevant. Those enamoured with the wood, hay and stubble of the fashions of the day, may find little is left of their ministry at the Judgement Seat of Christ.

Ten Mangled Words – “Relevant”

Perhaps one of the great put-downs today is to be told that your church is not relevant, or that your preaching is not relevant to “the issues people are facing”. Being called irrelevant cuts a little deeper than being called intolerant; for if you’re cited for being intolerant, it merely means your teaching may have hit a nerve, whereas being called irrelevant is to be dismissed as useless, with a casual wave of the hand. We can handle having opponents to our view; being sloughed off as redundant is harder to stomach.

But as we keep listening, we soon realise that the word relevant has near-infinite flexibility in the minds of its abusers. Some mean something like “current”. Something is relevant if it represents what is novel, or contemporary. Relevance means something like what is currently being said, done, or used. Promoters of this meaning of relevance have a snobbish disdain for anything older than, say, the year of their birth. What’s new is true, what’s true is new, and therefore whatever is familiar is what is relevant.

Others, when speaking of relevance, have a vague notion of a something like importance, or value. Relevance is a measure of importance, even of urgency. Something is relevant if it has enough weight or force to merit attention, and if something is irrelevant, then it no longer carries the weight to demand our attention.

For others, relevance carries the idea of practical value. Something’s relevance is measured in terms of tangible effects and results. If it can achieve whatever end was set out for it, then it is relevant, and if not, it’s simply irrelevant. Similar to this, some think of relevance as intelligibility. If it seems too cerebral and abstract, it becomes, to them, irrelevant.

Still others think of relevance in terms of notoriety. If one has celebrity status (famous for being famous), thousands of followers, or some kind of fame, then one has consequent relevance. By implication, the anonymous and little-known must be, well, irrelevant. What is widely known is often widely loved, and so whatever is relevant must simultaneously be appealing to as many people as possible.

Smuggled into this mangled use of ‘relevant’ are a lot of assumptions. One is that the chief end of man is to appeal to his current generation’s lusts and appetites. A second is that the dead have nothing valuable to say to the living, and that the current generation represents the furthest man has come and the best he can be. A third is that if we focus mostly on means, the ends will take care of themselves, that instruments are more important than ideals. A fourth is that fame and power are forms of value that are necessary to a life of eternal significance.

These, and others, will be our delightful duty to demolish, to restore a sane and thoughtful use of the word relevance.

Without Wax

To recover the word sincerity from its current mangled form, we might remember some etymology. The etymology of sincerity is a favourite among preachers, and for good reason – it’s an interesting tale. It seems in the Graeco-Roman world, unscrupulous merchants had found a nifty way to sell otherwise useless cracked pottery. By using wax, which could be coloured to match the pottery, small or larger cracks in the clay could be concealed. Not repaired, mind you, merely concealed – for when the Mediterranean sun did its work, the wax in those pots would soften or even melt, and the pottery could collapse and lose its contents. Like the used car rigged to last just one test drive, pots with wax could impress while on the shelf, but not endure real-life use. At some point, merchants decided to offer a guarantee of sorts: in Latin, sine cera: “without wax”. The “sincere” pottery was simply the real deal, not hiding flaws that would render it useless.

While etymology doesn’t determine the meaning of words, the proper meaning of sincere is not far from its root. A sincere man is one without pretense, without deception. Sincerity is very close to what the Bible calls integrity: wholeness, consistency. A man with integrity does not have a private life which contradicts his public claims. His character is not shot through with waxed over fatal flaws. A sincere man is a man with integrity, who seeks to be as much on the inside what he is on the outside.

Sincerity has nothing to do with formality or informality. One can be completely sincere and observe custom, ritual, or manners. Conversely, one could throw off all formality, be as casual as a surfer on Sunday, but remain a hypocrite, having different faces for different places.

Sincerity also has nothing to do with how public you make your inner or private world. Many of our private moments should remain just so. Instead of supporting the weird exhibitionism and voyeurism that much social media encourages in all of us, we should foster a healthy privacy, without cultivating an unhealthy secrecy. Sincerity is not making a public confession where none was asked for, venting your frustration because you want to be “open and honest”, or expecting some kind of therapeutic listen-‘n-share group in the church.

Sincerity has nothing to do with how sensate your feelings are to you. While worship must come from a sincere heart (1 Timothy 1:5, Matthew 6:1-18, 15:8), that really has nothing to do with how intensely you feel your feelings in worship. On a given Lord’s Day, your physical condition, relative mental sharpness, or overall spiritual maturity may render your sense of your own affections less acute. That does not mean the worship was offered insincerely, or with the aim of impressing others, or to mask some monstrous sin.

Sincerity has nothing to do with how relaxed, casual, and familiar you feel. You may feel quite tense, nervous, or awkward, and be entirely sincere. Indeed, in circumstances or occasions of great moment, we would expect both sincerity and carefulness. It’s true that awkwardness can tempt men to posture and act seriously, so as to fit in. It’s equally true that casualness can tempt men to be flippant and profane so as to fit in.

Sincerity has everything to do with truth. The sincere man wants the truth of reality, so he does not immerse himself in amusement. He wants truth in his words, so he learns to say what he means and mean what he says. He wants truth about God and man rightly symbolised, so he does not fear custom, tradition, or formality, but can penetrate their meaning and use them sincerely. He wants truth about himself, so he is able to acknowledge his failures, even among other believers (James 5:16), without polluting the minds of others with graphic descriptions of his every sin (Eph 5:12). He wants truth in his own affections, so he works on chastening and training his affections to love what he ought to love, in the way he ought to love it (Phil 1:9-11), and not giving place to every emotion that emanates from his heart.

In short, the sincere man is wrestling against the deceptiveness of his own nature, fighting man-pleasing, pride, hypocrisy, and narcissism. The very last thing he needs is to become intensely self-conscious of just how sincere he is (compared to all those fake, phony people out there, you know). That’s like becoming proud of your achievements in humility.

Instead, he prays David’s prayer for truth in the innermost man (Ps 51:6). He repents of eyeservice. He seeks to love men, not please them. He does not “really want sincerity” as much as he sincerely wants reality.

As Real As I Feel

An assumption of a generation intoxicated with authenticity is the notion that feelings don’t lie. Given their spontaneous and often uncontrollable nature, emotions are seen as the inevitable and unstoppable eruptions of the heart. Breaking through the surface layer of ‘masks’, ‘forms’, or some other supposed act of evading one’s inner truth, emotions represent pure, authentic, sincerity. You’ll find this all over modern culture, and sadly, modern Christianity.

Witness the pop songs about ‘admitting how we feel about each other’, ‘surrender to what our hearts want’, ‘these feelings don’t lie’. A whole generation has been catechised by pop music to understand their emotions as truth, and repression of these feelings as both unhealthy and a form of deception.

Pop psychology has championed the cause of ‘listen to your heart’. Anger management classes include verbalising your anger to a present or absent object of your anger, venting one’s wrath through shouting, or even physical rage. I once sat bewildered in a “pastor’s” fraternal, where one pastor told the group that a suicide in his church had made him angry with God, and he felt it was healthy and healing to speak openly about his anger with God. The nodding and smiling heads around the table made me realise I was alone in my narrow theology of the book of Job.

Rare is the person today who doesn’t see value in telling a group all his heart, in “admitting how you feel”. Carl Roger’s encounter groups have taken on myriad forms, from group therapy, to market research focus groups, to church cell groups. Indeed, churches which don’t give people the chance to “express themselves” must be repressive, authoritarian institutions where the male leadership is too insecure to allow the healthy emotional expressions of its members’ spiritual struggles. Emotional catharsis is taken to be some of the healthiest purgation available: let it all out.

Christian worship has been almost completely colonised by this approach. Because worship is rightly to be an act of sincere love for God, the Christian brought up in this culture begins to think that unless he has a strong sensation of his own feelings during worship, he must be less than sincere, perhaps falling into ‘mere ritual’. So he pursues an intensity of feeling, closing his eyes to concentrate (usually scrunching up his face, too) hoping for the most emotive music, and longing for a preacher who can pull on the heartstrings. Many Christians go looking for churches that have perfected the emotive approach, and enough churches see the market in creating a form of worship where everyone can feel his feelings. Of course, they won’t call it “feeling your feelings”; they’ll call it it “connecting”, “creating a worshipful atmosphere”, “being authentic in our worship-expressions”. But it amounts to using music, lights, and atmospherics, to give a generation whose primary art form is the movie an experience of escapist-like sensations during worship.

Actually, this is a fairly old idea which keeps getting a fresh coat of paint each year. French philosopher Rousseau taught that man in his natural state is at his best. The noble savage, uncorrupted by pretentious European civilisation, is man at his most honest. So, too, is the man who does not manage and chasten his emotions, but lets them come out, raw and unfiltered. He is the sincere, authentic, Man of Passion.

Old-fashioned Romanticism, and its step-child sentimentalism, live upon these old lies. Feelings, like unrehearsed responses, represent our honest side; while feelings controlled and shaped represent inauthentic, phony people who just can’t “be themselves”.

Consider a contrasting view, by Roger Scruton:

In a striking work published a century ago the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce pointed to a radical distinction, as he saw it, between art properly so-called, and the pseudo-art designed to entertain, arouse or amuse…[He was] right to believe that there is a great difference between the artistic treatment of a subject matter and the mere cultivation of effect…Genuine art also entertains us; but it does so by creating a distance between us and the scenes that it portrays: a distance sufficient to engender disinterested sympathy for the character, rather than vicarious emotions of our own.

 — Beauty

Scruton goes on to argue that true art works with imagination, representing ideas for our contemplation, and deliberately placing some distance between us and what we are contemplating. By doing so, it avoids evoking impulsive and visceral reactions, and trains us, if we are patient with the process, to feel more carefully, and more circumspectly about the object portrayed.

Manipulative art works with fantasy, trying to grip or excite us with a supposed portrayal of reality, where we get surrogate fulfillment of desires, substitute emotional experiences, purely for self-gratification.

To put it another way, art that lies takes shortcuts, shows us a mirror, and leads us to believe that hyped-up passions are evidence of how sincere and passionate we are, that our most superficial and immediate responses are the truest kinds. In reality, we are actually feeling less, like the hyper-emotional person who perpetually finds crisis and alarm in every situation. We don’t envy such a person; we pity her, because we know that her intoxication with her own feelings blinds her to feel more deeply or carefully about the world. She is self-consciously hyper-emotional, and so she uses her drama as a perpetual shield from patiently thinking and feeling as she should.

Try telling the average person that he needs to have his emotions and sentiments properly trained, and he will think you are from outer space. Tell a man that his first and immediate emotional responses will usually be wrong, malformed or inappropriate, and he will think you represent some Organisation for the Suppression of Human Happiness. But the Christian understands the strange propensity of the human heart to deceive itself, and realises his feelings are some of his least reliable members.