Monthly Archives: November 2017

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).