David

Culture, Not Race

Scripture does not define the word culture, but it certainly describes the phenomenon of culture-making. Humans are meaning-making creatures, who fashion their world after their values, religions, and world-views.

The Bible also describes the behaviour or way of life that comes from a certain culture. The Greek word anastrophe is translated conduct, or way of life. In contrast to those who define culture as “everything people do” the biblical writers see one’s anastrophe as rooted in one’s religion. That is, idolatry and false systems produce one kind of anastrophe, whereas Christianity is supposed to produce another.

as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct [anastrophe], because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.” And if you call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one’s work, conduct [anastrophe – verb form] yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear; knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct [anastrophe] received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. (1 Pet. 1:14-19)

Peter contrasts one form of culture with another. One was received by tradition (which is simply a culture stretched over time), the other is shaped by the new life in Christ.

Here we see the tragic misstep of equating culture with race. For if culture and race are synonymous, no culture can be critiqued. One would then be judging the value of a people based upon skin colour, which is racism proper.

Scripture does not critique people based upon their ethnos (race). It does, however, critique their anastrophe, which is to say, their culture. If the culture of a people has produced immorality, idolatry, perversions, Scripture condemns the culture. In condemning the culture, it is condemning the belief-system that created that behaviour. 

One sees the sad result of equating race and culture in South Africa. Here, untaught believers will still refer to “my culture” as a contrast to another believer’s “culture”. You will routinely hear people say that missionaries brought “their culture” and imposed it upon Africa. Some dear black believers are desperately trying to discover some pristine form of “black Christian culture” untouched by Western hands. Believers speak of certain ways of worship as belonging to one culture (by which they mean ethnicity) as opposed to another. 

Now I, for one, rejoice in the diversity of our country, and of my local church. I love the many colours that look back at me on a Sunday morning. I enjoy being called “Mfundisi” (teacher) by some of the members. I enjoy tasting, hearing and seeing the mix of foods, languages and social customs that mingle in our local church. A multi-ethnic church is a joy. Racism is an evil, and I will, as the occasion suggests, write and preach against racism as a sin. 

But our church is not “multi-cultural”. That would be equivalent to saying, it is “multi-anastrophal”, or “multi-religious”. No, in the biblical sense, our church is uni-cultural. We love and honour Christ. With Scripture as our final authority, it shapes the loves, beliefs and behaviour of those who call themselves part of our church. However much melatonin the skin of the various members contain, however many of our country’s eleven national languages (yes, eleven!) they speak, however different some of our social customs may be, we are actually bound and shaped by one culture: Christian culture. 

I recognise speaking of “Christian culture” raises several other questions. What place is there for differing expressions of music or art in this supposed Christian culture? Has Christian culture existed in the past, and what did it look like? What if one ethnic group has dominated in historic Christian culture? What element of missions was pure ethnic preference, and what was true Christian culture? Should modern missionaries attempt to leave the cultures they find in as pristine a state as possible? We will attempt to deal with these questions as we rehabilitate this mangled word. 

Culture – More Than Creation

If the word culture is to be useful, it must define something. It must name and describe a discrete phenomenon in the world. A useful definition must limit its subject, so that we could easily say what is not culture.

The problem with many definitions found in Evangelical literature is that they seem to include everything. If everything in the created order is an instance of culture, then we may as well scrap the word, and speak plainly of creation.

Culture is not the created order. Time, space, and matter are not culture, and Genesis 1 and 2 are not the account of God creating culture. The creation is used in creating culture, but it is not culture itself.

Culture is not the world, as the Bible variously uses the term to mean the created order, mankind, the age we are in, or the system of thought and habit that opposes God.

As Christians dependent upon Scripture for our understanding of reality, we face a real difficulty in defining culture precisely. Scripture does not contain the word. The English word cultureis used in its modern sense from the 19th century. We’re then in the dilemma of either reading into Scripture a modern but false construct, or of locating in Scripture a real phenomenon, one which Scripture names differently.

What Scripture does describe is what man does. Man is a meaning-making creature. He orders his world to incarnate and symbolise his understanding of the meaning of reality. In Genesis 1, God turns chaos into order. Man, made in God’s image, is told to extend this work throughout the world, turning what is less ordered into something more ordered and meaningful. Humans do this because they are like God. They do not create as He creates, but they do take the raw unordered creation and shape it into systems of meaningful order. They do this not only to the physical world, but to the life of the mind, to matters intellectual and moral.

This phenomenon is culture-making. Humans make cultures. A culture grows out of a cultus (religion). The people share the same vision of what is behind and beyond this world. They agree on what the world is, on what man is, and on who are deities ruling over all. They agree on the moral order that should govern life. In short, a culture incarnates and expresses a religion. Everything in a culture is affected by the religion: art, science, jurisprudence, economics, politics and social etiquette. Religion is the lens through which all of life is viewed and understood. The group of people sharing a location, sharing this religion, then shape their world so as to cultivate their idea of reality.

The account of the Tower of Babel reveals a time when mankind had one culture, spoke one language, and was intent on symbolising their one idolatrous religion with a Tower. God’s scattering of the nations was both judgement and mercy. In the diversifying of language (and therefore of religion and culture), God “determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of u” (Acts 17:26-27)

The call of Abram is the beginning of God creating a culture for Himself, from which will come the redemption of all other cultures.

Cultures are humanly created systems of meaning. They are systems of meaning growing out of a cultus, that in turn cultivate a shared sentiment about reality.

Ten Mangled Words: “Culture”

Jackhammers are not the ideal tool for mixing cake batter. Some mess will almost certainly result. Evangelical Christians using the word ‘culture’ often remind one of a baker with a such a power tool. When most Evangelicals begin writing or speaking on culture, one winces. A migraine is certainly on its way.

The word culture, in the hands of Evangelicals is plasticine. It’s verbal play-dough, and can be shaped nearly infinitely. Here are some favourite forms of those pontificating on culture:

1) Culture is “the stuff people do and the way they are”. This definition has the nifty distinction of including everything, and excluding nothing. Everything is culture. Of course, when a word means everything, the disadvantage is that it simultaneously defines nothing.

2) Culture is race. Skin-colour, and in some cases, home language, is equivalent to culture. For this reason, the church must be “multi-cultural”, and multiculturalism is touted and celebrated by some Christians, who should have committed Proverbs 17:28 to memory.

3) Culture is “the way of life” in a city, or nation. Music, food, clothing, customs, attitudes are put into the blender, and the puree that results is called “their culture”.

But none of these will do. Culture cannot be everything for it to be a useful concept. Culture is definitely not the quasi-secular concept of race. Culture is not a collection of habits. When Christians think of culture in these terms, we can expect calamitous results.

If there is one word that Christians should be especially careful to define, it is culture. After all, culture is formative and determinative in every area that matters: worship, discipleship, evangelism, and missions. What and how you sing, how you present the Gospel, your idea of Christian devotion, and your approach to matters of conscience are all determined by your understanding of culture, and how that understanding is worked out into life and ministry. Indeed, when we “export” Christianity in the form of global missions, our understanding of culture is tested at nearly every point. A gelatinous understanding of culture leads to embracing and endorsing what should be rebuked, and importing and imposing what ought to be left at home.

But how many seminaries teach on culture in missiology, besides pointing out the obvious (“people will do things very differently where you’re going”)? How many apologetics classes teach the meaning of culture, and how it shapes presuppositions, instead of merely harping on about axiomatic presuppositions? How many pastoral theology classes explain what a Christian culture looks like, instead of merely talking knowingly about contextualisation? How many church history classes are concerned with tracing the development and decline of Christian culture through the ages, instead of using it to produce hagiographies? One wonders how an idea so central to Christianity goes mostly undefined through years of ministerial training. And when the leaders are fuzzy and vague on this idea, few of their people will do much better.

Does it matter? It may not matter if the average Christian cannot formally define culture properly. It does matter when his idea of culture is amorphous and secular. Such a Christian will lack a crucial element of the Christian life: discernment. Understanding culture is fundamental to understanding cultural phenomena, and it is cultural phenomena that we bump into all the time: music, language, dress, conventions, customs, technologies, foods, social structures, ethical matters. When a Christian does not understand the meaning of these things, he cannot respond obediently to them. He cannot discern their meaning and their proper use, so he cannot be pleasing to God in the areas that he lacks discernment. In sum, the Christian life is incarnated in culture, and a faulty view of culture will lead to minor and major errors in judgement.

For this reason, rescuing the word culture from its mangled form is no mere academic pursuit. It is how we obey God in the present world.

The Unexpected Adoration of the Magi

In Kevin T. Bauder’s essay “The Completeness of the Incarnation“, he echoes and explains a series of insightful observations made by Leo Steinberg, writing for Harper’s Magazine in March of
1984. In explaining Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Adoration of the Magi, Steinberg explains how artists depicted a fundamental truth of Christianity, adored and celebrated at Christmas. The way they did so takes us aback at first, until we understand.

Domenico Ghirlandaio

Consider Ghirlandaio’s work. The scene is recognisable. Mary holds Jesus, as the Magi examine Him. What we do not notice at first, until closer scrutiny reveals it, is what exactly the Magi are gazing at. They are looking on, in astonished wonder, at the Child’s genitals.

Sandro Botticelli

One can see the very same posture and gaze in Botticelli’s version of The Adoration, and in many others, particularly Ricci and Veronese.

Note, this is not the profane treatment of sexuality so common in modern media, where prurient curiosity is satisfied with shameful exposure, and where the objectification of the sex act is foisted on us in the name of “gritty reality”. Nothing here is coarse or debased, but has instead the same tasteful veiling that is found in Song of Songs. It may be hard for those in a pornographied culture to imagine such a depiction of nudity as anything except a stimulant for immorality, but realising that these portraits were for religious edification should give us pause before assuming so.

But it is nevertheless an odd phenomenon, upon first encounter. Why would so many artists depict the Wise Men showing fascination with reproductive organs?

Filippino Lippi

The point is a theological one. As the Magi have come to worship the King, they are staggered to find out that He is human, in every respect. His humanity is not a mere appearance, a facade hiding His true Deity. His humanity is not a super-human, supra-human, or sub-human one. He is human in every respect, including that aspect most despised by Gnostics and celebrated by Epicureans: sexuality.

The Gnostics particularly despised sexuality. Certain strands of Gnosticism saw the body as evil, and either veered into asceticism or unbridled sensuality (since the body was not significant for higher, spiritual matters). But Christianity taught that God the Son added to himself a true human nature, including a rational soul and mind, so that His humanity was like ours in every respect, yet without sin. John responded to early Gnosticism with these words: “By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God.” (1 Jn. 4:2-3)

Paolo Veronese

Paolo Veronese

“Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 Jn. 5:5)

For Christ to be human in every respect, it includes our sexuality. He did not bypass or omit this aspect of our humanness, because of its abuse or proneness to be used sinfully. Indeed, since man’s sexuality was part of God’s original creation, blessed and pronounced good by God Himself, the Second Adam was like the first in every respect.

Pieter Aertsen

 

Further, the Incarnation was a means to an end. For there to be a mediation between God and man, the mediator must have equal sympathies with both parties. For there to be union between God and man, there must exist between them a God-Man. In other words, the Incarnation took place so that the Cross could take place. On the Cross, Jesus redeemed only that which He participated in. If He participated in only 80% of our humanity, we could be only 80% redeemed, which is to say, not at all.

If the Enlightenment attacks on the Bible led some to diminish and dilute the Deity of Christ, perhaps the over-correction in our era has been to underemphasise His humanity. But a superhuman Saviour is not Good News, for He could only be a substitute for superhumans. A subhuman Saviour is not goodwill to all men, but goodwill to subhumans.

Sebastion Ricci

The Good News is Hebrew 2:14-18: “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. For indeed He does not give aid to angels, but He does give aid to the seed of Abraham. Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.” (Heb. 2:14-18)

So it turns out that these paintings of the Magi were not really about the Magi at all. They were beautiful, discreet, and evocative ways of celebrating the Incarnation of Jesus Christ: “truly God and truly Man;…acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He were parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ.”

Lo, He abhors not the virgin’s womb. Come, let us adore Him.

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)