Monthly Archives: October 2020

Island Culture

Le Mont-Saint-Michel is a tidal island off Normandy, France. Water levels have varied over the centuries, but at its highest, the island would be completely cut off from the mainland, and at low tide, foot traffic could recommence.
The tidal island is a decent illustration of the relationship between the church and its surrounding culture. The church is rather like the island, somewhat separate, but still somewhat connected to the dominant culture. The culture is like the mainland. The tides represent how accessible the one is to the other.

When the waters were low, it meant plenty of traffic between the Island and the Mainland. That meant people, art, language and even categories of thought travelled back and forth. The Island influenced the Mainland, and vice versa, and in times dominated by Christian thought, there was enough homogeneity between the two for there to be only a minor culture shock when going from the one to the other. People going from Mainland culture to the Island church didn’t feel like complete foreigners.

The rising waters of secularism mean that the traffic between the two diminishes, until friendly relations between the two are basically ended. Faithful churches become island cultures. Their identity, norms, loves, customs, and art forms become increasingly localised, with little counterpart in mainland secularism. The Island and the Mainland are increasingly distanced from one another, and become foreigners.

When this happens, churches have two choices. They can attempt to maintain enough familiarity with the Mainland, by importing various secular forms into their churches. Alternatively, they can put their heads down and cultivate Island Culture.

What does Island Culture look like? It means unabashedly perpetuating your own Christian culture in your local church, without respect to how many links it retains to secular culture. That includes the coveted links of relevance, novelty and recognisability.

For example, Christians do not worship the way they do or teach what they do because secular culture announces this week’s List of Relevant Topics. We teach what we do because God has already limited and bounded what will be perpetually relevant in a book called the Bible. Christians do not worship, disciple and shape church life with an eye to how new, updated, or contemporary they seem. Island culture means how old or new something is becomes of secondary concern. What we’re interested in is if something is True, Good, or Beautiful, regardless of whether it was made yesterday or in the fifth century. We have no irrational prejudice towards what is new, nor do we have some nostalgia about a supposed Golden Age of Christianity in the past, but we should not be surprised if much of what we use in island culture originated in eras where Christianity was far more fruitful and culturally dominant. When the bridges between the church and its society were wide and plentiful, the traffic brought both good and bad into the church, which we can continue to sift through. But there is no reason to feign shock that the best artefacts of Christian culture are often older than 100 years. This is Island Culture.

But perhaps the hardest pill to swallow about Island Culture, and especially for pastors, is the matter of recognisability. A visitor to your Island Culture from secular mainland will increasingly find it all very strange, very unfamiliar, and quite unrecognisable. He will not recognise the way of singing, much less the music or the hymns. He will not recognise the authority structures, the way of praying or preaching, or the discipline of the church. It will seem very, very unusual. In fact, his first experience is that he will likely characterise it as “weird”, “abnormal”, “too traditional” or “a bit too sombre”. The unfamiliarity will make him feel awkward, and to most populist Evangelicals, that is just death. The thought of a visitor feeling out of place or uncomfortable fills many pastors with utter dread.

And therein lies the problem. Emerging from a long season where the Island and the Mainland were fairly connected, many pastors are unprepared (and some are unwilling) to embrace the realities of Island Culture. They’re convinced it is still possible to make a church feel familiar to a secular visitor. They usually make this attempt in the music, the outward presentation of the worship service, and in the trappings of technology, or lifestyle-based ministries or sermons. They will sometimes characterise these as “externals” or “preference issues”.

Such words are evidence of what psychologists like to call “confirmation bias”. The vocabulary is designed to reinforce a comfortable view: that there is nothing specifically Christian about music genres, affections, modes of worship, or various technologies; these are all blank hard drives, ready to be filled with Christian content. Actually, these hard-drives often carry powerful viruses of secularism that inevitably destroy the Christian nature of whatever is copied to them. They are artefacts of culture, which always shape the meaning of whatever we put in them.

What many such pastors do not realise is that this distance between us and secularism is not one created by a faithful church. It is created by a secular culture that is rocketing away from biblical norms. The faithful church is not trying to be deliberately odd. Even if it simply perpetuates Christian doctrine, worship and ethics within itself, the faithful church will find the distance increasingly growing between itself and the culture of Netflix, Apple, Amazon, Google, Hollywood and the secular elites. Rising tides don’t mean the island is floating away. It just means previously exposed bridges of commonality are disappearing.

To the degree you seek to make people immersed in secular culture feel at home on when they visit the Island is the degree to which you must import and naturalise ideas, morals, entertainments, dress, or music which are not simply non-Christian, but increasingly anti-Christian. And ironically, to the degree that you succeed is the degree to which you have failed: failed to faithfully preserve and perpetuate the faith.

I take it for granted that every church wishes to be warm and welcoming. I imagine every loving pastor wishes to reduce the awkwardness of unfamiliarity for secular visitors as a sheer act of hospitality and compassionate evangelism. All this is good and well. But the real problem is the pastor who thinks he can reduce the distance between the Island and the Mainland by importing Mainland goods, and baptising them as Christian.

He may see some successes. Unbelievers may feel that the church speaks their language, settle down, and assimilate into the church. On the other hand, what the seeker-friendly movement has abundantly shown is that too much of this simply colonises the Island for secularism. The natives on the Island superficially identify with Christianity, but everyone speaks with a secular accent. They may turn out to be long-term tourists, and not real residents. Again, too much success at this may actually be a sign of failure, given the growing distance between Christianity and secularism.

What then? We cannot control the tides. We cannot move landmasses. We must not turn the Island into a colony of the Mainland.  Conserving and propagating Island Culture is our only obedient option. What does that mean?

Embrace being unusual. Embrace the task of a lot of explaining for those who come to you as refugees from other churches. Embrace slower growth, and accept (with sadness) less return visitors from the neighbourhood. Accept some of the most likely candidates for getting and perpetuating true Christianity will be those who grow up in your church, if they have faithful and thoughtful parents who explain what is done and why. Accept you will be misunderstood as a hide-bound traditionalist, or as a wooden conformist to an old way without any sense of the times or the way to remain relevant. Accept that you will be caricatured as the stereotypical parson with an aversion to change, a suspicion of youth, and a perpetual scorn towards modernity. Accept that the only way people will really understand what you’re doing is if they spend a long time on the Island.

And then, put your head down, and work.

22. Judging Beauty in Creation

The two domains of God’s revelation are general revelation and special revelation. God has revealed Himself to all men generally through the created order, and God has revealed Himself specifically to some through His Word, mediated through various agents. If we wish to perceive the beauty of God, we will find it in both domains, though they will differ in the specificity of that beauty.

God’s beauty will not be of different kinds, for God is always God. But what can be perceived of God in nature, the human conscience, human culture, and human art will not be as clear or concrete as what can be perceived through language conveyed through angels, prophets, and apostles.

We should also expect that the approach to perceiving God’s beauty in creation will bear great resemblance to perceiving it in Scripture. And on close examination, we find it is just so. Many of the approaches to perceiving beauty in art find nearly exact counterparts in Christian worship and discipleship. In other words, the pagan who perceived true beauty in creation did so because he adopted a posture that mimics something found in Christian virtue. He did not know it, but he submitted to a pattern found within the Triune Godhead, and in doing so, he saw some of that glory.

To put it another way, true beauty always requires it perceivers to be in some kind of union with it. They must humble themselves, pursue it, see it for what it is, and judge it with complete honesty. This kind of act is very close to self-giving love, as we’ll see. The pursuers of beauty, even if they are not regenerate, must get themselves out of the way, receive the beauty of a thing, and judge it fairly. By this act, the common grace of God allows the unsaved to know and experience the echoes of His glory in general revelation. Indeed, were the unsaved to keep using that approach to all of life, they would pretty soon bump up against the gospel and the claims of Christ. As we saw in the last post, most will flee before the light becomes that intense.

What is the procedure for seeing beauty in general revelation? John Witvliet summarises the approach as occurring in four stages: 1) perception, 2) immediate response, 3) interpretation, and 4) evaluation. We’ll take these in turn.


Perceiving beauty is the beginning of the encounter. Both Christian and no-Christian writers have been concerned to point out that true pursuer of beauty must have the quality of receptivity.
C. S. Lewis wrote incisively of this in An Experiment in Criticism. Lewis suggested that to receive a work, the subject must exert his or her senses to conform to the pattern created by the artist. Conversely, using a work of art is treating it as a mere aid to selfish activities. When art is used, it cannot introduce one to new worlds or transform; it can only brighten, relieve, or palliate one’s life. When one uses art for one’s own ends, a work of art has no chance to work on a person, meaning one meets only oneself in the work. Consumers of art do not lay themselves open to what the work in its totality might do to them; they merely treat it as a means to their own selfish ends.
True receptivity begins by laying aside individual preconceptions, interests, and associations. Positively, one must then look, listen, read, or feel, as the case may be. The seeker must go on perceiving until he or she has perceived what is there. This is essentially a form of surrender. Lewis writes, “Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out)”.

This kind of receptivity is contemplation, to be distinguished sharply from distraction. Roger Scruton, in Beauty, distinguishes the true work of art from the false by distinguishing the experience of the one from the other. In the true work of art, it is not one’s own reactions that are interesting, but the meaning and content of the work. Entertainment is not interested in cause, but only in effect—whether the work had pleasant effects on oneself. Though true art also entertains, it does so by creating a distance between oneself and what it portrays, allowing a disinterested sympathy for its subject matter, rather than evoking vicarious emotions of one’s own. This distance is what enables receptivity and contemplation. “The purpose of this distance is not to prevent emotion, but to focus in it, by directing attention towards the imaginary other, rather than the present self” (p. 104).

Contemplation is an act of attention that receives the artwork, or the thing in nature, or whatever the manifestation of beauty as a gift, not an object to be used, but as something to be meditated upon and lived with.

As you can see, the moral qualities of the beholder influence whether beauty is seen or missed altogether.

21. Beauty’s Description

Beauty defined may be abstract and remote; beauty described should be concrete. What does beauty look like? For that matter, since beauty is not only (or even primarily) visual, what does beauty sound like, feel like, or seem like? When we have encountered or experienced beauty, what is that experience?

The best approach is to start from the deepest reality and work outwards. If beauty is the ultimate ground of reality, the self-giving love of the Godhead to one another, then beauty in the created order will be a form, or an echo of that primary beauty.

Among rational, sentient beings, this beauty is seen in self-giving love. When free beings choose to willingly unite their wills with the good of others, this is the closest echo of Trinitarian beauty. Symmetry of wills is the greatest symmetry of all. No wonder that the Greatest Commandment is to love God wholeheartedly (unite our wills entirely with His glory), and the Second is like it, to love our neighbour as oneself (unite our wills with what will beautify and bless our neighbour). Those who live in this kind of love are simultaneously growing in knowledge of truth and goodness (Phil. 1:9-11). Furthermore, the more they pursue this beauty, the more they are “beautified” by it, and become rooted and grounded in, enabling even further knowledge of it (Ephesians 3:16-19).  And when this is the case, the soul being shaped into the beauty of God finds ultimate pleasure and joy in knowing and loving God (Ps 34:4). Harmony, symmetry, pleasure, truth and goodness (all the suggested definitions of love) find their manifestation in God’s love, considered objectively or subjectively.

When we move out from sentient beings to created material, beauty continues to be seen when it represents the harmony of wills. Whether it is the arrangement of sound, colour, shapes, numbers, words, or ideas, beauty is found in the combination and arrangement of disparate parts to make a unified whole. Whether found naturally, or re-shaped by God’s image-bearers, created beauty is a re-enactment of Genesis 1:2-3: order, harmony, equality is brought to bear upon what is without form and void, so that we can make the evaluation: “it is good”. Of course, that description of created beauty would need a lot of nuancing and explaining, given the complexity and variety in the created order. But it appears “approving what is excellent” is precisely part of the task of the righteous in this age.

But here’s the rub. Since beauty is ultimately an echo of holy love, the moral state of the beholder influences the perception of beauty. If evil is a distortion of God’s love, then those who love to do evil have come to find pleasure in what God calls ugly. Or to put it another way, for evildoers, beautiful has become ugly, and ugly has become beautiful (Is. 5:20). This explains why Jesus says the real condemnation of man is not his ignorance, but his deliberate avoidance of God’s beauty and the contrast it will make with man’s ugliness (John 3:19-21). By contrast, the first mark of regeneration is a taste or relish for God’s beauty. Sanctification is a steady process of learning to hate what is unlovely to God, and love what God loves.

This does not mean that unbelievers cannot perceive or create beauty. As image-bearers, they can perceive truth, goodness, and beauty. They can find pleasure in it, depending on how much free reign they have given to their depravity (few reach the place of total demonic hatred of all that is good). And to the degree that they mimic (wittingly or unwittingly) the self-giving nature of love, they may both make beautiful things, and recognise beautiful things.

But as the beautiful thing begins to bear a more recognisable resemblance to God, conviction sets in, and the unbeliever will wish to flee. Only the overcoming grace of God will infallibly persuade and bring the fleeing unbeliever to finally embrace the source of beauty: God in Christ.

Should We Pronounce the Divine Name?

Most Christians know that in English translations of the Bible, the capitalised “LORD” stands in for the Tetragrammaton, the divine name, YHWH. Actually, the Hebrew people regularly pronounced the name until the destruction of the first Temple in 586 B.C. This is seen in the Lachish Letters, which were written before the Temple’s destruction, and contain the Tetragrammaton.

After the destruction of the Temple, and the end of the exile, Jews from about the third century BC began using the substitute Hebrew word for master or Lord, Adonai, when they read YHWH. Later Masoretic scribes took the vowels from Adonai, and placed them within the divine name to remind readers to reverently say “Adonai” instead of the divine name. This ended up looking like YeHoWaH to later medieval Christian scholars, who did not understand what this meant, and introduced the hybrid name “Jehovah”.

Later Jews took this even further, using Ha-Shem (“the Name”) to refer to God. For many, it is impiety to attempt to pronounce the name of God, as if it is a mystery lost in time. But the Jewish writer Louis Hartman writes in the Encyclopaedia Judaica:

“The true pronunciation of the name YHWH was never lost. Several early Greek writers of the Christian Church testify that the name was pronounced “Yahweh.” This is confirmed, at least for the vowel of the first syllable of the name, by the shorter form Yah, which is sometimes used in poetry (e.g., Ex. 15:2) and the -yahu or -yah that serves as the final syllable in very many Hebrew names.”

What then? While the name of God should be respected, it is hard to believe it was revealed so as to remain unpronounced. On good evidence, we know ancient Israelites pronounced it as Yahweh.

Because of changes in the Hebrew language too technical to go into here, we now pronounce with a v much of what was then pronounced with the sound. (That is, the letter vav in modern Hebrew was a waw in ancient Hebrew). For that reason, today we speak of the Levites, not the Lewites; King David and not King Dawid. To be consistent, today we would pronounce the Tetragrammaton as Yahveh.

20. Beauty’s Definition: What About the Cross?

If beauty is ultimately God’s self-knowledge and communicative self-delight, we can explain easily enough why other theories of beauty have defined beauty as harmony and symmetry, or truth and goodness, or pleasure and delight. For Trinitarian love is the ultimate and absolute form of harmony and unity, being a symmetry not of objects but of the will and love of the three persons. Trinitarian love is also truth and goodness: for God’s being is the ground of all reality (truth), the excellence of his being is goodness, and his knowledge and delight in himself is beauty. And as the multiple Hebrew words for beauty showed us, beauty is pleasure and delight.

For all that, there remains a wrinkle. What of ugliness? What of the disharmonious and the painful? Indeed, why should the Cross be central to the biblical message? Where does the gospel fit into a discussion of God’s beauty?

It appears that the answer may lie in the nature of triune love. Love within the Godhead is gratuitous self-giving.

Several Scriptures speak of the Father’s gifts to the Son:

All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him (Matt. 11:27).

The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand (John 3:35).

For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself, and has given Him authority to execute judgment also, because He is the Son of Man (John 5:26–27).

Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world (John 17:24).

Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name (Phil. 2:9).

Likewise, Scripture reveals the Son’s gifts to the Father:

And all Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine, and I am glorified in them (John 17:10).

Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power (1 Cor. 15:24).

Creation itself is primarily a gift of glory from the persons of the Godhead to one another. Jonathan Wilson, in God’s Good World, describes it as follows:

“In the life of the Triune God, the Father freely gives himself to the Son, so that he is both fully and eternally the Father and the Son is fully, eternally the Son. Likewise, the Son gives himself freely as the Son to the Father, so that each is fully and eternally Son and Father. Their giving to each other is the life of the Holy Spirit, who in receiving from and giving to the Father and the Son, is fully and eternally the Spirit. Moreover, the Spirit is the very gift that the Spirit gives to the Father and the Son, desiring that the Father and the Son love each other. From this mutuality of giving and receiving, which simply is life, and which may also be named as love, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit give life to something other than God: creation.”

Further, the Fall, Redemption, and Consummation are part of a plan to return the gift increased in value and more reflective of the Godhead than even at its pristine creation.

It seems that this self-giving love is best understood with the backdrop of sin, suffering, and evil. Not only does the evil provide a contrast to the goodness of God, but it provides a stage for impossibly opposed things to be reconciled and brought back together into beautiful harmony. In Edwards’ sermon “The Excellency of Christ”, he shows how “there is an admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies in Jesus Christ”. That is, seemingly differing attributes such as justice and mercy, majesty and meekness, dominion and submission are found in Christ. The attributes of humility and submission seen in Jesus in particular illustrate the trinitarian love that existed in eternity past. This is part of the beauty of God: God’s self-giving glory, which the Incarnation gave spectacular shape to.

Through the grand message of redemptive and doxological history, God’s self-giving love is understood by men and angels in ways they could not otherwise know. I’ve suggested this poetically. Humility, self-denial, the cross, begets exaltation, joy and resurrection. To know the self-giving love of the Trinity, sinners must come and die with Jesus, and so rise with him and know His beauty. At the heart of beauty, both in its nature, and it its perception is the most repeated saying of Jesus: “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” (Lk. 17:33). Self-giving life is the deepest reality of all.