Revisiting Christ and Culture

Here is a simple rule to keep in mind:  When D. A. Carson writes a book, buy it.  This is certainly the case with Carson’s recent book, Christ & Culture Revisited [Eerdmans].  Readers will immediately recognize the reference to the classic 1951 work by H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture.  Those who desire a deeper understanding of this difficult question will welcome Carson’s very thoughtful look at the claims of Christ and culture.

Niebuhr famously set his analysis in the context of five different models of understanding the relationship between Christ and culture.  His approach represented the dominant position of the Protestant “mainline” of which Niebuhr was so much a part.  Carson takes a new look at Niebuhr’s five types, but he sets his own analysis upon a foundation of biblical theology.  This is very helpful and exceedingly healthy.

In the course of Christ & Culture Revisited, Carson takes on a host of issues, including the thorny issue of church and state and theological tensions within the Christian tradition.  Throughout the book he is rigorous and clear-headed.  Carson does not settle all the thorny issues, but he does settle the discussion into a much healthier framework. Christ & Culture Revisited is an important book for our times.

An excerpt:

These biblical realities make for a worldview that is sharply distinguishable from the worldviews around us, even where there are overlapping values.  We cannot embrace unrestrained secularism; democracy is not God; freedom can be another word for rebellion; the lust for power, universal as it is, must be viewed with more than a little suspicion.  This means that Christian communities honestly seeking to live under the Word of God will inevitably generate cultures that, to say the least, will in some sense counter or confront the values of the dominant culture.  But to say the least is not enough.

Five Who Changed the World — Heroism in Service to the Gospel

“Real heroes are in short supply in our day,” says Daniel L. Akin.  In a world fascinated with celebrities and disenchanted with greatness, true heroism is hard to define, much less to find.  But Dr. Akin is certain that true heroes do appear in this generation as missionaries, pastors, and church planters.  In Five Who Changed the World, he looks back to the lives of five Christian missionaries as guides to true greatness and heroism today.

This short book is filled with insight and inspiration.  Dr. Akin, who serves as President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, offers biographical portraits of William Carey, Adoniram (and Ann) Judson, Bill Wallace, Lottie Moon, and Jim Elliot.  Of these, Dr. Akin writes:  “All of them suffered and experienced trials and the testing of their faith.  Some were even martyred.  Yet they persevered.”

The world really was changed by the service and witness of these Christian missionaries, and readers will risk a changed perspective and a challenged heart by reading this book.  It’s a risk you ought to take — and to pass along.

The Empty Promise of Meditation

Should Christians practice meditation?  An increasing number of Christians are trying or using Eastern meditation techniques in an effort to direct their spiritual lives.  It…

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Worldliness — Honest Talk About Seduction

My friend C. J. Mahaney and a few of his friends have written a powerhouse of a book in Worldliness: Resisting the Seduction of a Fallen World (Crossway).  In its essence, worldliness is “a love for the fallen world,” C. J. explains.  “It’s loving the values and pursuits of the world that stand opposed to God.”  More emphatically, it is “to gratify and exalt oneself to the exclusion of God.”

Just in case anyone might miss how to apply this, C. J. and his team go right after major temptations inherent in worldliness.  Craig Cabaniss writes about worldliness and media with good insight.  To no surprise, Bob Kauflin goes after music, bringing the same theological insights he brings to his music ministry.  Take this zinger, for example:  Bob warns that a sign that music has become an idol is when our passion for Christ has waned but our passion for music has not.

Dave Harvey writes about worldliness and “our stuff.”  (Loved his warning about “virtual giving.”)  C. J. then turns to worldliness and dress, offering good and much needed advice, and Jeff Purswell then concludes by talking about the Christian’s right understanding of the world.  We are not here by accident.

Worldliness offers other good features, including a foreword by John Piper.  Most importantly, the book is Gospel-centered and avoids both legalism and antinomianism.  It is also well-timed for the Christmas season.  Read it, savor it, ponder it . . .  and then give a copy to someone else.

Quitting Church? Yes, No, and Maybe

Julia Duin, religion editor for The Washington Times, has written a book intended to shake up the church and to sound an alarm — people are leaving churches.

In Quitting Church: Why the Faithful are Fleeing and What to Do about It, Duin argues that “many, many evangelical Christians are slipping out or barely hanging on to their churches.”  Those words are sure to gain attention.

Duin backs up her argument with a solid mass of statistics.  Church attendance figures are misleading and bloated when supplied by churches themselves.  Statistics often cited to comfort church leaders are based on overly optimistic and dated reports.  The more current and research-based numbers are scary.  The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago estimates that church attendance has fallen from 41 percent of the population in 1971 to 31 percent in 2001.  At those rates of decline, no one will be attending church in 2031.

Of course, statistics are of real but often limited value.  Duin then goes on to offer reports laced generously with reflections on her own experience.  That blending of the personal and the professional is what makes the book interesting — and what makes it perplexing.

Just about any evangelical reader will find much here that seems real and sufficiently scary.  Most will nod in agreement when Duin points to certain trends and practices as contributing to the decline in church membership and attendance.  Critics of the mega-churches will find criticism here, as will critics of the seeker-sensitive movement, Reformed theology, and just about everything else.  Duin laments the lack of strong biblical preaching and teaching, but she also argues that many of the “teaching” churches lack a real connection with the problems of people in the pews.  She laments the mainstreaming of the Charismatic movement and relates her own very diverse background in basically unsatisfactory church experiences.  She is especially outraged that women are overlooked, under-appreciated, and often taken for granted.  Double that for unmarried women and single mothers.  She seems to oppose complementarianism but never actually declares herself.  This much is clear – she is not happy (and that goes for many of her friends and family members as well).

She wants churches to think “out of the box” and to engage the real needs of their own members.  She wants churches and church leaders to know that single people need help getting married.  She wants less fluff and more substance,  But, honest to goodness, I have no idea what the church she is seeking would look like.

Should church leaders read the book?  Yes.  Quitting Church will force pastors and church leaders to ask some very basic questions about the church — and about their churches.  There is a lot to think about here.  She speaks of people who “need sermons on unanswered prayer” who instead are confronted with “PowerPoint presentations on attaining breakthroughs.”  She offers anecdotes sure to arrest your attention.

Just be aware of the participant/observer tension found throughout this book, and read it as if you are in a conversation with a religion editor for a major national newspaper.  Listen, think, and take notes.

An excerpt:

My research suggested that people are simply not being pastored.  Often ministers are out of touch with what’s happening on the ground, as they are surrounded by a wall of secretaries and voice mail.  Congregants have to wait up to a month for an appointment, if they can get in at all.  Once-a-week home Bible study groups lack depth and theological know-how for help with the serious problems many of us face.  Many churches refer people to professional counseling that costs at least seventy-five dollars an hour. Those lucky enough to have a health plan that pays for counseling usually find the only counselors on approved HMO lists have no concept of a Christian worldview.

Quitting Church? Yes, No, and Maybe

Julia Duin, religion editor for The Washington Times, has written a book intended to shake up the church and to sound an alarm — people are leaving churches.

In Quitting Church: Why the Faithful are Fleeing and What to Do about It, Duin argues that “many, many evangelical Christians are slipping out or barely hanging on to their churches.”  Those words are sure to gain attention.

Duin backs up her argument with a solid mass of statistics.  Church attendance figures are misleading and bloated when supplied by churches themselves.  Statistics often cited to comfort church leaders are based on overly optimistic and dated reports.  The more current and research-based numbers are scary.  The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago estimates that church attendance has fallen from 41 percent of the population in 1971 to 31 percent in 2001.  At those rates of decline, no one will be attending church in 2031.

Of course, statistics are of real but often limited value.  Duin then goes on to offer reports laced generously with reflections on her own experience.  That blending of the personal and the professional is what makes the book interesting — and what makes it perplexing.

Just about any evangelical reader will find much here that seems real and sufficiently scary.  Most will nod in agreement when Duin points to certain trends and practices as contributing to the decline in church membership and attendance.  Critics of the mega-churches will find criticism here, as will critics of the seeker-sensitive movement, Reformed theology, and just about everything else.  Duin laments the lack of strong biblical preaching and teaching, but she also argues that many of the “teaching” churches lack a real connection with the problems of people in the pews.  She laments the mainstreaming of the Charismatic movement and relates her own very diverse background in basically unsatisfactory church experiences.  She is especially outraged that women are overlooked, under-appreciated, and often taken for granted.  Double that for unmarried women and single mothers.  She seems to oppose complementarianism but never actually declares herself.  This much is clear – she is not happy (and that goes for many of her friends and family members as well).

She wants churches to think “out of the box” and to engage the real needs of their own members.  She wants churches and church leaders to know that single people need help getting married.  She wants less fluff and more substance,  But, honest to goodness, I have no idea what the church she is seeking would look like.

Should church leaders read the book?  Yes.  Quitting Church will force pastors and church leaders to ask some very basic questions about the church — and about their churches.  There is a lot to think about here.  She speaks of people who “need sermons on unanswered prayer” who instead are confronted with “PowerPoint presentations on attaining breakthroughs.”  She offers anecdotes sure to arrest your attention.

Just be aware of the participant/observer tension found throughout this book, and read it as if you are in a conversation with a religion editor for a major national newspaper.  Listen, think, and take notes.

An excerpt:

My research suggested that people are simply not being pastored.  Often ministers are out of touch with what’s happening on the ground, as they are surrounded by a wall of secretaries and voice mail.  Congregants have to wait up to a month for an appointment, if they can get in at all.  Once-a-week home Bible study groups lack depth and theological know-how for help with the serious problems many of us face.  Many churches refer people to professional counseling that costs at least seventy-five dollars an hour. Those lucky enough to have a health plan that pays for counseling usually find the only counselors on approved HMO lists have no concept of a Christian worldview.

The Power of Place

Richard Florida has long championed the rise of the “cultural creatives” as a major force in the nation and its economy.  In The Rise of the Creative Class, Florida argued that the regions and cities most likely to prosper in the coming economy were those that could attract and retain people who would produce the ideas for the future.

Now, in Who’s Your City?, Florida takes a closer look at the importance of place.  The jacket for the book declares that where you live is “the most important decision of your life.”  Well, book jackets are made for exaggeration, but Florida’s argument is important nonetheless.

Florida describes the world as “spiky.”  He provides visual evidence for his theory by the use of graphs that identify concentrations of “cultural creatives” by means of relative spikes off of the global image.  Thus, regions such as the North East corridor and Silicon Valley show up as huge spikes on the map.  The point is very clear — these creative individuals are unevenly distributed around the world, and even around the United States.

Furthermore, Florida shows how that these “cultural creatives” cluster themselves together and now choose where to live in terms of the culture they prefer and the amenities they demand.  Some communities will be winners, but most will be losers.

Beyond all this, cultural creativity is clustered now in giant mega-regions such as greater Paris and the technology-rich cities of the Pacific Rim, as well as in huge regions of density within the United States.

One of the key insights of the book is that many people now choose wherethey want to live as a first decision — even before career and other choices.

Florida’s work is not without its critics, but the basic argument he presents is difficult to refute.  For the intelligent Christian reader, the book raises several issues.  The clustering of creative populations seems to correlate with areas evangelical churches have found difficult to reach.  The creatives are clustered in more secular regions of the nation.  All this should be underline one major aspect of our Great Commission challenge in America and around the world.

An excerpt:

As the most mobile people in human history, we are fortunate to have an incredibly diverse menu of places–in our own countries and around the world–from which to choose.  That’s important because each of us has different needs and preferences.  Luckily, places differ as much as we do.  Some have thriving job markets, others excel at the basics, like education and safety.  Some are better for singles, others for families.  Some are more about work, some play.  Some lean conservative, others liberal.  They all cater to different types, and each has its own personality, its own soul.

On the Other Hand, Protestant Courage

David F. Wells is, hands down, one of the most insightful analysts of contemporary Christianity.  Well known as the Andrew Mutch Distinguished Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Wells is a theologian best known for four courageous and important books, No Place for Truth, God in the Wasteland, Losing Our Virtue, and Above All Earthly Pow’rs.

Now, in The Courage to Be Protestant, Wells offers what amounts to a fifth volume in his series–a capstone to his argument.

In The Courage to Be Protestant, Wells bravely criticizes those who would offer theological and spiritual reductionism in the name of marketing as well as those who would steer the Evangelical movement toward the postmodern embrace of the “Emergents.”

Looking at present-day Evangelicalism, Wells sees shrinking doctrine and a disappearing church.  It takes no courage to “sign-up” as a Protestant, he argues, but it takes considerable courage to believe and act as a Protestant.

The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-Lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World is must reading.   After reading this book, go back and read Wells’ previous four-volume series.

An excerpt:

Traditional Christian faith holds to the outside God who stands over against us.  He is known not because we have discovered him, but because he has made himself known in Scripture and in Christ.  We are not left to piece together our understanding of him.  He has unveiled and defined himself for us.  He has broken his concealment.  He has come into view and has told us who he is and how we are to live.

The inside god of this contemporary spirituality is different.  He emerges out of the psychology, the inner depths, of the seeker.  He is known through and within the self, and we piece together our knowledge of him (or her, or it) from the fragments of our experience coupled with our intuitions.  In so many ways this god, this sacred reality, is indistinguishable from how we experience ourselves.

I discussed this important book with author David Wells on the June 5, 2008 edition of The Albert Mohler Program [listen here].

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