Saturday, March 12, 2005

Secularization, Strategy, Politics, Contextualization

1 Corinthians 6:12 (New Living Translation)

“12You may say, "I am allowed to do anything." But I reply, "Not everything is good for you." And even though "I am allowed to do anything," I must not become a slave to anything.”


I’ve been spending some time recently re-reading Michael Horton’s “Beyond Culture Wars.” It was published in 1994 and it’s still timely, especially in its observations about the divide that is taking place not only in the culture outside the Church, but also the culture within the Church.

I believe his observations are particularly astute, infuriating but particularly astute. Left wing Christians are labeled socialists by some on the right. Most often it manifests itself this way - right wing Christians are labeled bigots by some on the left and vice versa. He put it this way:

“Those who seek to end abortion by encouraging policies aimed at helping unwed mothers are labeled “socialists,” while those who seek to end abortion by overturning Roe v. Wade directly forced to wear the scarlet “B” for bigot, as those who are obviously anti-women.”

He then goes on to get to the heart of the Church’s problem:

“It’s not enough to care about life, to care about the poor, and the family, and so on. One must endorse either the secular left of the secular right and fight with the might of Christian soldiers.”

The end result, as Horton saw it, was that the Church was being secularized. That is, tactics, politics, and strategy had replaced core Christian doctrine, faith in Jesus Christ, and practice as the centerpiece of Christian life. Seeing this, Horton wryly noted:

“At the risk of hyperbole, one wonders today that (it) would be more dangerous in some evangelical gatherings: disagreeing with someone over the doctrine of the Incarnation or disagreeing with Rush Limbaugh.”

I might also add that it would be every bit as dangerous for Christian proponents of this “secularization” to disagree with Jim Wallis on the left or Jerry Falwell on the right.

Horton closes the thread of his argument with this:

“The sad thing is, the insults are thrown about by Christians at other Christians. Not only does one have to have a particular position which is biblically justified; one must adopt a particular strategy and course of action in order to be truly orthodox. Christians who support the public schools are regarded by some as having sold out to secular humanism, whereas parents who home-school or support the Christian school are sneered as escapists and separatists. Ironically, at a time when outright heresy flourishes even in the evangelical community and many Christians are unable to define the essential elements of the Gospel – all the in interest of tolerance and unity – the Christian community at the end of the twentieth century does not seem to have any trouble forming deep, hostile divisions over which political package and candidate to endorse.”

Well, we’re in a new century and I don’t think much has changed. There is, as I see it, a theological war going on right now. And I think Horton is right. It has far less to do with faith than it has to do with tactics. The problem, as I see it, is that, to twist a phrase, we’re so earthly minded that we’re no heavenly good.

First, citing George Barna, Horton also notes that there is blame to be cast on both sides of the divide:

“In fact, evangelical Christians, according to Barna, are almost equally divided between those who strongly agree and strongly disagree with the statement, “There is no such thing as absolute truth.” Remarkably, “adults associated with mainline Protestant churches are more likely than all other adults to agree that there is no such thing as absolute truth (73% compared to 65%).”

For those evangelicals feeling comfortable that they are in the in the 27% or so who do believe there is such a thing as absolute truth, Horton adds this scathing rebuke of what has become, all too often, the soteriology of the new millennium:

“This brings us to the changing definitions of redemption itself. To the degree that sin is redefined as a negative attitude one has toward oneself rather than an offense against God, to that degree salvation is going to be recast in psychological categories, according to the dogmas of secularism. A whole new set of problems replaces the old ones, and a new set of solutions to match them. If sin and standing under God’s judgment is the problem, atonement and justification is the solution. But if dysfunction, low self-esteem, and unmet needs are the ultimate problem, the solutions will be prescribed in therapeutic rather than theological language. This is not merely “contextualizing” the Christian message for a contemporary audience; it is conforming the message to that contemporary audience.”

What’s the problem with “contextualizing” the message of the Gospel? The problem is that the gospel gets lost in all the politics, strategy, and “contextualizng.” The statistics are eye-popping in this regard:

“One third of evangelicals believe that “all good people will go to heaven, whether they have embraced Jesus Christ or not,” so redemption seems to depend on one’s own goodness rather than faith in Christ. Indeed, in this scheme, Jesus is not even necessary, except as a moral guide.”

Nearly all of us evangelicals believe that there is no such thing as absolute truth. Incredible! One third of us believe that it is our “goodness” that will get us into heaven. Astounding!

How did it get lost in such a short span of time? “Contextualization.” strategy, politics, and secularization. Could it be that the Church in our time is being swallowed up by this four headed monster?

I can even see the debate framed in my own experience. In 1970 I was attending Ohio State University, a very secular institution. There are two recollections that come to mind. In the first, my composition professor had our class write a short essay on several topics. One was “What does Christ on the Cross mean to you?” It was a topic I was intimately acquainted with, having a few short years earlier embraced Jesus Christ as Savior. I started out recounting those formative days, but then began to struggle with it. I sensed that the class and my professor were looking for something else. Whether they actually were or not was another matter, I knew enough about the “times” that Christ on the Cross had to have some political or social significance or no one would listen to me. So I took the low ground and produced a piece about Jesus the political rebel, the social reformer and me, as his dedicated follower, remaking and re-shaping my world for the better. The essay had nothing at all to do with what had actually happened to me, but it was accepted by the class hook, line, and sinker. That was the gospel they were looking for and I gave it to them

The second came right after my “brilliant” essay. I began to frame my Christian identity in political and social terms only. As Horton noted, it was a “therapeutic” relationship. Well, I was in between classes one day and went into a men’s room. There was an elderly African-American man cleaning up, singing “Amazing Grace” while he was straining away at dirty urinals. I, politically and socially astute, fully secularized, couldn’t help but see the irony. As I was washing my hands I decided to confront this poor, unsuspecting dupe of the system. “What’s got you so happy?” I asked him. “Oh,” he replied. “Jesus loves me…..Jesus saved me.” Before he could say anything else I interrupted him. “For what? To clean bathrooms? Come on now, this relationship has got to mean more than that.” If I could have I would have started a revolution, but this old man would have none of it. “You know what young man? God has me just where I need to be. He really does. There are thousands of kids every day who need to hear that God loves them. They’ve got the burden of sin weighing them down and they don’t know where to lay the burden down. Do you think the president of this university has time for them and do you think they could lay that burden down with him even if he did give them a minute or two of his time? Well, young man, there are a lot of students who have to use this rest room every day and I’m here to not only clean up but to tell them God loves them and that they can lay their burdens down with Him. Yessir, young man, I’m right where God wants me. What about you?”

I left that day, realizing that the old man who worked at what seemed to be so menial a job, who lived in what seemed to be such a low estate, was right. His words cut me to the quick; they convicted me in much the same way I believe Michael Horton's words ought to cut to the quick of the Christian Church in the new millennium.

What about you? Are you so “contextualized,” “secularized,” "politicized," and “strategized,” that your life and message has no resonance at all. I’d recommend one or two things. You can, at leisure, read Horton’s book. Or, you can find someone along the way who seems, like that old man I met years ago, to understand why they’ve been placed her. Stop for a moment and listen to what they have to say. It might get you back on track.

1 comment:

James Fletcher Baxter said...

A person's 'natural' center is his ego. That 'center' is never accurate and should be traded off for the actual Center of all things, Jesus/God.

From that time on the person is always where the Lord wants him -- doing what the Lord wants him to do: Learning and serving and growing for his own as yet undefined future - with full assurance that it will be Glorious.

Humanism has no alternative for the here-and-now or for the forever future. Trust Jesus? Amen. Psalm 25:12