Saturday, April 09, 2005

On Mirrors and the Spirit of the Age

Today as I waited for the shower stream to heat up, I squinted at my 50-year old body in the mirror and heard myself mutter, "Well, if you're what I am then I'd better start exercising." As I did so, I was struck by the thought that this is exactly the attitude that has captured the minds and wallets of modern men and women across the West, who swell the membership of the Gold's Gyms and jog through our neighborhoods. This thought: this body is me--if it's beautiful and desirable, then I'm beautiful and desirable--if it's ugly then I'm ugly--underlies the eating disorders that stress our young women (and that killed Terry Schiavo, in one way of thinking). Our whole culture is body-centered. "Look Better Naked" is the billboard for Gold's Gyms in York, PA. The thought that, perhaps, I fundamentally am a body, rather than someone that has a body, had suggested to me the same body-centric self image that drives a huge portion of our consumer industry and that is clearly an aspect of the current "spirit of the age".

This was alarming, and I immediately felt several related thoughts snap into alignment in the back of my head. I heard John Lennon's "Imagine There's No Heaven" transposed upon a comment I have heard several times recently, that "the Bible is not about going to heaven, but about living on earth." Sooooo....this emerging concept also just happens to line up with what romantic materialists have been saying for the past 40 years. "It's not about saving souls, but about building the Kingdom (on Earth, by the way)" Hmmmm.

The Creation mandate directs us to become much more environmentally conscious and join the environmentalists who have, ironically, understood this truth all along. One of Jubillee's keynote speakers urges the youth to take up global warming as a Christian cause. The Gaian's are (practically, anyway) right after all.

We have recently discovered that the past 2000 years of Christian scholarship and exegesis has been terribly corrupted by ancient Greek rationalism and dualism, so we are busily exploring our ancient roots and trying to understand our scriptures from the point of view of our ancient, pre-industrial, agrarian forebears. Has anyone else noticed that this is precisely what pop religion has been doing for the past twenty years? "Rediscovering" primitive spirituality, whether it be Native American, Aboriginal or Wiccan, and rejecting philosophies based on reason and categorical thinking?

We are all about rediscovering "community" and the urban. Hello? These have been "Bobo" concerns for the past twenty-plus years.

So what am I suggesting? At this point, I am merely alarmed at the striking alignment of many of these Christian "hot topics" with the spirit of this age. An emphasis on the physicality of life, the goodness of this material world, a preference for the ancient and non-rational, urbanism and an emphasis on community, and a rejection of grand metanarratives are not only shared by the current culture, but the elites of that culture emphasized these things first. Is there any chance that we are simply assimilating, that we are seeking to rejoin the intellectual elites by aping their agenda, with a Christian twist to preserve the illusion that we are countercultural?


  1. No I don't thnk so. The emphasis on the kingdom and community has two important elements for me:
    1. he importance of linking our spirituality and our theology to our fruit (observable evidence).
    2. The importance of seeing our witness as the witness of a comunity not just as individuals.

    No one is saying "to witness to the moral attributes of God and our deliverance from the bondage of sin through the eschatological event of the cross we must get in physical shape". This isn't materialism. The return to biblical worldview is an attempt to focus more on practice than the rationalist and doctrinalist emphasis. We have approached the war as a war of ideas when our call is to win the war by manifesting a life that only the HOLY Spirit can produce (i.e. a life of moral beauty).
    God Bless,

  2. So Dr. Kearns, are you saying this good or bad? I didn't quite follow....

  3. Ryan: I am simply wondering. It is good to know oneself, and if one's ideas are being deeply influenced by the culture, at the same time that we are imagining ourselves to be countercultural, then we ought to be aware of that. The most succesful evil is subtle mimicry of the good; the good is the original, and evil is the twisted copy. It may be that "environmentalism" is the twisted copy of a proper concern for God's good world; that the obsessive emphasis on healthy and attractive bodies is the copy of a correct respect for our embodied natures; that, in short, the correspondence of much of our current "neocal" agenda with what David Brooks calls "Bobo" sensibilities is simply coincidence, or the world copying the Church. But the timing seems wrong for that to be the case. I, for one, heard these ideas articulated first by the educated elites of our current culture, and only later heard the church talk about discovering these ideas in the scriptures.
    An idea stands or falls on its own truth, without regard to who believes it. Just because the culture emphasizes the material world doesn't mean we should de-emphasize it. My concern is one of emphasis and motivation. If we are attracted to these ideas because they conform to what we already thought, or because they allow us to be respectable in the academy or the public square, then we are more likely to overemphasize them and to miss other truths that are equally important but not "hip".

  4. Brad: Yes, I agree but...
    Even your comment seems to me fraught with worrisome presuppositions. When did our current emphasis become the "biblical worldview", implying that prior, more doctrinally-oriented or intellectually oriented emphases were not "biblical"? Paul seems to talk an awful lot about some pretty abstract and doctrinal stuff, and seems to think it is pretty important for newly founded churches to grasp. Throughout church history, whatever you think about the nature of the war, many of the most damaging attacks have come from incorrect doctrine and well-presented ideas. I agree with your 1 and 2, but feel that your last sentence betrays the type of single-viewpoint emphasis that I worry about. Whereas it used to be an emphasis on doctrine as primary, now it's an emphasis on living as primary (and by living you seem to exclude or minimize that part which may consist of reasoning and doctrinal teaching.) Presumably the Holy Spirit was involved in the great church councils that established the biblical canon, that articulated the doctrine of the Trinity, fought the Gnostics, the Docetists and Manicheans, etc, etc. I worry about the practical emphasis, partly because it so closely conforms to our current cultural preferences. "Just Do It." (Nike)

  5. I find myself often wondering about the same thing. I'm rereading Carl Raschke's 'The Next Reformation' at the moment; a book that Brian McLaren views as one of the best intellectual or philosophical texts for postmodern Christianity/neo-Calvinism. Raschke says he was a postmodern far before he was an Evangelical. I can't give a fairly clear opinion of the book; I agree with some of his arguments, disagree with others, agree with the reasons he makes some of his arguments, disagree with others, etc. All the same, he speaks so often of disentangling Christianity from Modern philosophy, while embracing pomo.

    Not only do I see this as a case of joining the spirit of the age, I also see it as a flawed, romantic view of the present (or near future). Modernism, as it evolved over hundreds of years, bloomed in certain ways Descartes would have never approved of (Marxism, Social Darwinism, etc). Likewise, I can only assume that in several hundred years we will look back at the evolution of pomo and demand another Reformation, to extract ourselves from the entangling snares of pomo. The Modern glass is half empty, the pomo glass far more than half full. Why do we turn to philosophical trends before the Scriptures? But that's another topic...

    To be truly counter-cultural, the Church needs to be in some sense a-cultural. We cannot simply react to the current cultural trends of our day, we cannot even anticipate future cultural trends... we must do all of this and more: exist as aliens and strangers in this land, abiding by a worldview not of this world, looking towards a home not of this world. Only then can we throw off the entanglements of not only Modernism, but pomo and all the fallen aspects of this world, all the spirits of our ages.

  6. Joe,
    I understand your concern and I hold them as well. I look at AA for example. AA set out to get people sober. Why did not the church have the answer to this question? What of divorce and sexual immorality of our children? These are real problems that require church renewal. Leaders need to be those who can lead people to not only think right but live beautifully. I think the call is urgent.
    As for Biblical worldview, I think I mean simply understanding how the modern philosophical quest has led us to overemphsize ratinalistic approaches to faith as opposed to evidencing faith by Morally Beautiful Community.

  7. This is confusing to me... You set up strawmans that I have never actually heard anyone say... then suggest that it is a "neo-cal" agenda, and then suggest that it may be more in line with the "spirits of the age."

    Let's take one example. The supposed shift from the Gospel about "going to heaven when you die" to a Gospel about "living on earth." I don't know one person who says that. At least, I don't read them or believe them. (Although, it is striking that the Bible never says that you go to heaven when you die.) Now, there is a question, how do you become right with God? That's an important one. And, when you right with God, how do you lead a faithful life? You act as if this isn't what is driving the discussion. It is. Let's work, with the Holy Spirit, to live faithful lives.

    This is not new. This is 2,000 years old. And, if by God's grace, we notice areas where the Church is not being faithful, we need to pray harder and hold faster to his promise that the Kingdom is in our midst. We are never going to have "God's eye view" on everything, and I don't think we should talk as if we have the corner on truth in the 21st century.

    I guess my biggest question (concern) is: whom is this post directed to? Maybe I am over reacting, and you don't mean Bible believing, evangelical Christians, which I believe I am, and, in which case, this post doesn't bother me. But, if you are referring to people (like me) who align themselves with the reformed tradition and desperately believe that we need new categories and deeper ways of thinking and doing, for the sake of the Gospel and the nations, then I am offended and feel misunderstood by this post.

    One more quick question: who are the people, serious Biblical scholars, who are "busily exploring our ancient roots and trying to understand our scriptures from the point of view of our ancient, pre-industrial, agrarian forebear"? Name them, please. Who is saying this? Every single Biblical scholar that I have suggested that you read, warn constantly of the dangers of romanticism and utopianism.

    This post may be urgent, and even, to some degree helpful, if it was clear whom you are talking about and to. You seem to be all over the place, responding to many voices and "camps," and it is difficult to know where you are coming from.

  8. Dan:

    As someone who would probably be identified as a Neo-Calvinist, I don't see it being at all postmodern. For the record, I'd (we'd) like to be separated from pomo philosophy.

    While I like some of the critique and challenge of the McLaren/Raschke, pomo, emergent movement, it is not somewhere I would like to be "placed."


  9. Derek: Part of my style, which I usually regret a few minutes after clicking the "Publish" button, is belligerence, together with an analytic method that examines trajectories as part of the evaluation of the truth of an idea. Ie, "If this idea continues on its current trajectory, where does it lead us?"
    The original post was not meant to attack anyone or criticize anyone. It is reflective; it begins with my own reflection, and a self-doubt that my most recent ideas (and they have been partly raised by you and by others who interact in this blog) have a disturbing correspondence to ideas that are favorites of our non-Christian cultural elites. That doesn't make them wrong, as I pointed out above. But I think it is cause for concern.
    As regards the "who". I have not read much N. T. Wright, but I listened to the tapes you gave me, on the historical Jesus, and was alarmed. While he criticized the white/black/grey-ball voting methodology, he did NOT seem to have a problem with the project itself. If I have heard it said once, I've heard it ten times, that we need to understand "the Hebrew worldview" rather than, heaven forbid, admit as possibly true or even useful, anything an ancient Greek said. Which, of course, happens to rule out some of the best minds of Christendom over the last 2000 years, like Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, even Calvin ironically. As you know, I have not had time to read deeply into the "neocal" canon, my reading time being otherwise claimed these two years. Most of what I know of "neocals" I glean from the writings on these several blogs, and tapes or CD's you have given me of talks you liked. Again, I am not saying any of these things are wrong just because they line up with non-Christian thinking. But come on, what do we talk about? Fair-trade coffee. Global warming. No soul separable from the body. Urban communities and third places. All Bobo ideas. Do we talk about evangelism? Not much; in fact we seem to have an attitude of enlightened disdain for "evangelical" churches for talking too much about it, and not enough about "community".
    Derek, I am merely wondering about the extent to which we are subconsciously influenced by the elite culture here. One of Os Guinness' books is titled "Prophetic Utimeliness" and purports to critique our tendency to seek "relevance". We tend to think that means worship style and the man on the street. What if we "neocals" on this blogosphere are similarly driven by a desire for relevance, but the subculture we are seeking to be relevant to is the intellectual elites?

  10. Thanks Dr. Kearns,

    Your elaboration in the comments section helped me understand much more what your intention of the post was.

  11. Joe,
    I for one am calling for urgent change but I am evangelical to the core. At the same time, I seethe value in an epistemology that is more tacit and personal to use Polanyi and Newbiggin's language. I do see a disdain for evangelism in some circles but that certainly isn't me. I am still offending people for Christ. In fact, my desire is to get the evangelicals to encorporate 'some' of the emergent questioning into our calls for renewal BUT I would very wary of cultural renewal that is not first founded on chuch renewal. So the question is "How do we find a new emphasis on practice in the evangelical communiy that leads to holiness and renewal and especially a renewed witness in the world.

  12. Is there any chance that we are simply assimilating? More than a chance. In virtually every Christian church across this country - we are assimilating in subtle ways while preserving the illusion that we are countercultural. And it's all quite subtle and it creeps into "us” as churches, as families, and as individuals - very slowly. Especially during the 1970s and increasing ever since, as far as I can determine from my own experiences, Christian churches fell in line with the "let's all get hip, see, Christians can be cool too" spell. It was so tempting. Jesus Freaks. Folk-Masses. Liberal Christianity. Sojourners. Hey, see, we're cool too. We believe some of the same things - and we dress like you - we look like you too!

    I recall the recruiters and teachers for Transcendental Meditation during the early 1970s purposefully and dutifully dressing in culturally ambiguous ways. One could not tell if they were "straight" or "freaks" - to use the vernacular of those days. They did not want to alienate nor did they want to identify with a particular cultural group.

    Young Mormon or LDS missionaries dutifully wear white shirts, black trousers and ties, and ride bicycles to their evangelistic appointments. The look is always the same and it is certainly not the look of "coolness" or of assimilation.

    Meanwhile, one cannot tell - from looking - the difference between a Christian and an atheist at the local golf course, shopping center, or restaurant on any given Sunday. And this is so throughout North America, is it not?

    Are we are seeking to rejoin the intellectual elites by aping their agenda? Yes, we are - and with a Christian twist to preserve the illusion that we are countercultural - as you say.

    Christians have bought into the cultural ideals of "coolness" and "youth" - and we have given up something along the way.

    More and more, especially for those of us in our 50s, I suspect, we are beginning to increasingly realize it - and regret it.

    Excellent post and insight, Joe.

  13. So, while keeping on the forefront of our mind the cautions of assimilating, how do we 1) attempt to reach the intellectual elites, and 2) shake off the horrible stereotype of the "dumb" Christian, because that certainly isn't necessary either. There definitely is a difference of being hated for what we preach, and well....being asinine.

  14. and uneducated. and largely anti-intellectual. and naive. you get the point.

    Hm....maybe I should start reading Guinness' book I just picked up on how to battle the problem of anti-intellectualism in American Christians today...maybe that'll have some answers. =)

  15. Sounds like a plan. Also, we emphasize lifetime learning as part of the normative life of a disciple of Jesus.