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Blog Archive for 2/1/04 - 2/7/04

Reflection: Making an Impact on Culture
Series - Cultural Impact or Cultural Irrelevance: A Christian Dilemma (Part 4)
Posted at 9:55 p.m. on Saturday, February 7, 2004

So far this mini-series, "Cultural Impact or Cultural Irrelevance," has ranged over the landscape of ideas, from the debauchery of the Super Bowl, to the theology of H. Richard Neibuhr in Christ and Culture , to my friend Jeff's attempt to be a faithful Christian and a Hollywood screenwriter, to the Apostle Paul's use of the language of secular philosophy and pagan religion in his instructions for the Philippians. My point has been to examine different ways we Christians relate to the culture in which we live, a culture in which we increasingly feel like aliens.

I believe that we are called to creative interaction with this culture, however, not disengagement from it. As I explained in my last post, Paul's letter to the Philippians provides a striking example of how to do this without selling out to the culture along the way.

My theological rationale for cultural engagement goes deeper the Paul's example. It is rooted in God's creation of the world and in the fact that God cares deeply about the redemption of his creation. God himself models cultural engagement as he enters into relationship with Israel, as he reveals his truth in human languages, and, most of all, in the Incarnation of the Divine Word in Jesus Christ. We who follow Jesus have no choice, I believe, but to imitate his example of cultural engagement.

But, as I've said before, this is no picnic. Living in the crossroads of Christ and culture is challenging, risky, messy, and often frustrating. How much easier it would be for us to remain sequestered within our own safe religious world. Easier, yes. Faithful to Jesus Christ, no. After all, he's the one who said that we are to shine as light in the world (Matt 5:14-16).

Unfolding before our very eyes we see a vivid illustration of the messiness involved when a Christian seeks to make an impact upon secular culture. Whatever you think of Mel Gibson and his movie The Passion of the Christ , I believe he made this movie both as an act of devotion and in order to impact the secular culture. His life would have been a whole lot simpler if he'd simply offered this film to the Christian community, or if he just kept his Christian faith to himself. But Mel Gibson seeks to make a difference for Christ in the world.

Gibson is doing with film what the Apostle Paul once did with language. He is using one of the powerful "languages" of this culture - film -- to communicate something about Jesus and Christian discipleship. There are many risks here: the risk of using   images to manipulate emotions but not change minds and hearts, the risk of falling prey to exaggerated marketing schemes, the risk of prizing artistic freedom above Christian charity, the risk of indulging in excessive violence, the risk of offending just about everyone in the process by being too violent, too Catholic, too literalistic, too interpretive, or to "you-name-it."

From Mel Gibson we can learn, not only that cultural engagement is messy, but also that it takes courage. Only three verses before Jesus commands us to shine as lights in the world he offers this ironic word of encouragement: "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account" (Matt 5:11). Jesus knew that the world wouldn't beg us to shine his light into its darkness. But, nevertheless, he gave us this calling. Following Jesus, we reject cultural irrelevance as we seek to impact our culture in his name.


Reflection: Christ and Culture in Conversation
Series - Cultural Impact or Cultural Irrelevance: A Christian Dilemma (Part 3)
Posted at 10:45 p.m. on Thursday, February 5, 2004

In my first two posts of this series I've been working on the following question: Since we live within a culture that is not Christian, how should we live? Should we join the Christ against Culture camp and cut ourselves off from the evils of the world? Or should we embrace the Christ of Culture crowd and allow culture to determine the shape of our Christian discipleship? Ironically, both choices end up with a similar result: we give up our ability to impact the culture for good. Yet trying to live somewhere in the middle, to engage in a critical dialogue between Christ and culture, is tricky, not to mention messy. Is there a biblical precedent for taking this complex path? And if there is, what can we learn to help us today?

In the ministry of the Apostle Paul we find a biblical precedent for holding Christ and culture together in creative tension. Consider the final chapter of his letter to the Philippians, for example. There Paul urges the Philippians to think about whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Phil 4:8). Whereas some of these qualities are clearly Christian, others are never found elsewhere in Scripture, but are common in secular ethics in the first-century A.D. For example, the Greek words translated as "pleasing (or lovely)" and "commendable (or admirable)" never appear elsewhere in the Bible, but are often found in secular philosophical writings.

Then, continuing in chapter 4, Paul claims to be "self-sufficient," exactly like one of the secular Stoic philosophers of his day (Phil 4:11). (The common translation, "content," misses the sense of the Greek and the irony of Paul's claim in this passage. For further discussion, see my sermon of 2/1/04.) Then he goes on to say that he has "learned the secret" of living in plenty and poverty (Phil 4:12). The Greek verb translated as "learned the secret" appears only here in the New Testament. It had a technical meaning in the first-century A.D., describing the experience of a inductee into one of the pagan mystery religions. Such an initiate was said to "learn the secret" of the god and the god's way of life. Paul didn't use this verb accidentally, but intentionally borrowed the language of pagan religion.

So what are we to make of Paul's apparent flirtation with secularism and paganism? Does he exemplify the Christ of Culture option I described in my last post of this series? Has the Apostle sold out to the culture of his day?

Not at all. Although he clearly and consciously uses the language of his culture, he does so in a uniquely Christian way. In verse 8 Paul urges the Philippians to think about what is pleasing and commendable, using the language of secular philosophy, yet framing all of this by the prior imperative to think about what is true. As Paul has shown earlier in Philippians, the fundamental truth that shapes all Christian thought is the self-giving, saving work of Christ (Phil 2:1-11).

Moreover, though Paul claims to have "learned the secret" of living in plenty and poverty, he freely gives away that secret. Here it is: "I can do all things through him who strengthens me" (Phil 4:13). Thus, while using the language of the mystery religions, he rejects their fundamental appeal: secrecy. Furthermore, by explaining that he can do all things "through him who strengthens me," Paul completely reinterprets the secular notion of self-sufficiency. Though using the language of Stoic philosophers in verse 11, Paul shows that his self-sufficiency is really Christ-sufficiency. (For further discussion of this point, see my recent sermon.)

What Paul demonstrates in a few verses of Philippians is his willingness to engage the culture of his day, to grasp its concepts and employ its language. Yet, at the same time, he is not dominated by that culture, but reshapes it in light of Christ. When secular values are consistent with Christianity - as in the case of things being truly pleasing or commendable - then these values can be embraced. But when secular values are inconsistent with Christianity - as in the case of Stoic self-sufficiency - then these values are either rejected or fundamentally reinterpreted.

Paul's path of cultural engagement is risky. We who follow it always risk becoming too much "of the world" in our attempt to live "in the world." Yet Paul's example challenges us to live out our Christian faith within the world, rather than retreating from it out of fear. We need to be conversant with the language and thought of our world, yet at the same time remain faithful to the core of our faith.

In my next post I'll consider some practical ways we might imitate Paul and thereby make a real difference in our culture.


Reflection: Gibson Cuts a Scene from the Passion? How Should We Respond?
Posted at 9:50 p.m. on Thursday, February 5, 2004

According to stories in the New York Times and USA Today, Mel Gibson has chosen to cut the most controversial scene from his movie The Passion of the Christ . In this scene, the Jewish high priest Caiaphas repeats a line from the Gospel of Matthew: "His blood be on us and on our children" (27:25). Several of today's Jewish leaders have expressed grave concern over the inclusion of this line, to a great extent because it has been used by anti-Semitic Christians to defend their hatred of Jews.

The source of this story, according to the Times , is an unnamed Gibson "associate." I have no way to verify the truthfulness of this story, and to my knowledge Gibson himself hasn't made a public statement yet.

But if this story is true, how should Christians respond?

One Christian response appears in the USA Today article. A pastor is quoted as saying, "It was unnecessary and a bit of political correctness. It's historical text, not anti-Semitism, and it won't appease our Jewish friends who are up in arms already." I do not personally know the pastor who said this, and I don't know the context in which this quotation originally appeared. But I want to respond to the quotation as it stands.

Honestly, this statement makes me feel very sad. It shows a profound lack of sensitivity to the issue at hand, and to what might have motivated Mel Gibson to make the cut. Yes, Matthew 27:25 if a historical text. That's true. But this text also has a long history of being misinterpreted and abused by Christians. Though I do not believe the text itself is anti-Semitic, it has in fact been used to fuel anti-Semitism. And this should make us cautious about how and when it is used today.

I expect that Gibson's cut won't "appease our Jewish friends," at least some of the more outspoken ones. But is appeasement the point? Aren't there other things at stake here, other motivations besides appeasement? Moreover, I wonder if this pastor really has Jewish friends with whom he's talked about The Passion of Christ and it's implications. If not, I hope he does so soon.

I'd be astounded if Mel Gibson cut his film out of some concern to be politically correct. Would the man who made this film, well aware of how politically incorrect it is, now bow to the god of political correctness? Hardly. No, though I don't know Mel Gibson, from everything I've heard and read about him, I think he wasn't in the least concerned to be politically correct. On the contrary, I think he made the cut in order to respond to the concerns of Jewish leaders. I think he's trying to show compassion.

In fact, I see Gibson's gesture as a great contemporary illustration of what Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount: "If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile" (Matt 5:41). Would it be necessary to go the second mile? No. Would it be consistent with the spirit and teaching of Jesus himself? Yes. Was it necessary for Gibson to cut his movie in response to Jewish concerns? No. Was it a "second mile" gesture? Yes. Was it gracious? Yes. Was it Christ-like? Yes.

In a recent post I specifically asked Christians not to lump Jewish concerns over anti-Semitism in with the whining complaints so common in our politically-correct culture. To do so is to forget the sorry history of real anti-Semitism, and to fail to listen sensitively to the genuine fears of our real Jewish friends.

I hope that the story is true, and that Mel Gibson has cut his movie, not because I'm a fan of political correctness, and not because I think Matthew 27:25 should be excised from the Gospel. Rather, I hope the story is true because it means that we see in Mel Gibson a man who takes seriously the call of Jesus to walk the second mile, to do the loving thing even when it isn't necessary.


Reflection: How to Be a Christian in a Non-Christian Culture
Series - Cultural Impact or Cultural Irrelevance: A Christian Dilemma (Part 2)
Posted at 9:15 p.m. on Wednesday, February 4, 2004

In my last post I claimed that the decadence of the recent Super Bowl confronts Christians with a challenge we cannot avoid. We live within a dominant culture that doesn't share our Christian values. So the question is: What are we going to do about this? How can we live as Christians in a non-Christian culture?

A helpful way of approaching this question comes from the pen of theologian H. Richard Niebuhr. Forty-eight years ago he wrote a book that is now a classic: Christ and Culture. Here he laid out several different ways that Christians relate to the culture around them. The two dominant options he labeled "Christ against Culture" and "Christ of Culture."

Those in the Christ against Culture camp recognize that culture opposes basic Christian values. Therefore they tend to withdraw from the world, either trying their best to ignore it (the Amish option) or taking pot shots at the world from a safe moral distance. Separation from the fallen world is, at any rate, central to Christian living. So, for example, since the culture encourages sex outside of marriage, Christians should renounce this cultural message and seek not to be influenced by it. Instead, they should stand by biblical teaching and embrace the counter-cultural view that sex is only morally right within marriage.

The Christ of Culture folk are much more accepting of culture. Opposing the theological conservatism of the Christ against Culture camp, they espouse a liberal theology that allows culture to determine the shape of Christian living. So, if the culture blesses sex outside of marriage, then Christians shouldn't attack this viewpoint, but rather reinterpret it in a Christian way. We should encourage fornicators to have mature, loving, just relationships, not to abandon their fornication.

As you can probably tell, I tend to line up more with the Christ against Culture crowd. But there is a downside to a single-minded opposition to culture. It's all to easy for us to overreact against our culture, to reject everything in it even if these things are good. Moreover, all too often we separate ourselves from the very people in the world we've been sent by God to reach with the gospel. We spend all of our time with Christians, rarely making genuine relationships with non-Christian folk. We talk in religious language that makes sense to us, but not to our neighbors. We worship in an idiom that pleases us, even if it fails to connect with folk from our community. And so forth and so on.

In Christ and Culture, Niebuhr examines other ways Christians can relate to culture. These avoid the clear-cut polarity between Christ against Culture and Christ of Culture. But they are, therefore, messier. It's easier to reject or to embrace culture completely, rather than trying somehow to engage the culture, yet as a biblically-committed Christian.

Take for instance my friend "Jeff," the screenwriter I mentioned in my last post. Jeff has tried to live out his Christian faith in the midst of a media culture that doesn't share his values. He has tried to make a difference for Christ, even if this difference is sometimes relatively small. At times he has lost jobs because he "just didn't fit in." At other times he's contributed some decent values to shows that, nevertheless, major in off-color humor and sexual innuendo. How much easier it would be for Jeff go one way or the other. He could leave secular media and work within the safer world of Christian media - but thereby lose his ability to influence the culture for good. Or he could simply bury his Christian convictions in order to be a successful writer - and, once again, lose his ability to influence the culture for good. Living in the middle, somehow trying to live for Christ within culture, is often confusing and untidy.

Should Christians who seek to live according to biblical standards take Jeff's middle road, or should they opt for Christ against Culture? Is there any biblical precedent for living in this messiness of a middle way? In my next post I'll try to answer this question.


Reflection: Super Bowl Decadence and the Challenge of Culture
Series -- Cultural Impact or Cultural Irrelevance: A Christian Dilemma (Part 1)
Posted at 9:45 p.m. on Tuesday, February 3, 2004

Confession #1: I watched the whole Super Bowl, including several scandalous commercials filled either with violence or sexual innuendo.

Confession #2: Like the President of the United States, I took a nap during the halftime show, thereby missing the biggest scandal of all.

But I've heard enough complaining on talk radio and read enough about the halftime show, complete with its Jacksonian unveiling, to offer a few helpful comments. I don't want simply to add my voice to the chorus of complaint. It's already loud enough. Rather, I want to ask what we Christians might learn from this fiasco. I believe it confronts us squarely with the challenge of culture.

Several of the Super Bowl commercials stretched the limits of good taste. Children (and children at heart) were scared out of their wits by a horror movie trailer, perplexed by a beer commercial that took a humorous look at bestiality, and treated to an inside look at a football legend's sexual problems. The halftime show featured MTV-style musicality, with sexually-suggestive lyrics, and, of course, an R-rated peep show. CBS officials were apparently shocked by the last item, but otherwise unperturbed by the rest of the halftime show, not to mention the collection of off-color commercials that filled their coffers with cash.

I am unhappy about what I witnessed and about what I slept through. But I'm hardly shocked. I knew that MTV produced the halftime show. Did I actually expect them to feature Barney the Dinosaur singing "I love you, you love me" or Doris Day singing "Que sera, sera"? Though I've watched only about one hour of MTV in my entire life, that's all I've needed to get a taste of MTV values.

Ah, but shouldn't we have trusted CBS to make sure things were appropriate for a family show? Well, why would we do that, I wonder? CBS officials apparently watched the entire halftime show in rehearsal - minus the unplanned surprise - and gave it their blessing. And surely they knew the content of the commercials, yet expressed no misgivings or offered no advance warnings to parents. Is it possible that the network brass saw nothing wrong with all of this?

It's more than possible. It's a sure bet. I don't think anyone at CBS or even MTV intended to shock anyone, except perhaps for the few who planned Justin Timberlake's sexual harassment of Janet Jackson. I don't think they even realized that many commercials and the rest of the halftime show would pose a problem for viewers, including young children and their parents. They simply don't see the world as many of us see it. In their world, sexual immodesty and off-color language aren't raunchy, but regular. They aren't even that cool. They're simply a part of life.

Why do I think this about network officials, none of whom I know personally? Partly I'm responding to the fact that they appear to have had no problems with the commercials and 99% of the halftime show. But I'm also remembering the experiences of a friend of mine who makes his living as a television writer. This friend, whom I'll call "Jeff," has repeatedly found himself in dialogue with other writers who included humorous filth in scripts for prime time television comedies. When Jeff says, "Wait, you can't say that in a family show" his colleagues don't argue their right to freedom of speech. Rather, they're confused. They have no idea why Jeff finds their humor offensive. When he tries to explain that parents don't want their children exposed to such nastiness, the other writers simply don't get it. They weren't intending to be nasty or edgy. But the edges of their moral world are miles away from the edges of the moral world of most Christians.

So here's my thesis in a nutshell. Most of the people who shape our culture, especially those who produce television shows, movies, Broadyway plays, rock music, and MTV videos, live in a moral universe that's far different from the moral universe of Christianity. Their perceptions of right and wrong differ vastly from the perceptions held by most Christians. This isn't a gripe. It's simply a fact.

So what can we do about this fact? Complain about it? Get mad? Start a boycott? Host a television burning in the town square? Or . . . ? In my next post I'll talk about some of the options we face, and which of these seem to me to be most consistent with our calling as Christians.

My book Dare to Be True is an attempt to help Christians live truthfully in a world filled with deception. I take seriously the culture in which we live, yet suggesting ways for Christians to live according to God's standards, not those of our culture. Nevertheless, I believe that if we "dare to be true" in our daily lives, we'll make a real difference in the world around us. Moreover, we'll draw people to the God of truth through our example.

For more information on Dare to Be True, click here.


Reflection: The Secret of Contentment?
Posted at 10:00 p.m.on Monday, February 2, 2004

[What follows is the introduction to the sermon I preached on Sunday, Febuary 1. If you find this introduction intriguing, you can find the entire sermon by clicking on the link at the bottom of this post.]

Perhaps the hardest part of writing a book is getting the right title. Two years ago Baker Books published my book After "I Believe": Experiencing Authentic Christian Living. That was their title - a great one, I might add, much better than what I had suggested. In fact only one word from my proposed title survived Baker's process: the word "Christian." Oh well! At least I got that right!

My next book, Jesus Revealed, went through several rounds of title changes. It began with my suggestion of Surprised by Jesus. Then it became Nobody Called Him "Jesus" (the publisher's suggestion). But then they decided that wasn't edgy enough, so they opted for a new title: Putting Jesus in His Place. This title was the reigning champion during the writing of the manuscript. But then WaterBrook changed senior leadership and the new folks were worried that Putting Jesus in His Place sounded too much like a "debunking Jesus" book. I had worried about this all along, to tell you the truth. So at the last minute they swapped titles, settling on Jesus Revealed. Throughout this process, I wrote four, yes, count 'em, four completely different introductions, one for each of the titles.

I'm bringing up the subject of titles today because you may have noticed that this sermon is called, "The Secret of Contentment." When I was preparing this sermon series several months ago, that seemed to be an apt title, based upon Paul's statement: "I have learned to be content with whatever I have" (Phil 4:11). Sounds good, right? Well, wrong! As I studied the Greek text of Philippians 4:11 this week, I discovered that "content" is a mistranslation of the original language, even though both the NRSV and the NIV agree on it. But the Greek word autarkes, which they gloss as "content," really doesn't refer to one's emotional state of satisfaction. Rather, the word autarkes means "self-sufficient" or "self-reliant." This sermon should have been called, "The Secret to Self-Sufficiency." I apologize for potentially misleading you.

Of course now you may be feeling some discontent of your own right now. How could it be, you may wonder, that the Apostle Paul advocates self-sufficiency? Isn't this contrary to everything he's taught in Philippians about the centrality of Christ for real living? What does self have to do with the Christian life? Is Paul selling out to a secular gospel here? What's the deal?

For answers to these questions, and for the continuation of this sermon, click here.


Reflection: Anti-Semitism Today -- A Personal Response
Posted at 10:00 p.m. on Sunday, February 1, 2004

A few weeks ago I posted an in-depth review of Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ in which I discussed the alleged anti-Semitism of the film. Then, a few days ago, after reading the denunciations of this film by some Jewish leaders, I wrote an appeal to Jews and Christians, asking them not to respond to The Passion in a way that creates division between people. I was afraid that impassioned rhetoric on both sides could become a greater problem for Jewish-Christian relations than The Passion film itself.

My review, and especially my appeal, elicited strong responses from some readers, both Jewish and Christian. Though I had spoken out clearly about the wrongness of anti-Semitism, and though I had called for Christians to understand Jewish fears, some readers thought I still didn't fathom the depth of Jewish fears of anti-Semitism. So, once I got over my defensiveness, I listened and read and learned some things that have changed my perspective, not to mention my heart.

I grew up with very little exposure either to Jews or to anti-Semitism. At Harvard I had several close Jewish friends, but we never discussed anti-Semitism. Nor did I witness any. In the last few years I've been concerned about the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe and the Middle East, but still anti-Semitism has seemed to me more of a theoretical evil than something that touches real Jewish people I actually know.

Thus the reaction of some Jewish leaders to The Passion of the Christ seemed to me at first to be an over-reaction. I still think that some of the Jews speaking out against the film should tone down their rhetoric if they want to be heard. But as I have listened carefully, I have come to a deeper understanding of Jewish fears of anti-Semitism.

In an outstanding article on The Passion movie, Dennis Prager, a Jewish man, explains how Jews and Christians are, if you will, watching two different movies. I highly recommend this insightful article. One of the things Prager writes staggered me when I first read it. Then it deeply grieved me. "Every Jew," he says, "secular, religious, assimilated, left-wing, right-wing, fears being killed because he is Jewish. This is the best-kept secret about Jews, who are widely perceived as inordinately secure and powerful. But it is the only universally held sentiment among Jews." I never heard that before (even though I've listened to Dennis Prager on the radio for years). If you aren't familiar with Prager, let me say that he's a wise, balanced, even-tempered person who is not prone to senseless exaggeration. The fact that he said this shocked me. It may well be the best-kept secret about Jews, but it's one that I'm glad I finally know.

I mentioned this fear of being killed to a Jewish friend of mine, wondering if Prager might have spoken too strongly. This friend, an exceedingly bright and emotionally-mature man, said that he didn't think Prager spoke too strongly at all. In fact, he added that when he and his wife reaffirmed their Judaism some years ago, it occurred to them "that they might be condemning their children to death, if some future holocaust were to occur."

I am still blown away by this comment, which underlines what Dennis Prager had shared in his article. So, though I don't feel the need to retract anything I've written about The Passion of the Christ film, I do need to add some new insights. These are terribly important, I believe, and timely.

First, we live in a day when people get their feelings hurt for all sorts of silly reasons. Today's "victims" are always complaining about being offended by the most innocuous and innocent words or actions. It's tempting to lump all of the "I'm offended by this" people into one big pile of whiners. But we mustn't do this with Jews. Anti-Semitism isn't about political-correctness run amuck so much as centuries of real hatred of real Jewish people. Victims of anti-Semitism haven't just got their feelings hurt by inappropriate comments. They've been murdered. Sometimes by the dozens. Sometimes by the hundreds. Sometimes by the millions. Thus Jews have good reason to be fearful of something that seems as if it might inflame anti-Jewish feeling. I know what I've just said isn't news to anyone, but it's something we Christians mustn't forget or minimize.

Second, we Christians need to listen sensitively to Jewish fears and experiences of anti-Semitism (which, I'm sorry to say, appears to be on the rise throughout much of the world today). I have thought long and hard about Dennis Prager's confession that he fears being killed because he is Jewish. And I've tried to get inside of the shoes of my friend who realized that his strong affirmation of his Judaism might actually endanger the lives of his children. I've thought about what it would be like for me were I in a position like his with my own children. (Indeed, in many places of the world today, Christians are being persecuted or killed because of their faith. How easily I can forget this too!)

Third, the release of The Passion of the Christ film presents Jews and Christians with a marvelous (providential?) opportunity to grow into deeper mutual understanding. We mustn't let this opportunity pass, nor lose it in a storm of harsh rhetoric. Jews and Christians won't agree on many things, least of all on every aspect of Gibson's film. But we can learn to respect and understand each other in our disagreements.

Fourth, it's time for Christians, and especially Christian leaders, to speak out clearly about the evils of anti-Semitism, to call for Christians everywhere to love Jewish people (and all people, for that matter) with a Christ-like love, and to work and pray for the end of the violence against Jews that plagues our world. As I've said before, I don't think The Passion of the Christ is intentionally or actually anti-Semitic. The film doesn't need our apologies. But, even as we Christians use the occasion of the release of this film to talk about Jesus, may we also speak out against anti-Semitic thoughts, feelings, and actions.

It would be wonderfully ironic if The Passion of the Christ helped Christians and others come to a better understanding, not only of one Jewish man who lived 2,000 years ago, but also of millions of Jews who live today.

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