Friday, December 03, 2021

Too Hot to Handle: Culture and the Gospel

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Immanuel Can: I’m going to temporarily suspend our self-imposed five-sentence limit, Tom, in order to tell you a story about something that happened last year when our provincial standardized test was performed.

You need to know that teachers are all given a specific script for what they are and are not allowed to tell students on the day of the test. They are expressly forbidden to go beyond this script, and doing so is grounds for firing. Teachers cannot add any directions, explanations, definitions or any other kind of information to this. They are not allowed to give any guidance once the test begins, no matter what a student wants or needs. It’s standardized, period.

One of the questions on the test asked kids to imagine a picnic, and then write based on their imagining.

The Rest of the Parable

Unfortunately, the test-makers failed to consider the possibility that kids might not know what “picnic” meant. After all, the test-makers had grown up with the picnic as a common cultural experience — part of Canadiana or Americana that everyone just knows: what kind of an idiot kid can’t understand the word “picnic”? But today’s kids are different in two ways: 1) some are from cultures in which the picnic concept is quite foreign, and 2) a good many others are from homes so disrupted that family activities of any kind are rare. (In fact, it may be the case that the family picnic is now simply an artifact of the last generation, doomed to general obscurity from now on.)

In any case, many of the kids were quite desperate to answer the question (since they are not granted high school graduation unless they pass the test) and yet did not have a clue as to what a “picnic” might be. The teachers, desperate to help the kids over this minor misunderstanding, were legally barred from doing so. As a result, kids who could not figure out the concept on their own were simply doomed to fail the question and appear to be idiots.

I wonder if this might be a parable.

Like the Red Sea

Tom: Another example, and I’m showing my age here: I was singing a song in the shower yesterday that begins with the couplet: “You came out of the world to me; my life parted like the Red Sea.” The song was written in the early eighties by a young man who was raised around Catholicism, so he dropped the Red Sea reference in naturally since it was part of his own cultural experience.

But as I sang it, it occurred to me that most of this generation’s children and some of their parents wouldn’t have the slightest idea what he was referring to or what it meant. These references are not just abundant in the culture you and I grew up in; they are everywhere … and they are now all but meaningless.

So I get what you’re asking here, IC: what does this near-obliteration of familiarity with the stories and language of the Bible mean for the Christian in bringing the message of Christ to this generation?

Stories, Themes, Morality, Context

IC: Yes. That’s the question I had on my mind. Let me spin it back to you, Tom. In addition to “Red Sea”, what kinds of Christian expressions do you see as potentially a problem for modern people to understand?

Tom: Well, it’s not just particular expressions: it’s Bible stories, themes, morality and the context of the gospel generally … there’s an almost total absence of understanding of sin and what it is — all of the natural results of sin in the lives and hearts of those who practice it have been reframed as diseases, logical consequences of social injustice or mental illness. And while there is still some familiarity with the name of Christ (though his character, actions and intentions are horribly misinterpreted and decontextualized), you can no longer count on being able to reference anything in the Old Testament as Philip did with the Ethiopian eunuch, for instance, and as Peter and Paul were able to do not only with a Jewish audience but with many Gentiles familiar with Judaism.

This has never been a systemic problem for those preaching the gospel in North America — until now. Of course there have always been geographic pockets of ignorance, but if you look at the history of the secular education system going back to the 1700s, all you see are the names of nuns, priests and reverends. For hundreds of years even a secular education gave the average person a much better idea of what the Bible says than is common today.

A Worldview Gone Missing

IC: Oh, agreed … it’s not just expressions, but whole stories and patterns of thought. The sense of perspective, the worldview associated with Christianity is almost completely gone in Canada, thin in the UK, negligible in Europe, and definitely on its way out in the US. In its place is — essentially nothing, since as the philosopher Francois Lyotard has observed, modern people are “incredulous” (untrusting) of any pattern or story about who we are and where we’re going.

But just so our readers can quickly grasp some specific examples of how ideas well-known to us can still become a big problem, I would suggest that the following expressions are today the equivalent of what “picnic” was for my students: “prodigal son”, “pearls before swine”, “wheat and tares”, “Dan to Beersheba”, “Pharisee”, and “virgins” are easy starters.

Tom: What’s a “Goliath”? What’s a “lion’s den”? What is a “Philistine”?

IC: Right. And in regard to the gospel, I find myself asking, just how comprehensible is the idea of “sin” today? Or what is “repenting”? What is “faith”? What is “eternal security”? What is a “spirit”? What is “holiness”? What is “judgment”? Does the average Joe or Jane (let alone Jamsheed or Jamilla) have any idea of what these essential ideas mean?

Tom: Once you start making a list of Bible terms which may fail to be recognized, be misunderstood or be less than fully grasped, you realize the spot we’re in. We’re rapidly finding ourselves not far from the position of the missionary going out to win lost tribes or the apostle Paul in the Areopagus.

Except that I wonder if many of us don’t realize this is where we are.

Restating Key Concepts

IC: Right. Which is why I think it would be such an excellent thing for us if we forced ourselves to restate all the key concepts in our message without going beyond the list of words or the stock of ideas that an ordinary person today carries around. I mean “us” individually, not “the Christian world”, or “my church” or even “someone”. I mean everyone. Not only would such a thing help us to communicate the word of God to a new generation better, but I think it would also show us that we don’t understand that message nearly so well as we have convinced ourselves we do. That might scare the pants off us, but it would be the best thing for us.

Tom: That would certainly be an interesting exercise. Things like the Four Spiritual Laws were probably conceived as attempts to do that sort of thing in their day. But take the third one, for instance: “Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for our sin. Through Jesus Christ, we can have our sins forgiven and restore a right relationship with God.”

I understand exactly what it means, but I understand it because I have a preexisting knowledge of the terms “Jesus Christ”, “provision”, “sin”, “forgiveness” and even “relationship”. For the truly ignorant (and I use the word in its primary dictionary sense, not as an insult) all of these things might have to be explained, defined or adequately backgrounded before you can get to even something as simple as that sentence.

I mean, kids today think they’re having a “relationship” when they flirt on the Internet. How can that word convey what it needs to about God’s intentions toward mankind without some further clarification?

Updating the Expression of Truth

IC: Right. Very good point. We cannot take for granted that just because WE mean something when we say it, that our HEARERS are understanding the very same thing from what we say. They may not be — and this is increasingly common as our society changes but our explanation-language stays 19th century. It’s not the truth that needs updating, it’s our expression of it that needs to change. “How are they to hear without someone preaching”, says the Word; but a preacher must make the message plain, or it is not really being preached.

Tom: This is not anywhere near as important as the language we use to explain the gospel, but when you say “19th century”, among many Christians we have a whole tradition-based culture built around 19th century paradigms that needs to be rethought and reframed for generations to come. It was a few years ago, but I remember a young man who came to know the Lord and was baffled by the concept of a “tract”. What is a tract? Well, it’s very much a 19th century concept that we have never stopped and rethought. There are better ways. Maybe we need an app.

IC: Maybe. We certainly need some fresh thinking, especially in what goes on inside our heads and what comes out of our mouths. We also need to rethink how we do evangelism as a whole … but maybe that’s another topic.

Believing ... and Stuff

Tom: It is. Well, one concern is we need to gear our approach to our audience, assuming we can get a hearing. There are vast differences in the way I would break down the gospel for a middle aged, educated person with some knowledge of Christianity compared to, say, a twenty-something videogamer who wants to date my daughter. Both may be equally intelligent, but experience and worldview are going to influence how they hear what I’m about to say, and therefore how I need to say it. I may not have a clue what the videogamer understands by “faith” and where his concept of it differs from that taught in scripture, which means I need to get him talking before I try to say very much about it. Otherwise we’re in danger of talking right past each other.

IC: Yes indeed. But I don’t think the videogamer is the only one with problems with the “faith” concept. I’ll bet my eye teeth that there are a lot of older Christians who couldn’t explain what they mean by it — except to say that it means … “well, faith … you know … like, having faith ... believing and stuff …”

So the exercise of refreshing our explanation of it would be good for everyone on all sides. It would make us understand our own beliefs in a fresh way, and would make us far more articulate in explaining to others.

Tom: Oh, I quite agree. I’m just saying there’s not one “language” we need to be speaking. Our audience is quite literally diverse.

Plain and Simple

IC: But what will get us doing something about this situation?

Tom: I think if we’re honest there are some Christians out there who are trying. I read a lot of different “Christian” websites and it’s clear that many believers are not stuck in the 19th century. Not at all. They’re really quite modern in their approach and language.

The concern I have is that instead of translating the things we know to be true from the word of God into the vernacular (for whoever their perceived audience may be), by and large they are abandoning those truths wholesale. The most readable Christian websites have the very worst content. And the ones with the best content are unreadable by the last couple of generations.

So where are the serious believers holding traditional views (using “traditional” in the sense of Jude’s “faith once for all delivered”) who will speak them in today’s language? There are some, surely, but not enough.

IC: I suppose. But I really wonder what we know if we can’t put what we claim to believe into words that even we ourselves can understand. I wonder sometimes if we aren’t responding more to the familiarity, complexity or apparent gravity of the theological jargon, rather than on the basis of a deep understanding of what we’re talking about. If we actually do know what we believe, then I really think we ought to be able to say it — plainly and simply.

And if we cannot, then what does that really mean?


  1. How about this article?

    "How Christianity is Growing Around the World."

    The facts presented in the above article concerning rapid Christian growth in the world mostly in underdeveloped regions (Afrika, Asia, etc.) but decline in westernized areas is exactly in line with what I have proposed in some of my previous comments. I. e., when you as a society have reached a certain material comfort level, it becomes less attractive for an individual to take on additional and avoidable obligations that are needed when implementing and exercising a faith based, AKA religious, life style. Why pursue additional "less desirable" activities like church attendance, bible reading, abstaining from today's often gross and dowdy TV and movie fare when you don't have to, never mind want to?

    Apparently this is exactly why Christ stated that it is easier for him to have an impact on you, the person, when you find yourself in poorer and needier circumstances. So, ultimately, in the long run, because of this double edged sword, - increased improvement for humanity, driven by the influence and gifts, love and concern of the holy spirit, ending in self indulgence and turning from God - will the ball not end up in God's court on how to counter and fix that particular trait of his creation? Doesn't today's time demand that the only way the modern person will respond is if God comes down reincarnated again confronting everyone in an unmistakably powerful and divine manner? My take on that is, if course, that even then humanity might not believe, because, we still would not have proof of his Godship since he could also simply be a powerful alien?

    Thus, it is wisely simply left up to us on a very personal, and mysterious level to decide for ourselves whether or not we desire to have love incarnate as part of our life. What you are generously and simply doing in this forum is to help others discover this process and path with your insights. The reminder to read scripture more frequently is just one of those potent messages that the world needs.

  2. Your kind comments are always appreciated, Qman.

    I would offer this addition to your thoughts: God has chosen us as individual believers to share the message of salvation. After all, the Great Commission was given at a time when there was no such thing as "the Church," which after all did not even exist until after Pentecost; and after Pentecost, the Lord never repeated that Commission in reference to the Church...not once.

    If that's right, then the responsibility for sharing the message of salvation rests not with corporate bodies (not even the Church), but with every individual believer. And each of us must be equipped and ready to give an account of the hope that is within us, with gentleness and reverence. I will venture that the Father also wants us to do it with clarity and accuracy, in a language and idiom that tour listeners are capable of comprehending.

    Thus, however "personal and mysterious" our decision may be,(and I do agree that in some respects we can say it is both) it is a result of a very public, scrutable process of individual Christians speaking to individual unbelievers. And it is that process to which I would call us to attend.

    In short, we ought to talk to people plainly.

    Thanks for your insights.

  3. On a lighter side, and since you brought it up, concerning the young video gamer who may want to marry your daughter.

    In the long run, compared to someone not video gaming, he may actually have some significant advantages due to his gaming. Of course, you still need to exercise responsibility with regard to the material and type of game.

    I video game, and for very specific, beneficial reasons :-). Look at this latest scientific study from the Max Planck Psychology Institute in Berlin, Germany (confirming other previous studies).

    The benefits of gaming to the elderly are now quantitatively shown to be phenomenal. From the paper:

    "Brain volume was quantified using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). In comparison to the control group the video gaming group showed increases of grey matter, in which the cell bodies of the nerve cells of the brain are situated. These plasticity effects were observed in the right hippocampus, right prefrontal cortex and the cerebellum. These brain regions are involved in functions such as spatial navigation, memory formation, strategic planning and fine motor skills of the hands. Most interestingly, these changes were more pronounced the more desire the participants reported to play the video game."

    It goes on, like other papers I read, that it may slow down and prevent (possibly even cure) Alzheimer's (other papers mention dementia also) since new brain tissue grows in many locations in a short time span. From other papers as well, it will improve peripheral vision, reaction time, memory, alacrity, etc., making you a better driver, and so on. Old age homes are now adopting it as a strategy to improve mental outlook and proficiency in the elderly in their care. It has similar benefits for the younger set and this paper even suggests that it may help with mental/emotional issues and health, a follow up study they are now doing.

    Heck, it is much more effective then reading alone and if I can postpone or prevent Alzheimer's/dementia and improve my overall brain function and acuity as it ages, that's very important to me.

    Combine that with the benefits of becoming a vegetarian/vegan (as I have) and life can be good as you age.

  4. Would you say you have observed any changes in what you discuss here, since it was originally posted?
    Also, what you are suggesting makes sense but wouldn't it also require a corresponding translation (I.e. plain language) of the Bible? The attempts to do that so far seem to have gone of the rails a bit so far.

  5. I think maybe I'm getting a little better at encouraging people to explain themselves so I don't make assumptions about what they mean by this word or that one. But I'm still regularly surprised by what people don't know.

    As for the translation thing, I absolutely agree. The Message, for instance, takes liberties with language that make me grind my teeth, but perhaps as a "gateway", that sort of free-wheeling may matter less than we think. I'd be happy to get more people reading it if that's the level they're at.

    Any thoughts, IC?

  6. Now that I think about it, the last Bible I gave away was an ESV, but that was to an older person.