Archive for June, 2009

And Now?

June 28, 2009

We have completed an eight-month journey studying conservative Christianity, using the categories described by Kevin Bauder. A conservative Christianity conserves the gospel, the whole body of Christian doctrine, biblical worship, ordinate affection, a strong connection to Christian culture and tradition, and the right view of the imagination.

So where do we find this kind of Christianity? I’m sorry to tell you, if you haven’t found out already, it’s almost impossible to find it all in one place. That includes my church, as much as we’re striving towards it. See, you cannot just step away from the culture you have been handed, like walking away from a hot-dog stand. Walking away from your culture is as impossible as walking away from your accent, or walking away from all your present likes and dislikes. And the Christian culture we have today does not resemble much of the conservative Christianity we’ve been talking about.

The Christian culture we have been handed is not a great one, but it is the one we’ve got. It’s the culture shaped mostly by Charles Finney’s innovations, and those of the men who came after him. It’s a culture shaped by modernism and post-modernism. It’s a culture shaped by pragmatism and populism. It’s a culture that has only the faintest idea how secular it really is. But it’s the Christian culture of today, and it’s the one we’re stuck with.

So when we talk about conserving Christianity, the truth is, such is our state that a lot of our work is actually restoring Christianity, or reclaiming Christianity. Not everyone thinks the situation is as dire as all that, but a little bit of reflection shows that God’s church is hurting, and when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?

Lest I be misunderstood, let me emphasise that there are contemporary men who have been stalwarts and faithful guardians in one or more of these areas. For the sake of example, let me use some names that might be somewhat well-known. When you think ‘conserving the gospel’, think D.A. Carson, R.C. Sproul, Paul Washer, Al Mohler and fundamentalists like Mark Minnick. When you think ‘conserving the whole counsel of God’, think of men like Mark Dever or John MacArthur. When you think ‘conserving biblical worship’, think Albert Martin, J.Ligon Duncan, and Paul Jones and Tenth Presbyterian, Scott Aniol, and Michael Barrett. When you think about restoring the affections to a central place in the Christian life, think John Piper, and when thinking of ordinate affection, think Kevin Bauder. When you think about a deepening connection to historical Christianity compared with our current state, think David Wells, Mark Noll, Iain Murray, A.W. Tozer (I know he’s dead – but he’s close enough to our era). When you think about a Christianity that cares about the meaning of all things and the centrality of the moral imagination, again, think Kevin Bauder, Doug Wilson (kinda), Ken Myers, the Touchstone folks, the First Things folks,  and if it’s fair for me to insert at least one more deceased author – C.S. Lewis. There are tonnes of dead guys I could mention for each category, but my point was to list the living people who are saying or seeking out the right things. The problem is, like all of us, many of these men are strong in some areas and weak in others. Some are great defenders of biblical doctrine, but give little thought to imagination or affection. Some are committed to biblical worship, but we would probably not agree on all points of doctrine. Some are focusing on imagination, but actually fail to draw the line of the gospel clearly enough. Some are reviving interest in the affections, but failing to emphasise ordinate affections. My point is, our state is such that we have to pick a bit here and there to try to piece together contemporary examples of conservative Christianity. A full-orbed conservative Christianity in one man or one church will be very, very hard to find.

That’s because around the time of the American Civil War, the power of Finney’s ideas combined with the growing popular culture effectively replaced the Christian tradition with a secularised version. That’s the culture we were handed. That’s the power of tradition.

So what do we do? We cannot simply turn back the clock. We cannot unlearn our tradition in one go. We cannot escape the affections we have developed over decades in our secularised Christian culture. We must start where we are. We must begin eliminating the false, the innovative, the inordinate, the pragmatic, the populist, and begin strengthening the true, the permanent, the ordinate and the beautiful. We must understand the difference between the culture we have inherited and the culture of Christianity pre-1800s. We must try to regrow the Christian culture that evangelical Christianity lost around that time. How long will that take? Longer than most think. Cultures are not things we make in a day.  T.S. Eliot probably said it best:

“If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes. Then you must start painfully again, and you cannot put on a new culture ready made. You must wait for the grass to grow to feed the sheep to give the wool out of which your new coat will be made. You must pass through many centuries of barbarism. We should not live to see the new culture, nor would our great-great-grandchildren: and if we did, not one of us would be happy with it.”

If that is discouraging to you, remember that, as Eliot said somewhere else, sometimes we do not fight to win, we fight to keep something alive. You did not choose your birth date, and who knows if you have been born for such a time as this? Dark ages call for valiant souls, not slothful spectators.  It may be that if the Lord tarries, and we are faithful, our children may begin to see the revival of a Christianity not seen in its purity since before the 1830s.

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Reforming the Moral Imagination – 4

June 22, 2009

We have said that the imagination operates on three levels. First, it enables us to function in the world, where our existence requires that we be able to visualise things beyond our immediate sensory experience. Second, it enables us to share and receive experiences of the world with their resulting affections through the medium of art. The third way that the imagination functions is the broadest, and perhaps deepest way. The imagination is the way we envision reality.

We tend to think that we perceive reality directly. In fact, none of us does. Whatever we perceive with our eyes, ears or other senses is filtered through and compared with our mental image of reality. Some people are more aware of their ‘mental map’ than others. Nevertheless, each person has some idea of what life really is, who God is, who others are, where things are going, what makes life work, where satisfaction lies and why things are as they are. We build this picture up from our earliest years. Our parents play a huge role in shaping it. Our culture shapes it (and, in turn, is shaped by the collective imaginations of its members). Our teachers shape it. Our experiences shape it. Our modern media shapes it in a frighteningly powerful way. Art shapes it. Entertainment shapes it. Observing life shapes it.

The problem is, our view of reality may not correspond to the reality that is. Once the map is faulty, all the sensory impressions are going to be filtered through a wrong grid. And that grid is going to mean the man keeps bumping, or more accurately, crashing, into reality as God has truly constructed it. It is absolutely critical, that our imaginations correspond to reality as it is.

For the Christian, the primary source of shaping this image of reality is revelation, that is, Scripture. As we read Scripture, and experience illumination by the Spirit of God, we are obtaining the mind of God on the world we see. As we have already seen, a Christian must also be interested in the meaning of art, for art communicates affections, which are so central to worship and Christian living. This is also a key part of understanding reality as it is.

Beyond that, a believer must become interested in the meaning of all things. The believer must shun the unexamined life and begin to parse all things for their meaning. That means thinking about the meaning of language. It means considering the meaning and power of culture. It means considering the various cultural phenomena – media, technologies, cultural trends, current events.  Conservative Christians consider the meaning of clothing, architecture, worship styles, ministry philosophies, unbeliever’s attitudes – the list is possibly endless. Conservative Christians consider the meaning of things.

If we are interested in the meaning of all things, that includes humanity. If we want to understand humanity, we will learn something of the humanities – history, the arts, language, economics or government. Once again, no one is calling us to be experts in any or all of these area – but why must we retreat to exaggeration to avoid the point? Conservative Christians might be accused of narrowness of mind due to our insistence upon the fundamentals of Christianity. But the critic should never be able successfully to make the charge that we are narrow in our interests. We should be interested in what it means to be human, and join a conversation that has lasted thousands of years.

If we are interested in meaning, then we will also be interested in ideas. That is, we will want to know the origin of the most popular ideas in the world today. Why do people think they way they do? Where did they get their ideas from? A study of the history of ideas is the study of philosophy. For thousands of years, men have been talking about the nature of reality, the nature of beauty, the nature of reason, the nature of knowledge and the nature of morality. Of course, God’s Word is the final word on the matter. But conservative Christians do not plug their ears and chant Scripture into the wall. We listen, participate and respond with the truth.

Given the kind of education most of us received, the body of knowedge might seem overwhelming: language, music, poetry, literature, the plastic arts, philosophy (with its various branches), history – not counting our own study of Scripture and its related disciplines of exegesis and theology. You could lock yourself in a study 24/7 and not emerge for a long, long time before you had made a dent in all the literature out there.  The correct response is not to abandon the pursuit of meaning. It is to remember that reality is indeed very complex and mysterious, and we will have something like an eternity to keep learning about it. But our education begins now. The more we understand of reality, the better worshippers we can be, and the better servants we can be in the world. Let’s take up the challenge to understand the world around us, and worship God in the discovery.

Reforming the Moral Imagination – 3

June 16, 2009

The moral imagination helps us make sense of reality, express our experience of reality and understand the big picture of reality.

When it comes to the matter of expressing our experience of reality, we are immediately dealing with the arts. The arts all employ analogy as their stock and trade. Whether it is music, poetry, literature, dance, sculpture, painting, architecture or theatre, the arts tell us “this is like that“. 

The tools of each art are different. Music uses melody, harmony, rhythm, tone colour and form. Poetry uses meter, rhyme, analogies and word sounds. Literature uses characterisation, plot, themes and so on. Whatever tools the discipline uses, it aims to evoke a response from those that read, watch or listen. It aims to do more than communicate propositions, otherwise it would simply take the form of discursive prose. Art does what propositions cannot do: it evokes affections in the one viewing or hearing it by re-creating the experience of the artist in the mind’s eye. By a skillful use of tools, the artist can evoke joy, sobriety, pity, admiration, patriotism, sorrow, outrage or awe.

Therefore, art is more powerful than most of us realise. It can be destructively powerful, because art is capable of lying. Art is capable of manipulating us into feeling what we ought not to feel, of viewing the world as we ought not to view it. Art can rebel against its God-given purpose: to give humanity a proper and ordinate way of viewing reality and to shape and evoke ordinate affection. Instead of giving us correct analogies, it can give us false ones. Instead of causing us to love what God loves and hate what He hates, it can cause us to hate what He loves and love what He hates. Instead of elevating our vision and ennobling our tastes, it can debase and spoil them, and then gratify them at the lowest possible level. Instead of teaching and instructing, it can simply reflect our corruption back to us and make it seem normal.

On the other hand, art is a powerful force for good. We cannot do without art. Indeed, that is not a choice we can make, for we are designed by God with imagination, and art is part of human life in the image of God. We should not miss the fact that the Bible does not come to us as a list of propositional statements. From Genesis to Esther, we are dealing with stories (with some Law in there as well). From Job to Proverbs, it is pure poetry and wisdom sayings. From Isaiah to the end of the Old Testament, the prophets speak in poetic analogies. Into the New Testament, and we are dealing with stories from Matthew to Acts. Finally, as we deal with the discursive thought of Paul, Peter, James, Jude and John, we are nevertheless dealing with analogies on almost every line. The Bible closes with perhaps the most graphic book of all- the apocalyptic book of Revelation. God communicated the Bible artistically.

Indeed, I don’t believe we can worship properly if we do not take art seriously, simply because it is impossible to worship the invisible God without art, any more than we can make statements without grammar. Certainly believers will differ in their awareness of significance in art. However, the better the understanding of art in the believer, the higher the chances are of fostering ordinate responses in worship.

Therefore, conservative Christians will give some time in their lives to the pursuit of understanding some of these things. We cannot avoid the task. We are commanded to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, so we will have to decide what we believe music communicates. We usually sing some form of poetry, so we will have to decide what constitutes worthy or unworthy poetry. We have to assemble, so we will have to give some thought to architecture. In our private lives, we have to make decisions as to what we will read, what we will watch, what we will listen to.

Once again, the Bible does not give us a guide to understanding music, poetry, painting, literature or dance. But because the arts are part of creation, communicate meaning, are employed by God in revelation, and are to be employed in worship, we are responsible on some level to seek understanding of them. We are not required to become experts. However, we ought to listen to the experts when they speak. An unsaved musicologist may not be able to tell us if a particular song aids worship, but he will be able to tell us what the musical combination achieves.  A secular professor of poetry may not be able to tell us what a religious poem about the crucufixion should say, but he can show us when rhymes jingle, when rhythms are humourous, or when the wording is sentimental or juvenile.

Because they want to worship God in truth, conservative Christians seek to understand the meaning of the art forms they employ in worship.