Culture and the Gospel

I want to write about something I know I’ve already addressed in different ways in this entry from last Christmas and especially this one, from a couple years ago, but I’ve had a lot of time to myself to think recently, so what follows is going to be particularly long. Beware.

For most of us it is so easy to see the sharp disparities between Christianity and the culture in which we live. The situation in Iraq is suddenly turning awful and we’re all looking on in horror. And in our own backyard, we see so much bitterness and rebellion and mockery. There is greed and cruelty and an all-consuming cult of self, often espoused by people who claim to care a very great deal about “making the world better.”

We have learned enough about our Lord, who overturned tables in the temple, to understand that this is not what he wishes. We are able to see how what is around us is rotten. But I think the sight of so much that is dreadful often tempts us, as a church, to a subtle wringing of the hands, and to a sometimes not-so-subtle and rather despairing call to “reinforce the battlements of Christian morality once more,” to “save our God’s dying and unheeded biblical principles in the face of a perverse and evil world.” “Oh!” we say, “The culture has gone down the drain, and we must defend truth.”

First of all, God’s principles are not dying. They are quite as well and strong as He is, was, and always will be. (Whether anyone is listening to them is an entirely separate matter.) And the culture has not “gone down the drain.” I’m sorry if you are only just now noticing and it comes as a shock, but it has always been down the drain, ever since Adam and Eve ate the fruit. If you want to understand what is wrong with the world, the root of its rottenness, bitterness, and cruelty, we must always look at our own hearts.

Cultures of all kinds and ages, after all, are changing, ephemeral, and really rather insignificant in the scheme of things. I have been watching Ken Burns’ Civil War series in preparation for my debut as a history teacher in the fall, and I keep thinking of what Dr. Edwards used to say: that the great sin of our country in the nineteenth century was slavery, and that now it is abortion. I believe there is quite a lot of truth to that, both specifically and generally. Most cultures are born with their own virtues (usually rather scant) and their own sins (usually quite profuse,) and are eventually, and often violently, overtaken by the next human concoction for governance, approximately opposite in its schemes of morality, but just as self-sick.

The problem is humanity. We are the common denominator. I have been rereading Mere Christianity (if you couldn’t tell already) and Lewis is quite clear about the ultimate unimportance to the Creator of these revolving human civilizations and their timely deaths. “God has no history. He is too completely and utterly real to have one.” The marvelous mystery is that, though cultures will eventually fade away like bad dreams, mankind can be real, as our Father is. In fact, in the great spiritual war, we, the men and women made in His image, are the battlefield, the ground to be gained, of much more significance than “kingdoms and principalities.”

Yes, Christ came to save, but He did not come to save our crumbling, sello-taped culture. That will pass away. He came to save you and He came to save me—he came on a quest for our sinful, maggot-ridden hearts: to take them, and if we will let Him, to remake them out of entirely fresh stuff, to remake them out of Himself. He came to teach us, by example, to how to die and then how to live anew.

But I know that the question remains. How do we live anew in a world filled with machinations which are so clearly built for the purpose of degrading what is holy? I remember the Ten Booms, living out the gospel in Nazi-occupied Holland. (I have picked an extreme example on purpose, because perspective is a healthy thing, and also because you ought to read The Hiding Place.) I remember that they prayed, and took pity upon their oppressors. They prayed, and opened their doors to every man, woman, and child who needed them. They prayed, and even in prison sent messages to one another pronouncing the goodness of God. They prayed, and, at long last, transformed concentration camps into places of healing and new life. This, I believe, is what it means to live faithfully.

We are to be the people in whose homes and minds “mercy and truth are met together.” We are told to seek the kingdom, to take heart, to trust the Lord, to love our enemies, to fear no more, to forgive as we have been forgiven, to be patient and joyful, to store up sound wisdom, to pray without ceasing, the bless those who curse us, to forsake foolishness, to walk humbly, to be kind and tenderhearted, to freely give, to serve the Lord all the days of our lives, “and, having done all, to stand.” We are told to speak, to do, to go, to give, to pray, to love, to die, but never, to my knowledge, does God tell us to be concerned citizens. He wants quite a lot more than that. He does not want His people to make the world fit for Him, but to make His people fit for their true home.

I‘m still struggling to express what I mean, (probably because I’m still learning all this myself,) so I’ll borrow an old puritan prayer from the Valley of Vision:

Thou Great I Am,

Fill my mind with elevation and grandeur at the thought of a Being with whom one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day, a  mighty God, who, amidst the lapse of worlds, and the revolutions of empires, feels no variableness, but is glorious in immortality.           

May I rejoice that while men die, the Lord lives; that, while all creatures are broken reeds, empty cisterns, fading flowers, withering grass, He is the Rock of Ages, the Fountain of living waters.

Turn my heart from vanity, from dissatisfactions, from uncertainties of the present state, to an eternal interest in Christ.

Let me remember that life is short and unforeseen, and is only an opportunity for usefulness;

Give me a holy avarice to redeem the time, to awake at every call to charity and piety, so that I may feed the hungry, clothe the naked, instruct the ignorant, reclaim the vicious, forgive the offender, diffuse the gospel, show neighbourly love to all.

Let me live a life of self-distrust, dependence on Thyself, mortification, crucifixion, prayer.

Of course, I have been holding back. I have been holding back the greatest, grandest thing: “In the world you will have tribulation: but be of good cheer,” Christ says, “I have overcome the world.” Everything I have been saying is just talk, really, for He has already done it. It is in the Divine character to act as savior and conqueror. It is in our Lord’s character to be more powerful and holy and loving than we can even conceive. Even when we are so often faithless, He promises to remain faithful. I’ve been reading Psalm 46 a lot lately:

God is our refuge and strength,

A very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear,

Even though the earth be removed,

And though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;

Though its waters roar and be troubled,

Though the mountains shake with its swelling.

There is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God,

The holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High.

God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved;

God shall help her, just at the break of dawn.

The nations raged, the kingdoms were moved;

He uttered His voice, the earth melted.

The Lord of hosts is with us;

The God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord,

Who has made desolations in the earth.

He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;

He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two;

He burns the chariot in the fire.

Be still and know that I am God;

I will be exalted among the nations,

I will be exalted in the earth!

The Lord of hosts is with us;

The God of Jacob is our refuge.

And He always says what He means and does what He says. When he hung on the cross, he said, “It is finished.” And so it must be. As Julian of Norwich repeats so definitely, because it is the surest truth she knows: “All manner of things shall be well.”

I have been playing hymns on my cello lately, and my grandpa will come in and sit down and close his eyes. By the second or third note he is always singing along. The other day I found myself watching him and wondering what it took to be the sort of person who, at nearly ninety, loves his God so well. And then I realized. My grandfather is the best man I know, but his devotion to his Lord has nothing to do with his virtue. He loves so deeply because the gospel is so rich and so true. Everything and everyone he meets compels him to hold onto Jesus so much tighter.

And I have been listening to my grandpa’s prayers better recently too. He has trouble with many words now, but there is one word he always speaks clearly: blessed. He never asks God for blessing, but seems always to be thanking Him for it. “You have blessed us,” he says, “We are so greatly blessed.” He knows the abundance of mercy that is promised, and that what our Lord promises he will accomplish. “Behold, I make all things new.” My grandfather comprehends the gospel so much more fully than I do, but still, he is only standing at the edge of God’s goodness, and even there he is overwhelmed.

“Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”

Do not listen to any nonsense about culture wars. The battle is spiritual, it is for the hearts of the children of God, and victory is already certain. We’re going home.

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