Wayne Grudem’s 24 Moral and Spiritual Issues at Stake in the Election

A useful PDF file comparing the major political parties on 24 issues.

Cultural Apologetics in Action: The Hunger Games

Cornelius Van Til often said that the Christian apologist should do his work with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. In other words, the Christian must be a part of the culture in which he ministers. By being aware of the cultural trends of his day, he is able to use topics that are of interest to unbelievers to introduce the gospel.

We should be willing to start anywhere and with any fact that any person we meet is interested in. The very conviction that there is not a single fact that can really be known unless it is interpreted theistically [i.e., with reference to God] gives us this liberty to start anywhere, as far as a proximate starting point is concerned…We can start with any fact at all and challenge “our friends the enemy,” to give us an intelligible interpretation of it. (Cornelius Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, 205)

This is the work of cultural apologetics—taking that in which the unbeliever is interested and demonstrating how that cultural expression either reveals the truth of God or man’s suppression of the truth.

No young-adult novels have garnered more interest since the Harry Potter series than The Hunger Games. This trilogy, set in the future, is representative of a certain genre of literature called, dystopia. A dystopia is a vision of the future that is the opposite of a utopia. It typically features oppression by a totalitarian government, human misery and a complete lack of hope. Examples include 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (two of the most prophetic books of the 20th century). In fact, The Hunger Games is basically a teenaged version of 1984 (with elements of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Running Man thrown in for excitement). To date, over 50 million copies of the books have been sold.

So, how should Christians evaluate this cultural phenomenon? The response among Christians has been varied, which demonstrates the complexity of analyzing culture. Several excellent critiques have been offered including those by Doug Wilson, N. D. Wilson, and this one in World Magazine. Putting aside the questions of whether Christians in general should read the books, or more specifically, at what age should a Christian child be allowed to read them, the more fundamental question is how we should interpret them to begin with.

This is where cultural analysis gets challenging. Cultural expressions often have layers of meaning, and Christians using the same criteria discern different messages in the cultural expression. Do the Hunger Games books exalt violence or reveal its ugliness? Do they promote a situational ethics, wherein it is acceptable to kill those whom the protagonist deems to be evil, while sparing those that appear innocent? Is this a matter of a young person being placed in an impossible situation and being forced to make choices between the lesser of two evils? Does Peeta Mellark’s wounding, “burial” in a cave for three days, and reemergence represent a Christ figure?

The ambiguity of the situation in The Hunger Games is part of what makes this series so intriguing to so many. One cannot help but ask when reading them, what would I do in this situation? And further, what is the main message of the books?

From a Christian perspective, the lack of reference to anything divine or transcendent is stark. Panem, the post-apocalyptic world in which The Hunger Games takes place, is entirely a human world, and the overriding mood is one of despair. Here is a truth upon which believers can agree with the author, Suzanne Collins. In a world where there is no God, there would only be despair. I have used The Hunger Games in talking to teens to emphasize that point.

Additionally, morality in the books is arbitrary. Here is an example of the truth rising above attempts to suppress it. The reader feels moral repugnance at brutality and violence and approval at the virtue of Katniss, the protagonist, for sparing innocent lives. But why? In a world where there is no God, brutality is as virtuous as compassion (or more so, as Nietzsche taught). The apologetic value of this emerges when I can challenge an unbeliever to explain why Katniss should be applauded for mercy, instead of Cato for his viciousness. From a Christian worldview I can judge mercy to be good and brutality to be bad, but how does the unbeliever justify the distinction?

By presenting this challenge, a Christian can “push the antithesis” between Christian belief and all other forms of belief to show that what the unbeliever intuitively knows to be true can only be consistently held in a Christian worldview. This is the goal of cultural apologetics. Cultural expressions like The Hunger Games are replete with examples of truth and the suppression of truth that make them fertile ground for gospel opportunities.

In Part 6 we will look at examples of leading cultural apologists today, and see how they use culture to point to the truth of the gospel.

Cultural Apologetics in Action: DaVinci Code and “Hurt”

Cultural apologetics is a response to the questions that our culture is posing. It seizes upon cultural statements (art, architecture, film, novels, etc.) and evaluates them in light of Scripture. It “gives an answer” to cultural expressions that pose an alternate explanation for who we are, why we are here, what’s wrong with this world, and where we are going. It points to the work of unbelievers that suppresses the truth in order to show the myriad ways in which suppression of the truth happens. It also identifies the expressions of unbelievers in which the truth breaks through, even in the midst of their depravity. Cultural apologetics seeks to illustrate that the unbeliever knows God even as he seeks to suppress that knowledge.

A number of gifted theologians and apologists in the 20th century have demonstrated various approaches to the task of cultural apologetics (Francis Schaeffer, C. S. Lewis, Ravi Zacharias, William Edgar, and Tim Keller among others). In a later post I will take the time to highlight the work of several of these.

But first some examples.

When The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown appeared in print, conversations about the novel were ubiquitous. About that time I sat next to a liberal feminist from San Francisco on a five-hour flight, and she challenged the reliability of the Bible and the development of theology, primarily drawing her objection from The DaVinci Code. I wasn’t prepared for her objections, as many of Brown’s quasi-historical accounts in the book were new to me. I determined to read the book so I could converse about it and give an answer to the challenges it presented. This was a departure for me. Previously I had avoided cultural expressions that challenged the Christian faith, as I had been taught growing up.

As I read the book I began to think, “Every Christian should be reading this book!” Why did I think this? Because here was a cultural expression that addressed a topic directly related to the gospel. In the ensuing months I had numerous gospel conversations with unbelievers whom I saw reading the book. Having read the book and worked on a rebuttal to the fictitious accounts of church history alleged by Brown, I felt confident to engage total strangers in conversation about the claims of the book concerning Jesus.

As I said in a previous post, the point of cultural apologetics is not permission for Christians to immerse themselves in worldly culture. Rather, it is an encouragement for believers to be aware of which cultural expressions are influencing their world, which are exhibiting truth or the suppression of truth, and consequently to learn to use those expressions to direct attention to the truth of the gospel.

Some cultural expressions clearly exhibit strong Christian themes, even when such is the farthest thing from the mind of those who create them. When preaching to teens I often use the lyrics from the song “Hurt” by the band Nine Inch Nails, an “industrial” rock band. This song was later adapted by Johnny Cash shortly before he died. The lyrics of “Hurt” clearly communicate the hopelessness and despair of one who has achieved fame and success apart from God:

I hurt myself today, To see if I still feel,

I focus on the pain, The only thing that’s real

The needle tears a hole, The old familiar sting

Try to kill it all away, But I remember everything

 

What have I become,  My sweetest friend

Everyone I know goes away In the end

And you could have it all, My empire of dirt

I will let you down,  I will make you hurt

 

I wear this crown of thorns Upon my liar’s chair

Full of broken thoughts I cannot repair

Beneath the stains of time, The feelings disappear

You are someone else, I am still right here

 

What have I become, My sweetest friend

Everyone I know goes away In the end

And you could have it all, My empire of dirt

I will let you down, I will make you hurt

 

If I could start again, A million miles away

I would keep myself, I would find a way

This song was originally written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails during a time of loneliness and emptiness after he had achieved critical acclaim for his music. It reflects the biblical themes found in Ecclesiastes 2, after Solomon had pursued every desire and had still came up empty:

So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.  (Ecclesiastes 2:9-11 ESV)

So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind. I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 2:17-23 ESV)

When Johnny Cash filmed the video of his version of the song in 2002, he juxtaposed scenes from the crucifixion of Christ, indicating that hopelessness is replaced with hope only in the cross of Christ. Both “Hurt” and Ecclesiastes 2 communicate the inevitable end of idolatry. They can both be used to illustrate the biblical truth of Isaiah 57:20-21:

But the wicked are like the tossing sea;
for it cannot be quiet,
and its waters toss up mire and dirt.
There is no peace,” says my God, “for the wicked.”
(Isaiah 57:20-21 ESV)

So, here is one example of cultural apologetics. I use the lyrics to “Hurt” to illustrate the emptiness of life apart from God. It often has a powerful effect on the audience.

In Part 5 we will look at other examples of cultural apologetics.

Cultural Apologetics: Common Grace and Antithesis

John Calvin is generally regarded as the originator of the concept of common grace. He was searching for an answer to the question of how unbelievers who are entirely corrupted by sin can be intellectually endowed and can contribute to art, science, and other social goods.

Calvin taught that art and science are excellent benefits given to every man by the Spirit of God as he wills for the common good of mankind. He anticipated the objection to the Spirit’s interaction with unbelievers when he said that God “fills, moves, and quickens all things by the power of the same Spirit, and does so according to the character that he bestowed upon each kind by the law of creation.”[1] As a result we can be helped in many scientific disciplines pursued by unbelievers, and we ought to use their assistance. The usefulness of unbelievers’ minds and talents reveals  “some remaining traces of the image of God, which distinguish the entire human race from the other creatures.”[2] Yet, said Calvin, at the same time we enjoy the fruits of common grace in the lives of unbelievers, we cannot forget that they are completely in darkness when it comes to spiritual truth. “For wherever the Spirit does not cast his light, all is darkness.”[3] The antithesis between the truth and the unbeliever’s rebellious and autonomous attempts at an alternative is absolute.

Understanding this theological truth helps us to assess the behavior of the unbeliever more accurately. Everything an unbeliever does, thinks and says either reveals his attempt to live as if God did not exist, or it reveals the truth of God that he cannot restrain. The cultural expressions of unbelievers, therefore, either reflect an obvious attempt to suppress the truth (which can serve as a display of the truth of the fallenness of man), or the cultural expressions reflect the unsuppressed image of God in man. In the latter case, the cultural expression accurately displays truth, even when the creator of it is not a believer.

This approach to culture, then, gives no carte blanche approval to any cultural expression (not even classical music and high art), since it also recognizes that even the best culture is produced by sinners. Every cultural expression must be evaluated by the criteria of to what degree does it reveal, obscure or deny the truth. Rather than a simplistic approach, then, a more nuanced (and I believe, biblical) approach is needed. Culture ought to be evaluated on how clearly it expresses the truth. Now, obviously there are limits to this. Scripture is clear that we are not to set our eyes on wicked or worthless things (Ps. 101:3; 119:37; 101:7). We are not to converse about those wicked things that are done in secret (Eph. 5:11-12). Displays of gratuitous violence and nudity, and anything that glorifies wickedness are strictly forbidden. However, this does not preclude appropriately accurate displays of the wickedness of evil, the destructive nature of sin, the ugliness of pride and greed.

In Part 4 we will look at specific examples of cultural expressions by unbelievers and how they can be used as apologetic tools in reaching unbelievers with the gospel.


[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill,  trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 2.2.16.

[2] Ibid., 2.2.17.

[3] Ibid., 2.2.21.

Cultual Apologetics: Approaches to Culture

When most believers think of apologetics, they tend to think of historical and philosophical defenses of the Christian faith against attacks by unbelievers. And so it is. But there are other aspects to apologetics. One of the most fascinating to me personally is the area of cultural apologetics. Many Christians have never heard of cultural apologetics or seen it demonstrated, partly because they have been taught an anemic approach to cultural. They have been taught that all cultural expressions produced by unbelievers (except classical music and high art) are rife with worldliness, dangerous, and totally worthless.

One of the reasons this is an attractive approach to culture is that for the average Christian, no thinking is required. The commendations or condemnations of a particular cultural expression (TV show, novel, song, etc.) come down from above, and the dutiful believer simply adds the item in question to his list of approved or forbidden activities. No need for the individual to discern or to concede that the expression may fall into the category of Christian liberty, where two godly brothers may disagree on its benefit to them (Rom. 14:5).

This approach to cultural, however, is, as I said, anemic. I have found that it breeds over-sensitive consciences and secret lives. Because no good or biblical reasons are given for the approval/disapproval, the compliant obey the edict and the defiant consume it in secret anyway. The person in the pew starts to feel guilty about almost any engagement with activities in this world. And because the list of taboos is so arbitrary, equally zealous groups practicing almost identical restrictions are separated from, because they aren’t exactly identical. This breeds pride of place and irrational “convictions” against all kinds of activities about which the Bible does not speak. All in all, this approach to culture damns its followers to a continual state of guilt, confusion, and conceit. And it reeks of legalism.

A better approach to culture is based on serious theology. It recognizes that although the image of God in man has been defaced by the fall, it is not entirely erased. In addition, God has implanted a knowledge of Himself in every person that is clear and plain (Rom. 1:18-21). As a result, while the unbeliever seeks to suppress the truth of God, he can never fully do so. The truth of God leaks out, even when he is actively trying to quash it. When he lets up in his suppression of the truth, even for a moment, the truth of God bursts forth from the darkness of deceit and rebellion, like the sun after a violent thunderstorm. This is known as common grace—God’s restraint of sin in the unbeliever and bestowal of gifts for the common good.

In Part 3 we will explore the nature of common grace as an explanation for how unbelievers can produce works of culture that have value for a Christian. The notion of common grace provides a robust alternative to the weak and unsatisfying idea that Christians should only enjoy culture that is explicitly Christian.

Cultural Apologetics: Seeing the Truth of God in Cultural Expressions in the Wider World

Cultural apologetics is the practice of using truth that finds expression in culture, and directing a person’s attention to the fact that the truth only fits in a Christian worldview. That means that I can take truth wherever it is found and show someone who is familiar with that cultural expression that such an idea only finds its meaning in light of the Christian gospel.

For example, read this astounding quote from a commencement address given by novelist and essayist, David Foster Wallace, to Kenyon University in 2005:

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth.

Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Wallace committed suicide three years later, at the tragically young age of 46 (my age). As a Christian, I recognize there is much truth in this address. I can use this utterance by unbeliever because it is true, even though he didn’t fully understand what he was saying. I can show an unbeliever that what the Bible says about life apart from Christ has been proven true time and time again.

The power of cultural apologetics is that cultural expressions (movies, television, songs, novels, art, architecture, fashion, etc.) cannot stop proclaiming the truth because those who produce it are made in the image of God.

Part 2 of this essay picks up this idea and shows how human culture is inexorably revelatory of the truth of God

Country Club Christianity

I have never been part of a country club, but I have visited a few with friends who were members. And the experience has always been a good one. Country clubs exist because people are social beings. We like to mix with other people, make friends, and we like to share common interests — whether golfing or other amusement or perhaps a particular social agenda. Of course for some, it seems, belonging to a particular country club is a matter of pride — there may be a certain prestige associated with the membership. But still, the country club can serve a good purpose.  Friendships, amusements, activities, entertainment, social agendas — these are good things.

Even so, the country club is limited. Its purpose is not to address issues of eternal significance. It is not designed to help its members come to know God, find the forgiveness of sins, prepare for the final judgment, or provide instruction how to live faithfully before their Creator. These matters are simply not in its purview. It exists for other, more secular and temporal purposes.

There are ways in which the church and the country club are similar. Christians too are social beings, and we love to mix with other people, make friends, and share common interests. And this is one of the great values of the church. But of course a church which goes no further has missed the mark entirely. The church does not exist to address mere secular or temporal issues. The church exists in order to give a voice for God. Our whole reason for being is caught up in knowing, hearing, loving, serving, and speaking for God.  This is what the church is all about.

You’ve probably heard the criticism leveled at some churches — “They’re just a country club church.” Perhaps you have said it about some churches yourself. Such “country club churches” indeed exist, and it is surely one of the worst indictments they could ever receive. And the symptoms of country club Christianity are obvious. A country club church exists for social and secular and temporal reasons. It has a religious flavor, to be sure. But its focus seems to be on other things. Evangelism, seeking to win the lost to Christ, is not high on its agenda. Prayer is something we do before the meal or the preacher does for us on Sunday morning.  “Worship” is more entertaining than humbling.  One church service a week is more than enough, and that (the Sunday “worship service”) must not go too long — this, after all, is just one slice of our very crowded life. The preaching must not be too long, nor must it be too personal — if the preacher dares to invade our space and meddle, he’s overstepped his bounds. He must never make us feel uncomfortable — his purpose is to make us feel good.  And if anyone says “Amen!” (1Cor.14:16) during the sermon, he is probably a fanatic and will certainly get some funny looks from others in the congregation.

Country club Christianity. It’s not about God, really. It’s about relationships, entertainments, activities — a religious kind of secularism. A religion that is used perhaps to salve a conscience but a religion which makes no demands on life. A religion which is really very convenient and which exists precisely because it is convenient. But it is not a religion for discipleship. It is not a religion which calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and passionately pursue Christ.

Country club Christianity, in other words, is not Christianity at all.

 

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