Hoping in nothing

David Brooks has an opinion piece out this morning in the New York Times. It’s an excellent summary of the confluence of multiple crises hitting all at once.

There are five gigantic changes happening in America right now. The first is that we are losing the fight against Covid-19. Our behavior doesn’t have anything to do with the reality around us. We just got tired so we’re giving up.

Second, all Americans, but especially white Americans, are undergoing a rapid education on the burdens African-Americans carry every day. This education is continuing, but already public opinion is shifting with astonishing speed.

Third, we’re in the middle of a political realignment. The American public is vehemently rejecting Donald Trump’s Republican Party. The most telling sign is that the party has even given up on itself, a personality cult whose cult leader is over.

Fourth, a quasi-religion is seeking control of America’s cultural institutions. The acolytes of this quasi-religion, Social Justice, hew to a simplifying ideology: History is essentially a power struggle between groups, some of which are oppressors and others of which are oppressed. Viewpoints are not explorations of truth; they are weapons that dominant groups use to maintain their place in the power structure. Words can thus be a form of violence that has to be regulated.

Fifth, we could be on the verge of a prolonged economic depression. State and household budgets are in meltdown, some businesses are failing and many others are on the brink, the continuing health emergency will mean economic activity cannot fully resume.

Very good. I’ve been casting about, trying to sum up everything that’s been happening over the past few months. This about covers it all.

And yet … this article is also very sad. Like all who don’t know Christ, Brooks finds hope in an illusion. For him, it’s better government through the promises of Joe Biden:

Dealing with these problems is going to take government. It’s going to take actual lawmaking, actual budgeting, complex compromises — all the boring, dogged work of government that is more C-SPAN than Instagram.

I know a lot of people aren’t excited about him, but I thank God that Joe Biden is going to be nominated by the Democratic Party.

How sad. I don’t mean that in a nasty, social media sort of way. In that context, comments like this usually mean, “what an IDIOT!” That’s not what I mean.

I actually mean that this is sad; as in depressing. This is what Brooks looks to for a solution. It’s sad not because Brooks’ hope is in Joe Biden. It’s sad because this kind of naive hope is all you have when your framework for reality is anchored in the slime of transient things.

What’s your framework for understanding reality? For understanding this world and yourself? How do you make sense of (1) origins and (2) suffering, (3) what’s your hope to fix you and the world, (4) how will that actually happen, and (5) how will everything end? See my article about why these questions matter now, more than ever, here.

How sad it is if you look at the madness in the world and find hope in a politician. The Church’s job is to explain reality to the world; to explain things as they are to a people who’ve become deluded by the spirit of this mad age. The Christian faith and message has answers for each of the ills Brooks so ably summarizes in his article. It has better answers than faith in Joe Biden. It also has much, much better answers than faith in Donald Trump.

Thank God for that.

3: Explaining reality to the world

Something crystallized for me the past few days, as I read Bostock v. Clayton county. I realized that one of the Church’s missions in the modern West is to explain reality to the world. To explain how things really are. To explain what it means to be a man or a woman. To explain the weight subjective feelings should have in how you make moral value judgments. To explain how you determine “who you are.”

These things used to be taken for granted. Os Guinness has written that the West is a “cut-flower” civilization, in the sense that it’s like a withering flower ripped from the Christian worldview, slowly dying in a vase on the countertop.

No longer.

Now, the West is a dead flower civilization. Now, the Church must be the institution that stands in the gap, shakes it head sadly, and patiently and winsomely explains the facts of reality to a very confused world.

This is really an update on the old “battle of the worldviews” paradigm. The concept is the same, but the “worldview” framework isn’t quite good enough. It doesn’t capture the urgency of the Church’s task. We aren’t simply arguing for competing ways of looking at the world. We aren’t saying,

Look here! We have different ways of looking at the world, and the Christian way is better! Let me tell you why …”

It’s worse than that. It’s more urgent that that. We have to actually explain this world to the world. We have to exegete reality. We have to interpret reality for unbelievers, and pray the Spirit will thus unveil their own madness. It’s come to this, because the false religion of narcissistic humanism is not playing with a full deck.

How to do it?

Our evangelism needs to be better than rote, scripted gospel presentations. That’s been obvious for a while. It needs to engage ideas at the level of basic reality. This skeleton for this framework will look something like this:

  • Origins. How did we get here? How did the world get here? What are we?
  • Suffering. What are good and evil? Who defines these terms? Why does the world hurt people? Why do we hurt each other?
  • Hope. Is there a solution to suffering? Will there be justice? What is justice? What basis do we have to look forward to some “better day?”
  • Rescue. How is this hope, whatever it is, achieved? What are its effects? Does it bring justice? Is this redemption individual, corporate, or both?
  • The end. How will everything end? What will it be like? When will it happen? What will happen?

If you’ve read anything on worldview analysis, there isn’t anything new here. I deliberately “secularized” the categories to be more generic. But, they follow the typical Christian framework of creation, fall, promise, redemption, restoration.

How do the scriptures show God making this happen? I wrote about this a few months ago. Basically, you see God unveiling His plan through the bible’s covenants. There are five covenants. You can think of the first four as individual mile markers leading the bible reader to Jesus of Nazareth, who brings peace. It goes like this:

  • Covenant of Preservation. This covenant (Gen 8-9) didn’t solve the sin problem, but God preserved the world so He could solve it through His Son
  • Covenant with His people. God chose the Jewish people to be the vehicle for this new and permanent solution (Gen 12, 15, 17). Jesus is the descendant from Abraham who will bless people from all over the world and form a new family.  
  • Covenant of holy living. God told His people how to hold the fort, love Him, live holy lives, and maintain relationship with Him through the priests and the sacrificial system until the new solution arrives (Exodus 19:5-8; Old Covenant law). They failed; that’s why Jesus came to fulfill the terms of that covenant by being perfect for His people.
  • Covenant of the king. God chose a dynasty to represent Him, love Him, and lead people to do the same. Jesus is that king, descended as a man from David.
  • Covenant of peace. Because of His perfect life, substitutionary death, and resurrection, Jesus atones for the sins of all His people. He’ll remake us and remake this world. He’s gathering a family. The wicked will be punished. The righteous will be rewarded. There will be perfect, final covenant of peace (Heb 8).

This is the general framework Christians must use.

  • The first list is the framework for reality. It explains the most basic questions of life. It’s the well from which faithful Christian thinkers and philosophers (like Solomon) have explained reality to this world (think Ecclesiastes).
  • The second list is the story of reality. It’s how God has worked this out. It’s the saga of Him making good on all His promises. It tells us where we’re going and where we’ve been.

How to do it?

This is the difficult part. This is why I recently lamented that I felt inadequate to the task. The Church will never be able to explain reality to the world if it doesn’t understand how people in the world think. In missions contexts, missionaries are taught to study and understand the target culture so they can minister to the people. Well, the West is a missions field for the Church. It needs to understand the West.

This will be very hard.

It’ll be hard because the Church in the West, particularly its pastors, are not prepared to really understand the culture. It’s so easy to silo ourselves off in our preferred echo chambers. We rely on social media memes instead of critical thinking. We outsource the heavy lifting to our celebrity thinkers of choice (Christian or otherwise), and parrot what they say. As a culture, we have largely lost the ability to research, study and understand anything meaningful in a deep way.

So, what should the Church do? It must engage the false religion of what I now call narcissistic humanism. It must understand narcissistic humanism’s framework for reality, then attack it.

  • Origins
  • Suffering
  • Hope
  • Rescue
  • The end

How does narcissistic humanism answer these questions? Why are their answers wrong?

I’m afraid the Church will react through a prism of politics, or naivete, or anti-intellectualism. The Church can’t answer these unless it studies. And, I fear too many in the Western Church aren’t ready or able to study these issues. We think reading Wikipedia, watching our favorite partisan pundits on television, watching YouTube videos, or reading popular authors is “research.”

God help us.

The riots, the protests and the calls for justice tie directly to the framework categories of suffering, hope and rescue. If you understand the reality construct of narcissistic humanism, then you can engage with the gospel. With the truth.

It doesn’t matter that the criminal setting police cars on fire hasn’t read anything about Reconstruction. It doesn’t matter that the protester in the soon-to-be defunct Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone has never read any academic work on critical race theory, and has never heard of Robin DiAngelo.

It does matter that there be people in the Church who understand the world better than the world understands itself.

The challenges

There are several, some of which I’ve already mentioned. I’ll recap a bit and toss in a few new ones:

Know thine enemy

Pastors must find some way to understand the world and its framework for reality. One way I’m doing this is to take introductory sociology texts as foundations, then read some select specialist literature from the world’s perspective. The discussions on the theories and causes of social inequality in my two texts (here and here) are very fascinating.

You quickly realize that this is a matter of dueling realities. These sociology texts are part of the “reality mold” into which community college students are poured by our world. Once you understand how this religion of narcissistic humanism sees reality, you can fit the point at issue into the generic framework for reality (see above) and then you’ll have a roadmap.

The Church and her people can only be physicians of the soul, diagnosing terminal illnesses, if it understands the patient. You don’t have to do it my way, of course. But, you do have to do it.

Pastors need to really know theology

This isn’t anything new, but it’s important. You can’t really understand the framework for reality without it. And, that means you can’t explain the story of reality then, either.

Pastors really need to know how to study

Forget partisan sources. Don’t let your favorite teachers interpret the world for you. Read the primary sources. Want to know about intersectionality? Read about it from academics who believe it. Read basic sociology texts.

It isn’t hard. Community college students read these texts. Your 19 year old is reading these books. You can, too.

Grab a pen, take some notes, and begin to understand the culture to which you minister. You’re doing it for Christ. You’re doing it so you can be a better ambassador.

It’s all happening too fast

Who is equal to the task? It feels as though the world has gone mad, all at once. The task is daunting, but it can be manageable if we (1) identify the abstract point at issue (e.g. the Black Lives Matter [“BLM”] issue is about justice and sin, etc.), then (2) fit it into the generic framework for reality template we discussed earlier (the BLM matter fits into suffering, hope and rescue), and (3) begin to take apart the false framework for reality with the Truth, from scripture.

Pastors are wimps

Yes, it’s true. Let’s acknowledge that it’s hard to swim against the cultural tide consistently and faithfully. Let’s acknowledge that it’s tempting to sand the rough edges off the gospel. Let’s then commit to not doing it, and to being held accountable if we start doing it.

Explain the world to the Church

If pastors don’t do it, Tucker Carlson will. This means topical sermons. It means connecting current events to the scriptures. Not with stupid prophesies or conspiracy theories. I mean a sermon on Revelation 17-18, with modern culture playing the role of the prostitute. And, we all know how that ends (Rev 19:19-21). I mean a sermon about identity, focusing on 1 Peter 2:9-11.

Pastors need to re-orient themselves to a missions mindset, which means really understanding the culture so they can attack it with the Truth. Are local churches ready for the shift in mindset that’s necessary? Are seminaries?

I don’t know.

I fear many Christians (especially ministers) aren’t equipped to understand the issues sweeping our culture. I fear we’re so captured by our culture that we’re unable to stand outside of it, as strangers and exiles from a better country, and explain reality to the folks in Vanity Fair.

Ministry for the future, in the West, will be more challenging than ever.