Co-illumination: Preaching from the text of life

This Sunday, I’ll be starting a new series at our church entitled, “Every Square Inch:  Blessing the World through Culture Reading and Vocation”.  In this series I’ll be preaching from the book of life, a book that’s declaring eternal truth, every day, all around us.  In spite of this constant revelation, the reality is that our hearts and minds are so fragmented that we usually don’t hear what God is saying to us through culture.  We’re grown up believing that God’s truth is found in the Bible, and then there’s the rest of life which is neutral at best, or so filled with lust, greed, duplicity, oppression, and competition, that the best thing we can do is stare at the ground and muddle through ’til next Sunday, when we can once again be reminded that there’s a better world coming as soon as we die.

This mind set is, to put it as tactfully as possible, rubbish.  It’s rooted in the Gnostic dualism, but has nothing to do with authentic faith.  It was Abraham Kuyper who said, “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, “This is mine.  This belongs to me” – Abraham Kuyper.  The cultures we’ve created in this world exist because of longings inside us – longings for beauty, intimacy, triumph, justice, celebration, and hope.   The question we need to ask is “Where did these longings come from” because these longings set us apart from the animal kingdom.  Having food and shelter, it seems that we’re not content to simply sit around eating, sleeping, and copulating so as to propagate the species.  Instead, we create art and political systems, we teach, invent games and play them, games where there’s a winner and a loser.

The misguided will simply label all this as “the world” and get on with another round of Bible study to shore up their spiritual immunities in order that they might remain unstained.  What’s wrong with this picture is that it fails to take into account the reality that all these cultural creations have come into existence precisely because we’re created in God’s image.  Instead of vilifying or tolerating culture, we should be celebrating culture, always asking the question, “What does this ____ (movie, sport, song, painting, profession, city council meeting) tell us about God’s character?”  What happens when we embark on this paradigm shift?

All of life becomes a source of revelation.  This brings integration to our lives, so that we go through each day looking to the wisdom of God’s spirit to guide us into all truth.  Of course, this requires discernment, and the lens of scripture will need to inform our ‘culture reading’.  Of course culture reading is open to misinterpretation.  This, though, is true of Bible study as well.

We become part of world, rather than isolated.  For too long, the church has functioned almost wholly in a paradigm that views culture as an adversary.  Surely there are adversarial components and we, whose primary citizenship belongs to kingdom of Christ, are called to critique oppression, injustice, and the systems that further them.  But it’s also true that, if we take a cue from Paul, we’re called to look for signs of grace in every piece of culture, even when wandering a hillside filled with idols.  We’ll see that which disturbs and distresses, and we’ll also see that which points to eternity.  I’m envisioning Christians who have permission to live fully in the culture, as those who will carry the light of Christ into every corner of the city.

We become bridge builders.  Again, taking our cue from Paul in Acts 16, we realize that Paul had a knack for beginning his message by finding a common starting point.  “Men of Athens, I observe that you are religious in every way”.  This is a far cry from the all too common starting points of our day:  “You’re a heartbeat from hell.  Accept Jesus as your savior.”  Or, “Your sinful lifestyle is destroying America – stop it, and become a Christian”, or “God loves you but hates everything you do.”  These absurd opening lines only give fuel to the fires of gospel rejection that permeate American culture.  How about reframing the gospel as good news that fulfills our deepest longings?  If we take that approach, then it doesn’t take long to realize that film, art, music, sport, and many professions, give voice to those longings.

It’s high time we learn how to become readers of culture.  So, for the next several weeks, I’ll be preaching from the Bible AND the book of culture, as we consider sport, art, teaching, surgery, business, a film, and a mid-life career change to show how our culture and longings point to what is true in the gospel.

What do you think?  Will preaching from the text of life, and using the Bible to bring clarity to it work?  What are the good elements in this?  What are the dangers?  I welcome your thoughts.

These sermons will be available as vodcasts sometime later this winter, and when they are, I’ll let you know.  In the meantime, the audio will, as always, be available for download through itunes, and our website.

 

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • Steve

    Looks like a great topic Richard.

    I am not sure who first coined the phrase, “The fingerprints of God” but I try and live in the knowledge that they are all around me. Much as a forensic scientist uses small often hidden things to deduce much from little God has left markers all over the place.
    Recently we spent 3 months in France and our theme while there was ‘looking for the things God has hidden in France’. We left with the mindset that we’d have to do some searching and what we found was that God’s ‘hidden thing’ were all right out in the open once we opened our eyes. While France is a country in great need it is not a country where God is not present. God was all around and enjoyed displaying Himself to us and through us to others. It did require us ‘tuning in’ so if your series helps in this regard many will be blessed.

  • GG

    Excellent work Richard. This latest post is extremely challenging and look forward to hearing more next Sunday.

  • Lamont

    Paul the bridge builder (Acts 17). Paul is reasoning in the synagogue (as is his custom) and is run out of Thessalonica by the unbelieving Jews who were saying: “and these all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus.” Vs 1-9.
    Paul is then smuggled to Berea under the cover of night (vs 10). He continues to preach the gospel. The Jews in Thessalonica hear of it, and go to Berea and stir up the people there. The next thing you know, Paul’s on a ship to Athens.
    In Athens Paul was so repulsed by what he see’s that: “his spirit was being provoked within him…” vs 16. Now, he’s not only in the synagogue reasoning w/the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles, he’s also in the market place each day engaging with the people there. One day a group of Epicurean (hedonists) & Stoic (secular determinists) philosophers engaged him in debate, and (sarcastically) calling him a ‘seed-picker/babbler’ who was advocating some foreign gods, though he was preaching Christ and the resurrection 16-18.
    Next, Paul is in the Areopagus and say’s: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are… TOO SUPERSTITIOUS (G1174),” (vs 22b).
    23 for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:

    TO THE UNKNOWN GOD…

    Vs 23 What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.

    Now that Paul has found a “common starting point” what does he do from there?

    He doesn’t affirm their beliefs; he did not embrace their culture, or, alter his message to suit Athenian values, or beliefs! On the contrary, Paul used their admitted ignorance as an avenue for the gospel.
    In verses 24-31 Paul was plainly telling the most intelligent people in the world (at least in their own minds), that their beliefs were wrong!

    The result, was that some mocked, others blew smoke up Paul’s tunic… “lets us here more of this later” and a few believed and followed. Vs 32-34.

  • k

    I think one of the dangers of the life-to-scripture approach is the temptation to proof-text scripture.

    On a somewhat related note: While I’ve very much been enjoying the sermon series, I admit to being rather confused this last Sunday when the scripture tied in to the sermon (Micah 5:8) was split into three essentials: justice, mercy, and love. When I read this scripture, I instead see justice, mercy, and HUMILITY: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” I’m curious, why did you choose not to address humility in your sermon?

    • k

      (I realize that question extends beyond just that one sermon–since, for example, your book likewise focuses on mercy, justice, and love in that scripture.)


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