An Obsession with Opinion

An Obsession with Opinion March 18, 2008

Headlines that declare, “Poll: Three Quarters think US in recession,” ought to pull you up short. They reflect a culture obsessed with personal opinion. Just think; long before statistical data or evaluations come out, the opinion of the masses about an objective reality they cannot possibly know for sure is considered newsworthy!

This is akin to the captain of a cruise handing out polls to passengers entering his ship. “We all know this cruise is going to Hawaii. How do YOU think we should get there?” it might read. The silliness of the metaphor is perhaps overly reductionist, but I believe it accurately portrays a problem in the cultural mindset. After all, we think singing and dancing talent can be determined by votes- even if later successes and failures do not bear that out!

We as people seem to think our personal beliefs are general, “guideposts,” for truth, even on objective realities about which we have no certain knowledge or expertise. In other words, we do not necessarily say, “I believe it, so it must be true.” Instead, our mantra might be, “If I follow my personal opinions, my life will be valuable.” The implication here is not that people always assume the world is whatever they believe it to be. Instead, they believe following their own preferences, though sometimes imperfect, will ultimately be good.

Many mega-churches try to latch on to this trend. Willow Creek and its disciples issue polls, find out what people want, and try to fulfill those preferences in the church. They seek to be the best from among several life choices, so that they are merely the logical outcome for individuals whose goal in life (though often unarticulated) is to pursue their desires. George Barna’s book REVOLUTION is, once again, the logical extension of this mindset in a changing culture.

The obvious problem is that people and their desires change. Is church doctrine and purpose really so flexible that it can submit to the desires of the masses? What happens when the masses desire a church without denouncement of immorality? Without understanding of sin? Without proclamation of the gospel?

Real Christianity demands submission. It demands acceptance of a truth outside ourselves, a truth unmoved by personal preferences or opinion polls. It demands that the pathway of life be heavenward, rather than some meandering journey directed only by the guideposts of preference. It demands acceptance of our inability to determine objective truth without being told by God.

How should this understanding of culture impact our lives as believers living in a opinion-obsessed culture? Here are a few ideas.

1. In our personal lives, we as Christians should progressively submit ourselves to truth.

We should NOT pick and choose the Christian doctrines or emphases we most prefer and enjoy. Yes, the Catholic church is far more developed than evangelicals in areas of art, aesthetics, philosophy, and culture. And yes, mega-churches have much more exciting Easter programs. But that does not make their theology acceptable! We should live in submission to the wholeness of God’s Word, constantly reforming ourselves to better reflect His desires, which ARE objective truth.

2. In our church life, we as Christians should craft church culture to conform to the guidance of Scripture, and to communicate the truth of Scripture to congregants in a proportional way.

By this I mean that while doing what the Bible says is of central importance, it also important for a church not to emphasize something more or less than Scripture does- liberation theology and Hyles-Anderson fundamentalism are two quick examples that come to mind. Instead, church culture should both submit to God’s Word corporately and assist Christians in reforming themselves to submit to God individually.

3. In our evangelism, we must present the gospel as an alternate worldview, and not merely highlight its benefits and rewards.

True submission is an entirely different paradigm from pursuit of personal desire, and we must make clear the separation when we share the gospel. It’s great that Christianity gives you hope and purpose, but if that’s all it is then there are many alternatives. Real Christianity is acceptance of a larger truth, not merely choosing a personal pathway to fulfillment.

Glorification of individual preference is an old concept, but our current culture raises it to heights not experienced since the glory days of Rome. As Christians, we must constantly recognize its powerful influence on the decision-making processes of the individual, and carefully and clearly call them to an entirely different and, ultimately, entirely better life.

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  • You say: “we must present the gospel as an alternate worldview,” but then you caution against the “glorification of individual preference.”

    Which is it?

    It seems to me that very problem is that we “present the gospel as a worldview” that includes a bunch of stuff the Bible fails to mention (like aggressive US foreign policy, the glories of the free market, and a distrust of welfare and its recipients).

    Like it or not, these right-wing talking points are hard to distinguish from the part of about the cross and empty tomb when the gospel is “preached as a worldview” by American Christians.

  • Pundit,

    I think you are setting up a false comparison.

    “glorification of individual preference” suggests that fulfillment of individual desire is the highest goal.

    “the gospel as an alternate worldview,” as I make clear throughout the article, is submitting to the Truth as proclaimed by God in Scripture. To be a Christian is to accept the truth of the scriptural worldview in its entirety.

    It may seem at times like a majority of people who claim the Christian worldview take particular stands on various political issues, but I am not saying that at all. I am merely saying that Christians are to call the world AWAY from the self-centeredness of individual preference and TOWARD submission to the gospel as presented in Scripture.

    The fact that some unwise Christians use the idea of the “Christian worldview” incorrectly does not make my correct usage of it wrong as well.

  • Ben,

    You say that “To be a Christian is to accept the truth of the scriptural worldview in its entirety,” but then you say that “I am merely saying that Christians are to call the world AWAY from the self-centeredness of individual preference and TOWARD submission to the gospel as presented in Scripture.”

    Again, you are the one equivocating here. Which one is it?

    I agree that we are to call people away from self-centeredness into submission to Christ, but the Bible calls this a great commission to preach “the faith once for all delivered to the saints,” not “accepting a scriptural worldview in its entirety.”

    A “worldview” is just that — a view that encompasses the way we see the world, which would include politics, economics, war, &c.

    To say that there is a Christian view on all these things is to cry “wolf!” while holding an open Bible. Once it is said to directly apply to foreign policy (which it doesn’t), it will be a matter of time before people roll their eyes when we say it applies to, say, justification.

  • Pundit,

    I’m afraid your definition of worldview is simply wrong. Nowhere do I say that we as Christians call people to a different opinion about foreign policy.

    A worldview is an interpretive framework based on your understanding of the truth. However, that framework does not exhaustively determine how you should handle every discernment issue under the sun. A Christian worldview does not demand that someone accept a particular foreign policy, but it DOES demand a particular understanding of justificiation.

    Acceptance of the scriptural worldview simply means believing that the biblical message, centered in and on the gospel, is entirely true. After that, your view of the world is based on your understanding of truth. However, that fact does not prevent you from being wise in various areas, and in fact it does not prevent Christians from disagreeing on a wide variety of areas.

    My point is simply to compare and contrast self-centeredness and god-centeredness, not to suggest that all Christians must have perfect agreement on issues Scripture doesn’t even speak about.

  • Fair enough, but I still contend that the term “worldview” is being used wrongly by you. What you call a “worldview” the Bible calls “a faith.”

    This makes much more sense, since a worldview that does not deal directly with war, economics, or foreign policy isn’t worth much. I mean, those are, like, some pretty important issues in the world, right?

    To put it another way, if two people share the same worldview, while one is a socialist lefty and the other is a free market warrior on terror, it pretty much makes the so-called “worldview” that they share pretty thin, and of little import.

  • No, making worldview and faith synonyms is not correct at all. Faith is a belief in things hoped for but unseen. A worldview is merely an interpretive framework.

    Christians can have the same interpretive framework (humans are basically sinful, God is in control, our mission on earth is to proclaim the gospel) and yet differ on how that framework should play itself out in certain areas scripture does not speak about (foreign policy, fiscal approach, role of government).

    However, to differ on key matters of faith (Christ died to save sinners) is to hold to different faiths altogether.

    So then, we call non-believers TO repent, come to Christ for forgiveness, and live their lives in submission to God’s will, proclaiming his gospel.

    We call them AWAY from pursuit of selfish ends and desires.

    We call them TO an interpretive framework (worldview) based in the truth of Scripture (non-negotiable) to help them figure out how to approach life (negotiable when Scripture is silent on an issue).

    We call them AWAY from an interpretive framework based in human perfectibility, nihilism, or atheism.

    What I am saying in the article is that we should recognize the danger of culture’s heavy emphasis on personal opinion, because we as Christians recognize that the glorification of selfish preference is affirmation of a non-christian worldview.

  • To take things in a slightly different direction, who says that Scripture has nothing to say about foreign policy? As a Christian, I tend to believe (for example) that peace is preferable to war. This is largely because I believe that Jesus came to bring peace. Thus, if I am given the opportunity (say, through an election or something) to cause one state of affairs or the other, I’m generally going to go the way of peace.

    To be sure, foreign policy is no simple matter, and the developments and insights of political science have much to contribute to the subject. And Scripture certainly does not say everything about the subject (for example, whether or not an isolationist policy is appropriate or ethical). But the fact that Scripture does not speak exhaustively on a subject does not mean that it does not speak at all.

    Therefore, I disagree in different ways with both Ben and Pundee.

  • I’m with Scott, but I’ll add that I also agree in different ways with The Ben and The Pun Speaker. Just so I can take any position I like later if the conversation gets interesting.

  • Scott,

    You’re right, not saying everything is different than saying nothing at all.

    But if you believe in Sola Scriptura, then you believe that the Bible is authoritative for those things it addresses, while other things that it may touch on with some general principles are decided by appeal to extra-biblical sources.

    Take your example: I am against war, generally speaking. But what do we do with the majority of American Christians who differ on that point?

    I would say that we agree on “the faith” (which Ben misdefined above, taking it in its subjective sense [Hebrews] rather than in its objective sense [Jude] which I am using), but we have differing worldviews.

    And make no mistake, my worldview is radically different from almost all Christians I have ever met.

    Which is disheartening, but understandable.

  • In the beginning of this discussion, I felt the Pundit was caricaturing my explanation of “calling people to a Christian worldview” to say that I was suggesting that all Christians should hold the same beliefs about nearly everything. Not true.

    So, to combat his point, I questioned his use of the term, “worldview,” and pointed out that Christians who agree on the basic framework of a Christian worldview must agree on Scriptural essentials but can disagree on certain issues not specifically addressed in Scripture.

    Now it seems that the caricature is that I don’t think Scripture has anything helpful to add to discussions about areas like foreign policy. Again, not true.

    Of course I believe there are certain things all Christians must agree to if they are true Christians.

    And I think there are some things Scripture gives no guidance on whatsoever and we’re allowed to disagree.

    And I think that there are many issues Scripture doesn’t specifically address, but our Christian worldview is an interpretive framework that gives us principles to help make wise and God-glorifying decisions. These are areas where Christians can still disagree, but should be able to carefully show how Scripture informs and guides their thinking.

    The problem here is that my article was designed to talk about the cultural obsession with opinion and the Christian response, so it’s not really a fair place to attack my view of Christian ideological freedom. I assure you, it is much more developed and nuanced than the caricatures would suggest.

  • Hey Ben, I never said that you don’t think Scripture has helpful things to say about foreign policy. Sorry if it sounded that way. I had The Pundit more in view with my point. I think his criticism says too much.

    I think he has an awkward understanding of your idea of ‘worldview.’ And really, you’re right. Most of this thread begins with and trails off on semantic quibbles.

    With that said, I’d like to explain that concept a bit. Pundit, “worldview thinking” in evangelicalism is not really a meshing together of neo-conservative politics or WASP culture with the Gospel. Ben’s repeated use of “interpretive framework” should clue you in to this. “Worldview thinking” of the Schaeffer/Colson variety is an approach to “truth” that answers three basic questions: 1) Who are we? 2) What went wrong? 3) How do we fix it? These are fairly meta-level questions which correspond generally to a creation-fall-redemption reading of history. Applying this hermeneutic to Scripture, a single “Christian worldview” becomes evident. That is, Christians answer these questions in a way that can be distinguished (with some clarity) from the answers of Buddhists, Muslims, Scientologists, Mormons, Sikh, Secular Humanists, etc.

    The collection of answers to those three questions form a cohesive structure that can be called a “worldview” which is the “lens” through which one interprets or reads (and sometimes evaluates) all cultural phenomena.

    Now whether or not this approach is wise or valuable is an open question, I think. There are a number of problems I have with it, but that’s neither here nor there.

    Your concern that Ben not equate the Gospel with something like the war in Iraq would be warranted… if that had anything to do with worldviews. But I don’t think he’s doing that, intentionally or otherwise.

    I think that Ben’s general point in this peace was that the democratization of the Church’s goals is a threat to the mission of the Church. With that I’ve no objection – though I have some significant disagreements with the way he outlines the alternative. (Which is why I said I disagree with both of you.)

  • Scott,

    That was much more helpful, thanks.

    So take an issue like Hurricane Katrina: 1). Who are we? We are humans made in God’s image, now fallen, and living in Louisiana; 2). What went wrong? Well, New Orleans got flooded; 3). How do we fix it? Ummm, I’m not sure.

    I guess I just don’t find this “worldview” talk all that helpful (and I obviously exaggerated above to make my point).

    To really address the issue of the suffering there, we need to do more than answer that third question with “Believe in Jesus.” That is obviously the ultimate answer, but it would seem like an insult to someone holding a drowned kid in their arms. What about the neglected infrastructure of the city that contributed to the levees breaking? The weakened public sphere? The use of this disaster by capitalists to privatize New Orleans’s once-public housing and schools?

    My worldview has something to say to these immediate and concrete questions. My faith only answers the eternal concerns (which are more important, but less pressing in the short run).

  • Geoffrey Seven

    As a latecomer to this party, I won’t add to a lot of the very smart and insightful things that were said earlier. But on the last point, I want to note that within the Christian worldview (or faith or whatever we want to call it), one of the key points is that – whatever you think is your biggest problem isn’t.

    Your problem is not that you are poor or blind or lame (or even flooded). Your most pressing problem, really the only one you need to worry about, is sin. That, to me, was what Jesus constantly told people. The healings were gravy.

    And so the answer to the question to “how do we fix it” really does start with “believe in Jesus.” Not necessarily for the afflicted person, but for me, the one who is trying to help. It is by believing in him that I can conform myself (totally imperfectly) to his example in engaging deeply with suffering, and find ways to solve the intractable problems of our time.

    As a lefty Evangelical, I find that most of my brothers and sisters totally disagree with me on political worldview issues, so I sympathize with a lot of what is being said here.

  • Your warranted concerns with an over-ideologized Christianity notwithstanding, I think Ben’s point here was about evangelism. Converting individuals to the faith is more than just giving them an alternative way to find spiritual gratification. Becoming a Christian involves rewriting one’s view of history and reorients our ideas of purpose and calling as individuals. It changes the way we understand “spiritual gratification.” This is basically true and so I’m going to defend Ben again.

  • btw, that was written to the Pundit.