Who Is Helping Christians Cope with Non-Christian Messages?
Some years ago I felt called to use my four degrees in religious studies and (now) many years of teaching Christian theology to help Christians discern between cultural messages that are compatible with Christianity and those that are not. I have used this blog for that. In fact, that call is one of the main reasons I began this blog—about eight years ago now. I have composed and posted well over a thousand essays here and many of them have been about the problem we Christians face in a pluralistic culture that 1) contains many messages that are alien to and even hostile to authentic Christianity, and 2) is sometimes downright hostile to classical Christianity.
This call and concern led me to write what I consider my most important book: Essentials of Christian Thought: Seeing Reality through the Biblical Story (Zondervan). I wanted to title the book “Narrative Biblical Metaphysics,” but the publisher didn’t think that would sell. Personally, I think the title they gave the book is bland, but they thought it would make the book more likely to be used as a textbook and that is where the money is in theological book selling.
The purpose of the book is to direct readers to the major contours, features, of the biblical worldview and away from worldviews that are alien to it. It is my opinion that too many Christians in America do not really know or even believe in the biblical worldview. At last not consistently.
Theologians Hans Frei and George Lindbeck, founders of what came to be called “postliberal theology,” said that for the Christian “the Bible absorbs the world.” That is my goal—to help confused Christians allow the biblical theodrama absorb the world. That means to “see the world as” what the biblical story says it is. The problem, of course, is that the Bible is NOT a book of philosophy or metaphysics. The good news is that it is not as difficult as many people think to discern the implicit worldview of the Bible’s authors.
A basic element of the biblical worldview, metaphysics, is that there is only one ultimate reality—the personal and supernatural creator God who relates to us and to whom we are related in some way whether we know it or not. And this God is not some impersonal, remote or totally immanent “force” or “dimension” of the universe and is certainly not the universe itself. The universe that science studies is God’s creation and God rules over it.
Now to illustrate the problem…
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
I know that people want me to name names and be very specific. That’s a problem for me because of our litigious society. I have to avoid being sued or even being threatened with a lawsuit. And I don’t want my host company (of this blog) ever to remove something I’ve written because they received a letter from some law firm….
But discerning readers will figure out what I am talking about here with this illustration of the problem.
The problem is ideas about reality that are entirely alien if not hostile to the biblical worldview and to classical Christianity filtering into the popular media, into education, into culture generally and being taken in and accepted as truth by Christians who have never been trained to be on their guard about such.
I recently watched an extremely popular children’s (or young adult) movie with my grandchildren. It is allegedly based on a children’s (or young adult) fantasy book written by an allegedly Christian author. I have met that author and even spent time with her. She is now deceased.
About halfway through the movie I had to hold my tongue because my grandchildren were thoroughly enjoying the amazing computer generated graphics. I realized that the writer(s) of the movie were using two religious belief systems and they were very easy for anyone with a Ph.D. in religious studies to identify.
First, the movie features three supernatural beings who watch over the planet and who occasionally appear to people in dire straits who are good and wise—to help them. These beings are human-like but no longer human. They are god-like beings but not God. “The universe” is God or god is the universe. These beings teach the children who are desperately searching for someone who has disappeared that their minds are capable of transcending space and time and creating or changing reality simply with “love.”
The two religious belief systems I discerned being used in the movie are: Theosophy (broadly defined) and New Thought. In neither case do I mean any particular organizations. These two religions started out as movements in Europe and North America in the 19th century and still have organizational artifacts, but their real menace is not in any organizations they spawned. Their real menace is their “picture” of reality that is absolutely contrary to the biblical picture of reality. Each is a mythos with real symbolic power to captivate people’s minds and hearts. Both promise power through a kind of magic tied to a belief system. Neither one is Christian but both have been “Christianized” by some people. Both have filtered into literature and entertainment and popular culture.
The theosophy in the movie lies in the supernatural beings. They are versions of theosophy’s “ascended masters.” The New Thought in the movie is the idea (often also embraced by theosophists) that mind can control matter and even space and time. The theme of the power of love is compatible with Christianity, but in the movie love and will are mixed together in a paganized way.
I find it very ironic that many conservative Christians, classical Christians, orthodox Christians, jumped all over the book and movie The Shack which was clearly meant as a parable and behind and beyond the imagery contained and sent a very strong biblical message about God and humanity and yet, I would guess, found nothing wrong with the movie I viewed with my grandchildren.
I am convinced of something I know very well many people, including many Christians, will reject. And that is that our modern/postmodern, secular/pagan culture is attempting to replace the Christian worldview in the public square with alternative worldviews and doing so often very subtly—through entertainment, advertising, education, literature, etc.
We are living in a post-Christian culture and that means it is part of the churches’ duty to train Christians to know and recognize that and resist being seduced into secular and pagan worldviews by flashy advertising, entertainment, education, etc. What I’m talking about is discernment.
Years ago I created a course called “Developing a Christian Worldview” and taught it in a Christian liberal arts college’s “degree completion program.” Many of the adult students were not real Christians. Most of them were, probably, church members, but they clearly were not Christians in any classical, orthodox sense of the word. I used a book entitled Contours of a Worldview by Wheaton philosopher Arthur Holmes and I wrote and supplied to the students a lot of explanatory material including study guides. In the course I used films and lots of examples from contemporary culture. Many of the students pushed back on me and the course very hard saying that, for example, New Age ideas can be true for some and not for others. One even said to me: “Reincarnation can be true for Shirley MacLaine but not for you.” This person was a committed Christian!
I fear that many Christians do not want to learn critical Christian discernment because it will ruin much popular culture for them. (I have been told by some of my students that dissecting hymns theologically has ruined worship for them.)
There is a supernatural gift of discernment; it’s mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12 among the gifts of the Spirit. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about learned discernment where Christians allow themselves to be trained to interpret messages in advertising, entertainment, education, etc.
I will finish (for now) with another example. Years ago I “took” a seminar on teaching. A Christian education scholar told us numerous times throughout the seminar “If they have not learned, you have not taught.” It was a kind of mantra because it was not open to critical questioning. It was the very basis of the whole seminar. The problem is, of course, that for a Christian it cannot be true. My very first thought the first time I heard it was “Jesus taught even though many of his listeners didn’t learn.” So, from a Christian perspective, believing as we should that human beings are sinful and part of being sinful is being closed-minded to especially spiritual truths, the cliché was incompatible with Christianity. Nobody in the seminar (held at a Christian liberal arts college) raised a voice against it.
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