Thursday, December 11, 2008

We're Getting our Comeuppance for the Church's Compromise in the Culture Wars pt. 1

In 1918 Booth Tarkington wrote his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Magnificent Ambersons. In 1942, Orson Welles made the book into a film that was nominated for four Academy Awards. The book begins:
MAJOR AMBERSON had "made a fortune" in 1873, when other people were losing fortunes, and the magnificence of the Ambersons began then.
The tale by Tarkington tells the classic tragic trek from magnificence to comeuppance. A little past the middle of the book we read:
And yet something had happened—a thing which, years ago, had been the eagerest hope of many, many good citizens of the town. They had thought of it, longed for it, hoping acutely that they might live to see the day when it would come to pass. And now it had happened at last: Georgie Minafer had got his come-upance.
That was the first I had heard that word "comeuppance," and it stuck. I liked it. It's a biblical concept, the comeuppance. I'd like to talk about it as it relates to the church's compromise in cultural issues. Like Georgie Amberson Minafer, both the protagonist and the antagonist of The Magnificent Ambersons, the church has reached its comeuppance.

The Church's Responsibility

'Who to blame' reminds me of the stock market crash of 2008---is it government, is it Wall Street, or is it us? There's plenty of blame to go around. We look at the condition of the world today---the overcrowded prisons, the billions in debt, the daily murders, the abortion, the worldly, pagan churches, homosexual marriage, the lack of respect for authority, mounting atheism---and we diagnose how it happens. Who's to blame? When we face God, we'll stand there alone with no one else responsible but ourselves. But the church is uniquely indicted by the status of society in her complicity. I can't help but think of 2 Chronicles 7:14:
If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.
A Plan of Satan

Satan desires to deceive. When we consider the work of Satan as the prince of this world, we see his major damage occurs in people's minds. He blinds men so they cannot know, darkens their thinking, and feeds their minds falsehoods. That's how he opposes the work of God on earth---by causing men to reject or stray from God.

The devil wants men to live sinful and profane lives that don't please God. He does this in part with an attack on the Word of God. Satan works on the minds of men against the truth of Scripture.

A Parallel

Satan won a major coup when he influenced the church to separate the Bible from science. The Bible speaks to scientific matters. I'm not going to say it isn't a science book. It is.

This separation of the Bible from science has been called the "two book approach"---the Bible and science are two books that are both sources of truth---those who advocate this view say the Bible is spiritual truth and science is physical truth. In scientific matters, where they contradict, the scientist says the Bible must bow before science since it is only a book of spiritual knowledge. With this, Scripture has been deemed less reliable than science and lower in authority. Science becomes the instrument for interpreting scripture rather than vice versa.

After Darwin's Origin of Species, theologians began revising their explanations of Genesis---there's a gap of millions of years between days one and two of creation or the day isn't actually twenty-four hours but an age of potentially millions of years. The first of these examples was canonized in the Scofield Reference Bible as the explanation for Genesis 1. Instead of believing God in the Genesis record, many in the church have chosen to believe so-called science.

Genesis gives foundational instruction for marriage, for family, about sin and death, and more. The two book approach began an avalanche of distrust and ignorance of God's Word that has contributed to a break down in some of the most fundamental aspects of society. It has also swayed men toward a material reality for which there are only material solutions.

In the last forty years, the church has experienced a revitalization of a one book approach. Christian scientists who believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture have returned many to a biblical view of the world, so that where the Bible and other realms of knowledge intersect, God's Word remains the final authority. These men not only saw the errors in a secular approach to science but observed the horrible damage that this capitulation to humanism caused among believers.

Required: Holiness

The church must be holy, even as 1 Peter1:14-16 reads:
As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance: But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.
Holiness isn't moral purity. Moral purity is part of holiness, but holiness is a separateness, a distinctiveness. God is holy in that He is unique, majestic, and separate. Since moral purity does distinguish God, it is part of His uniqueness. Anyone who represents Him, therefore, must be morally pure.

Those who are holy as He is holy also will be distinct and separate. When they become common, they are profaned. All Christian culture is distinct from all of the world's culture, if it is holy, and it is even more distinct the more the world strays from God. Sacred culture will take on the characteristics of God distinct from the secular culture, which fits with the attributes aligned with the world.

The Church's Compromise

The world is what it is---a sin-cursed system of lust, wickedness, and deceit ruled by Satan and his underlings. The church should oppose the world system, not conform to it. A community, state, or nation will do best when the church is having the greatest influence upon it. A downward direction of our civilization comes in direct proportion to the church's complicity with that slide. Satan labors to deceive the church in as many ways possible to contribute to a faster ruination of the human population.

The world places non-stop pressure on the church, encouraging a desire for respect and prestige in the world. The people of the world are friendlier to Christians when they are more like the world. The persuasive powers of the world system have continued upon the church and, like the magnetism of secular science, the modern culture of the world has successfully cast its spell on the church.

In the 19th century United States, because of a widespread Christian influence, there was much less difference between the mainstream and Christian culture. The gap between the two has widened as the decades have passed. However, something began to happen to the church. Instead of keeping a clear difference between itself and the world in its culture, it began to mimic the world. Instead of turning the world upside down, the world has turned the church upside down.

The Comeuppance

With the church following the world's lead, even if a few steps behind, little has stood in the way of further cultural disintegration. When the church operates right, it acts as a preservative to society, stemming the tide of corruption that threatens to wash over everyone and everything, infiltrating every institution. Sin doesn't come without a price---it has its own built-in consequences as well as the punishment that comes from direct Divine intervention. In Romans 1 Paul describes the judgment of God as His turning men over to their own lusts. Men's desires lead them to pits of defilement and then destruction. Where the church hasn't taken its stand on cultural issues, in that area especially the culture has degraded in the most perverse way.

The church has clothed its capitulation in theological garb, often offering some biblical explanation for its compromise. Many Christian leaders of evangelicalism and even fundamentalism have routinely mocked churches and godly men who stood strong in cultural areas, many times labeling them legalists or Pharisees. Often they have reduced these issues to tertiary or secondary, not worth battling for and a "source of divisiveness." As a result, the church has become more and more worldly until finally there is often very little different between the church and the world. And even if a church hasn't slipped as far as it could, it hasn't influenced other churches to hold back from the profaning their distinctiveness.

The Demise of Meaning

Even language itself has become a casualty of the culture war with the deconstruction of meaning. In Identity Crisis, Robert Dunn tells what has happened:
The sign of semiotic theory was clearly delineated under modernity into signifier (image, word), signified (meaning, concept), and referent (reality), corresponding to three autonomous spheres of culture (aesthetic, theoretical, moral-practical). With the collapse of these spheres, the structure of the sign itself collapsed, reducing the mode of signification to the signifier, abolishing both signified and referent and leaving a world of freely circulating and self-referential signs and images. Thus, not only has meaning been thrown into question, but representation and reality have been thoroughly problematized.
In The Gagging of God, D. A. Carson describes it this way:
Texts will invariably be interpreted against the backdrop of the interpreter's social "home" and the historical conditioning of the language itself. Granted this interpretive independence from the text, it is entirely appropriate and right for the interpreter to take bits and pieces of the text out of the frameworks in which they are apparently embedded ("deconstruct" the text), and fit them into the framework ("locatedness") of the interpreter, thereby generating fresh insight, not least that which relativizes and criticizes the text itself.
Later he writes:
"Meaning" is less likely to refer to meaning in the text; indeed, some exponents of the new hermeneutic insist that the only "meaning" is what the subject "sees" or "understands." Certainly no tie is admitted between what the text "means" and authorial intent, not only because we have no access to authorial intent except through the text, but even more because different readers will interpret the text differently, i. e., they find different meanings "in the text," none of which can authoritatively be linked with authorial intent, and all of which are first and foremost meanings in the minds of the interpreters.
Let me deconstruct this for you. Meaning is no longer found in the words themselves, that is, in the written text. Meaning is found in the reader. The words mean what the reader or hearer thinks, feels, or wants them to mean. We one time interpreted the words based on their plain reading in the context of how believers have understood them through history. The goal was authorial intent.

What happened? Many factors have contributed to this break-down in the meaning of words. First, meaning has been affected by its frame of reference. Marshal McLuhan in the context of his now famous, "the medium is the message," wrote: "Each medium, independent of the content it mediates, has its own intrinsic effects which are its unique message." In other words, you can't separate the message from the medium by which it is communicated so that the setting of a message, whether it be musical, architectural, technological, emotional, etc., does alter meaning. The place, person, and style of the communication affects its understanding. The church took a sacred meaning and immersed in a worldly or secular frame of reference and, in so doing, changed its meaning.

Second, multiple meanings of the same text have been given equal respect. Carson refers to this activity in the last part of his second quote above. Over a period of time, various interpretations of passages have accumulated. For the sake of a kind of unity, alternative understandings of many texts are tolerated. On passages that especially apply and have historically applied to cultural issues, new meanings have been assigned to accommodate modernity. Even if someone originates a new interpretation, he can refer to the reality of many interpretations as a basis for another one, giving it legitimacy by actuality.

A corollary to the second factor for the demise of meaning is the ranking of importance. If a doctrine or practice has been assigned secondary or tertiary status, a false interpretation will not affect acceptance. The number of primary doctrines and practices has shrunk. More and more multiple meanings of text have been tolerated. They aren't important enough to fuss over. The interpreter becomes preeminent over the text.

Third, it has become unpopular to interpret certain passages literally. The historic meaning of text has become out of vogue. Practicing such verses will put the church in such conflict with the world that separation will occur. The church will shrink and be associated with failure. The church comes up with clever reasons to see them in a different light than it once did.

Fourth, the world itself has welcomed literary deconstructionism and the church has embraced the world. Certain long standing definitions of terms have changed popularly and the church has often failed to restore them to their original meaning.

In my experience, it isn't so much that people don't know what words have meant. They just want them to mean something else, so they make them mean something different, more to their personal liking. The interpreter has become sovereign.

Keep looking for part two of this series for names and details.


mike said...

I don't know if that's a fair reading of Carson - especially since the purpose of his book is the exact opposite of your "deconstruction," which is an ironic word for you to choose to describe what you were doing, incidentally.

The thrust of Carsons authorial intent in The Gagging of God was to show that it is possible to have confidence about what something means but that we can never know something completely because we aren't God. Surely that's a valid point. In Carson's lectures on postmodernity, he likens human understanding and knowledge of somethingt o to a graph where a line continues to get closer and closer to the X axis but never actually touches it, saying, since we're human we cannot know perfectly - only God can.

This then leads us to the major split at Westminster seminary in the mid 20th Century between Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Clark about whether God's knowledge was qualitatively different than man's (Van Til) or quantitatively different than man's (Clark). Carson is following Van Til and you seem to be following Clark, but it is hardly fair to say then that Carson believes that meaning is found in the reader. That contradicts virtually everything Carson has written!

Kent Brandenburg said...

Hi Mike,

Thanks for reading and commenting. I know that Carson doesn't believe that meaning is found with the reader. He believes just the opposite. I'm reporting what he said about what has taken place. I perhaps didn't communicate that clearly enough, but now you know the authorial intent.

Regarding throwing in the word "deconstruct," I was using that word colloquially and a bit "tongue in cheek" at that point. Perhaps that didn't work either.

With that in mind, perhaps we're on the same page.

mike said...

Thanks for the clarification. I think so.

Don Johnson said...

Hi Kent, I'm snow-bound today... we don't do snow up here very well...

Anyway, re the Gap theory, I, too, once thought that it was a sop to Darwinism, but that is not in fact the case. I was studying Genesis last week for our morning message and came across this note in Tom Constable:

This is a very old theory that certain early Jewish writers and some church fathers held. Thomas Chalmers propelled it into prominence in 1814. Chalmers’ purpose was to harmonize Scripture with Scripture, not Scripture with science. Darwin’s Origin of Species first appeared in 1859, but Chalmers published his theory in 1814. Franz Delitzsch supported it in 1899. G. H. Pember’s book Earth’s Ancient Ages (1907) gave further impetus to this view. Many Christian geologists favored the view because they saw in it “an easy explanation for the fossil strata.” Harry Rimmer supported it41 as did Arthur W. Pink. L. S. Chafer held it but did not emphasize it. Arthur Custance is one writer who has defended it fairly recently.

Tom Constable, Tom Constable's Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003; 2003). Ge 1:2.


I agree with your main point in this, anyway.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Kent Brandenburg said...


Thanks for the info on the Gap Theory. I think most people got it from the Scofield. I think my point still stands, even the way I wrote it, but if this was a full fledged paper, I would stick your material in my footnote to enlighten the reader. Interesting stuff, though.

Jerry Bouey said...

Lately, I have been reading a book by David Cloud called What Is The Emerging Church. Food for thought. What came to mind as I read your article was the fact that many (even in Christendom) no longer consider the Bible the final authority, and that any view on a passage/doctrine, etc. is just as valid as any other - so truth is subjective, not objective. Spiritually, everyone is doing what is right in their own eyes. Doctrinal pluralism basically.

Revelation 3:14 And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God;

All the other letters begin with "the church in..." or "the church of...", and are identified with a particular church (each name giving some idea of where each church and church era generally stood). Now this last one (which I believe is typical of the age we are now in just prior to the return of Christ) states, "the church of the Laodiceans" (not "of Laodicea" - focussing more on the individuals than that church as a whole). Laodicea means "the righteousness of the people" - the majority of professing believers are no longer concerned with God's (Christ's) righteousness or with God's way of living righteously, but are determined to turn to "his own way."

Sometimes I get really discouraged at the state of Christendom around - including those "Christians" I work with or come into contact with throughout the week - but I am so grateful that God's Word is everlasting and still the final authority for faith and practice, even when I or they falter. The day I came to Christ, I found purpose and meaning in the Word of God, I found a guide for my life - not just a historical book (which I thought it was prior to being saved) or some religious manual - but the Word of God; not some subjective book (though certainly it affected me personally), but the objective source of truth (there for me to read, study, and glean from day by day).

Anonymous said...

Pastor Brandenburger,

Thanks for the article!

"Let me deconstruct this for you. Meaning is no longer found in the words themselves, that is, in the written text. Meaning is found in the reader. The words mean what the reader or hearer thinks, feels, or wants them to mean."

You're describing post-modernism, here.