Operation Gravedigger (Guinness)

As many of our readers know, I (Shane) always enjoy reading Os Guinness.  One of his books that stands out for me is The Last Christian on Earth (the original 1983 title was The Gravedigger File).  This book is something like C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters – only better in my opinion because it deals with more modern cultural issues and does so with more detail than The Screwtape Letters.  Furthermore, Guinness is more theologically sound than Lewis.  Comparisons aside, here is how the demonic enemy of the church explains the strategy of “Operation Gravedigger” to his apprentice in Guinness’ book:
“The Christian faith has contributed to the rise of the modern world, but the Christian faith has been undermined by the modern world it helped to create.  The Christian faith thus becomes its own gravedigger.

The strategy turns on this monumental irony, and the victory we are so close to realizing depends on two elementary insights.  First, the Christian faith is now captive to the modern world it helped to create.  Second, our interests are best served, not by working against the Church, but by working with it.  The more the Church becomes one with the modern world, the more it becomes compromised, and the deeper the grave it digs for itself.

Having joined the Operation when it was well underway, my own contribution has all been in the execution, not in the planning.  So my use of the word ‘we’ in these memos is the broad organizational sense.  But as you will come to recognize, the very restlessness of the way the strategy is being carried out betrays its mastermind.  Only one mind is capable of such audacity of vision and sheer force of will.  ‘The devil is in the details,’ people say casually.  If only they knew.”
Shane Lems
Hammond, WI


Masculinity and Family Values: The Cure to Society’s Ills?

Culture Vultures I’m very skeptical about “Christian” patriarchy and the Family Integrated Church movement for biblical and (Reformed) theological reasons.  I’m also skeptical of these things for social (or sociological) reasons. I agree with many of the points made by the authors of Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.  Here’s an excerpt from the introduction where the authors give some common suggestions on why American culture is crumbling.

“Perhaps the most widespread alternative explanation locates the source of our problems in a crisis of the family.  The cry that what our society most needs is ‘family values’ is not one to be dismissed lightly.  …But why is the crisis expressed as a failure of family values?  It is unlikely that we will understand what is going on here unless we once again take into account the culture of individualism.”

In other words, in our individualistic society we tend to blame individuals for society’s problems: if we fix individuals, social problems will be solved.  The authors say there is some truth in this, and a call to renewed commitment to marriage and family responsibilities is a good call.  However,

“…to imagine that problems arising from failures rooted in the structure of our economy and polity can primarily be traced to the failings of individuals with inadequate family values seems to us sadly mistaken.  It not only increases the level of individual guilt, it also distracts attention from larger failures of collective responsibility.”

“The link between cultural individualism and the emphasis on family values has a further consequence.  …Failure [for a man] to support [his] family may be taken as an indication of inadequate manhood.  It is easy to draw the conclusion that if American men would only act like men, then family life would be improved and social problems solved.  Some such way of thinking undoubtedly lies behind the movement known as Promise Keepers, as well as the Million Man March of 1995.”

“While we share many of the values of these movements, we are skeptical that increased male responsibility will prove to be an adequate solution to our deep structural economic and political problems or even that it will do more than marginally diminish the sever strains on the American family.  The notion that if men would only be men then all would be well in our society seems to us a sad cultural delusion.”

Bellah and the other authors go on to explain these things in more detail.  Their perspective is that rampant individualism is the major factor that has been tearing America apart for years: not primarily loss of family values or loss of masculinity (though these things are somewhat related).  Simply regaining family values and “manhood” is not a deep and lasting cure for all cultural ills – there’s more to it than that.

Perhaps the same could be said of the church?  How much has American individualism and populism weakened the church?  Quite a bit, I would say.  If you want more info on this, I recommend Habits of the Heart.  You may not agree with all of it, but it will stretch you, challenge you, help you fight against individualism, and think more in terms of solidarity and community.

Habits of the Heart, ed. Bella, Madsen, etc. (2008 edition).

shane lems

The Church’s Collapse Into Worldliness

Product Details Quite often a church’s quest for relevance ends up in unfaithfulness to Christ and his Word.  In Os Guinness’ terms, it is a “collapse into worldliness.”  The question is, how does this happen?  Guinness gives four steps of this downward spiral that starts with a desire for relevance and ends in unfaithfulness.  (Note: I’ve edited the following to keep it brief, though I do highly recommend reading this in its entirety – see the citation below).

Step One: Assumption.  The process of uncritical adaptation begins when some aspect of modern life or thought is assumed either to be significant, and therefore worth acknowledging, or superior to what Christians know or do, and therefore worth adopting.  Soon the assumption in question becomes an integral part of Christian thought and practice.  The danger is when something is accepted without any thought, simply because it is modern or new.”

“Step Two: Abandonment.  Everything that does not fit in with the new assumption (step 1) either is cut out deliberately or is slowly relegated to a limbo of neglect.  Truths or customs that do not fit in with the modern assumption are put up in the creedal attic to collect dust.  They are of no more use.  The modern assumptions are authoritative.  Is the traditional idea unfashionable, superfluous, or just plain wrong?  No matter.  It doesn’t fit in, so it has to go.  In the 1980s and 1990s…the air in evangelical conferences and magazines was thick with assaults on the irrelevance of history, the outdatedness of traditional hymns and music, the uptightness of traditional morality, the abstractness of theologizing, the impracticality of biblical illustration, the inadequacy of small churches, and the deadly, new unforgivable sin – irrelevance.

Step Three: Adaptation.  The third step follows logically from the second, just as the second does from the first.  Something new is assumed, something old is abandoned; and everything else is adapted.  In other words, what remains of traditional beliefs and practices is altered to fit with the new assumption.  After all, the new assumption has become authoritative.  It has entered the mind like a new boss at work, and everything must smartly change to suit its preferences and perspectives.  What is not abandoned does not stay the same; rather, it is adapted.  The habits and assumptions of a certain age and culture are accepted without thought, and then they replace the authority of traditional Christian assumptions.”

“Step Four: Assimilation.  The fourth step is the logical culmination of the first three.  Something modern is assumed (step one).  As a consequence, something traditional is abandoned (step two), and everything else is adapted (step three).  The outcome is that what remains is not only adapted but absorbed by the modern assumptions.  It is assimilated without any decisive remainder.  The result is worldliness, or Christian capitulation to some aspect of the culture of its day.  No longer a missionary, the church ‘goes native’ in some foreign culture or among some foreign ideas.  In 1966, the World Council of Churches even adopted the bizarre dictum, ‘The world must set the agenda for the Church.’”

“What links all these movements in the church [these emphases on baby-boomers, youth, the urban crowd, etc.] is the same principle.  The authentic church is the relevant church, and the relevant church is the attuned church, and the attuned church is in sync with its audience.  A great part of the evangelical community has made a historic shift.  It has transferred authority from Sola Scripture (Scripture alone) to Sola Cultura (culture alone).

You’ll have to think of these steps in light of certain movements in the American church the last 100+ years.  A few that come to my mind is one recent article in a Christian Reformed Church (CRC) publication saying we must reformulate all our doctrines based on the findings of evolution.  Another that comes to mind is the decades old movement from psalms to hymns to pop-worship-music.  Yet one more is the pro-gay movement in many protestant churches and denominations, from the PCUSA to the ELCA.  The list goes on.

Constructively speaking, the way to fight this collapse into worldliness is a firm commitment to God’s Word (sola Scriptura) – and always reforming according to it (rather than culture, populism, or relevance).

Here’s the book: Os Guinness, Prophetic Untimeliness (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), chapter 3.

rev shane lems

Marketing, the Church, and Christ

Product Details This is a fascinating book: Brand Jesus: Christianity in a Consumerist Age by Tyler Stevenson.  If I remember correctly, one of our readers recommended it several months ago.  Anyway, I just finished it this morning.  I’m not going to give a full review here, but I do want to say that it is a worth-while read.  I have a few minor critiques (i.e. I disagree with a few points of his interpretation of Romans, the book seemed to ramble at times, and it could have been a bit shorter) but overall I believe the book is a good one for serious Christians to consider.

In this book, Stevenson basically describes how and why Christianity in America has been watered down by consumerism.  Stevenson talks about idolatry, money, marketing, trends, politics, t-shirts, and other such things that have to do with consumerism and Christianity.  In part 1, he discusses the history of consumerism.  In part 2, he goes through Romans 1:18-32 and parallels Greco-Roman culture and ours.  In part 3, Stevenson focuses on the church and its failures.  Part 4 is full of details about consumerism and Christianity.  The final part is an encouragement for Christians/churches to stand against consumerism.  I appreciated how Stevenson did not call us to conquer culture or redeem it, but instead live solid lives of discipleship.

Here are some quotes that captured my attention.

“Like it or not, in our society, we are what we buy.  Savvy stores do not sell products, but self-image.  The racks brimming with a dizzying variety of clothes do not offer a variety of products nearly as much as they offer varieties of potential me’s” (p. 19).

“To live in a consumerist world means that who we understand ourselves to be is deeply and significantly related to what we buy/consume” (p. 27).

“The problem with idols and brands is not that they are ineffectual, but that they cannot effect what we want them to effect.  They cannot give back according to the measure of transcendent devotion we give to them” (p. 105).

“What does it mean to be an evangelical in America today? …The reality, unfortunately, is that American evangelicalism has become primarily a marketing demographic” (p. 132).

“The NOTW consumer aspires to be ‘not of this world,’ even though there is hardly anything more of this world than proclaiming one’s identity through the clothing one buys” (p. 153).

“…When secular retailers are forced by Christian interests to bend the knee (i.e. in the Christmas war), they do not bow to honor the name of Christ, but the dollars of his self-proclaimed followers.  They are willing to change their marketing tactics in order to get Christian business.  Does this bring any honor to Christ’s name?  The very thought that it might is theologically bankrupt” (p. 161).

One more – and this one is brilliant.  Don’t miss it.

“…Now that the market has discovered evangelicals as a target audience, we should expect that the Christian marketing effort will start playing a significant role in defining how and who evangelicals believe themselves to be” (p. 163).

This book will certainly make you think.  I especially liked the sections on how marketing is very much related to Christian clothing, Christian politics, and the plethora of individualized Bibles for sale.  There are some hard-hitting parts of this book!  If you’re interested in this topic – Christianity and consumerism – you’ll certainly appreciate the book Brand Jesus: Christianity in a Consumerist Age.

shane lems

The Idol of Relevance

Product Details Once again, I very much appreciate the work of Os Guinness – this time in his 2003 work, Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to The Idol of RelevanceOne of Guinness’ major themes of this short book is the following provocative phrase: “Never have Christians pursued relevance more strenuously; never have Christians been more irrelevant” (p. 12).  Essentially, Guinness says that most “Christian” attempts at relevance end up being trivial, trite, and transient.  This relevance is not based on truth but popularity, and thus Christianity today is largely irrelevant in the United States.  How many non-Christians listen to Christian radio or watch Christian movies because they are so relevant to the deep and fundamental issues of life?

Here’s a synopsis of the book in Guinness’ own terms.

“By our uncritical pursuit of relevance we have actually courted irrelevance; by our breathless chase after relevance without a matching commitment to faithfulness, we have become not only unfaithful but irrelevant; by our determined efforts to redefine ourselves in ways that are more compelling to the modern world than are faithful to Christ, we have lost not only our identity but our authority and relevance.  Our crying need is to be faithful as well as relevant” (p. 15).

Those of you who are pastors or elders in churches that haven’t followed the winds of “pop” culture will want to get this book.  It will encourage you to continue to pursue faithfulness and preach truth in a culture that values the fad and worships the trend.  Or, if you are in a church that tries way too hard to be relevant, get this book for your pastor and elders/leaders.  Finally, I’d recommend this book for any Christian who wonders how Christianity and culture should interact.  It’s a great critique of evangelicalism’s idolatry of relevance, but it’s also a constructive way forward in faithfulness to the truth of the Word.  As Guinness says, “Is the culture decisive and the audience sovereign for the Christian church?  Not for one moment” (p. 66).

I’ll come back to this book, Prophetic Untimeliness, again later.  For now let me say that it is one of my top 10 books for 2012.  At the time of this post, you can get a used hardcover copy for well under $10.

shane lems

Democracy, Culture, Christianity

 Here’s a provocative section from Don Carson’s 2008 book, Christ and Culture Revisited.

“…Democracy, as a valuable form of government as it can be, must never be confused with the Christian vision of the good….  [A] democratic culture cannot be aligned isomorphically with a Christian culture.  Christians will cheer on democracy, believing that, by and large, it benefits the greatest number of people, provides mechanisms for limiting human power (and for ensuring that power can change hands without bloodshed), and usually provides more freedoms than other forms of government.  These freedoms almost inevitably allow many things to foster (I almost wrote ‘fester’) that Christians will dislike, but the same freedoms protect freedom of worship, freedom to bear witness, freedom to change one’s faith without government reprisals, and much more.  Nevertheless, all notions of freedom invoke, implicitly or explicitly, subsidiary notions of freedom from and freedom to or for.”

“The democratic tradition in the West has fostered a great deal of freedom from Scripture, God, tradition, and assorted moral constraints; it encourages freedom toward doing your own thing, hedonism, self-centeredness, and consumerism.  By contrast, the Bible encourages freedom from self-centeredness, idolatry, greed, and all sin and freedom toward living our lives as those who bear God’s image and who have been transformed by his grace, such that our greatest joy becomes doing his will.”

I appreciate how Carson notes that though democracy has its benefits, there still is a relatively sharp clash between Christianity and democracy (especially democracy as it has morphed in the West).  We can be thankful for democracy.  However, we have to always resist the democratization of Christianity and the church.

The above quote was taken from pages 138-9 of Christ and Culture Revisited by D. A. Carson.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Bored, Boring, Boredom

 Richard Winter’s book Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment is a great book that asks and answers this question from an intelligent, biblical point of view: Why are so many Americans bored when there are a billion things for us to do?  Another way to think about this topic is that Americans are “distracted from distraction by distraction.”   In this book Winter examines the social, biological, historical, spiritual, and philosophical aspects of boredom.  I was fascinated to learn how boredom, postmodernity, anxiety, and even addiction (among other things) are related.  This book is worth studying if you want a readable account of boredom in Western culture.

One section I found helpful was how Winter showed the way out of boredom.  Passion, wonder, leisure, ordinary pleasures, delight in the good, and a longing for the new creation are some examples of combating boredom and all the emotions and attitudes that go with it.  To be sure, this isn’t a biblical survey of boredom, but Winter does apply the general aspects of Christianity to boredom.

Here’s another angle of the book that is worth quoting and discussing.

“When stimulation comes at us from every side, we reach a point where we cannot respond with much depth to anything.  Bombarded with so much that is exciting and demands our attention, we tend to become unable to discriminate and choose from among the many options.  The result is that we shut down our attention to everything.  The boredom that we feel today is probably more likely to come from overload than underload.  When we are surrounded by so much information, we find it hard to sort out what is relevant and important and to find meaning in anything” (p. 37).

How does this relate to Christian worship?  Indeed, there is such a think as dry, lifeless, legalistic worship in churches where there is little love and laughter.  “At the end of the spectrum, others have found churches with plenty of excitement, entertainment, and emotion where there is little good teaching but everyone has a great time” (p. 133).  Winters even pointed out that he noticed one church called “Exciting First Baptist.”

“Of course our emotions should be involved in worship, but too often we want peace and happiness like an emotional fix.  We want instant pain relief and entertainment.  When God does not come through like that, we manufacture techniques and teaching to give us the excitement and experience we crave.  Worship has to be ever more entertaining and thrilling.  At first everything is wonderful, but after a time there is an ever-increasing desire for something more – another gift of the Spirit, another healing miracle, more dramatic experiences in worship” (ibid.).

Winters then says that the Bible doesn’t promise health, wealth, and unending excitement in this life.  There is such a thing as sin and brokenness; we’re called to be patient pilgrims longing for the new creation.  “God does indeed offer something deeper and more fulfilling now and in the future, but these are not often associated with the instant thrills and excitement promised by the culture of advertising and entertainment.    Sensation seekers and the instant-fix generation often have a hard time with that, and they may end up disappointed and bored with God” (p. 134).

This is something worth thinking about.  If our view of Christianity and our worship services have everything do with a band, positive CCM lite-Christian music, and uplifting atmosphere, what happens when these things no longer excite us or make us feel good?  What about our kids?  If children grow up in this entertaining church atmosphere, what do they do when it bores them?  What comes after Veggie Tales?  It’s pretty easy in our culture to push the delete button or download a new app.

I suppose this has to do with Andrew’s post yesterday.  Winters certainly helps us cut through this addiction to entertainment and its resulting boredom.  Get the book, study it, pray through it, and think about it from a mature Christian perspective.  By doing so, you’ll be able to avoid boredom and enjoy the life God has given us in an intelligent, mature, and enjoyable Christian way.

shane lems