Jesus: A Contentless Banner?? (Schaeffer)

 Many Christians have noted a dichotomy in modern thought.  On the upper level is value; on the bottom level is fact.  On the upper level is faith; on the bottom level is reason.  On the upper level is religion; on the bottom level is science.  On the upper level it is non-rational; on the bottom level is rational.  In other words, the upper level is about personal feelings and beliefs and the lower level is made up of more solid and real things like reason, science, and facts.  Francis Schaeffer discussed and critiqued this modern view in his excellent book, Escape from Reason.  In this book he gives a good Christian and biblical answer to modernity’s false dichotomy.

One area where this false dichotomy shows up is in how people today think of Jesus.  For most people, Jesus belongs to the upper level of religion and faith but he does not belong to the bottom level of fact and reason.  For many Westerners, Jesus can mean anything to anyone – what Francis Schaeffer called a “contentless banner.”  Here’s Schaeffer:

I have come to the point where, when I hear the word “Jesus”—which means so much to me because of the Person of the historic Jesus and his work—I listen carefully because I have with sorrow become more afraid of the word “Jesus” than almost any other word in the modern world. The word is used as a contentless banner, and our generation is invited to follow it. But there is no rational, scriptural content by which to test it, and thus the word is being used to teach the very opposite things from those which Jesus taught. …It is now Jesus-like to sleep with a girl or a man if she or he needs you. As long as you are trying to be human you are being Jesus-like to sleep with the other person, at the cost, be it noted, of breaking the specific morality which Jesus taught. But to these men this does not matter because that is downstairs in the area of rational scriptural content.

We have come then to this fearsome place where the word “Jesus” has become the enemy of the Person Jesus and the enemy of what Jesus taught. We must fear this contentless banner of the word “Jesus” not because we do not love Jesus but because we do love him. We must fight this contentless banner, with its deep motivations, rooted into the memories of the race, which is being used for the purpose of sociological form and control. We must teach our spiritual children to do the same.

This accelerating trend makes me wonder whether, when Jesus said that toward the end time there will be other Jesuses, he meant something like this. We must never forget that the great enemy who is coming is the anti-Christ. He is not anti-non-Christ. He is anti-Christ. Increasingly over the last few years the word “Jesus,” separated from the content of the Scriptures, has become the enemy of the Jesus of history, the Jesus who died and rose and who is coming again and who is the eternal Son of God. So let us take care. If evangelical Christians begin to slip into a dichotomy, to separate an encounter with Jesus from the content of the Scriptures (including the discussable and the verifiable), we shall, without intending to, be throwing ourselves and the next generation into the millstream of the modern system.

Francis A. Schaeffer, Escape from Reason (Westmont, IL: IVP Books, 2014).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

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Choice, Truth, Authority (Guinness)

Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization by [Guinness, Os] In his 2016 publication Impossible People, Os Guinness shares some very helpful insight on our cultural situation as it relates to the historic Christian faith.  This is a very good book; I’m sure I’ll mention it here again.  Right now I want to note the section where Guinness gives three examples of the damage modernity has inflicted on the Christian faith and the church.  The first is modernity’s emphasis on choice and preference – an emphasis which “tends to undermine all forms of authority other than its own and replaces them with the sense that all responses are merely a matter of preference.”

“…From breakfast cereals to restaurants to cuisines to sexual identities and temptations to possible sexual arrangements, we are offered an infinite array of choices, and the focus is always on choosing rather than choice as the content of what is chosen.  Just choose.  Simply choose. Experiment.  Try it out for yourself.  How else will you know unless you have tried it?  After all, there are always others, there is always someone or something more, so unless you try them how are you to know whether you have missed the possible holiday, relationship, or philosophy that might really hit the jackpot.”

“…Even God is reduced to consumer choice, and when truth is taken out of the equation, sticking to one choice is no longer a matter of intellectual conviction but a sign of timidity as well as folly.  Surely, the unspoken adpseak tells us, you should always be open-minded, for the genuine freethinker will always wish to choose and keep choosing, to experiment and keep on experimenting.  Our freedom is the freedom to choose, regardless of whether our choice is right or wrong, wise or stupid.  So long as we can choose, we are free.  Choosing is all that matters.  Truth, goodness, and authority are irrelevant to the central act and main event: you are the sovereign chooser, and you are free to exercise your sovereign right to choose and choose and choose again in whatever way you like – untill all choices seem the same and each one shrivels into insignificance.”

Guinness does explain this in more detail, which is for sure worth reading, but it’s too long to quote here.  Here’s part of his critique of the “sovereign chooser”:

“When such autonomous, free-choice consumerism washes over society from the shopping mall to the bedroom, the office and the ballot box, the result is predictable.  What will be the price of obedience to authority, and what will be the respect according to principled dissent?  Choice – unbounded autonomous, subjective sovereign individual choice – is the playboy king of consumerland, and with comfort and convenience as his closet courtiers and cronies, he now rules much of life.  Authority and obedience are therefore banished together.  They are the unwelcome spoilsports whose entry might ruin the fantasy game of infinite choices.  The result is no surprise – a grave crisis of authority within the church, and a rash of positions and interpretations that in any clearer thinking generation would be frankly seen as the rejection of the authority of Jesus and the Scriptures that they are.”

Read that last sentence over again.  I think Guinness is exactly right.  Stay tuned for more on this book later….

Os Guinness, Impossible People, p. 69-70.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Five Evangelical Protestant Ironies

Dining with the Devil: The Megachurch Movement Flirts with Modernity In his excellent book critiquing evangelicalism’s relationship to modernity (Dining with the Devil), Os Guinness lists five ironies about the condition of Protestant evangelicalism in America.  They are short, but sweet.  If you want the larger context, you’ll have to get the book – he explains these five points throughout the book in a most persuasive manner.

First, Protestants today need the most protesting and reforming.”

Second, evangelicals and fundamentalists have become the most worldly tradition in the church.”

Third, conservatives are becoming the most progressive.”

Fourth, Christians in many cases are the prime agents of their own secularization.”

Fifth, through its uncritical engagement with modernity, the church is becoming its own most effective gravedigger.”

Os Guinness, Dining with the Devil (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 61-62.

rev shane lems

Relevance

If you’ve been reading this blog for more than a year or two, you know I very much appreciate Os Guinness’ books.  This one is no exception: Dining With the Devil: The Megachurch Movement Flirts with Modernity.  Though it is nearly 20 years old, it still speaks profoundly to the crisis in American Christianity – the crisis of culture shaping the church more than Scripture.  This section where Guinness speaks of relevance is outstanding.

“…Relevance is a question-begging concept when invoked by itself.  And when absolutized, relevance becomes lethal to truth.  Properly speaking, relevance assumes and requires the answer to such questions as: Relevance for what?  Relevant to whom?  If these questions are left unasked, a constant appeal to relevance becomes a way of riding roughshod over truth and corralling opinion coercively.  People are thinking or doing something simply ‘because it is relevant’ without knowing why.  But truth, in fact, gives relevance to ‘relevance,’ just as ‘relevance’ becomes irrelevance if it is not related to truth.  Without truth, relevance is meaningless and dangerous.”

“In addition, relevance has a false allure that masks both its built-in transience and its catch-22 demand.  Dean Inge captured the transience in his celebrated line, ‘He who marries the spirit of the age soon becomes a widower.’  But it was Simone Weil who highlighted the catch-22: ‘To be always relevant, you have to say things which are eternal.'”

“…The pursuit of relevance thus becomes a prime source of superficiality, anxiety, and burn-out.  (‘Hell,’ it has been said, ‘will be full of newspapers with a fresh edition every thirty seconds, so that no one will ever feel caught up.’)  In its competitive – read ‘marketed’ – form, relevance becomes ‘trendier than thou’ and eventually becomes the fast road toward irrelevance.  Revealingly, when “Saturday Night Live’ becomes a church’s seeker-friendly ‘Sunday Morning Live’ and ‘The Best Show in Town,’ the typical church staff question after worship becomes, ‘How did it go?'” (p. 63-64).

I’m especially interested in the provocative questions Guinness asks: “Relevance for what?”  “Relevant to whom?”  When churches bend over backwards to be relevant, those questions must be asked and answered.  I’ve seen some churches – in the name of relevance – not only water down the truth of the Word, but also ignore entire segments of people (older people, singles, handicapped people, etc.).  Anyway, I recommend this book very much: Dining with The Devil by Os Guinness.  I honestly think every serious Christian should read through this (especially pastors, elders, and other church leaders). There are even a few study questions at the end of each chapter – and the chapters are quite brief and readable.  At the time of this post, you can get copies of this book (used) on Amazon for  under $6.00 shipped.

shane lems

Truth, Epistemology, and Baseball

  Since I like baseball and certain philosophical discussions, I thought this was a good illustration that shows a few different ways people view truth.  (And I’ll refrain from explaining how calling strikes is tough because the strike zone is more like a cube than a square.)  Is truth objective, subjective, or a social construction?  Os Guinness illustrates it this way. 

“A simple way to illustrate lies in the story of the three baseball umpires debating their different philosophies of umpiring. 

‘There’s balls and there’s strikes,’ says the first, ‘and I call them the way they are.’

‘No!’ exclaims the second umpire.  ‘That’s arrogant.  There’s balls and there’s strikes and I call them the way I see it.’ 

‘That’s no better,’ says the third.  ‘Why beat around the bush?  Why not be realistic about what we do?  There’s balls and there’s strikes and they ain’t nothing till I call them.

The first umpire represents the traditional view of truth – objective, independent of the mind of the knower, and there to be discovered.  The second umpire speaks for moderate relativism – truth ‘as each person sees it’ according to his or her perspective and interpretation.  And the third umpire blatantly expresses the radically relativist, or postmodern, position – ‘truth’ is not there to be discovered; it is for each of us to create for ourselves (p 13).”

Guinness’ book, Time for Truth, is basically a discourse that argues “truth is far from dead.  It is alive and well and, in an important sense, undeniable.  And it is far from inconsequential.  Truth matters supremely because in the end, without truth there is no freedom.  Truth, in fact, is not only essential to freedom; it is freedom, and the only way to a free life lies in becoming a person of truth and learning to live in truth.  Living in truth is the secret of living free (p. 14).”

This is a great book on the topic of truth.  The subtitle explains it well: Living Free in a World of Lies, Hype, and Spin.  This book will help you wrestle through Jesus’ words: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32 NIV).

shane lems