The Wrinkles of Cultural Ministry

L. Roy Taylor’s retirement as stated clerk of the PCA’s General Assembly prompted a few questions about a Reformed church’s understanding of its responsibility to minister to “the culture.” Taylor himself sounded remarkably antithetical about the relationship between church and culture even while affirming the need to reach out to the wider world:

Few would disagree that our postmodern culture is morally, epistemologically (dealing with knowledge and facts), and theologically relativistic. After the 1960s, the worst thing one could do was to be certain or intolerant. Postmodernism and the sexual revolution of the 1960s have corroded our culture and even our churches. As we deal with modernity, we can either 1) accept the culture’s norms, 2) isolate ourselves from the culture, or 3) bear biblical witness to culture.

For Bible-believing Christians, accepting the culture’s norms is not an option because we believe in absolute moral standards, objective truth, and definite theology based on the Bible. Throughout history, some Christians have sought to isolate themselves from the culture either physically (monastics or hermits) or socially (having few or no non-Christian friends). Given the downward spiral of our culture, isolation is attractive for some Christians. For believers with a biblical worldview, however, we must bear witness to our culture.

Disagreeing with that assessment would require a Reaganesque invocation of “Morning in America” and could sound as naive now as it did then. Taylor suggests that if the church is going to “speak” to the culture, the words will be largely confrontational.

A similar theme was in the incoming stated clerk, Bryan Chapell’s assessment of the PCA from five years ago:

The issue that dwarfs our doctrinal squabbles and our persistent concern of how to treat issues of sexuality and gender is the issue of pluralism. Nothing comes close to that issue in being a challenge to our church’s future. The social stigma that is already attached to us for claiming that “Jesus is the only way” will be magnified many times for our children in a society increasingly willing to identify minority opinions as “bigotry” and “hate speech.” Pluralism will threaten not simply our orthodoxy, but the willingness of many to remain in this church.

If we do not see pluralism for the enemy it is, then we will not make appropriate alliances, link arms for necessary purposes, or allocate resources and align priorities for the greater ends required. If we do not recognize how seductive pluralism will be for all of us (and all we love) with its promises of societal approval and acceptance, then we will not embrace the means, manner, and message that will communicate the true beauty of grace that is the power of the Gospel.

The word “beauty” perhaps takes the edge off an antithetical relationship to the culture, but the threat Chapell identifies in the broader society leaves no sense that a little elbow grease is all you need to get the job of cultural transformation done.

To find a more positive less adversarial understanding of the PCA’s relationship to “the culture” you need to go back to Tim Keller’s 2010 remarks about what he “likes” about the PCA:

The culturalist impulse is like the doctrinalist in that it values theological reasoning and is suspicious of the individualism and pragmatism of the pietists. Culturalists emphasize community and the corporate in ways similar to the doctrinalists. However, culturalists are more like the pietists in their openness to social adaptation. Indeed, they usually are more open to the ‘new’ than the pietists. And the culturalists pay the most attention to what goes on outside the church in the culture. In particular, they usually give more heed to modern scholarship. Culturalists may show less concern with ‘church growth’ and overt evangelistic programs than either of the other two branches. Also feel more affinity to ‘the Great Tradition’—the Anglican, Catholic, and Eastern churches—than do the doctrinalists and the pietists.

This is a view of the culture that is open, willing to entertain novelty, and learn from secular scholarship, whether about religious matters or society. It is not antithetical but friendly.

If you had to guess which of these outlooks was most predictive of the PCA’s future and you looked at the age of the authors, you might say that Chapell who is the youngest (and not retired) reflects the communion’s posture for the next decade or so. From another angle, Keller’s own stature as successful New York City pastor and author of many books suggests that his outlook will carry the most weight, at least for a while.

But when it comes to cultural transformation, the wrench that gums up the works is the ministry of social justice. Those most concerned about racism, inequality, and structures of exclusion and privilege likely have no trouble seeing the church at odds with cultural structures that are systemically unjust. These Presbyterians could well agree with Taylor and Chapell’s warnings about cultural captivity. And the social justice Presbyterians could well think that Keller’s estimate of the modern world, from scholarship to big cities and the economies that make such urban centers possible, is naive. Missing from the social justice outlook, though, is an awareness that lots of people who have no Christian profession adopt the same causes (more like the other way around) that believing progressives do. In other words, the antithesis for social justice Christians has much more to do with politics than regeneration.

All of which makes a cultural ministry anything but simply the gospel.

What a Turkey! Part 5: Another Parallel between Islam and Contemporary Calvinism

If Ohran Pamuk’s setting of northeastern Turkey reveals how the simple religious act of a woman donning a scarf becomes a vigorous expression of political Islam, Nafisi’s book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, shows the extent to which political Islam in an Iranian setting will go for the sake of covering women, whether Muslim or not. Her memoir follows her experience as the daughter of the mayor of Tehran before the Islamic revolution, her education in the United States for graduate training in literature, and her return to teach in Tehran, first at the university and then privately. Along the way, Nafisi, whose religious identity is unclear, has to go from wearing jeans and T-shirts as a graduate student, to blouses and slacks as a professor, and then to a chador under Iran’s Muslim republic.

The book is less about politics and more about the way zealous believers read (or misread) literature. Hence Reading Lolita in Tehran is of use once again for Reformed Protestants who advocate w-w and Christian education. This is not meant to be a cheap shot. It is rather a way of considering parallels between totalistic claims upon knowledge and ways of understanding. If w-wists do not want to look like a Christian version of political Islam’s reading of Western literature, they could well learn from Nafisi and consider whether the reach of a w-w needs to be as entire as neo-Calvinists sometimes claim.

One particular passage from Nafisi struck and moved me. The book, thankfully, is not entirely about Nabokov’s very dark novel about a middle-aged man’s illicit relationship with a girl. Nafisi also uses discussions of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry James to explore her experience within Iran. Since I am an inveterate romantic (all about me), I am also a sucker for Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which I consider to be arguably the greatest American novel and the teaching of which was crucial to my budding intellectual awareness. Nafisi’s reading of the novel is as persuasive as it is arresting and comes in the context of a university classroom trial where dedicated Muslim students wanted to prosecute the novel for its immorality and decadence, thus, embodying the evil United States’ secularism and materialism.

Here is one part of the prosecution’s case against Gatsby:

“Okay,” he conceded, “but the values were such that adultery went unpunished. This book preaches illicit relations between a man and a woman. First we have Tom and his mistress, the scene in her apartment, even the narrator, Nick, is implicated. He doesn like their lies, but he has no objection to their fornicating and sitting on each other’s laps, and, and those parties at Gatsby’s . . . remember, ladies and gentlemen, this Gatsby is the hero of the book – and who is he? He is a charlatan, he is an adulterer, he is a liar . . . this is the man Nick celebrates and feels sorry for, this man, this destroyer of homes!” . . . . “The only sympathetic person here is the cuckolded husband, Mr. Wilson,” Mr. Nyazi boomed. “When he kills Gatsby, it is the hand of God. He is the only victim. He is the genuine symbol of the oppressed, in the land of, of that Great Satan!”

Nafisi (as well as one of her sharp students) will have nothing of such a surface and pietistic reading of either Gatsby’s longing for Daisy or the American Dream:

The reality of Gatsby’s life is that he is a charlatan. But the truth is that he is a romantic and tragic dreamer, who become heroic because of his belief in his own romantic delusion.
Gatsby cannot tolerate the shabbiness of his life. He has an “extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness,” and some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.” He cannot change the world, so he re-creates himself according to his dream. . . . Gatsby’s loyalty was to his reinvented self, which saw its fulfillment in Daisy’s voice. It was to the promises of that self that he remained faithful, to the green light at the end of the dock, not a shabby dream of wealth and prosperity.

The city is the link between Gatsby’s dream and the American dream. The dream is not about money but what he imagines he can become. It is not a comment on America as a materialistic country but as an idealistic one, one that has turned money into a means of retrieving the dream. There is nothing crass here, or the crassness is so mingled with the dream that it becomes very difficult to differentiate between the two. In the end, the best ideals and the most sordid of realities all come together. . . .

Nafisi then quotes from Gatsby’s final pages:

“‘And as the moon rose higher the in essential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island where that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplating he neither understood nor desire, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.’”

Part of Nafisi’s point is that religious zeal misses the higher and even spiritual dimensions of Gatsby and his quest. If viewed only from the standpoint of the antithesis between belief and unbelief, or between obedience to God or sinful disobedience, the political Islamic reading of Gatsby has merit. But applying the antithesis in this way also misses what could plausibly be Gatsby’s own quest, as deformed as it may be, for spiritual fulfillment and even for a new heaven and new earth. Someone might even argue that Gatsby’s condition is what all persons experience this side of paradise lost.

Still, the point here is not about the best reading of Fitzgerald but the limits of w-w thinking that relies so heavily on the antithesis. That division between believers and unbelievers, between the city of God and the city of man, is a spiritual reality that goes all the way down to a person’s inclinations and final destiny. But it is not the last word on human beings even if it is the ultimate one. Persons are bodies as much as they are souls, and while inhabiting planet earth between the advents of Christ, people are still capable of remarkable accomplishments and aspirations. The reason is not because they are free from sin or unbelief but because they are created in the image of God and the residue of that image is responsible for those noble even if unholy longings that sent Jay Gatsby to his soggy death.

If w-wers can produce that kind of intellectual agility – if they can recognize the doubleness of human existence and the dance among spiritual longings, human ingenuity, and the imperviousness of original sin – then we need to pay them more attention. If not, then they sound like just one more version of identity politics to be shelved near the section with political Islamists who also rely overwhelmingly on the antithesis.