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The Bible and Culture

If you visit a Borders or Barnes and Nobles bookstore these days, you are more likely than not to find a new section called Spirituality. This is a catchall category for all sorts of things, most of which are not directly connected with traditional religions of any sort, much less with what Christians call ‘spiritual formation’. In a post-modern situation you find any number of people saying, “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual”, though what one or another of them means by that will vary. So much has post-modernity infected and affected even Christian discourse it is seen as a good thing when someone says “I’ve learned how to be Christian without being religious.” In modernity, statements like that would simply have been viewed as either: 1) non sequiturs or 2) oxymorons; or 3) just sheer nonsense. No more. Many Christian today would gladly wear a button that says “I’m Christian, but not religious.” This is a signpost pointing to an intellectual and a cultural shift having various dimensions. And of course one of the other signs which most clearly points to a definite paradigm shift is the over-reaction or even allergic reaction many ultra-conservatives have to post-modernity, especially when it shows up on their church doorstep, or even (God forbid) in their sanctuaries and pulpits).

Post-modern spirituality is many things (indeed it can be called a many splintered thing) including the following at various times and to various degrees:

1) it is anti-traditional. It likes to see itself as something new, avant guarde, cutting edge, different, although in fact it is retreading a lot of stuff that is traditional;

2) it is synthetic and syncretistic.
For example, I once had a girl call me up on a radio talk show that was stuck in traffic on the Santa Monica freeway. She asked via cellphone “I’m sitting here stuck in traffic and holding my crystals and just wondered what is the connection between these crystals and Jesus” (the radio show had been about the historical Jesus). My reply? “There’s no connection between those crystals and Jesus, except Jesus is the solid Rock, and they so are not the solid rock, nor are they means to get in touch with Jesus.”

One of the reasons post-moderns are more prone to the sort of historical nonsense churned up in the movie Zeitgeist is because they are inclined to accept the premise that one religion evolved from earlier religions, or cannibalized ideas from previous religions in order to build its own. In other words, the evolutionary paradigm is applied not to the development of sentient beings, but to the development of intellectual ideas, including religious ideas. Alas for this history of religions (or religionsgeschichtliche approach, to use the German term), both history and human ideas are messy. They don’t usually develop in that sort of evolutionary or linear way.

3) there is a strong anti-historical bent in much of post-modernism. The way this affects the discussion about Christianity can easily be seen in the recent strong interest in Gnostic Christianity. There indeed we have a disembodied form of Christianity, not interested in the historical basis and foundations of the Christian faith in the life, death, resurrection, miracles of Jesus, but only interested in Jesus the conveyor of gnosis, insider spiritual knowledge, Jesus the talking head. In that system of things, it’s not who you know, but what you know that saves you, and if you do not have sufficient wattage to be in the know, you can’t be saved. It’s an early form of self-help religion. Post-modern spirituality treds lightly on the notion that history and historical events matter, when it is not busy trampling on such ideas altogether.

It is no surprise to me that the very same Gnostic Gospels which were studied, debated, over-analyzed and dismissed in the 70s as being of no relevance to the discussion of the historical Jesus, Mary, Mary Magdalene, Philip, Thomas or Judas, are today touted as new revelations of the new and true Christianity—Gnosticism. This is not just because the culture is more Biblically illiterate now than then, or because we are more open to various revisionist ideas about the past than then, though both of these things are sadly true. It is because the modernist deconstruction of disembodied spirituality is no longer seen as compelling and people are more open to a religious or spiritual smorgasbord of their own creation. In other words, to paraphrase the words of the Doobie Brothers— ‘what once were (viewed as) vices are now seen as (favored) habits’. In other words, there is a strong narcissistic and self-centered element in post-modernity. You can also see post-modernity’s finger prints in the loss of allegiance to one or another denominational form of Christianity.

Now, not all of post-modernity is a bad thing. As I said in my last post, in a global world, we need to become closer to being global Christians. The rabid re-pristinizing of one or another sort of blind nationalism should not be allowed to supplant this growth towards every Christian having a more all encompassing world vision, a vision that actually puts teeth in the belief that Jesus died for everyone in the world, and he loves them all—red and yellow, black and white. There is a wonderful Christmas song, on the James Taylor Christmas CD. It has a beautiful poignant lyric by a gentleman named Alfred Burt. It’s lyrics are as follows:

Some Children See Him
By Alfred Burt

Some children see Him lily white
the infant Jesus born this night
Some children see Him lily white
with tresses soft and fair

Some children see Him bronzed and brown
the Lord of heav’n to earth come down
Some children see Him bronzed and brown
with dark and heavy hair (with dark and heavy hair!)

Some children see Him almond-eyed
This Saviour whom we kneel beside
Some children see Him almond-eyed
With skin of yellow hue!

Some children see Him dark as they
Sweet Mary’s Son to whom we pray
Some children see Him dark as they
And, ah! they love Him so!

The children in each different place
Will see the Baby Jesus’ face
Like theirs but bright with heav’nly grace
And filled with holy light!

O lay aside each earthly thing
and with thy heart as offering
Come worship now the infant King
’tis love that’s born tonight!
’tis love that’s born tonight!

We all have a tendency to see Jesus as being like us. It’s normal and natural. And actually there is something divine about that, because Jesus is for us all. There is something deep within us that says we ought to be living in a world where we are all one in Christ, a world where what unites us in Christ is more significant than what culturally divides us.

Post-modern Christian spirituality involves a variety of diverse elements including: 1) a love of praising God at length, hence the rise of a whole praise music movement; 2) a love of liturgy, mystery, candles, and in general things that create a sense of wonder akin to that which one finds in Tolkien’s trilogy or the Chronicles of Narnia. It is no accident that these books have been made into movies in the last ten years; 3) a flexibility in regard to some doctrinal matters (see e.g. Rob Bell’s definition that doctrine is like a trampoline which has clear parameters or boundaries, but some flexibility in the middle), and some ethical matters as well (notice the changed attitudes of various post-modern
s about homosexuality); and 4) interestingly enough, rather than a pure retreat into fantasy or narcissism, a concern for the poor and for other social issues has emerged. This reflects the flexibility of post-modernism, which tends to adapt to circumstances and shows signs of real concern for neighbor, enemy, and the least, last and the lost.

Post-modernity, with all its faults and at its best, does allow room for a new sort of Christian spirituality. Not one which denies the past or its importance, but which builds on that past and focuses on the future, our shared eschatological future in Christ. I am not talking about naïve optimism based on human ability or possibilities. I am talking about an optimism based on and in the grace of God which can actually change human beings, and the course of human history. I actually believe that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a whole new creation, the old has passed away.” How about you?

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