This week, as I read Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism by John Lennox, I came upon this observation, which set in motion a chain of thoughts:
“They (Daniel and his friends) sought the wellbeing of Babylon by living in that city as salt and light for God. That stance involved sticking their heads above the parapet and protesting against the world-view that underlay the Babylonian system – and taking the consequences of doing so.”
That “Babylonian system,” Lennox says, was remarkably similar to the cultural system that now is in place in what we think of as Western culture – scientism and materialism, or science as religion and materialism in the sense of everything is material in the here and now and there is nothing after the here and now.
A child in the suburbs of New Orleans in the 1950s, I grew up in a time and culture strongly influenced by surging and often conflicting changes.
The post-World War II Baby Boom was continuing to explode, straining hospital and school services alike. The civil rights movement was gathering steam throughout the decade. The national religious revival associated with Christian leaders like Billy Graham and Carl F.H. Henry was ongoing. An almost religious reverence for science was created by the advent of the polio vaccine. And then I had the more immediate influences of family and what it meant to live in what was then (and now) what is perhaps the most different city in the United States, more an outpost of the Caribbean than an American city.
The 1960s were different: the civil rights movement; Vietnam and the antiwar movement; the proliferation of a lifestyle and philosophy summed up in almost a single word, “hippie;” the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy; the broadening sweep of the drug culture.
By the time I entered college in 1969, it seemed to my parents that there were two Americas existing side by side, and one of them had become unrecognizable.
Billy Graham remained popular and the counsel of presidents; the hippie movement along with the growth of para-church organizations like Campus Crusade for Christ fed into the stream of what had become known as the Jesus Movement. I became a Christian in 1973 at the height of the Jesus Movement, directly through the influence of Campus Crusade for Christ. That was the same year the Supreme Court issued its decision on abortion in Roe v. Wade.
One thing I understood from the beginning of my Christian faith: Christianity was, at its most basic, countercultural. That point was driven home with a video series my wife and I saw at the church we attended in Houston in the mid 1970s – How Shall We Then Live by Francis Schaeffer.
The films, and Schaeffer’s books, were a revelation to me. First, they emphasized the importance of Christians being in the culture – not only for the growth of the Gospel message but also for the good of the culture. Hiding from the culture in figurative fortresses and Christian “ghettos” was bad for both the Church and the culture. Second, Schaeffer described over and over again how much of what is good about the culture has come from generations of the Church.
Over the years, I took Schaeffer’s message to heart, and found myself involved in a number of programs and efforts (and a controversy or two) that aimed at being salt and the light in the culture (including work).
Over the course of my lifetime, the United States has moved from a culture of shared Christian belief to what some charitably describe as “more pluralistic” and others less charitably as “increasingly pagan.” There’s no doubt that the Church’s influence in the United States has declined. And there’s no doubt that the culture has become more coarsened, violent and polarized. Christians might place the blame for this on the decline of the Church’s influence and the growing hostility of those espousing progressive politics. The opposite perspective increasingly points the finger at “evangelicals” for being the last roadblock for freedom and equality for all.
The debate is going to get worse. The hostility is increasing. Christians are becoming increasingly “objectified” by our political, cultural and media elites. This isn’t going to end well for Christians or for the country.
The temptation for Christians will be to retreat. I don’t believe that is an option any more. It’s certainly not a solution. We no longer enjoy the de facto protection of shared belief.
So what do we do? Lennox argues that we do what the Church has always done – give reasoned arguments, engage, answer questions, and “defend the Christian message against misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and vilification.” And he says this: “It was (and is) part of the convincing power of the Christian message that it gave credible answers.”
We have our work cut out for us.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been discussing Against the Flow. This post is based upon chapter 6, “The World-View of Babylon.”
Painting: St. Paul preaching to the philosophers at the Areopagus in Athens by Raphael (1515).