In the first volume of his history of World War II, Winston Churchill looked back at the storm clouds that gathered in the 1930s portending war and the loss of human freedom. Churchill wisely and presciently warned Britain of the tragedy that would ensue if Hitler were not stopped. His actions were courageous and the world was shaped by his convictional leadership. We are not facing the same gathering storm, but we are now facing a battle that will determine the destiny of priceless freedoms and the very foundation of human rights and human dignity.
Speaking thirty years ago, Attorney General Meese warned that 'there are ideas which have gained influence in some parts of our society, particularly in some important and sophisticated areas that are opposed to religious freedom and freedom in general. In some areas there are some people that have espoused a hostility to religion that must be recognized for what it is, and expressly countered.'
Those were prophetic words, prescient in their clarity and foresight. The ideas of which Mr. Meese warned have only gained ground in the last thirty years, and now with astounding velocity. A revolution in morality now seeks not only to subvert marriage, but also to redefine it, and thus to undermine an essential foundation of human dignity, flourishing, and freedom.
Religious liberty is under direct threat. During oral arguments in the Obergefell case, the Solicitor General of the United States served notice before the Supreme Court that the liberties of religious institutions will be an open and unavoidable question. Already, religious liberty is threatened by a new moral regime that exalts erotic liberty and personal autonomy and openly argues that religious liberties must give way to the new morality, its redefinition of marriage, and its demand for coercive moral, cultural, and legal sovereignty.
These are days that will require courage, conviction, and clarity of vision. We are in a fight for the most basic liberties God has given humanity, every single one of us, made in his image. Religious liberty is being redefined as mere freedom of worship, but it will not long survive if it is reduced to a private sphere with no public voice. The very freedom to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ is at stake, and thus so is the liberty of every American. Human rights and human dignity are temporary abstractions if they are severed from their reality as gifts of the Creator. The eclipse of Christian truth will lead inevitably to a tragic loss of human dignity. If we lose religious liberty, all other liberties will be lost, one by one.
Religious Liberty and the Challenge of Same-Sex Marriage
Even though same-sex marriage is new to the American scene, the religious liberty challenges became fully apparent even before it became a reality. Soon after the legalization of same-sex marriage in the state of Massachusetts, several seminars and symposia were held in order to consider the religious liberty dimensions of this legal revolution. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty sponsored one of the most important of these events, which produced a major volume with essays by prominent legal experts on both sides of this revolution. The consensus of every single participant in the conference was that the normalization of homosexuality and the legalization of same-sex marriage would produce a head-on collision in the courts. As Marc D. Stern, of the American Jewish Congress stated, 'Same-sex marriage would work a sea change in American law.' He continued, 'That change will reverberate across the legal and religious landscape in ways that are unpredictable today.'
Nevertheless, he predicted some of the battlefronts he saw coming and addressed some of the arguments that could already be recognized. Even then, Stern saw almost all the issues we have recounted, and others yet to come. He saw the campuses of religious colleges and the work of religious institutions as inevitable arenas of legal conflict. He pointed to employment as one of the crucial issues of legal conflict and spoke with pessimism about the ability of religious institutions to maintain liberty in this context, for which he advocates. As Stern argued, 'The legalization of same-sex marriage would represent the triumph of an egalitarian-based ethic over a faith-based one, and not just legally. The remaining question is whether champions of tolerance are prepared to tolerate proponents of the different ethical vision. I think the answer will be no.'
Stern did not wait long to have his assessment verified by legal scholars on the other side of the debate. One of the most important of these, Chai R. Feldblum, presented rare candor and revealed that an advocate for same-sex marriage and the normalization of homosexuality could also see these issues coming. Feldblum pointed to what she described as, 'the conflict that I believe exists between laws intended to protect the liberty of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people so that they may live lives of dignity and integrity and the religious beliefs of some individuals whose conduct is regulated by such laws.' She went on to state her belief that 'those who advocate for LGBT equality have downplayed the impact of such laws on some people's religious beliefs and, equally, I believe those who sought religious exemptions in such civil rights laws have downplayed the impact that such exemptions would have on LGBT people.'
As Feldblum argued, she called for the society to 'acknowledge that civil rights laws can burden an individual's belief liberty interest when the conduct demanded by these laws burdens an individual's core beliefs, whether such beliefs are religiously or secularly based.' Thus, in Feldblum's argument, we confront face-to-face the candid assertion that an individual's 'belief liberty interest' must give way to what are now defined as the civil rights of sexual minorities. Feldblum believed she saw the future clearly and that the future would mean 'a majority of jurisdictions in this country will have modified their laws so that LGBT people will have full equality in our society, including access to civil marriage or to civil unions that carry the same legal effect as civil marriage.' In that future, religious liberty would simply give way to the civil liberties of homosexuals and same-sex couples. Feldblum, then a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, also understood that this moral revolution would mean that the government is 'taking sides' in a moral conflict, siding with the LGBT community. This necessarily puts government on the side of that moral judgment, which is precisely the point Feldblum is insisting we must recognize. Once government is on that side of the moral judgment, its laws and its coercion will require those who hold to a contrary moral system, whether based in religious or secular convictions to give way to the new moral judgment affirmed by the government.
In her very revealing argument, Feldblum struggles to find a way to grant recognition and a level of liberty to those who disagree with the normalization of homosexuality, especially on religious grounds. Nevertheless, as she shares quite openly, she is unable to sustain that effort, given her prior commitment to the absolute imposition of the new morality by means of the law and the power of the state. Appointed and later confirmed as Commissioner of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, nominated by President Obama, Feldblum stated in a different context that the end result of antidiscrimination legislation would mean the victory of sexual rights over religious liberty. She commented that she could not come up with a single case in which, at least hypothetically, religious liberty would triumph over coercion to the new moral morality.
It is crucially important that we understand the moral judgment being made and enforced by legal mechanisms in the wake of this revolution. Feldblum, a lesbian activist who has advocated for same-sex marriage'-and for the legalization of polygamy'-fully understands the law teaches and reinforces a morality. She insists that the law must allow no deviation in public life from the dictates of the new morality. In this case, this means allowing virtually no exemptions to regulations prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
In her presentation at the Becket Fund event, Feldblum cited the writings of Judge Michael McConnell, who both offered support for same-sex marriage and the assurance that the religious liberty of Christians and other religious citizens must be protected. McConnell's argument is straightforward:
"The starting point would be to extend respect to both sides in the conflict of opinion, to treat both the view that homosexuality is a healthy and normal manifestation of human sexuality and the view that homosexuality is unnatural and immoral as conscientious positions, worthy of respect, much as we treat both atheism and faith as worthy of respect. In using the term 'respect,' I do not mean agreement. Rather, I mean the civil toleration we extend to fellow citizens and fellow human beings even when we disagree with their views. We should recognize that the 'Civil Magistrate' is no more 'competent a Judge' of the 'Truth' about human sexuality than about religion."
Feldblum dismissed his argument by accusing McConnell of failing to recognize 'that the government necessarily takes a stance on the moral question he has articulated every time it fails to affirmatively ensure the gay people can live openly, safely, and honestly in society.'
In other words, there must be no exceptions. Religious liberty simply evaporates as a fundamental right grounded in the U.S. Constitution, and recedes into the background in the wake of what is now a higher social commitment'-sexual freedom.
The publishing world sees very few books reach blockbuster status, but William Paul Young's The Shack has now exceeded even that. The book, originally self-published by Young and two friends, has now sold more than 10 million copies and has been translated into over thirty languages. It is now one of the best-selling paperback books of all time, and its readers are enthusiastic.
According to Young, the book was originally written for his own children. In essence, it can be described as a narrative theodicy - an attempt to answer the question of evil and the character of God by means of a story. In this story, the main character is grieving the brutal kidnapping and murder of his seven-year-old daughter when he receives what turns out to be a summons from God to meet him in the very shack where the man's daughter had been murdered. In the shack, "Mack" meets the divine Trinity as "Papa," an African-American woman; Jesus, a Jewish carpenter; and "Sarayu," an Asian woman who is revealed to be the Holy Spirit. The book is mainly a series of dialogues between Mack, Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu. Those conversations reveal God to be very different than the God of the Bible. "Papa" is absolutely non-judgmental, and seems most determined to affirm that all humanity is already redeemed.
The theology of The Shack is not incidental to the story. Indeed, at most points the narrative seems mainly to serve as a structure for the dialogues. And the dialogues reveal a theology that is unconventional at best, and undoubtedly heretical in certain respects.
While the literary device of an unconventional "trinity" of divine persons is itself sub-biblical and dangerous, the theological explanations are worse. "Papa" tells Mack of the time when the three persons of the Trinity "spoke ourself into human existence as the Son of God." Nowhere in the Bible is the Father or the Spirit described as taking on human existence. The Christology of the book is likewise confused. "Papa" tells Mack that, though Jesus is fully God, "he has never drawn upon his nature as God to do anything. He has only lived out of his relationship with me, living in the very same manner that I desire to be in relationship with every human being." When Jesus healed the blind, "He did so only as a dependent, limited human being trusting in my life and power to be at work within him and through him. Jesus, as a human being, had no power within himself to heal anyone."
While there is ample theological confusion to unpack there, suffice it to say that the Christian church has struggled for centuries to come to a faithful understanding of the Trinity in order to avoid just this kind of confusion - understanding that the Christian faith is itself at stake.
Jesus tells Mack that he is "the best way any human can relate to Papa or Sarayu." Not the only way, but merely the best way.
In another chapter, "Papa" corrects Mack's theology by asserting, "I don't need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It's not my purpose to punish it; it's my joy to cure it." Without doubt, God's joy is in the atonement accomplished by the Son. Nevertheless, the Bible consistently reveals God to be the holy and righteous Judge, who will indeed punish sinners. The idea that sin is merely "its own punishment" fits the Eastern concept of karma, but not the Christian Gospel.
The relationship of the Father to the Son, revealed in a text like John 17, is rejected in favor of an absolute equality of authority among the persons of the Trinity. "Papa" explains that "we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity." In one of the most bizarre paragraphs of the book, Jesus tells Mack: "Papa is as much submitted to me as I am to him, or Sarayu to me, or Papa to her. Submission is not about authority and it is not obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect. In fact, we are submitted to you in the same way."
The theorized submission of the Trinity to a human being - or to all human beings - is a theological innovation of the most extreme and dangerous sort. The essence of idolatry is self-worship, and this notion of the Trinity submitted (in any sense) to humanity is inescapably idolatrous.
The most controversial aspects of The Shack's message have revolved around questions of universalism, universal redemption, and ultimate reconciliation. Jesus tells Mack: "Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don't vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions." Jesus adds, "I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, my Beloved."
Mack then asks the obvious question - do all roads lead to Christ? Jesus responds, "Most roads don't lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you."
Given the context, it is impossible not to draw essentially universalistic or inclusivistic conclusions about Young's meaning. "Papa" chides Mack that he is now reconciled to the whole world. Mack retorts, "The whole world? You mean those who believe in you, right?" "Papa" responds, "The whole world, Mack."
Put together, all this implies something very close to the doctrine of reconciliation proposed by Karl Barth. And, even as Young's collaborator Wayne Jacobson has lamented the "self-appointed doctrine police" who have charged the book with teaching ultimate reconciliation, he acknowledges that the first editions of the manuscript were unduly influenced by Young's "partiality at the time" to ultimate reconciliation - the belief that the cross and resurrection of Christ accomplished then and there a unilateral reconciliation of all sinners (and even all creation) to God.
James B. DeYoung of Western Theological Seminary, a New Testament scholar who has known William Young for years, documents Young's embrace of a form of "Christian universalism." The Shack, he concludes, "rests on the foundation of universal reconciliation."
Even as Wayne Jacobson and others complain of those who identify heresy within The Shack, the fact is that the Christian church has explicitly identified these teachings as just that - heresy. The obvious question is this: How is it that so many evangelical Christians seem to be drawn not only to this story, but to the theology presented in the narrative - a theology at so many points in conflict with evangelical convictions?
Evangelical observers have not been alone in asking this question. Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Professor Timothy Beal of Case Western University argues that the popularity of The Shack suggests that evangelicals might be shifting their theology. He cites the "nonbiblical metaphorical models of God" in the book, as well as its "nonhierarchical" model of the Trinity and, most importantly, "its theology of universal salvation."
Beal asserts that none of this theology is part of "mainstream evangelical theology," then explains: "In fact, all three are rooted in liberal and radical academic theological discourse from the 1970s and 80s - work that has profoundly influenced contemporary feminist and liberation theology but, until now, had very little impact on the theological imaginations of nonacademics, especially within the religious mainstream."
He then asks: "What are these progressive theological ideas doing in this evangelical pulp-fiction phenomenon?" He answers: "Unbeknownst to most of us, they have been present on the liberal margins of evangelical thought for decades." Now, he explains, The Shack has introduced and popularized these liberal concepts even among mainstream evangelicals.
Timothy Beal cannot be dismissed as a conservative "heresy-hunter." He is thrilled that these "progressive theological ideas" are now "trickling into popular culture by way of The Shack."
Similarly, writing at Books & Culture, Katherine Jeffrey concludes that The Shack "offers a postmodern, post-biblical theodicy." While her main concern is the book's place "in a Christian literary landscape," she cannot avoid dealing with its theological message.
In evaluating the book, it must be kept in mind that The Shack is a work of fiction. But it is also a sustained theological argument, and this simply cannot be denied. Any number of notable novels and works of literature have contained aberrant theology, and even heresy. The crucial question is whether the aberrant doctrines are features of the story or the message of the work. When it comes to The Shack, the really troubling fact is that so many readers are drawn to the theological message of the book, and fail to see how it conflicts with the Bible at so many crucial points.
All this reveals a disastrous failure of evangelical discernment. It is hard not to conclude that theological discernment is now a lost art among American evangelicals - and this loss can only lead to theological catastrophe.
The answer is not to ban The Shack or yank it out of the hands of readers. We need not fear books - we must be ready to answer them. We desperately need a theological recovery that can only come from practicing biblical discernment. This will require us to identify the doctrinal dangers of The Shack, to be sure. But our real task is to reacquaint evangelicals with the Bible's teachings on these very questions and to foster a doctrinal rearmament of Christian believers.
The Shack is a wake-up call for evangelical Christianity. An assessment like that offered by Timothy Beal is telling. The popularity of this book among evangelicals can only be explained by a lack of basic theological knowledge among us - a failure even to understand the Gospel of Christ. The tragedy that evangelicals have lost the art of biblical discernment must be traced to a disastrous loss of biblical knowledge. Discernment cannot survive without doctrine.
This article was based on the novel and was originally published in 2010.
I am always glad to hear from readers and listeners. Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow regular updates on Twitter at www.twitter.com/AlbertMohler.
Evangelical Christians have been especially attentive to worship in recent years, sparking a renaissance of thought and conversation on what worship really is and how it should be done. Even if this renewed interest has unfortunately resulted in what some have called the 'worship wars' in some churches, it seems that what A. W. Tozer once called the 'missing jewel' of evangelical worship is being recovered.
Nevertheless, if most evangelicals would quickly agree that worship is central to the life of the church, there would be no consensus to an unavoidable question: What is central to Christian worship? Historically, the more liturgical churches have argued that the sacraments form the heart of Christian worship. These churches argue that the elements of the Lord's Supper and the water of baptism most powerfully present the gospel. Among evangelicals, some call for evangelism as the heart of worship, planning every facet of the service'-songs, prayers, the sermon'-with the evangelistic invitation in mind.
Though most evangelicals mention the preaching of the word as a necessary or customary part of worship, the prevailing model of worship in evangelical churches is increasingly defined by music, along with innovations such as drama and video presentations. When preaching the word retreats, a host of entertaining innovations will take its place.
Traditional norms of worship are now subordinated to a demand for relevance and creativity. A media-driven culture of images has replaced the word-centered culture that gave birth to the Reformation churches. In some sense, the image-driven culture of modern evangelicalism is an embrace of the very practices rejected by the Reformers in their quest for true biblical worship.
Music fills the space of most evangelical worship, and much of this music comes in the form of contemporary choruses marked by precious little theological content. Beyond the popularity of the chorus as a musical form, many evangelical churches seem intensely concerned to replicate studio-quality musical presentations.
In terms of musical style, the more traditional churches feature large choirs'-often with orchestras'-and may even sing the established hymns of the faith. Choral contributions are often massive in scale and professional in quality. In any event, music fills the space and drives the energy of the worship service. Intense planning, financial investment, and priority of preparation are focused on the musical dimensions of worship. Professional staff and an army of volunteers spend much of the week in rehearsals and practice sessions.
All this is not lost on the congregation. Some Christians shop for churches that offer the worship style and experience that fits their expectation. In most communities, churches are known for their worship styles and musical programs. Those dissatisfied with what they find at one church can quickly move to another, sometimes using the language of self-expression to explain that the new church 'meets our needs' or 'allows us to worship.'
A concern for true biblical worship was at the very heart of the Reformation. But even Martin Luther, who wrote hymns and required his preachers to be trained in song, would not recognize this modern preoccupation with music as legitimate or healthy. Why? Because the Reformers were convinced that the heart of true biblical worship was the preaching of the word of God.
Thanks be to God, evangelism does take place in Christian worship. Confronted by the presentation of the gospel and the preaching of the word, sinners are drawn to faith in Jesus Christ and the offer of salvation is presented to all. Likewise, the Lord's Supper and baptism are honored as ordinances by the Lord's own command, and each finds its place in true worship.
Furthermore, music is one of God's most precious gifts to his people, and it is a language by which we may worship God in spirit and in truth. The hymns of the faith convey rich confessional and theological content, and many modern choruses recover a sense of doxology formerly lost in many evangelical churches. But music is not the central act of Christian worship, and neither is evangelism nor even the ordinances. The heart of Christian worship is the authentic preaching of the word of God.
Expository preaching is central, irreducible, and nonnegotiable to the Bible's mission of authentic worship that pleases God. John Stott's simple declaration states the issue boldly: 'Preaching is indispensable to Christianity.' More specifically, preaching is indispensable to Christian worship'-and not only indispensable, but central.
The centrality of preaching is the theme of both testaments of Scripture. In Nehemiah 8 we find the people demanding that Ezra the scribe bring the book of the law to the assembly. Ezra and his colleagues stand on a raised platform and read from the book. When he opens the book to read, the assembly rises to its feet in honor of the word of God and respond, 'Amen, Amen!'
Interestingly, the text explains that Ezra and those assisting him 'read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading' (Neh 8:8). This remarkable text presents a portrait of expository preaching. Once the text was read, it was carefully explained to the congregation. Ezra did not stage an event or orchestrate a spectacle'-he simply and carefully proclaimed the word of God.
This text is a sobering indictment of much contemporary Christianity. According to the text, a demand for biblical preaching erupted within the hearts of the people. They gathered as a congregation and summoned the preacher. This reflects an intense hunger and thirst for the preaching of the word of God. Where is this desire evident among today's evangelicals?
In far too many churches, the Bible is nearly silent. The public reading of Scripture has been dropped from many services, and the sermon has been sidelined, reduced to a brief devotional appended to the music. Many preachers accept this as a necessary concession to the age of entertainment. Some hope to put in a brief message of encouragement or exhortation before the conclusion of the service.
As Michael Green so pointedly put it: 'This is the age of the sermonette, and sermonettes make Christianettes.'
The anemia of evangelical worship'-all the music and energy aside'-is directly attributable to the absence of genuine expository preaching. Such preaching would confront the congregation with nothing less than the living and active word of God. That confrontation will shape the congregation as the Holy Spirit accompanies the word, opens eyes, and applies that word to human hearts.
This post is the last of three in a series on Preaching in a Secular Age.
With our cultural analysis behind us, I would like to consider the role of preaching in a secular age, particularly preaching as a survival strategy for the church. Many today are reconsidering the role and nature of preaching, especially given the massive changes that now characterize our culture. All sorts of new plans and strategies have been created in order to reinvent preaching in light of demographics, sociology, and even management theories. But I want to posit that the only answer to our current crisis in preaching is to recall how many of our forebears approached the task of standing behind the 'sacred desk.'
In a secular age, preaching will be met with one of three responses. First, we will find ourselves preaching in a context of hostility. This will not necessarily take the form of overt action. But, at least in the immediate future, much of this hostility will look like cultural marginalization. Those who listen to us will now do so by paying social capital, not gaining social capital'-a cultural situation notably different from our grandparents or even our parents. Second, our preaching will also often be met with befuddlement. For many among the intellectual elites, Christian preachers are not an object of hostility or derision as much as they are creatures of oddity. The plausibility structures of society are so different from our own that many people simply cannot understand us. Finally, we will find that we will not only be met with hostility and befuddlement, but also indifference. Many in our society will not even care enough about our message to spend their energies either in hostility or befuddlement.
One of the problems we encounter moving forward is that in many circumstances our approach to preaching in relation to other theological disciplines is wrongly skewed. For years in the theological academy, homiletics has been seen as something of a finishing school for clergy. We have imagined that the true theological heavy lifting occurs in the disciplines of theology, exegesis, or church history, while homiletics was merely the practical work for those who were moving on to the professional and less theologically involved environment of the pastorate.
I would suggest to you, however, that this alienation between the classical theological disciplines and homiletics is misguided and detrimental to the life of the church. Historically, the tripartite division in institutions of theological education between theological studies, biblical studies, and practical ministry studies originated in Germany, but was concretized as the accreditation expectation for theological seminaries by the Association of Theological of Schools by the middle of the last century. While there are benefits to specialization in academic disciplines, we should also recognize that segmenting theological study along the lines of specialization has come at a cost (perhaps even unintended) in the lives of many modern preachers. We must recognize that the preacher's task is an exegetical and theological one. Homiletics cannot be divorced from theology and exegesis simply by virtue of the fact that what we proclaim in the pulpit is a biblical theology that originates from the exegesis of God's Word.
Preachers need to be competent in many arenas of life. They need managerial competence. They need organizational competence. But above everything else, the preacher needs theological and exegetical competence. The curriculum in our seminaries and theological institutions must reflect this commitment to train preaching theologians, and not just men who are entertaining.
When we recognize the challenges posed to us by our current cultural climate, we will also recognize that preaching, doctrinally robust and exegetically rich preaching, is the only mechanism for the church's survival in a secular age. The faithful pastor is not a theologian at one moment, an exegete the next, and at other times a preacher. He is, instead, all of those things simultaneously and in equal measure. This means that in our churches and in our theological institutions we are not simply training religious professionals who happen to be able to speak in front of a crowd, we are bringing up theologians who know how to rightly handle God's Word and herald that Word in a way that is understandable to any given audience.
The early church fathers met the overt opposition of the Roman culture with faithful preaching'-preaching that was deemed subversive to the Roman Empire. Further, even after the fall of the Roman Empire preaching was central to the ministry of the church. Peter Brown, renowned historian of late antiquity, notes that the Basilica of Hippo was not just the place that housed Augustine's pulpit, it was also a place for business transaction. Brown points out that these transactions would occur even during Augustine's preaching and that Augustine would often be interrupted by interlocutors who objected to the content of his sermons, disagreeing with one point or another. And yet even in the noise of commercial activity and critics, Augustine was clear that preaching must not retreat but continue on as central in the church's mission and ministry.
As we fast-forward to the Reformation, we find that Luther understood preaching as the first mark of the church. For Luther preaching was the primary means by which sinners were able to come to know the truths of the Gospel first revealed to him in the words of Romans 1:17.Again, we must remember that Luther was no arm-chair theologian. Luther spoke about the centrality of preaching the gospel at the risk of his life. One need only consider the mortal peril he was in at the Diet of Worms to understand the seriousness of his commitment to the Gospel and to the proclamation of the Gospel in preaching.
Similarly, Calvin emphasized the union of Word and Spirit in the preaching event, reminding us that the Holy Spirit convicts and converts through the preaching of the Word, doing more than any preacher in his own power is ever able to achieve. This gave Calvin not only a theology of how preaching worked but also fueled his commitment to why one must preach. Without preaching the church simply could not survive, the Spirit would not move, and the flame of the Reformation would be extinguished. This commitment to the centrality of preaching, particularly with regard to the church's preservation and multiplication, continued throughout successive generations of faithful Christians like the English Reformers, Whitfield, Wesley, and Edwards.
The biblical witness and the testimony of church history clearly point to the fact that preaching is the church's survival strategy. By preaching the church expands and by preaching the church remains faithful in a hostile culture. In a secular age, we can no longer rely on the luxury of having other cultural voices do the work of instilling our people with a Christian worldview. The plausibility structures of the culture now work at cross-currents to the message we preach on Sunday mornings. No longer does the culture indicate one 'ought' to listen to preaching or one 'ought' to give credence to the Christian moral tradition. Those days are behind us. Indeed, the plausibility structures of our culture have so radically changed that the cultural 'oughts' are now opposed to Christianity'-one ought not associate with those so far outside the cultural mainstream, one ought not define the human predicament in terms of sin, one ought not speak in a way that the Bible speaks or believe the things the Bible proclaims.
We need to recognize that the age of cultural Christianity is disappearing right before us. The kind of preaching that made for 'successful' churches is also disappearing because the people who came for that kind of preaching no longer feel bound to come. We must now recognize that preaching is not just an activity the church engages in on Sunday mornings. Preaching is not a trivial activity. Preaching is a matter of life and death'-preaching in the secular city is a matter of survival.
Fundamentally, the survival of the church in the secular city comes down to a promise and a command given us in Scripture, an indicative and an imperative. First, we must remember that Jesus promised 'I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it' (Matt 16:18). Next, we must remember that we have been commissioned, 'preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching' (2 Tim 4:2). We need to remember both of these words from Scripture in order to serve faithfully in the secular city. Jesus has given his church a strategy for survival in the face of cultural hostility. That strategy, it turns out, is the apostolic call to preach.
This post is the second of three in a series on Preaching in a Secular Age.
The previous post in this series examined Peter Berger's explanation for the progress of secularization in the Western world. In addition to Berger, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has also carefully traced the influence and effects of secularization on the West. As he explains in his important book, The Secular Age, the way people hold to theological convictions and religious principles in the modern era is fundamentally different than how people believed in the past. Modernity has made religious belief provisional, optional, and far less urgent than it was in the pre-modern world.
I had this notion pressed upon me in some force when I was a doctoral student and I had the opportunity to attend a seminar with Heiko Oberman, a prestigious history professor from the University of Arizona and one of the world's greatest scholars on the Reformation. Oberman was about seventy years old at the time; I was in my early twenties.
Halfway through the lecture, Oberman, through no fault of our own, became exasperated with the class. 'Young men,' he said, 'you will never understand Luther because you go to bed every night confident you will wake up healthy in the morning. In Luther's day, people thought that every day could be their last. They had no antibiotics. They didn't have modern medicine. Sickness and death came swiftly.' Oberman's point was that when Luther closed his eyes at night terrified he was afraid he might wake up in hell. Luther recognized that every day might be his last and he could very quickly find himself either face to face with God or the devil.
Taylor makes the same point, although not as anecdotally as Oberman. As Taylor notes, on this side of modernity when people believe, they are making a choice to believe that previous generations did not make. Belief is now a provisional choice, an exercise of personal autonomy. When people identify as believers in Jesus Christ they are making a far more individualistic statement than was possible in years past. Furthermore, they are doing so in the face of alternative worldview options that were simply unavailable until very recently. In fact, as I was doing research for my book on atheism I learned that the very first use of 'atheist' in English came from Miles Coverdale who invented the word during his time translating Scripture. The remarkable thing to notice is that Coverdale had to invent a term for someone who did not believe in God because he did not know anyone who actually held that conviction. No one in the Elizabethan age would have denied God's existence.
Perhaps the central insight from Taylor's book is his categorization of the pre-modern, modern, and post-modern time periods with respect to the worldview options available in a culture. As Taylor argues, western history is categorized by three intellectual epochs: pre-Enlightenment impossibility of unbelief; post-Enlightenment possibility of unbelief; and late Modern impossibility of belief.
In the pre-Enlightment era it was impossible not to believe. One simply could not explain the world without some appeal either to the Bible or to 'enchantment,' to return to Weber's terminology. No other worldviews were available to members of society other than supernatural worldviews, particularly the Christian worldview in the West. While society had its heretics, there were no atheists among them. Everyone believed in some form of theism, even if it was polytheism. As Taylor simply states, it was impossible not to believe.
That all changed with the Enlightenment and the availability of alternative worldviews by which one could frame a comprehensive account of the world set over against the Christian worldview. These alternative worldviews made it possible for members of society to reject the supernaturalism of Christianity for a naturalistic worldview. Taylor's careful phraseology here, however, is also important to note. While it was certainly possible not to believe, it was also the case that it was not likely that people would reject the Christian worldview because the theistic explanations for life were simply more pervasive, binding, and persuasive than non-theistic worldviews.
The intellectual conditions in Europe and on American university campuses have now secularized such that it is impossible for those under such conditions to believe in God. In other words, we have arrived at the third intellectual epoch of Western society: impossible to believe. As Taylor observes, to be a candidate for tenure at a major American university is to inhabit a world in which it is virtually impossible to believe in God. Under the first set of Western intellectual conditions, not everyone was a Christian, but all were accountable to a Christian worldview because there was no alternative. Secularization in American culture has reversed the conditions: not everyone is a non-Christian, but all must operate under a secular worldview that denies the legitimacy of a Christian worldview. In three hundred years, Western intellectual conditions have moved from an impossibility of unbelief to an impossibility of belief.
So what does this mean for us as preachers? We must recognize that these intellectual conditions now prevalent in Europe and in the American universities are quickly filtering down from the elites to the general culture. The mechanisms in this process are fairly easy to trace. In fact a number of polls reveal that the greatest predictor for whether you will find yourself in an increasingly secular space comes down to whether you live near a coast, a city, or a university. Given that the future of America is increasingly defined by most of its population being coastal, urban, and university-educated, you can see that the future of America is also increasingly secular.
Given these cultural changes, we need to recognize we are not preaching to people who hear us in the same way as previous generations in Western societies. Furthermore, we are not preaching with the same authority, culturally speaking, as we once did because we no longer represent the dominant, established worldview of the culture. Instead we now represent a worldview that is not only considered marginal but subversive of the new intellectual and moral regime. Even the people in our churches believe in a way that is more provisional and less theologically grounded than in previous generations.
The question remains, what does preaching look like in the secular city? How do we preach a binding authority when people do not even realize they are under authority? How do we preach the objective truths of a non-provisional gospel? How do we preach the authority of a single book, its singular Savior, and a faith once for all delivered to the saints when most people hold, even unconsciously, to a firm commitment to pluralization?
This post is the first of three in a series on Preaching in a Secular Age.
I began my chapter on preaching and postmodernism in We Cannot Be Silent with these words, 'A common concern seems to emerge now wherever Christians gather: The task of truth-telling is stranger than it used to be. In this age, telling the truth is tough business and not for the faint-hearted. The times are increasingly strange.' As preachers we recognize how strange the times have become. Almost anyone seeking to carry out a faithful pulpit ministry recognizes that preachers must now ask questions we have not had to consider in the past. We recognize that preaching has been displaced from its once prominent position in the culture. Many of us are wondering, why is preaching more challenging in our cultural moment than it has been in other times? The answer to this question ultimately rests in this fact: we now live, move, and have our being in a secular age. As preachers, and even as Christians, we must understand the trends of secularization and advance that the only authentic Christian response to the challenge of secularization is faithful, clear, and informed expository preaching.
Secularization, as representative of an ideological and cultural change, was not possible until very recent times. Secularization rests on the shoulders of a number of other ideological shifts that have preceded it. Without the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and even without certain technological advances, secularization would have never been possible.
Once these intellectual and societal trends were charted, secularization theory began emerging as an academic discipline. Most of the contributors to this theory argued that secularization was the handmaiden to modernity. As these theorists explained, the modern age would necessarily and inevitably produce a secular society because modernity made God irrelevant. Modernism provided alternative answers to the most fundamental questions of life thereby rendering theism no longer necessary.
One of the most important theorists was professor Harvey Cox who, in 1965, published an enormously important book, The Secular City. The book was revolutionary for many Christians who had not yet recognized that society was fundamentally changing and growing more secular. Of course, many of the cultural signs pointing toward secularization were not as apparent then as they would be just a few decades later. Indeed, one need only consider that just ten years prior to the publication of Cox's book, Dwight Eisenhower was baptized, making a public profession of faith in Christ while holding the office of President of the United States. This episode alone is enough to demonstrate just how significantly the culture and the political landscape has shifted between Eisenhower's presidency and our own day. Despite this seeming evidence to the contrary, Cox revealed a tectonic cultural shift underway within Western society.With great foresight, Cox made the point that the future of the Western world, particularly its cities, was predominantly secular. As he made clear, this secularism was characterized by an eclipse of theism.
Additionally, another important theorist, German sociologist and philosopher Max Weber, argued that most people throughout human existence lived in an 'enchanted' world. Weber meant that in the pre-modern era, humanity looked for the answers to all of the most basic questions of life by appealing to an 'enchanted' or transcendent source. He was speaking, of course, about more than Western Christianity. Any religious answer, even one based in something as theologically undefined as totemism, appeals to 'enchantment' or transcendence for the answers to life's biggest questions. But, Weber argued, modernity brought about disenchantment'-a jettisoning of transcendence for a purely naturalistic worldview.
Secularization theorists in the last decades of the 19th century and in the early decades of the 20th century were confident that this "disenchantment" would spread to the entire Western world. They were also convinced that organized religion and its authority would disappear. They were absolutely confident that they would live to see it happen. So did these things happen? The answer is actually a bit complicated.
The renowned sociologist Peter Berger notes that secularization happened just as the theorists predicted with respect to Europe'-a continent that now registers almost imperceptible levels of Christian belief. Similarly, secularization also successfully swept across the landscape of American universities'-which are, in many respects, isolated islands of Europe on American soil. One need only consider, for instance, the University of Tennessee which recently ordered that gendered pronouns be replaced by gender neutral pronouns like 'zie.' While this administrative mandate was later overturned, the point remains that even in places such as Knoxville, Tennessee, major American universities are on the same trajectory of secularization as many of the most secularized parts of Europe.
But why has secularization not happened at the same rate in other communities in the United States as it has on American college campuses or in Europe? Berger demonstrates that secularization did happen to the same degree in the United States, but the outward appearance simply looked quite different than what we see in Europe or on university campuses.
As Berger explained, Christianity, in twentieth-century America, has transformed into a non-cognitive commitment. As a result, the binding authority of the Christian moral tradition has been lost. Many of our friends and neighbors continue to profess faith in God, but that profession is ultimately devoid of any moral authority or cognitive content. From the outside looking in, America did not appear to be secularizing at the same rate as the European continent. In reality, however, professions of faith in God had little real theological or spiritual meaning.
Berger predicted that as these religious adherents met cultural opposition, they would quickly give way to the secular agenda'-which is exactly what happened. Just ten years ago most polls reflected the fact that a majority of Americans opposed same-sex marriage. Yet in our day the very same people polled one decade ago rendered an opposite moral judgement on the same issue. Just as Berger explained, when the cultural tide turned against our society's empty religious commitments, people were happy to jettison their moral judgment on homosexuality to retain their social capital.
As preachers, Berger's observations are tremendously important. We, above all others, need to realize that the culture no longer shares our worldview and as a result the very language we use may mean something entirely different in the ears of our listeners than what we intend. The meaning of words like morality, personhood, marriage, or virtually any other moral term has radically shifted for many postmodern Americans, making our job as preachers that much more difficult. These challenges are demanding but Scripture is sufficient for the task. Our job as preachers is not to make the message of the gospel palatable to the postmodern mind but to preach in a way that is compelling, clear, and authoritative. The times may have changed, but the task of preaching has not.
Families across the Christian world are gathering for Christmas even now, with caravans of cars and planeloads of passengers headed to hearth and home. Christmas comes once again, filled with the joy, expectation, and sentiment of the season. It is a time for children, who fill homes with energy, excitement, and sheer joy. And it is a time for the aged, who cherish Christmas memories drawn from decades of Christmas celebrations. Even in an age of mobility, families do their best to gather as extended clans, drawn by the call of Christmas.
And yet, the sentiment and joy of the season is often accompanied by very different emotions and memories. At some point, every Christian home is invaded by the pressing memory of loved ones who can no longer gather '- of empty chairs and empty arms, and aching hearts. For some, the grief is fresh, suffering the death of one who was so very present at the Christmas gathering last year, but is now among the saints resting in Christ. For others, it is the grief of a loss suffered long ago. We grieve the absence of parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and siblings. Some, with a grief almost too great to bear, suffer the heartbreak that comes with the death of a child.
Is Christmas also for those who grieve? Such a question would perplex those who experienced the events that night in humble Bethlehem and those who followed Christ throughout his earthly ministry. Christmas is especially for those who grieve.
The Apostle Paul, writing to the Galatians, reminds us of the fact that we are born as slaves to sin. 'But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.' [Galatians 4:4] Out of darkness, came light. As the prophet Isaiah foretold, 'The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who walk in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.' [Isaiah 9:2]
This same Christ is the Messiah who, as Isaiah declared, 'has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.' [Isaiah 53:4] He fully identifies with and shares all our afflictions, and he came that we might know the only rescue from death, sorrow, grief, and sin.
The baby Jesus was born into a world of grief, suffering, and loss. The meaning of his incarnation was recognized by the aged Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, who prophesied that God had acted to save his people, 'because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.' [Luke 1:78-79]
There are so many Christians who, even now, are suffering the grief that feels very much like the shadow of death. How can they celebrate Christmas, and how might we celebrate with them?
In 1918, a special service was written for the choir of King's College at Britain's Cambridge University. The 'Service of Nine Lessons and Carols' was first read and sung in the magnificent chapel of King's College in that same year, establishing what is now a venerable Christmas tradition. In the 'Bidding Prayer' prepared to call the congregation together for that beautiful service, the great truths of Christmas are declared in unforgettable prose:
Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmastide our care and delight to hear again the message of the angels, and in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger.
Therefore let us read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child.
But first, let us pray for the needs of the whole world; for peace on earth and goodwill among all his people; for unity and brotherhood within the Church he came to build, and especially in this city.
And because this of all things would rejoice his heart, let us remember, in his name, the poor and helpless, the cold, the hungry, and the oppressed; the sick and them that mourn, the lonely and the unloved, the aged and the little children; all those who know not the Lord Jesus, or who love him not, or who by sin have grieved his heart of love.
On the very evening of the celebration of Christ's birth, Christians are called to remember, in Christ's name, the poor and the helpless, the cold and the hungry, the oppressed and the sick, the lonely and the unloved, the aged and the children, those who do not know Christ, 'and them that mourn.'
The church is filled with those who, while not grieving as others grieve, bear grief as Christians who miss their loved ones, who cherish their memories, and who wonder at times how to think of such grief at Christmas. Far too many homes are filled with them that mourn.
And it will be so until Christ comes again. The great truth of Christmas is that the Father so loves the world that he sent his own Son to assume human flesh and to dwell among us, to die for our sins and to suffer for our iniquity, and to declare that the kingdom of God is at hand. This same Jesus was raised from the dead on the third day, conquering death and sin. There is salvation, full pardon from sin, and life everlasting to those who believe and trust in him.
Christmas is especially for those who mourn and suffer grief, for the message of Christmas is nothing less than the death of death in the death and resurrection of Christ.
And them that mourn. Christmas is especially for those bearing grief and sorrow. Our joy is hindered temporarily by the loss we have suffered, even as we know that those who are in Christ are promised everlasting life. We know that even now they are with Christ, for to be absent from the body is to the present with the Lord.
Christians bear a particular responsibility to surround fellow believers with this confidence, and to minister Christmas joy and love to those bearing griefs. We stand together in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, declaring with the Apostle Paul that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God. We bind one another's hearts, respect one another's tears, and remind one another of the blessed hope. For, it was Christ himself who promised that our 'sorrow will turn into joy.' [John 16:20] When we sing Christmas carols and read the great Christmas texts of the Bible, we hurl the message of life over death against the Evil One and death, who meet their ultimate defeat in Christ.
That Bidding Prayer written for King's College, Cambridge, in 1918 draws to a close with words that speak so powerfully to the Church about these very truths:
'Lastly, let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom in the Lord Jesus we are for ever one.'
Those words are exactly right. Those who have gone before us to be with the Lord are with us in Christmas joy. They rejoice with us, 'but upon another shore, and in a greater light.' Our loved ones in Christ are in that unnumbered multitude 'whose hope was in the Word made flesh.' The great truth of Christmas is shouted in the face of death when we declare that, even now, 'in the Lord Jesus we are forever one.'
Your loved one was not created and given the gift of life merely for that chair now empty. Those who are in Christ were created for eternal glory. We must train our sentiments to lean into truth, and we must know that Christmas is especially for those who grieve.
And them that mourn. The chair may be now empty, but heaven will be full. Remember, above all else, that those who are in Christ, though dead, celebrate Christmas with us '- just upon another shore, and in a greater light. Merry Christmas.