The clouds peal with thunder, that the house of God will be established throughout the world; and yet these frogs sit in their marsh and croak, “We are the only true Christians.” (Augustine)
Like silly past fashions, many stupid, past actions of Christians are embarrassing for us today:
- The marginalization of women
- The coercion of the crusades
- The ill treatment of Galileo, Joan of Arc, John Wycliffe, and more
- The hysteria (and brutality) of the Salem witch trials
- The dehumanization and cruelty of the slave trade
If we examine our own personal Christian histories honestly, we will also find embarrassing excesses in some of the mistakes of our own spiritual influences.
As a kid, I was involved with Basic Youth Conflicts (now its leader has resigned amidst scandal). I was involved in the early Charismatic renewal (but now many of its leaders are obsessed with the spectacular over the gospel). I was involved in an excellent, influential Christian community (but many accused us of being elitist).
Hundreds of Christian movements have helped millions of believers. Yet many—maybe even most—of these movements grew imbalanced over time, exuding a sense of elitism, a touch of arrogance, a croaking, “We are the only true Christians.”
Do you love the Christian movement (or circles) that you are now involved in? How do we protect them from becoming just another embarrassing haircut from our yearbooks?
The worst Christian excesses (like the crusades, inquisitions, witch hunts, and American slavery) were inflicted by Christians who couldn’t differentiate between their culture and the gospel.
The Bible didn’t teach such stupidity and dehumanization (though it didn’t hide people’s imperfections either). The stupidity and brutality came from men and women who refused to distinguish their culture from the gospel; they adopted it and dressed it with Christian jargon.
While good gospel presentations express timeless truth in the particular language of our age, “the bad preacher does exactly the opposite: he takes the ideas of our own age and tricks them out in the traditional language of Christianity” (C. S. Lewis).
You and I are infected right now with cultural diseases. We don’t feel them because everyone around us is likewise infected. We all have measles but everyone thinks they’re just freckles.
Someday our children—or their children—will see our spots and laugh at our ignorance and cowardice. Just like we laugh (or blush) at the ignorance and cowardice of our ancestors.
The other adversary we face (in addition to cultural creep) is the horrible enemy of arrogance. Every successful Christian movement eventually has to learn real humility. Or else Christian history (viewed by our children) will doom it to disrepute and disgrace.
When we first meet the Lord (or when we re-meet the Lord through a fresh presentation of the gospel), it’s like nothing else. It’s better than sports, careers, and romance.
And we become very loyal to the group (or person) that changed our lives. We tell everyone about them. When friends respond that they too have met God, but through Campus Crusade or another speaker, we sigh—and let’s admit our sighs are condescending—and we insist they really need to hear this person. And maybe they do.
But maybe we need to hear what our friends learned. We are not the only true Christians.
Paul uses the metaphor of the body. He says the eye can’t say to the foot, “I don’t need you.” Sometime we think we are “The Answer.” Paul says our movements are a part, not the whole.
Identifying the creep of culture and arrogance
Like the proverbial frog in the kettle, cultural infection and arrogance boil up in us slowly. We don’t see it day-to-day, we only sense it over time. How can we identify our slowly heating pot?
- Arrogance is seen when we are far more eager to tell our friends what we’ve learned about God (through this person or that) than to listen to what God has taught them through someone else. (Sensing our own condescension is also a pretty good clue.)
- Cultural Creep is seen when ideas of culture perfectly sync with the ideas of our movement. The two waves form a compelling tidal wave in our hearts. Yet the modern answer for ancient problems are hair-fashions, soon restyled, again and again.
Perhaps the best identification is found in our choices of scripture passages (that we quote over and over) while explaining away seemingly contrary verses. Continued growth is found when we let uncomfortable passages address us. As Lewis says, that’s what forces growth in science:
Phenomenon which doesn’t fit in with the current scientific theories is the phenomenon which leads to new knowledge. Science progresses because scientists are constantly seeking them out.
There will be progress in Christian knowledge only as long as we accept the challenge of the difficult or repellent doctrines. Progress is made only into a resisting material.
If we love our movements, let’s protect them
When our messages and culture’s messages agree, let’s examine ourselves for spots. The only real, life-changing standard of Christianity is found in the timelessness of scripture. All of it.
When we sense arrogance in our movements—the croaking “we are the only true believers,”—let’s cook up some frog legs.
“All that is not eternal is eternally out of date” (C. S. Lewis).
I see nothing wrong with that hair style. 😉
Such good words Sam. A good test for me is a read through of James. Holy cow. Every time I open the book his words convict some blind spot or ground me back in the truth.
Thanks for writing and continuing to write my friend.
My site spammed your comment. I had to un-spam it. Maybe it’s because you like that hairstyle. You know, now that I think about it, maybe I should try it. You know, go retro. Wanna join me? How about … you first.
How about this picture of me when I was seventeen? What would you call that?
Laura K. Cowan
As you know I’m already shaking my head at my parents’ generation in many ways. Buuuut, the real focus in my life should be examining my own beliefs and assumptions, because my daughter will do the same to me, right?
It’s more fun to shake our heads at our parent’s generation. Argh! Yeah, that idea is a real pick-me-up.
I doubt we’ll ever get from our our culture’s insidious influence. But we can try. If just for the sake of our children–if nothing else–let’s at least try to examine and critique it.
At least our children will learn that we tried to critique our own, and they may try to critique theirs.
As a kid, I was involved with Basic Youth Conflicts (now its leader has resigned amidst scandal). You too HUH! How about backmasking, loseany prized albums.
Good post and some good thoughts
Sorry did not comment yesterday been busy becoming a Grandpa for teh first time.
God willing, I personally will not be embarrassed by anything in 30 years, because I will be with the Lord. I imagine that the thing that will embarrass Christians over all (that is, ecumenically) in 30 years will be the Prosperity Gospel. It already embarrasses me. Another, at least for our compatriots, may be the vain attempt to identify Christianity with the American Way.
Also, Sam, I think that you might want to read more on the Crusades. I especially recommend Christopher Tyerman’s _God’s War_, the most recent complete scholarly treatment. The Crusades were a complex phenomenon, not to be judged in a single phrase. The same is true of some of the other things you mention. John Wycliffe died in his bed and was not persecuted in his lifetime.(His bones were later exhumed, burned, and thrown into the Thames.) While as a Reformed Christian you may agree with some of his ideas that I as a Catholic might consider erroneous, you probably wouldn’t agree with all of them, especially the one that says that temporal rulers should take over all Church property.
I agree with you about the Prosperity Gospel and identifying Christianity with the American Way, though I’m also wanting to look at less obvious, more insidious ways culture shapes thoughts and beliefs.
I’m know Tyerman’s God’s War. I bought it after I read about it in someone’s Facebook post (come to think of it, it may have been one of your posts). He seems to have done a great scholarly job. But, at then end of all things, after the return of our Lord, I do not think Jesus is going to say the Crusades was our finest moment. Not even close. They were men very much dominated by their culture.
And that is what I’m going after. We live lives that are not examined closely enough. Either we are hugely affected by culture, or hugely dominated by our own natural personalities. There is a time for Introverts to speak up, and a time for Extroverts to shut up.
I don’t mean to say I agree with all said or done by Wycliffe, Joan of Arc, or Galileo. Only that their treatment was largely a result of the then cultural moment. (I don’t think I said Wycliffe or Galileo was martyred either.)
I also love to read Luther and Calvin (as you’d imagine) and Erasmus, Thomas A Kempis, Aquinas, and Ignatius Loyola. I love to read them, but I don’t mean to say I agree with all they said or did. They too were men of their times and sometimes controlled by their personalities.
I often wonder what would have happened to Christendom if Martin Luther or Pope Leo X hadn’t lived so much dominated by their personalities; or if Luther had been born Italian or if Pope Leo X had been born German.
Cultural creep and un-examined (and unchecked) personalities have made many embarrassing mistakes. I simply encourage us to further self-examination.