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Good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men

Theowarning Theological content warning:

The following post speaks to Christians and contains “God talk” of a rational and logical nature.  It is hopefully convicting to the right people.  In addition, to my brothers and sisters in Christ who might read this, I would say that I am preaching to myself as much as to you.  Or as I once heard a preacher say, every time I point the finger at someone else, there are three fingers pointing back at me.

Come, let us reason together!

~~~

One of the enemies of the soul faced by the Christian is the world (1 John 2:15-17), and one of the battlefields is the desire to at least be accepted by the world.  This requires one to not be different, to not have noticeable distinctions from the world so that you stand out.  And, heaven forbid (irony intended!), certainly have no differences that might convict the world of their own depravity!  Conformity can strike the heart of even the most experienced of Christians as the fear of man enters one’s heart, however momentarily.

Conformity-demotivators_1862_3908288

The Problem:  repeatedly we find in Scripture commands, exhortations, admonitions, and doctrine that the Christian is to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”  (Romans 12:2)  Jesus Himself said,

You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.   (Matthew 5:13-16 )

Our failure to be doers of the Word and hearers only (James 1:22-25) is all too frequently a consequence of our failure to be students of God’s Word.  Biblical illiteracy runs rampant even in churches with evidence of right belief otherwise.  A recent essay by David Nienhuis over at The Modern Reformation website contains some insights to which I would like to add some further insights.

He starts by noting some of the statistics that demonstrate the objective reality of the problem:

Study after study demonstrates how nearly everyone in our land owns a Bible (more than one, in fact) but few ever take the time to read it, much less study it closely. Indeed, while the Exploring Religious America Survey of 2002 reports that over 84 percent of Americans consider the Bible to be "very" or "somewhat important" in helping them make decisions in life, recent Gallup polls tell us that only half can name even one of the four Gospels, only a third are able to identify the individual who delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and most aren’t even able to identify Genesis as the Bible’s opening text.

Shortly after this, Nienhuis makes statements, including a personal encounter with a student, whose significance I’m not sure even he understands (emphases added).

There are, no doubt, many reasons for the current predicament. In general we spend far less time reading anything at all in this culture, much less dense and demanding books like the Bible. Not long ago I met with a student who was struggling in one of my courses. When I asked her what she thought the trouble was, she replied, in a tone suggesting ever so slightly that the fault was mine, "Reading a lot is not a part of my learning style." She went on to inform me that students today learned more by "watching videos, listening to music, and talking to one another." She spoke of the great growth she experienced in youth group (where she no doubt spent a lot of time watching videos, listening to music, and talking with people), but her ignorance of the Bible clearly betrayed the fact that the Christian formation she experienced in her faith community afforded her little to no training in the actual reading of Scripture.

Indeed, a good bit of the blame for the existing crisis has to fall at the feet of historic American evangelicalism itself. In his book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–and Doesn’t, Stephen Prothero has drawn our attention to various religious shifts that took place as a result of the evangelistic Second Great Awakening that shook American culture in the first half of the nineteenth century, key characteristics of which continue to typify contemporary evangelical attitudes. For instance, there was a shift from learning to feeling, as revivalists of the period emphasized a heartfelt and unmediated experience of Jesus himself over religious education. While this strategy resulted in increased conversions and the creation of numerous popular nondenominational voluntary associations, it also had the effect of requiring Christians to agree to disagree when it came to doctrinal matters. There was a corresponding shift from the Bible to Jesus, as more and more Christians came to believe that the key test of Christian faithfulness was not the affirmation of a creed or catechism, or knowledge of the biblical text, but the capacity to claim an emotional relationship with what Prothero calls "an astonishingly malleable Jesus–an American Jesus buffeted here and there by the shifting winds of the nation’s social and cultural preoccupations."

To explain the significance of the above two paragraphs, we must digress momentarily to review the work which provided the impetus for the start of this blog.  Rarely will one find a work that may be described as both a seminal work and a watershed, but IMHO, Neil Postman’s 1986 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, (ISBN 0140094385) achieves this dual distinction. The significance of the work is apparent in the subtitle: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. In this age in which a significant portion of the American population seems to hold an anti-intellectualism that is characterized by the inability to hold a rational debate without sliding into ad hominem attacks and subjective argumentation (although calling it argumentation is not really an accurate description of what they tend to do), this book goes a long way in explaining how this lamentable situation has developed. Michael Savage proclaims that “liberalism is a mental disorder,” and Hugh Hewitt frequently refers to the “Fever Swamp.” Both are apt descriptions of the mental processes of many of our fellow Americans on the liberal left end of the spectrum, despite how nice they may be otherwise.

Postman’s Forward places before us a contrast between the equally chilling prophecies of two of the twentieth century’s earlier writers. George Orwell wrote in his novel, 1984, of a totalitarian society that burned books, of a Big Brother who militantly deprived the people of their autonomy, maturity and history. On the other hand, Aldous Huxley’s vision in his Brave New World foresees the day when “people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.” To quote Postman more extensively on this contrast,

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

No reason to ban books because so few want to read them? So much information we are reduced to passivity and egoism (narcissism?!)? Truth drowned in a sea of irrelevance? A trivial culture preoccupied with feelings? Does any of this ring as true to you as it does to me as a description of 21st century American culture?

Regrettably, this paucity of cognition and cogitation has also impacted the alleged Christian churches of this country as evidenced in the exchange cited above by Professor Nienhuis. This is despite the fact that our standard of life and conduct, the Bible, states very clearly and in multiple places that we Christians are to be people of "the book," not the image. (e.g., "I will worship toward thy holy temple, and praise thy name for thy lovingkindness and for thy truth: for thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name." Psalm 138:2) Indeed, the situation is so serious that in his 1995 book entitled The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark Nolls writes, "The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind." Joe Carter of the Evangelical Outpost blog suggests that things have gotten better since then, but at best the downward spiral has only slowed. Rather, the American culture, lock, stock, and barrel, has so invaded the church that as recent as 2003, Alan Wolfe can write in The Transformation of American Religion that (emphases added), "…in the United States culture has transformed Christ, as well as all other religions found within these shores. In every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture – and American culture has triumphed."

Chapter Ten of Postman’s thesis reveals in devastating detail the negative impact on education the shift from typography to the visual has had and likewise reveals the error in the assumption of the young woman above who only thought she was learning when she was "watching videos, listening to music, and talking” with her fellows.

We may take as our guide here John Dewey’s observation that the content of a lesson is the least important thing about learning. As he wrote in Experience and Education: ‘Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only what he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes…may be and often is more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history….For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future.’ In other words, the most important thing one learns is always something about how one learns. (page 144)

Thus the young lady above believes she was learning when, in fact, the objective reality of her inability to assimilate biblical facts and analyze biblical data shows otherwise.  Postman goes for the jugular with two primary points (emphasis added):

…I would like to recall two points that I feel I did not express forcefully enough in that book and that happen to be central to this one.  I refer, first, to the fact that television’s principal contribution to educational philosophy is the idea that teaching and entertainment are inseparable.  This entirely original conception is to be found nowhere in educational discourses, from Confucius to Plato to Cicero to Locke to John Dewey.  (page 146)

Postman then delineates the foundational principles involved that prohibit television (videos) is not education.  Point number two (emphasis added):

Which leads to the second point I wish to emphasize: The consequences of this reorientation are to be observed not only in the decline of the potency of the classroom but, paradoxically, in the refashioning of the classroom into a place where both teaching and learning are intended to be vastly amusing activities.  (page 148)

What objective studies reveal regarding television and education is truly revealing (emphases added):

George Comstock and his associates have reviewed 2,800 studies on the general topic of television’s influence on behavior, including cognitive processing, and are unable to point to persuasive evidence that ‘learning increases when information is presented in a dramatic setting.’  Indeed, in studies conducted by Cohen and Salomon; Meringoff; Jacoby, Hoyer and Sheluga; Stauffer, Frost and Rybolt; Stern; Wilson; Neuman; Katz, Adoni and Parness; and Gunter, quite the opposite conclusion is justified.  Jacoby et al. Found, for example, that only 3.5 percent of viewers were able to answer successfully twelve true/false questions concerning two thirty-second segments of commercial television programs and advertisements.  Stauffer et al. Found in studying students’ responses to a news program transmitted via television, radio and print, that print significantly increased correct responses to questions regarding the names of people and numbers contained in the material.  Stern reported that 51 percent of viewers could not recall a single item of news a few minutes after viewing a news program on television….In other words, so far as many reputable studies are concerned, television viewing does not significantly increase learning, is inferior to and less likely than print to cultivate higher-order, inferential thinking.  (page 151-152; all studies were footnoted with their references so the reader may corroborate the assertions/conclusions made)

Having shown how such a shift in epistemology and cognitive skills was driven by the technology that eventually culminated in television and its programing, Postman also has some poignant observations regarding the impact on religion, observations that should concern every Christian because the basis of our faith is propositional truth transmitted by the written word (emphases added):

The first is that on television, religion, like everything else, is presented, quite simply and without apology, as an entertainment.  Everything that makes religion an historic, profound and sacred human activity is stripped away; there is no ritual, no dogma, no tradition, no theology, and above all, no sense of spiritual transcendence.  On these shows, the preacher is tops.  God comes out as second banana.

Most Americans, including preachers, have difficulty accepting the truth, if they think about it at all, that not all forms of discourse can be converted from one medium to another.  It is naive to suppose that something that has been expressed in one form can be expressed in another without significantly changing its meaning, texture or value.

In other words, between the damage done to thinking skills and the change in meaning to the content of the message, the transition from the objective printed word to the subjective image totally alters the message received to other than that initially intended.  This is of particular relevance to Christians who think that a new media presents opportunities to reach out to nonChristians.  Indeed, Postman, who is not a Christian, makes a highly relevant observation early in his book that brings us directly to Scripture (the first emphasis is Postman’s, the second is added):

In studying the Bible as a young man, I found intimations of the idea that forms of media favor particular kinds of content and therefore are capable of taking command of a culture.  I refer specifically to the Decalogue, the Second Commandment of which prohibits the Israelites from making concrete images of anything.  ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water beneath the earth.’  I wondered then, as so many others have, as to why the God of these people would have included instructions on how they were to symbolize, or not symbolize, their experience.  It is a strange injunction to include as part of an ethical system unless its author assumed a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture.  We may hazard a guess that a people who are being asked to embrace an abstract, universal deity would be rendered unfit to do so by the habit of drawing pictures or making statues or depicting their ideas in any concrete, iconographic forms.  The God of the Jews was to exist in the Word and through the Word, an unprecedented conception requiring the highest order of abstract thinking.  Iconography thus became blasphemy so that a new kind of God could enter a culture.

Postman’s analysis would seem to be correct and explains why the catechisms of the Reformation understand the Second Commandment to cover the use of any visual image in worship.  For example, the Heidelberg Catechism states in the pertinent questions (emphases added):

Question 96:  What does God require in the second commandment?
Ans.:  We are not to make an image of God in any way, nor to worship Him in any other manner than He has commanded in His Word.

Question 97:  May we then not make any image at all?
Ans.: God cannot and may not be visibly portrayed in any way. Creatures may be portrayed, but God forbids us to make or have any images of them in order to worship them or to serve God through them.

Question 98:  But may images not be tolerated in the churches as "books for the laity"?
Ans.:  No, for we should not be wiser than God. He wants His people to be taught not by means of dumb images but by the living preaching of His Word.

This last question is particularly relevant because it was the excuse the Roman Catholic Church gave for the extensive use of images in their worship, and the use of drama in their passion plays and morality plays through the Middle Ages prior to the Reformation.  The illiterate masses couldn’t possibly understand, or be taught to understand, the Scriptures for themselves, so they had to be reached pragmatically by drama and pictures, by the visual image.  It probably didn’t hurt that the affair was entertaining as well so as to “draw them in.”  The modern church has not been immune to this onslaught, but has, in fact, refined this pragmatic philosophy to a fine art in the absence of any accountability to objective truth as found in the Scriptures.

As John MacArthur aptly notes in Ashamed of the Gospel (emphases added),

Some church leaders evidently think the four priorities of the early church – the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer (Acts 2:42) – make a lame agenda for the church in this day and age.  Churches are allowing drama, music, recreation, entertainment, self-help programs, and similar enterprises to eclipse traditional Sunday worship and fellowship.  In fact, everything seems to be in fashion  in the church today except biblical preaching.  The new pragmatism sees preaching – particularly expository preaching – as passé.  Plainly declaring the truth of God’s Word is regarded as unsophisticated, offensive, and utterly ineffective.  We’re now told we can get better results by first amusing people or giving them success tips and pop-psychology, thus wooing them into the fold.  Once they feel comfortable, they’ll be ready to receive biblical truth in small, diluted doses.

God never tells His preachers to entertain their flocks, or to grow their flocks with trite emotional appeals or the use of the visually spectacular.  MacArthur is not the only one to note this disturbing development in the American church.  Gary Gilley observes,

It appears that the church is in lockstep with the world.  The problem is this – Christians have been seduced and trained by the same forces that have enticed society as a whole.  Too many Christians, just like their unsaved counterparts, are impressed by appearances rather than structure; are seeking thrills and excitement rather than substance; are more apt to respond to emotional manipulation than to rational discourse.

Even as early as 1984, Francis Schaeffer was able to write:

To accommodate to the world spirit about us in our age is the most gross form of worldliness in the proper definition of the word…. Unhappily, today we must say that in general the evangelical establishment has been accommodating to the forms of the world spirit as it finds expression in our day.  I would say this with tears – and we must not in any way give up hoping and praying.  We must with regret remember that many of those with whom we have a basic disagreement over these issues of accommodation are brothers and sisters in Christ.  But in the most basic sense, the evangelical establishment has become deeply worldly.

Indeed, despite Jesus’ command to be salt and light in the world, today’s churches are neither regardless of, and indeed, because of, their attempts to be “user friendly” and “inviting” and “meeting the felt needs” of their congregations.  This result is so obvious that, as noted above and worth repeating here, nonChristians such as Alan Wolfe can cross our nation, take notes on a vast variety of churches in our land, and conclude that

…in the United States culture has transformed Christ, as well as all other religions found within these shores.  In every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture – and American culture has triumphed….  If Jonathan Edwards were alive and well, he would likely be appalled; far from living in a world elsewhere, the faithful in the United States are remarkably like everyone else.

So where does this leave us?  Paul tells us that the sword of the Spirit is the word of God (Ephesians 6:17).  Jesus prayed to the Father, “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.”  (John 17:17 )  So today’s church is bereft of its weapon and truth so that its ability to fulfill its mission is hamstrung from the start.  Or in Jesus’ words, we have become “good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.”  And that trampling underfoot is what we see happening in our culture, thank you, ACLU, et al.

What to do?  Well, the solution is in God’s Word:

If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.  (2 Chronicles 7:14)

The fault is in “My People” says God.  Not in the unbelievers.  We need not just revival, but reformation and revival.  May we come to our senses (Luke 15:17) and turn back to our Creator before it is too late.  Amen.

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