People often ask me if some speakers are easier to “blog” then others. The answer is a clear yes. There are some speakers who speak in such a way that they are really quite easy to capture and to summarize. There are others that are very difficult. The primary difference, I think, is between those who provide very logical, clear, alliterated and structured outlines versus those who may not. This would include the likes of Steve Lawson, Ligon Duncan, and Mark Dever. Dr. Mohler is one of those guys who is on the “harder to liveblog” list. I often wrestle with writing a cogent summary of his talks. This one proved no exception! Yet, like most of Mohler’s talks, I learned a lot from it. There are few people I’d rather listen to than Dr. Mohler.
Mohler’s topic for today is Discerning the culture.
He began by saying something I fully believe: if there is any one thing lacking in the church today it must be discernment. That’s the only explanation for how things are as they are. How else could the church be so seduced and how else could Christians be indistinguishable? Discernment is one of those things you need to live, both in the spiritual realm and outside of it.
A lot of people think discernment is nothing more than a matter of taste and, in fact, everything is just a matter of taste. Saying that one thing is truth and another isn’t is just a matter of saying that you like one thing or not another. Discernment, though, is knowing what is a taste issue and what is a truth issue. Discernment, then, must be a matter of deadly seriousness and it is absolutely synchronous with maturity.
How do we discern the culture? This is a big issue because we can’t get away from it. Culture is (And here he defined culture. Though I’ve heard Mohler define it in three different conferences I still can’t quite catch it). Language is one of the very first signs of culture. You put two people together and they will start communicating in overt and covert ways. Discernment is necessary to negotiate this culture that is all around us. We are always communicating, we are always embedded in culture.
He spoke of Aristotle’s conundrum of the fish. If you ask a fish what it is to be wet, he can’t give an honest answer because he doesn’t know anything else. Most human beings are just like this: they are swimming in the culture and don’t even know it’s there.
Mohler provided five wrong ways of understanding the culture:
To adopt the motto “let’s get completely wet.” Let’s just join into the culture and assume that it’s all neutral. Yet culture is never neutral because every structure of the society has an agenda. The church can’t possibly say “let’s just dive in.” We can’t assume that the culture is a safe institution.
To say “we’ll stay completely dry.” We’ll remove ourselves from the culture and stay totally dry. But this is impossible. You cannot separate yourself from the culture. How will you talk? What will you eat? What will you wear? The reality is that we’re deeply enmeshed in a system and network of culture. The danger is that we’re not even aware of this. It is dangerous to think we’re outside of the culture, so we’ll step outside and let culture go to hell while we wait it out.
To reduce cultural engagement to taking a dip. This is something Christians do thinking we can just drop into the culture as we wish and drying ourselves off. Culture, though, is a system and an entire web. You can’t touch one part without touching another part. You can’t enter it without touching the entire system.
To take a sip of the culture. This is where we think we can understand another culture by just sampling it quickly. “We’re going to do an immersion experience in another culture for a good 72 hours.” You can’t sip a culture. It is such a deep and complex reality that it takes serious study to figure out what it is.
Thinking we can treat culture by watching an aquarium. This is the National Geographic method and the arrogant American method. Looking at the aquarium doesn’t help because you need to be engaged in the culture, not just looking at it from the outside in. This is a great challenge for evangelism and for Christian missions.
Real life means that we’re embedded in culture and the most dangerous aspects of culture may be the ones we’re not even aware of. For Christians this is particularly dangerous because, once we have come to know Jesus as Lord, the last things we often see with the eyes of Christ are the things closest to us-the things we don’t even think about.
Matthew 22 is a place we find an amazing engagement between Jesus, the Pharisees and the Saducees. In the midst of this conflict Jesus gives us a centering set of commandments. He gives the Great Commandment showing that God comes first. The love of God is the great prioritizing issue. The second commandment is like it, that you shall love your neighbor as yourself. This is an exercise in discernment: the two main issues are love of God and love of neighbor. Jesus puts them in the right order. We love our neighbor not just because of who he is, but because we love God and because God loves our neighbor. So here we have a prioritization, a framework for discernment.
Why do we seek discernment in culture? Because we love God and love our neighbor. And nothing tells us more about ourselves than what we love. This means that ever person on the planet is our neighbor and thus we need to be concerned about every culture. Everyone person we wish to take the gospel to is immersed in a culture.
One of the earliest Christians said that for us no place is home and all places are home. Our ultimate citizenship is in heaven. When we think about culture we need to do an exercise in systematic theology and we have to ask how we know anything. Fundamentally our epistemology is from the heavenly city, not the earthly one.
God established culture in variety and revels in this. God established different nations, different cultural units. In Revelation we are told that in heaven there will be men and women of every tongue, tribe and nation praising God in all of the languages of earth. God revels in the fact that he made people to be different. Systematic theology reminds us that God is even now ruling over all creatures and all cultures. And then we come to sin and affirm that every culture is fallen and every culture is marked with human pride. God has forbidden cultures from exercising the ultimate human pride that led to them being scattered at Babel. We see that every culture becomes a force of seduction.
Jesus was within a culture. He spoke a language, wore the clothes of that culture, and so on. But he was never bound by this system. We do not worship Jesus by trying to dress as He dressed or by trying to speak the language He spoke, but by following Him in obedience in this culture. The gospel is now address to all people in all cultures and people can now remain in just about any culture and remain agents of the gospel in that place. We are not saved from culture but are saved from sin. We are left in the world to be agents of the love of God and to take the message to this culture. We are to engage it in such a way that we know where to go and where not to go, how to speak and how not to speak. The church becomes the presence of the eternal culture, becoming in every culture a counterculture. It is a counterculture that has absolute heart symmetry with where Christians are found in any other culture. This is where, in a fallen world, you’ll receive just a hint of the culture that is coming when the Lord returns. The difference is not in what we where or how we drive, but in what we say and in how we live. We’re not Lone Rangers.
We need to look to eschatology and see that this culture will end. No one will look at what we did in heaven. There will be no artistic display of what we’ve done. Rather, we’ll give ourselves eternally to the worship of God and what He has done. God will bring all things to absolute congruence to His purposes.
And now we think about our culture, this 24 x 7, sexually deluded, sexually obsessed culture. Our presuppositions about everything are formed by this culture so we desperately need the church to ask how we’re supposed to raise our children, what we should understand about marriage and so on. We live in a time of tremendous trial and it is unprecedented for us to have access to culture 24 x 7.
Discernment means seeing that we are fish swimming in a dirty, dangerous sea. We are to engage the culture for God’s glory and to engage the culture for gospel witness. We must do things for the glory of God, whether we create art or buildings or anything else. Anywhere you go and anything you do, you won’t jump out of the culture. Wherever you are, you must be deeply involved in a church that tries to help you show the glory of God in every dimension of life. Even though culture is everywhere, Christians must have discernment to step back from it. By the Word of God we have the speaking God telling us what we need to know. We need detox from time-to-time. That’s what this conference is all about; it’s what the Lord’s Day is all about. We come in with all the toxins and poisons and in the midst of God’s people, confronted by His Word, the toxicity becomes clear and, as the Holy Spirit applies the Word to our lives, we are sanctified. Until Jesus comes we are to be discerning Christians in the midst of this culture.