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T4G Session Three - Al Mohler
April 27, 2006
After a very short break and a brief video about Boyce College, Al Mohler took the pulpit to bring a message on “Preaching with the Culture in View.”
He is a bit nervous about the concept of preaching with culture in view, for he sees a polarity of dangers. There are some Christians who take the culture with no seriousness at all while others allow it to become dominant within their ministry. There are some who think wrongly that culture is an irrelevancy when it comes to ministry, but this should not be the case. Like it or not, we are embedded in a culture. There are others for whom the culture becomes such an issue of fascination that they become part of an inculturated ministry.
He will begin with defining expository preaching which he defines in part as “That mode of Christian preaching which takes as its central purpose the presentation and application of a portion of Scripture.” It is important to note that the primary task of the pastor is to be faithful to the text of Scripture, not to the culture and everything else is subordinated to this task. The application of Scripture will unavoidably lead to the discussion of culture, for we must apply Scripture within the context we find ourselves in. Our concern for the culture is that within the culture is where we will find sinners. It is not for the culture itself for it is only fleeting. The authority of the Bible must always be in view for the Scripture’s authority is transcultural.
Culture needs to be put in its place. He defined provided a few different definitions of culture, but at its most basic culture is that which allows human beings to relate to each other. We live in a time when culture is celebrated and cultural diversity has become an ideal (though this celebration of diversity is exceedingly arbitrary). It is very difficult for us to know and understand our culture and how it has shaped and influenced us simply because we are completely immersed in it.
Evangelicalism in America arose in a time and context in which it was quite a natural fit. It arose easily and did not see culture as inherently hostile. It is impossible to withdraw entirely from culture for since Genesis 3 we live within a sinful, imperfect culture. It is also not possible to dictate who all Christians of all time must understand and engage with the culture. There are many different cultural contexts.
We need to avoid the trap of believing that there was a golden age. There was no golden era in history when culture was less worldly than it is today. Culture has always been as sinful as the people who live within it. Culture cannot be our main concern but it is also not worthless. Culture can even be seen as a gift that allows us to live together, that allows us to value the institutions that maintain life.
To understand culture we do not simply go back to the 1940’s and 50’s. Mohler suggests we go as far back as Augustine who wrestled with many of these same issues. He suggests that no book is more helpful in understanding this issue than “The City of God.” He understood that there is only one city that is eternal (the city of God). All other cities are passing. How was it that so many people were fooled into thinking that Rome would be eternal? Christians are to believe that they are citizens primarily in the city of heaven. Our interest in the other city, in the culture, is that this is where the sinners live. We can love the people in this culture without loving the culture itself. We should not be surprised to see sinners acting like sinners, celebrating and institutionalizing their sin. Yet we cannot withdraw from people for they are the objects of God’s love.
While we can appreciate much of the culture and be thankful for it, we must always maintain some type of seperation. We must realize that this is but our secondary citizenship for we are primarily citizens of the city of God. “Why our culture presents significant interpretive problems for the Christian culture.” Why our culture must be understood by the preacher. We live in a world which is far more “liquid” than in any other time in history. Change comes fast and furious—far more so than at any time in the past. The world of parents and grandparents is vastly different than the world that our children will face.
We have a National Geographic understand of the importance of adapting to culture. We see people “over there” and know what they need to do, but do not often unerstand what we need to do here.
Self-fulfillment - Radical individualism. Life is a quest and the self is a project. What they want out of life is to build a sense of self and it becomes the reference of all meaning. We live in an age where the primary question asked by most questions is “am I well?” and in this they are asking a psychological question. Most Americans believe that what their problem is is something has happened to them and that the solution will be found within. They feel that they have an alien problem to be resolved with an inner solution. The Bible says that we have an inner problem with an alien solution! Pastors can talk about the gospel and, if the preacher is not entirely clear, it may be seen as a form of therapy.
Self-sufficiency - Every individual posesses what is necessary for meaning and happiness; it needs only to be drawn out. This is buttressed by a society that appears those who appear to be most self-sufficient rather than those who understand their categorical insufficiency. The gospel is not about how we become more self-sufficient.
Self-definition - This has become more radically important in recent years. Most Americans now believe that we have the ability to define ourselves, even defining what it means to be human or to be male or female. We claim the right to define marriage, gender, authority, sexuality, and everything else. We need to control our own evolution. This comes hand-in-hand with postmodern theories of truth.
Self-absorption - This leads to expressive divorce. We are so self-aborbed that we will divorce others to “become what we need to be.” Divorce is merely a learning experience in the project of the self. Even a few years ago we would not have heard about divorce becoming a good thing.
Self-transcendence - This explains why many people are obsessed with spirituality and why people will hear the preaching of the gospel as just another form of spirituality. We extend the self through self-transcendence in spiritual practice. “We need to be clear about the ‘mono’ in monotheism.” We have a world of inherent polytheism.
Self-enhancement - The idea that we can extend life indefinitely. People think that the project of the self can extend to “aesthetic surgery.” Our culture has absorbed a lie about what it means to be human.
Self-security - We have an obsession with health and safety—physical, financial, etc. Most Christians throughout the history of Christianity have not felt safe. People no longer go to bed feeling that they will die in the night and face hell. We take safety for granted.
The importance of all of this is that people we preach to will hear what we say in their own terms, within their own context, within their own culture. Pastors cannot take for granted that what they see will be received in the way it was intended.
We are and must ever be mindful of the fact that we are elect exiles. We are here, we have an address and a phone number. We come out of a certain culture where certain things make sense and certain things do not. But all of this is passing. It is missiologically important but only temporary. We cannot just withdraw for this would deny our commission. But we cannot feel home for this denies our identity. Our task is to preach and teach the gospel until we see the elect from every tribe and tongue and nation. We will not be Americans or any other nationality, but we will be His.