‘False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel.
‘We may preach with all the fervour of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.’ Quoted by Randy Newman in his excellent book Questioning Evangelism, these words were actually spoken over 100 years ago by the American theologian J. Gresham Machen, in an address to Princeton Theological Seminary.
They could not be more appropriate to our contemporary situation, except that the word ‘harmless’ would now be replaced by many with ‘harmful’. Christian faith is widely regarded as a negative influence in our secular society.
In this series, we are thinking about how we can break out of the Christian ‘bubble’ and start to make meaningful connections with our culture. Neither over-identification, not pietistic withdrawal, are tenable options, though they are frequently the default positions of many different segments of the church today. ‘Speaking the truth in love’ (Ephesians 4.15) is the New Testament’s method, since the world is devoid of truth, through its rejection of the God who is truth, and bereft of love, because of its fixation on worship of the self. Our challenge is to present, by what we say, who we are and how we live, the radical alternative summed up in the truth of the gospel – namely that Jesus Christ is Lord.
‘If it feels good…’
In terms of truth, we have to know what we believe, and why we believe it, if we are to begin to engage with the myriad confused and contradictory notions which multiply in our ‘collective thought’, as Machen described it. But what most people now believe is that there is no ultimate truth – no absolutes which are true for everybody everywhere. There may be scientific ‘facts’ expressed by laws, such as gravity or electricity, but in the moral realm, or in the area of ideas and philosophy you can mix and match, experiment with human plasticity, do whatever seems authentic to you.
If it feels good, it is good – until you run into a Jimmy Savile. And this is what does provide us with a ‘way in’, as we probe what lies beneath the presuppositions of our collective culture and reveal their illogicality.
Christians falling for it
The problem is that many Christians have been so squeezed into the world’s mould, (Romans 12.2) that they have uncritically fallen for the prevailing ethos and simply covered it with a Christian veneer. Every time we find ourselves, or hear others, saying, ‘Well, I like to think that God would never…’, we are making God in our own image and revealing that we are more worldly than Christian. We may ‘like to think’, but what does God say? That’s the important question. Yet today Christians are often woefully ignorant of what the Bible teaches. Pep talks have replaced clear explanation and application of the Scriptures at church. Sound bites are all we can cope with, unaware of the distortion of over-simplification.
As G.K.Chesterton said: ‘He who simplifies simply lies’. It is patronising and demeaning to treat congregations, or youth groups, or anyone else that way.
‘My mind’s made up by the way that I feel’
But even when we do have our biblical and doctrinal frameworks true and clear, we cannot just ‘unload’ them onto others, however sincerely we may try. We are not the paragons of logic and reason we human beings like to imagine ourselves to be. We are perfectly capable of believing a number of mutually contradictory things at the same time. This is because, in a world where absolute truth is no longer believed in, we tend to decide what to ‘believe’ on the grounds of whether or not we like it, whether it appeals to us, or whether we are comfortable with it. Clearly, however, life has the habit of facing us with all sorts of unpalatable truths, which we would rather were not so, but which we have to come to terms with.
Melted by love
What helps us cope with that is the warmth, affection and love of others, who connect with us at a deeper, emotional level. The relentless ‘logic’ of the unbelieving mind needs to be exposed by the truth of God’s Word explained, understood, proclaimed and lived out. However, the relentless hardness of the unbelieving heart can only be melted by the love which is the chief fruit of the Holy Spirit. It is not the slick sales pitch, but the sacrificial love of the ‘pitcher’ which ultimately makes the way for God’s truth to get under the radar and challenge the secular world view. So next time we must try to identify what the replacement Christian world view looks like.
David Jackman is the past President of the Proclamation Trust and writes the ‘Notes to growing Christians’ column for EN.