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Christianity Crisis Essay, Research Paper

There was a time, not long ago, when the evangelical community had considerable

consensus on lifestyle questions and social issues. We generally agreed on what

we should eat and drink and how we might spend our weekends. There was little

debate over definitions of vulgarity or morality, and questions of fashion were

rarely a matter for discussion. In those days, everyone knew how a family should

be raised, and aberrations such as divorce and abortion were simply that:

problems found only among hose outside the fold. All of that has changed. Today

there is considerable disagreement on such questions, and where there is not

disagreement, there is often a reluctant silence or unwillingness to enter into

discussion on these questions. The problem is complicated by the fact that these

issues do not always fall neatly into those familiar gaps found among genders,

generations, and geographies. Too often we find uneasy disagreement among

parishioners or even among clergy in the same denomination. Similarly, tensions

are found among teenagers or among parents and not simply between those two

groups. In each case where such tensions exist, clear biblical and objective

bases for evaluating our modern society are usually not found. Consequently,

theological answers to these questions have generally not been helpful. That is

not to say we should expect them to be. Much of the difficulty in dealing with

contemporary social issues can be attributed to modernity with its tendency to

pose problems that all outside of theological answers. Theology is designed to

defend the faith and not to interpret modern culture or to help the believer

live in it. It is the province of social science to understand modernity and to

explain how it affects all of us. Theology cannot be expected to interpret the

impact of computers on modern life any more than social science can be expected

to explain the Trinity. What theology can do is to elucidate those universal

principles given to us by God that social science may then interpret for modern

living. My claim is that modern life has re-defined many of the practices that

theology traditionally addressed. State lotteries, for example, have defined

gambling in ways unfamiliar to theology. The revocation of blue laws concerned

with Sunday openings has challenged the traditional meaning of the Sabbath. In a

modern economy, the biblical meaning of poverty differsgreatly from the meaning

found today. In each of these cases, traditional biblical interpretations do not

address the questions experienced today. Consequently, there is a lag in

theological thinking when contemporary social issues fall outside the boundof

traditional theological answer. Our problem is to locate some common ground

where theology and social science can join forces, some bridge between biblical

truth and the application of that truth to modern social problems. I would argue

that concepts found in scripture as well as in social science form a common,

hermeneutical base for the analysis of modern social issues. Referred to here as

"hidden threads," these concepts tie together, so to speak, the

meaning God intended us to find in the world with meaning as we find it today.

What is the meaning in the modern marriage that is faithful to God’s plan and

what has been added by humans? What is the meaning of money that God would have

us keep and what modern thinking should be discarded? These questions can only

be answered when theology and social science join forces. The harmful impact

made by modernity on society and Christian thought justifies such an approach.

To support that claim, I intend in this paper to: l) clarify the crises posed by

modernity, 2) develop the conceptual foundation referred to here as "hidden

threads" as it relates to these crises, and 3) encourage the development of

a hermeneutic which benefits from the interpretations offered by theology and

social science. Crisis of Meaning Much of traditional life was governed by the

belief that society’s rules and norms were appropriate for governing human

relationships and were worthy of respect, if not full acceptance. Developments

in Western culture over the past 30 years or so have reversed much of this

belief and substituted the notion that people shape rules as they interact.

Instead of fitting relationships into normative expectations, those

relationships may now be used to define new norms for behavior. Consequently,

there is no clear agreement on the meaning of either the norms or the behavior.

In effect, modern culture is re-defining much of the meaning attributed by God

to social life. Divorce has increasingly been accepted as the norm rather than

the exception in marriage. Leisure has gradually become a substitute for work

rather than a respite from it. The motivation to be first has replaced the

willingness to be last. In each case, a traditional meaning for some practice

ordained by God has been replaced by a counterfeit. The Assumption of

Consistency Believers have generally made two assumptions about those issues

produced when modernity challenges traditional values. The first assumption is

that there is a consistency of meaning in scripture which can be objectively

accepted and applied in modern society. Since scriptural meanings are often more

subjective than objective and require interpretation before they may be

understood correctly, this assumption cannot be made with good conscience or

absolute confidence. The case of murder and what it means in scripture is a case

in point. From the Ten Commandments, we understand the simple, direct

prohibition of the act of murder (Exodus 20:l3). This is an objective meaning

given by God to His people which, traditionally, has been interpreted to mean

that any act of murder is prohibited. The assumption is that a person will

refrain from the act out of fear of punishment, if for no other reason.

Traditionally, this meaning of murder has avoided some of the traps inherent in

a broader interpretation of the question. But Jesus gives such an interpretation

in Matthew 5:2l-26. His concern is not with the outward action but with sin

committed in the heart before the act is committed. The person who is angry with

a brother is as great an offender as the one who commits the act of murder.

Since the Mosaic Law could only deal with the act, Jesus sets a higher standard,

one that is less objective than the act and also open to subjective

interpretation. Especially if the phrase "without cause" is added as

in some manuscripts, murder becomes an attitude of the heart. Consequently,

murder has now a subjective as well as an objective meaning. In Jesus’ view,

some interpretation of the meaning of murder is required. The need for such an

interpretation is even greater today as murder and anger can be expressed in a

variety of new and unpredictable ways. The Assumption of Separation The second

assumption about modernity’s challenge of traditional values is that believers

can clearly separate their lives into that which is worldly and that which is

not. Thinking they share a biblical system of meaning distinct from worldly

systems of meaning, believers often assume their world is also separate from and

immune to the evils of modern society. In fact, such separation doesn’t exist.

The problem as Newbigin sees it is that "the layman and woman are

themselves part of modern culture and cannot with integrity divide their mental

world into two parts, one controlled by culture and the other by the

Bible". Newbigin’s statement suggests the problem of meaning is both mental

and cultural. Believers are "in the world," culturally, and cannot

assume they are "not of the world" without asking, mentally, what that

involvement might mean. There must be some personal interpretation of that

culture and its meaning for the believer. While scripture is fundamental for

making such an interpretation, a broader hermeneutic may be needed. Thus,

Newbigin calls for: a genuinely missionary encounter between a Scriptural faith

and modern culture. By this I mean an encounter which takes our culture

seriously yet does not take it as the final truth by which Scripture is to be

evaluated, but rather holds up the modern world to the mirror of the Bible in

order to understand how we, who are part of modern culture, are required to

re-examine our assumptions and reorder our thinking and acting. 2 A crisis of

meaning, then, is largely a crisis of interpretation, first, as it applies to

scripture as objective, but also and more importantly for our purposes here – as

interpretations of scripture are to be worked out in our culture. From the

earliest times, events in scripture had been interpreted in traditional ways for

a traditional culture. But as Newbigin claims, "the interpretation has to

be reinterpreted over and over again in terms of another generation and another

culture". 3 Modern culture challenges many traditional meanings of

scripture which may require new interpretations for living in our world. A

Crisis of Culture The principle of culture refers to some shared meaning among

persons. Traditionally, people agreed on the meaning of behavior that they

experienced in intimate settings. Contracts were not 7 needed and all understood

the meaning and necessity of work. Moral behavior was readily defined, and good

and evil were clearly separable. Strong consensus developed as moral definitions

were accepted and supported by the community. Much of the crisis of culture

today results from the forces of modernity that have redefined traditional

meanings for many evangelicals. Gambling and divorce, for example, are often

seen as less "worldly" than they were 30 years ago. Other changes such

as the definition of biological life in terms of brain wave patterns or poverty

in terms of statistical indices, are now open to personal interpretations that

may challenge the traditional culture. In each case, modernity has abstracted

traditional meanings or activities in ways that some believers accept and others

oppose with equally good consciences. How to interpret these formerly shared

meanings now becomes problematic. The Assumption of Prioritization One of the

assumptions of modern evangelicals is that their decision-making is based on

values derived from more ultimate and often traditional value commitments. They

assume that decisions are largely principial, rather than pragmatic, and guided

by cultural values that all agree upon. In fact values are not necessarily given

priority in the evangelical community. They may be just as problematic for

believers as non-believers when they are too abstract or remote from everyday

life. Modernity has eroded much of the influence that values have traditionally

had on the decision-making of evangelicals. Although "culture as

values" has been considered an integral part of the Christian heritage,

Swidler argues that people give more priority to "strategies of

action" than to the values guiding that action. 4 She suggests that all

real cultures contain diverse, often conflicting symbols, rituals, stories, and

guides to action. The reader of the Bible can find a passage to justify almost

any act, and traditional wisdom usually comes in paired adages counseling

opposite behaviors. A culture is not a unified system that pushes action in a

consistent direction. Rather, it is more like a "tool kit" or reper-

toire from which actors select differing pieces for con- structing lines of

action. 5 Evangelicals are not immune to such a "tool kit" approach to

culture. Like everyone else, they experience the discontinuities caused by the

inability to maintain traditional lifestyle patterns. They may also choose among

a host of new options for behavior. Swidler refers to such persons as those with

"unsettled lives" – "those involved in constructing new

strategies of action" – and suggests they are unlikely to depend on values

for decision-making. Only those with "settled lives" – "those for

whom culture is intimately integrated with action" – will depend more on

values for deciding actions. 6 The Christian ideal of settled lives, as Swidler

describes it, is weakening. The trends to increased divorce and dysfunctional

families in the evangelical community, for example, suggest the increase in

unsettled lives there. The trend is also seen in Hunter’s data on evangelical

students which suggest there is a drift toward androgyny as students question

traditional roles of men and women. "Singleness as a life-style option for

women has then become increasingly legitimate not only for the larger population

of Americans but for Evangelicals as well." 7 Modernity offers a plethora

of new and attractive options for old behaviors. Priority is now often given to

these options instead of traditionally agreed upon values. Increasingly,

believers shop on Sunday and replace evening services with the Super Bowl. The

priority given to the traditional meaning of the Sabbath as a day of rest is now

open to interpretation. The Assumption of Integrity Another cultural problem in

the evangelical community involves the assumption that a fundamental integrity

in the Christian culture assures a lifestyle that is consistent and unified. It

centers in the belief that orthodoxy provides a shield against worldly choices

and that Christian culture, by definition, stands above the world’s. Moberg

suggests that such integrity cannot be taken for granted: "Many Christian

group tolerate internal sins…even while they condemn similar failings of

others as ‘dirty sins’". 8 Swidler implies that cultural integrity weakens

as diverse and conflicting symbols become more influential in rapidly changing

cultures. 9 Suggesting that "specific cultural symbols can be understood

only in relation to the strategies of action they sustain," Swidler argues

that old belief systems break down and are replaced by new. l0 In the case of

young women today, "they are not driven by their values, but by what they

find they have become good at, or at least accustomed to." ll This same

tendency to rely on personal interpretations of conflicting current symbols is

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