Do We Need to Make the Gospel Understandable to Modern Culture?

Jason Micheli —  November 19, 2012 — 1 Comment

And are United Methodists now reaping the bitter fruit of having done so a century ago?

I’ve been reading Tim Keller’s new book, Center Church, the past week. In it, Keller gives much attention to the task/question of contextualization; that is, how we do communicate our message to the given context in which we live.

Keller notes that it’s not really a question of whether or not we should contextualize.

We can’t avoid contextualization unless we’re willing to avoid communication altogether. Every time we paraphrase a scripture passage, every time we extrapolate a point or a meaning, every time we settle upon what we think is the ‘plain sense’ of scripture we’re contextualizing BECAUSE, after all, we’re also a part of the culture and formed by it in ways we don’t always know.

Just ask Harrison Ford in Witness, Christians can’t avoid being in the world and  we never really cease to be of the world either. 

Preaching, then, is just a simpler term for contextualization.

So the question isn’t if we should translate the Gospel to culture but how.

Keller argues that Mainline (liberal) Christianity in the early 20th century sought to make Christianity palatable to the modern world by redefining orthodox Christian doctrine in naturalistic terms– terms stripped of a reliance upon revelation and the supernatural.

 The result was a Christianity redefined thus:

The Bible is filled with divine wisdom, but this doesn’t mean it’s inerrant. It’s a human document containing errors and contradictions. 

 Jesus is the Son of God but this doesn’t mean he was preexistent or divine. He was instead a great man infused with God’s Spirit. 

Jesus’ death is not a cosmic even that propitiates God’s wrath at Sin. It’s an example of sacrificial love that changes us by moving our hearts to follow his example. 

 Becoming a Christian, then, doesn’t entail the supernatural act of new birth (conversion prompted by grace). It means to follow the example of Jesus, follow the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. 

You can agree or not with Keller’s point of view, but there’s no question the breakdown above quite simply IS the dominant articulation of Christianity among most United Methodist (and other mainline traditions) churches and clergy.

This is what makes most mainline Christians ‘liberal’ even if they think of themselves as conservative politically.

Here’s Keller contention:

You can’t make such adaptations to what scripture is, who Jesus is, what the Cross does and how you become a Christian without creating a religion that is entirely new and alien to Christianity. 

The Mainline/Liberal effort to reconcile Christianity to the modern world of the 20th century (the naturalistic world), Keller says, results not in an adaptation of Christianity but in an entirely new religion that contradicts orthodox Christianity.

Even if you would quibble with Keller’s characterization, his next question remains TNT:

By adapting the faith to the norms of the ‘modern early 20th century world’ did Mainline/Liberal Christianity back the wrong horse?

Mainline Christians a century ago assumed that what was ‘modern’ for them would remain so- that those who clung to a revelation-based, supernatural understanding of the faith would be judged to be on the wrong side of history.

Keller says this was a category mistake.

Late modernity and postmodernity, he notes, has rejected modernism’s confidence that science and reason can ultimately answer all our important questions and that technology can solve all our problems.

In other words, 100 years removed from Methodism’s capitulation to culture, that culture has shifted out from under the Church. 

In other words, Mainline Christianity wedded itself to what is now a fading, obsolete view.

And since adapting its faith claims to the culture a century ago, Mainline Christianity has experienced steep decline; meanwhile, Pentecostalism (the least modern- Enlightenment based- form of Christianity) and Eastern Orthodox Christianity have grown exponentially in the past hundred years.

So its a cautionary tale.

The how of contextualization should refer more to our mode of communication than to the content of our confession.

Jason Micheli

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One response to Do We Need to Make the Gospel Understandable to Modern Culture?

  1. This post–and especially Tim Keller’s analysis–immediately put me in mind of Ross Douthat’s work in “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.” It would seem that, in a headlong drive to make itself “relevant” to 20th century people who had at last “fully evolved” and discarded the superstitious trappings of the past, the church abandoned something that will make it relevant for all time. Ultimately, man must worship a God that it cannot fully understand. Why do we WANT to have a God that fits neatly within rational human understanding?! I don’t. Because that would really mean that God is just like me–maybe a little better and smarter, but just like me. I need more than that. I need a God whose “ways are higher than my ways” and whose “thoughts are higher than my thoughts.” That is a God who can be worthy of worship. Maybe we’re headed that way–on the way to recovering Christianity, as Douthat proposes at the end of “Bad Religion”….

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