The Gospel and Western Culture

“Green, Red, Blue”, Mark Rothko, 1955
Milwaukee Art Museum
Gift of Mrs. Harry Lynde Bradley

For Sunday, October 24, 2010
Proper 25

The problem for so many of us in the West is that we can’t see the Western forest for the sake of its trees. What a blessing then to find someone who can look at the West from both within and without, and then make suggestions about how the gospel can actually be good news to the West.

A wonderful book on the subject was written in 1986 by missionary and writer Lesslie Newbigin. He entitled it _Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture_.

Newbign argues that one of the defining characteristics of the Post-Enlightenment West is the public/private dichotomy between secular and spiritual life. In short, it’s just not plausible to be spiritual in public. So what are Christians and the church to do? Newbigin’s final chapter offers seven promising suggestions restated here with some re-wording:

1) Grasp the significance of the coming heavenly kingdom
As a Christian community we need to recover the sense that humanity has a divine destiny. This then shapes how we approach things like politics. “The public political act has its real meaning simply as a kind of acted prayer for the coming of God’s reign” (p. 137).

2) Articulate the Christian notion of freedom of conscience
“A true understanding of the gospel itself ought to enable Christians to be firm in their allegiance to Christ . . . (yet also) ready to enter into a genuinely listening dialogue (with those of other convictions). . . This is the foundation on which a true tolerance, not indifference to the truth, can be found.”

3) Encourage the development of a contextualized marketplace theology
“We need to create, above all, possibilities in every congregation for laypeople to share with one another the actual experience of their weekday work and to seek illumination from the gospel for their daily secular duty.”

4) Overcome denominationalism
“Neither a denomination separately nor all the denominations linked together in some kind of federal unity or “reconciled diversity” can be the agents of a missionary confrontation with our culture, for the simple reason that they are themselves the outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual surrender to the ideology of our culture” (p. 146).

5) Listen to the voices of Christians from other times and cultures
“The fact that Jesus is much more than . . . our culture-bound vision of him can only come home to us through the witness of those who see him with other eyes” (p. 146).

6) Maintain the courage of Christian conviction in the face of a reigning secular ideology that considers such implausible
“Our modern scientific culture has pursued the ideal of a completely impersonal knowledge of a world of so-called facts that are simply there, and cannot be doubted by rational minds.” The counterpoint is that “any understanding of reality (including secularism) involves a commitment, a venture of faith” (p. 148).

7) Be a community of praise that radiates a supernatural reality.
The church needs to be “a place of joy, of praise, of surprises, and of laughter – a place where there is a foretaste of the endless surprises of heaven.” A praise that is literally “out of this world” is by this very fact able to speak into this secular world (p. 149).

Let us therefore see the Western forest for the sake of the redemption of its Post-Enlightenment trees.

Newbigin ends his fine book with these words:
“The church’s witness among the nations is at heart the overflow of a gift. The boldness and the expectancy (that attend) are the marks of those who have been surprised by joy and know that there are still surprises to come, because God is great” (p. 150).
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