How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence (And Can Begin Rebuilding It)


How did Christianity lose its cultural influence and how can it begin rebuilding it again? That’s the question Greg Forster asks in Joy For The World. And his answer is implied in the title – joy! Yes, real, unique, holistic, Spirit-produced Christian joy is THE most vital tool for engaging our culture AND changing it.

Greg begins with memories of his largely non-Christian childhood, in which his most memorable experiences of joy were associated with Christmas when it expressed a truly Christian, Jesus-centered spiritual celebration. None of these brief annual encounters with Christian joy created or resulted from a real Christian faith, but Greg argues that they made him more receptive to the Christian message later on, prepared him for faith, and even made him a better person in the meantime.

Although he doesn’t want to make his experience the rule for everyone, he insists that his experience is quite common.

I don’t think it’s unusual for people outside the church to be powerfully changed by the way they encounter the joy of God through Christians’ participation in their civilization.

He then clarifies what he means by the joy of God:

I’m not talking about an emotion. I mean the state of flourishing in mind, heart, and life that Christians experience by the Holy Spirit.

This, says Forster, is what’s so missing from today’s culture.

I think Christianity is losing its influence in contemporary America because people outside the church just don’t encounter the joy of God as much as they used to.

This book then is a challenge to Christian to “help our neighbors encounter the joy of God through the way we behave in society.”

This really is quite revolutionary, isn’t it. So many of our evangelistic and apologetic methods are so heady, so rational, so intellectual, so logical…and so miserable and angry and joyless and ineffectual.

But don’t think that this is some shallow and superficial book that just appeals to the emotions at the expense of truth. The author is a Yale PhD, a program director at the Kern Family Foundation, and a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. The book itself is a demanding read and will probably become required reading in many Christian colleges and worldview courses.

But for all the intellectual firepower directed at flawed approaches to cultural engagement, the basic message is consistent: the joy of God alone is what makes the church distinct from the world. 

The clincher verse for me was when Greg referenced Psalm 126 and asked:

Consider the relationship in this passage between the joy of God among God’s people and the way the nations respond to God’s people. What do the nations notice about God’s people? “The LORD has done great things for them.” And how do they notice that? “Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.”

Time for some laughter, people!

This book will test you but it will also teach you. You’ll learn a lot about the historical and philosophical roots of today’s culture and the church’s disengagement from it. But you’ll also be challenged to re-think your disengagement or your faulty engagement. It’s a book then for the head as well as for the heart.

Tomorrow I want to look at the most radical proposal in the book. It’s going to make some VanTillians’ hair stand on end, if not fall out.

Joy For The World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It by Greg Forster.


A Very Different and Unexpected Happiness

In the last post we looked at some of the reasons why the pursuit of happiness is such hard work. The first difficulty we noted was having a wrong definition of “happiness.” After all, if we don’t know what happiness actually is, we are unlikely to find it, or recognize it when we do.

When the Declaration of Independence was written, happiness did not mean what it means today – a subjective emotional state associated with a hedonistic and usually selfish pursuit of personal pleasure.

Etymologists have traced the word to the Old Norse language where it originally meant “luck” or “chance,” with Old English adopting and developing it to mean “success” “good” or “contentment.”

In 1725, it acquired a more philosophical or political flavor when Francis Hutcheson wrote about happiness in An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue.

That action is best which accomplishes the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers; and that worst, which in like manner occasions misery.

Community Happiness
That connection between civic responsibility and happiness was at the forefront of 18th century political thought and was what the writers of the Declaration of Independence had in mind in 1776 when they wrote of our right to pursue happiness.

In his 2005 lecture at the National Conference on Citizenship, US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said that for the framers of the Declaration of Independence, “Happiness meant that feeling of self-worth and dignity you acquire by contributing to your community and to its civic life.”

Vocational Happiness
In other words, the pursuit of happiness was more about giving to society than self-gratification. That also jives with the fact that the word “pursuit” was then most commonly associated with a person’s work or calling. You “pursued” your vocation.

Putting this together we can say that, for the Founders, to pursue happiness was to serve one’s community in one’s calling, one’s daily work.

Religious Happiness
However, other documents encourage us to understand happiness in an even broader and deeper sense, to include morality and religion.

For example, the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 affirmed:

The happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend upon piety, religion and morality, and . . . these cannot be generally diffused through a community but by the institution of the public worship of God and of public instructions in piety, religion and morality.

This goes beyond the individual, and even beyond the individual’s relationship to society, and includes the individual’s relationship to God.

Article 3 of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 also agrees that “Religion, morality, and knowledge, [are] necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind…”

Historian David McCullough and author of John Adams and 1776 said in a 2006 lecture at Hillsdale College:

When [Adams] and others wrote in the Declaration of Independence about ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ what they meant by ‘happiness’ wasn’t longer vacations or more material goods. They were talking about the enlargement of the human experience through the life of the mind and the life of the spirit.

In We Hold These Truths: Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the Constitution, historian Mortimer Adler concluded that the Founders idea of happiness was the “ancient ethical conception of happiness as a whole life well-lived because it is enriched by the cumulative possession of all the goods that a morally virtuous human being ought to desire.”

And again, in contrast to our selfish ideas of happiness, Adler notes that the Founders saw this moral and virtuous happiness as something we can work together to help others enjoy. He wrote:

The pursuit of happiness must be cooperative not competitive. We do not have the right view of it unless we see it as something which men can help one another to achieve – instead of achieving it by beating our neighbors.”

A Very Different Happiness
In summary, we can say that the Founders view of happiness was community-focused not self-centered; it was about work and vocation rather than leisure and pleasure; and it was religious and moral rather than secular and immoral. How unexpected! How counter-intuitive! How different to today’s version of happiness! No wonder it is so rarely experienced and enjoyed.


Why is Happiness Such Hard Work?

The US Declaration of Independence asserts that God has given to all human beings (and government must protect), “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

That last phrase, “the pursuit of happiness,” has often been misunderstood to suggest that we all have the right to happiness. If so, then I can simply wait passively until someone gives it to me or restores it to me. Good luck with that.

However, the word “pursuit” is pivotal and changes everything. If we have the right to pursue happiness, that suggests activity not passivity, something to be worked for rather than waited for. The thesaurus entry for “pursuit” includes words such as “hunt, quest, seek, track, trail, and going all out.” Sounds like a lot of hard and difficult work, right? Happiness rarely finds us; we have to find it. It doesn’t pursue us; we have to pursue it.

Why is that? Why is happiness so elusive? Why do we have to work so hard to find it and keep it?

1. We have mistaken definitions of happiness. Today, there are thousands of definitions of happiness, maybe millions, and they can’t all be right. If we don’t know what true happiness is, we won’t know where or how to look. If we’re looking for something that doesn’t exist, we ain’t gonna find it! Lots of happiness-hunters are chasing a shadow.

2. We look for happiness in inadequate places. Many try to find happiness in someone or something – a friend, a wife, a husband, a job, a car, a vacation. Some limited happiness can be found in these people, places, and things, but none of them is a sufficient source of deep and lasting happiness. Even the happiest marriage ends eventually.

3. We look for happiness in sinful places. Sin, the transgression of God’s law, promises huge happiness. But never delivers. How can it? How can we find happiness by offending and angering the source of all authentic happiness? Guilty consciences make for grumbly minds and groaning hearts.

4. Other people’s pursuit of happiness crosses ours. There are lots of other happiness-hunters out there, each tracking their hoped-for prey with single-minded and blinkered determination. They don’t really care if they spoil your hunt. They have the scent and they are going after the tantalizing prospect without a thought for your life, your feelings, your interests.

5. We don’t realize just how much hard work is required. We put a few minutes and muscles into it, but when the “effort” produces such pitiful return, we give up. Happiness, though, is such difficult and complicated work that there is now a whole scientific field devoted to it - Positive Psychology. As part of a project I’ve been working on the past year, I’ve read a lot of Positive Psychology books and papers, and what’s struck me most in their findings is just how hard human beings have to work to be happy. It’s a complicated and demanding business.

6. We have leaky ships. Sometimes we look at people who have so much to be happy about and they are just completely miserable. There’s virtually nothing in their lives to make them unhappy and yet you’d think they were living in Belsen. Further inspection reveals that they have punctured their lives with envy and discontent. They are holed below the water line through covetousness and dissatisfaction and are sinking fast.

7. We have gloomy personalities.  While some fortunate people are blessed with a sunny disposition, there are others who are just plain sad. Some of this melancholy can be in the genes and some of it can be learned in our upbringing. These “natural” or “nurtural” disadvantages undermine happiness and make it extra difficult to rise above a default negativity.

8. We experience tough providences. How can I be happy when I have cancer…when my child died of leukemia…when my teen was killed in a car crash…when I have such a disabled child…when I was raped…when my husband cheated on me….? And we can add many more terrible painful providences. It’s a broken and fallen world, and for some of us, it has broken and fallen on top of us, leaving us crushed and sad. Pursuit of happiness? Give me a break.

Many, many reasons why this pursuit is perhaps the hardest hunt we will ever be involved in. So hard, that many have understandably given up. Others haven’t even got to the starting line.

Maybe it’s too hard. Maybe Jefferson & Co. got it wrong. Were they mistaken to make something so basic and inalienable that is so rare and unattainable?

What do you think? Is “the pursuit of happiness” worth the effort? Can we overcome all or any of these obstacles? Are there other impediments I’ve not mentioned? We might as well know what we’re up against.


Check Out

Weekend Reading Deals

Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament ($3.79)

Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church ($3.79)

How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour ($3.79)

How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth: Fourth Edition ($3.79)

How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens: A Guide to Christ-Focused Reading of Scripture ($3.79)

7 Truths That Changed the World: Discovering Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas ($2.99)

The Duty of Pastors (Vintage Puritan) ($0.99)

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption ($4.99)

Operation Mincemeat ($2.99) Just finished this – a cracking read.

Thinking, Fast and Slow ($2.99)

The Elements of Style (Illustrated) ($2.99)

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking ($2.99)

Master Evernote: The Complete Guide to Organizing Your Life with Evernote (Plus 75 Ideas for Getting Started) ($0.99)

Check out

The Never-Ending Need of Multiplying Leaders

What Makes For A Good Elder?

How Do You Prepare Your Teenage for Adulthood?

The Evangelicals Who Are Not Evangelicals

I Am Ryland – The Story of a Male-Identifying Little Girl Who Didn’t Transition

I Think I May Be Gay

My Second Round With Depression

Faith and Mental Illness

Everything Is Terrible: How Bad Stats Fuel Disillusionment 

8 Witnesses to Jesus As The Son of God and Messiah

What Work (and workers) Will Look Like in 2020

The Great Challenge Facing All Women (and why women need to stop judging each other)

Life As An Ordinary Pastor’s Kid

So You Want To Be A (Theological) Doctor?

Rooster Tales

Envy Always Wins

Misconceptions About Adoption and Adoptive Parents (Part 1, Part 2).

Videos

Ready To Launch: Jesus-Centered Parenting in a Child-Centered World

For The Life Of The World
Here’s a trailer, but click above to get details of how to get all seven episodes free for a limited time.

Good Tactics to Use When Engaging Cult Members

Stories of Freedom

Mission to the Trash Dump Kids

Jack Discovers a Hilarious New Book
Go on, it will do you good.


Restoring Optimism to A Pessimistic America

Although America has long been divided on social issues, the nation has been traditionally fairly united in optimism about the future.

But no longer, according to a special survey commissioned for The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute and headlined in an article Americans Are No Longer Optimists:

  • Nearly two-thirds of Americans—65 percent—question whether America will be on the right track in 10 years.
  • Most doubt whether American will be a “land of opportunity” in 10 years (33 percent say yes, 42 percent say no, and 24 percent say they don’t know).
  • The American Dream seems to be fading with seven in ten Americans cynical about whether working hard and playing by the rules will bring success in the future.
  • While 56 percent of parents believe college will be increasingly important in the coming years, less than one third—29 percent—believe they will be able to afford to pay for their children to go.
  • Only three in 10 Americans now believe our global standing will be rising in 10 years; 43 percent think it will be declining.
  • 64 percent of parents believe it will be difficult for their children to find good jobs in 10 years.
  • Only African Americans and Hispanics believe America is on the right track and will remain a land of opportunity.
  • Women are even more pessimistic than men.

Those who commissioned the poll conclude: “All we can say, then, is that Americans are full of uncertainty and pessimism about the next 10 years.”

Gospel Potential
How do you react when you read such statistics? Do you think “We’re doomed, we’re doomed, we’re all doomed!”

Or do you think, “What an opportunity for the church of Christ and the Gospel of grace!”

I hope the latter. There’s such an opening here for the good news, so wide that it’s just about an open goal without a goalkeeper. It’s like a 21st century version of Ecclesiastes.

If there’s any group of people that can offer a wonderful counter-cultural message surely it’s Christians who can passionately and compassionately communicate the Gospel of grace in all its fullness. Let’s stop moaning and groaning with the rest of the culture, and tell our despairing world about all that Jesus offers:

  • Truth in a world full of lies
  • Peace in a world full of war
  • Love in a world full of hate
  • Life in a world full of death
  • Forgiveness in a world full of vengeance
  • Power in a world full of weakness
  • Certainty in a world full of confusion
  • Purpose in a world full of pointlessness
  • Beauty in a world full of ugliness
  • Hope in a world full of despair
  • Family in a world full of loneliness
  • Guidance in a world full of mazes
  • Goodness in a world full of badness
  • Relationship in a world full of alientation
  • God in a world full of the Devil
  • Salvation in a world full of sin
  • An unshakeable Kingdom in a world of crumbling empires
  • A perfect leader in a world full of failed leadership
  • And, yes, optimism in a world full of pessimism.

A Few Vital Resources For All Desk-Dwellers

If you work at a desk, you will almost certainly get painful back and neck trouble eventually.

The only way to avoid it – and the associated sleeplessness, painkillers, depression, and even surgery –  is to consciously take evasive action.

Believe me, I learned the hard way, via one herniated disc, one prolapsed disc, and recurring neck pain for years. At one point I had got so depressed with the sciatic nerve pain shooting down my leg that I almost wanted it to be amputated.

Then, about 10 years ago I came across the Mackenzie exercises and the Mackenzie roll. These resources not only saved me a lot of pain but even saved my ministry at one point. They’ve helped rescue others too as I always make “Caring for Your Back and Neck” one of the lectures in my pastoral ministry class. Some students who listened skeptically at the time have later come back to thank me!

If you want to avoid back and neck pain, or if you are already suffering from it, here are three steps to take:

Step 1: Buy Treat Your Own Back or Treat Your Own Neck depending on your need.

 

These books will help you understand the importance of a healthy “S” shape or inward curve in your lower back (often called the lordosis) and in your neck. Once you become conscious of this, you’ll be amazed to discover how bad your desk posture is – most of us look like a turtle with a giraffe’s neck hanging out towards the screen.

Each book could save you a fortune in painkillers, physiotherapy visits, and even surgery. They will help you  understand the physics of your back as well as explain and demonstrate some very simple exercises that are easy to learn. Here’s a sample.

Step 2: Invest in a Mackenzie roll. I bought two, one of them a full roll for soft chairs and sofas and a D-roll for hard chairs and the car. You will want to use them whenever you sit down to push out your lordosis into a nice “S” shape and stop you sitting with a poorly curved spine.

Step 3: Change your sitting habits, especially at your desk. Learn how to touch type so that you are not looking down at the keyboard, position your screen at eye level so that you are looking straight ahead, and make sure you are sitting with your head back and your lower back slightly curving in towards your desk rather than out towards your chair.

These three steps cured my back and neck issues and have largely prevented recurrence. If I feel stiffness or pain coming on again, I whip out the books and the rolls, do the exercises, fix my postures, and within a few days I’m back to normal.

PS: I should probably put one of these small-print disclaimers in here just in case some crazy does this, paralyzes themselves, and sues me. So, please check with your doctor or physiotherapist before doing any of this. I’m just a pastor who’s found this extremely helpful and I know many others who have benefited too.