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Christianity Crisis Essay Research Paper There was

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

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

also seen in Hunter’s data on attitudes of evangelicals toward traditional

parenting roles. l2 He argues that although evangelicals maintain more

traditional views of parenting than the majority of society, these views are

changing. While supporting the value of traditional familism, evangelicals are

less supportive of traditional parenting skills. This is especially true of

younger evangelicals, for example, who tend to share society’s view that a

working mother can have just as secure a relationship with a child as a mother

who does not work. A culture of traditional, shared meanings is strained by the

explosion of new symbols generated by modernity and supported by the mass media.

Words traditionally deemed to be profane or vulgar are now commonplace. Even the

accepted definitions of life and death have been reinterpreted by modern

symbolic meanings. The person is left to choose among the offered symbols and

the cultural lifestyles they represent. A Crisis of Concepts In a traditional

society, people experienced the reality of life in a way shared by others who

had the same experience. There was consensus as words clearly described the

shared experience and the meaning it had for the culture. Modernity has

fragmented that consensus as words no longer have the clear meaning they used to

have. The meanings of marriage and family, for example, have been opened to

biased interpretations that accept a variety of referents for the concept.

Language has eroded as conceptual clarity has been replaced by conceptual

ambiguity. The Problem of Erosion In his discussion of symbolic realism, Bellah

claims that biblical language originally carried a truth that could not be

reduced to empirical propositions. l3 There was a noncognitive quality to

symbols that expressed reality as true. Modern consciousness looked behind this

symbolic meaning to find the precision in thinking that science required. The

result was "symbolic reductionism," the search for truth in the

experiences represented by the symbols rather than in the symbols themselves.

Bellah believes there has been a return in social science to an acceptance of a

higher view of symbols. Reality is not found only in objective symbols but also

in non-objective symbols which depend on an interaction of subject and object

for interpretation. His claim of symbolic realism rests on this subject-object

complex and the wholistic position which accepts symbols as constituting reality

rather than just describing it. Modern culture, however, has difficulty with the

notion of symbolic realism and continues to espouse symbolic reductionism. The

biblical notion of wisdom is a case in point. The concept suggests an insightful

use of knowledge which is not reducible to empirical means. But today, any

knowledge not based on what is considered to be "facts" is often

deemed invalid. Consequently, wisdom loses much of its credibility as a modern

form of knowledge. In a computerized age, information has taken the place of

wisdom and fact replaces faith as the basis for knowing truth. The erosion of

biblical language has led to symbolicreductionism. As modern life incessantly

produces new meanings to replace the old, biblical language gives way to symbols

that relate those meanings to modern life. In biblical language, the meaning of

a work-life was described by the concept of a vocation to which a person was

called by God. In a secular society, the biblical meaning of a vocation has

little relevance. In its place, the concept "career" has evolved to

describe work as "a race…which affords opportunity for progress or

advancement in the world" (Oxford English Dictionary). With the erosion of

biblical language, new concepts and the modern life they describe fill the void.

According to Bellah, theologians and social scientists share some responsibility

for restoring the integrity of biblical language in everyday life. Cooperation

is possible because "theologian and secular intellectual can speak the same

language. Their tasks are different, but their conceptual framework is

shared." l5 The task of the theologian is to describe reality with biblical

language and to assert its truth. But according to Bellah, concepts constitute

reality when they are put into practice. The biblical principle should be

interpreted for modern life so it becomes part of a believer’s lifestyle. This

task of interpretation is to be shared by the social scientist. The Problem of

Ambiguity Bellah suggests that, although current language is saturated with

terminology that is biblical in origin, the language of popular psychology

provides an alternative and often conflicting system of symbols. Consequently,

"the Biblical and the contemporary or psychological terminologies are

hopelessly confused, and it does not always seem that the Biblical discourse

carries the determining weight." l6 Conceptual ambiguity occurs when we

lose sight of this fact. Many believers blend, often irresponsibly and

unconsciously, language that is both biblical and modern. Biblical concepts such

as wisdom and vocation may be used interchangeably in the same text with the

modern concepts of information and career. Used out of context in this way, each

concept loses its proper meaning. When such concepts are treated as abstractions

with no clear referents, it is not always apparent they represent competing

worldviews. That is not to say that clear separation between biblical and modern

concepts is possible or even desirable. Living "in the world," we need

information and we need to understand which career concerns are appropriate. But

not being "of the world," the believer first needs to seek wisdom and

be guided by a calling. Our objective should be to understand how biblical

concepts are to be given priority and when modern concepts are to be used with

discrimination. Theologians and social scientists, together, can work toward

this objective. Sharing a conceptual framework supporting biblical and modern

language, they can establish principles to help the believer to be more

conscious of competing conceptual systems. They must also reach some agreement

on the interpretation of conceptual meanings and the application of them to

individual situations. The Hidden Threads Paradigm l7 When Bellah suggests that

theologians and social scientists share a common "conceptual

framework," he seems to imply two things. First, that some concepts have a

biblical meaning that is still appropriate today. Second, that social scientists

may share with theologians in the interpretation of that meaning in modern life.

Specifically, theologians may interpret the meaning of the concept then, while

social scientists may interpret its meaning now. It is this suggestion that

underlies the idea that there are "hidden threads" in scripture:

"Christian principles for social behavior in agreement with social

theory." l8 Such principles describe a reality found not only in scripture

but also in modern life and, especially, in the application of scripture to

modern life. Much of the study of hermeneutics, I’m suggesting, should center in

the description and analysis of these hidden thread The Dimension of Continuity

Modern life demands new language for the new experiences it generates. Either

new concepts must be developed to refer to these experiences or old concepts

must be adapted to describe them. Some experiences, however, are not unique to

modern life and have the same meaning they had in biblical times. These

experiences may be appropriately referred to by biblical concepts. The dimension

of continuity refers to the extent to which the meaning of an experience is or

is not limited to a particular culture. An experience lacks continuity if its

meaning is limited to a particular culture and could be referred to as

culture-bound. Another experience would have continuity if its meaning is not

limited to a particular culture. The modern experience of a work-life directed

only by the modern corporation or profession, for example, is culture-bound. It

has no continuity from biblical times and should be referred to as a career.

While the social scientist might interpret the meaning of such a modern

work-life, it would have no meaning for the theologian. But the experience of a

work-life which pursues "a task set by God" is not culture-bound. It

has continuity from biblical times and may be referred to as a calling. This

type of experience may be interpreted by the theologian as well as those social

scientists who accept the validity of such a work-life experience. At least

three questions must be asked to determine whether an experience may be referred

to with a hidden thread on the dimension of continuity. Does the experience have

a meaning bound by culture or not? If not, does the experience have a biblical

meaning that finds expression in modern life? If so, can the interpretation of

that meaning be shared by both theologian and social scientist? The Dimension of

Universality The dimension of universality refers to the concepts used to

describe experiences that are not culture-bound. Concepts are not universal if

they can only be used to describe the meaning of experiences that are

culture-bound. A concept that has universality cannot accurately describe the

meaning of an experience that lacks continuity and vice versa. The calling, for

example, is a universal concept that appropriately refers to "a task set by

God" as a work-life experience that is not culture-bound. It should not,

however, be used to refer to the modern work-life experience that is

culture-bound and best referred to as a career. Similarly, the concept of career

might best be reserved for a modern culture-bound experience and not one that is

continuous. Since a hidden thread is a concept that describes a

non-culture-bound experience, it is both continuous and universal. At the other

extreme is a concept that is neither continuous nor universal because it

appropriately describes a culture-bound experience. Between these two extremes

are two other types of concepts: those that are not continuous but are universal

and those that are continuous and not universal. Combined, these four types of

concepts describe a wide range of experiences found in the shift from a

traditional, biblically-based culture to one controlled by a modern world view.

Although these last two types of concepts are not our primary concern, they

offer intriguing questions for analysis. The "career missionsary," for

example, is a non-universal, continuous concept. It describes a process whereby

someone presumably called "to a task set by God" has made such a

calling a career. Does this concept point to possible motivational shifts in the

missionary’s work-life or is the term merely an inappropriate use of the

concept. Similarly, the idea that one may be "called to a career"

(universal-non-continuous) raises other questions of motivation. Does the use of

such a phrase imply the socialization of some secular interests? Most hidden

threads are valued highly, especially by believers. Consequently, they may be

used rather loosely and without a clear referent. Joy is such a concept. As a

biblical concept, it refers to a sense of gladness in time of difficulty as one

has faith in God. But secularization in modern socierty has weakened this

meaning and the idea that gladness and difficulty might be found together is

gradually lost. In its place, the culture-bound concept of fun is used to

describe a form of happiness without seriousness. Gradually, fun becomes the

preferred concept to describe happiness in modern life. While joy may still be

used, it has lost much of the integrity of meaning it had as a biblical concept.

At least three questions must be asked to determine whether a concept qualifies

as a hidden thread on the dimension of universality. What is the inherent

meaning of the concept as developed in scripture? Does the concept refer to some

experience found in modern life? If so, can the meaning of that concept be

interpreted by both theologian and social scientist? In modern life, the

integrity found in a hidden thread and the experience it refers to should be

maintained as the concept is applied to daily living. The experience it refers

to should be described so it is faithful to the biblical meaning while losing

none of its usefulness in the modern world. In this way, hidden threads offer

biblical constants that may be used to measure and interpret those

inconsistencies in faith and practice found within the church as well as in the

world. Conclusion A major concern of this paper has been the current problem of

modernity and its erosion of biblical concepts. In l970, Bellah suggested that

"modernization itself is so endlessly subversive of every fixed position,

no matter how great an achievement it may have been originally." l9

Developing this subversion theme, Guinness notes the seductive quality of the

process of modernization: "Something new is assumed, something old is

abandoned, and everything else is adopted. In other words, what remains of

traditional (religious) beliefs andpractices is altered to fit the new

assumption." 20 At the same time, Hunter argues "that modernity is

inimical to traditional religious belief… Its symbols and its structure are

deeply contrary to religious, supernaturalistic presuppositions." 2l

Consequently, he predicts religion will either "seek to preserve its

religious heritage" or offer a bargaining creed as a compromise. l9 The

dilemma of the church involves plotting a careful course between these two

options of preserving and compromising. If the church is to maintain a viable

ministry in a rapidly changing world, it must avoid the traditional separated

approach while also avoiding the worldliness that comes from unwitting approval

of modernity’s attractions. Without such avoidance, religion’s cultural style

rather than its orthodoxy is likely to suffer as a syncretism of evangelical

faith and modernity emerges. 22 Looking for a wedge into this syncretism of

modernity and Christian orthodoxy, the argument has suggested that social

science and theology, together, may interpret those inherent truths found in

that conceptual framework shared by them. Basic to this conceptual framework,

hidden threads provide a link between a traditional world of religious meaning

and a modern world devoid of such meaning. Our culture needs an engagement of

scripture and social science, in which a tension must be both perceived and

maintained if any basis for applying biblical principles to modern life is to be

discovered. The church and the believer need to recognize this tension and deal

with it realistically if the hermeneutical task is to be pursued with

faithfulness and integrity.

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