Archives For Culture

Being the Right Kind of Light

Mark Beuving —  February 11, 2013 — 1 Comment

Light BulbChristians are called to be lights to the world around them. We hear that often enough in Christian circles, and rightly so. It’s a biblical concept. In this post, I want to explore one biblical admonition to shine as lights and what it actually means to do so—it might surprise you.

Paul says:

“Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world…” (Philippians 2:14–15)

Though we live in the midst of “a crooked and twisted generation,” Paul calls us to something different. Our world is grossly skewed, but we shine as lights.

So far, this is very familiar. But notice how we are to be different: “Do all things without grumbling and questioning.” This is what sets us apart.

When you hear the familiar Christian calling to let your light shine, is this what comes to your mind?

We tend to view our “shining” in cultural terms. I’m different when I stand out culturally. Maybe it’s something superficial like a t-shirt or bumper sticker. Maybe it’s more behavioral—I don’t drink, cuss, swear, smoke, or chew. Maybe it’s verbal, where your light shines through your public proclamation of the gospel.

T-shirts and bumper stickers aside, there is a real place for each of these things. Paul became “all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22), and while there is much disagreement on whether this includes the freedom to cuss, for example, we can all agree that this would include the freedom to abstain from cussing.

In any case, Paul says that our light shines when we refrain from grumbling and questioning. What should make us different is less cultural and more attitudinal.

How do you react when things don’t go your way? How do you respond when your friends and coworkers begin complaining? These aren’t matters of preference. They’re not low priority issues. More is at stake than potentially hurting someone’s feelings or coming across as a whiner.

Paul says that if we do everything without grumbling, we will be “blameless and innocent,” we will be “children of God without blemish,” and we will “shine as lights” in the midst of a “crooked and twisted generation.” That sounds like a big deal.

While we’re busy trying to be different by not drinking, not cussing, and avoiding a handful of other taboos, most of us don’t give a lot of thought to our grumbling level. Paul is not telling us to pursue every potential vice but this one, but passages like this challenge us to give special attention to the words we speak and the attitudes beneath them.

Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins

The world is a vampire sent to drain; secret destroyers hold you up to the flames. So says Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins, and it’s not easy to prove him wrong.

Every human being simply shows up on earth. No orientation, no training. We just find ourselves here and have to make sense of it all. At some point, we develop an opinion on the type of place this is. Is it dark and dangerous, or bright and exciting? Do we live in a cesspool or a playground?

I hear the cesspool view voiced from most pulpits—religious or secular. Christians understandably look at the evil and temptations that press and pull from every direction and rightly see these evil influences for what they are. Beware: there is much in our modern culture that would lead us astray. But secular prophets see the darkness of our world as well. Billy Corgan is one voice among many. “Welcome to the cruel world…don’t know how we’ve lasted here so long,” mourns Ben Harper. Rage Against the Machine adds a more aggressively sinister note: “There’ll be no shelter here, the front line is everywhere.”

Zack De La Rocha of Rage Against the Machine

We could pile on near-infinite examples from the cultural worlds of music, film, literature, visual art, dance, etc. The point is universally understood: this world is a dark and dangerous place. The only people who seem to deny the darkness of this world are kitschy filmmakers and storytellers who delight in showing the fluffy side of life to the exclusion of, well, reality. Sadly, many of the worst offenders in this regard are Christians trying to maintain a positive outlook. Even the darkest people on the planet (think Marilyn Manson or even Charles Manson) aren’t denying that the world is full of darkness, they’re simply embracing it.

So that settles it, right? We live in a cesspool. Tread lightly and keep your eyes on the sky. We’ll be rescued from this mess in due time.

This conclusion would be entirely justified were it not for one key player in the affairs of this world: God. If the world is a cesspool, it’s His cesspool. It’s His earth that the forces of darkness have desecrated, and the Bible assures us that He is not ready to throw it away in disgust.

Nor has God gone missing from the world He made. We see God’s presence in this world just moments after sin entered the picture and wrenched the world from its God-ordained intention. No sooner had Adam and Eve fashioned makeshift garments to hide the effects of their sin than “they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden” (Gen. 3:8). And He has never truly left.

The Bible records humanity’s struggle with sin and the seemingly inevitable spread of darkness into every area of cultural production. But never forget that the Bible tells a joyful story. It’s a story infused with hope at every turn. A story in which the True Creator is always working, sometimes when and where we least expect Him.

He is the God who takes the distorted culture that shaped a crown out of thorns and a cross out of once-living trees and turns those malevolent cultural productions into symbols of hope and triumph. He is the God who turns the chief of sinners into an exemplary grace-proclaiming missionary (1 Tim. 1:15). The God who makes the broken into a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). The God who is ultimately making all things new (Rev. 21:5).

PlaygroundBecause of God’s continued involvement in His world, the world is more than a cesspool. Because of God’s ongoing delight in the works of His hands, this world remains a playground. We would do well to play with an appropriate soberness and a continuing dependence on God, but the human culture that fills our world still reflects the God whose grace permeates all of life, try as we might to distance Him from the things we make.

God did not redeem our world by staying as far as possible from the stains that now adorn the fabric of the universe. He entered into the world as-is, showing us that the stain is distinct from the fabric, and in doing so He subtly invites us onto this potentially dangerous playground to find the light and joy and affirm it wherever it may still be found.

Redeeming the Time

Mark Beuving —  November 14, 2012 — 1 Comment

Yesterday I wrote about Paul’s command to be filled by the Spirit and examined the musical emphasis of this Spirit-filling. Today I want to look at the verses directly preceding this:

“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (Ephesians 5:15–17)

These are strong words. Words that have challenged Christians throughout the ages. But what exactly do they mean?

Alarm ClockPaul is talking about “walking wisely,” and he says that this will include making the best use of the time. Other translations say that we are to be “redeeming the time.” Some take this to mean “be productive.” Don’t sit down, don’t rest, don’t engage in recreation (especially if it involves the entertainment industry), because there is work to be done, and the time needs to be used wisely. Others will insist that redeeming the time means that we won’t waste our time on the things of this world, opting instead to think and talk about heavenly things (also look at this post, or  this one).

But I don’t think Paul had either of these things in mind. I’m not advocating laziness, but productivity or heavenly-mindedness don’t seem to be Paul’s concern here. The phrase “redeeming the time” most likely means “taking advantage of every opportunity.” The Greek word for “redeeming” talks about “buying something up intensively” or “snapping something up.” The word for “time” in this context most likely refers not to the ticking of the clock but to the “the opportunities offered by time.”[1]

So the picture is one of living wisely, and this is accomplished by taking advantage of every opportunity we receive. Why should we do this? Because “the days are evil.” This present age is dominated by the “god of this age” (Eph. 2:2), and he is doing everything he can to withstand the kingdom of God. So Paul calls us to make the most of every chance we get to further the kingdom.

Paul’s life is a prime example of this. In Philippians 1:12–14, for example, Paul says that his imprisonment became an opportunity to advance the kingdom. When he was imprisoned in Philippi, he and Silas used that opportunity to sing joyfully and saw the kingdom expanded as a result (Acts 16). When Paul was brought before the Areopagus, he took the opportunity to show their need for Christ (Acts 17).

When Paul says that the days are evil, we would all wholeheartedly agree. But notice what Paul doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, “Avoid interacting with the world, because the days are evil.” Nor does he say, “Be very suspicious and afraid, because the days are evil.”[2]

What Paul does say is very important: “Take advantage of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” This world needs Christ, so get in there, identify the opportunities for the kingdom of God, and exploit them.

It’s understandable that many Christians would equate “redeeming the time” with avoiding the culture and yelling the gospel into it from time to time. But Paul seems to be suggesting that we interact with the world—not so that we can be just like the world, but so that we can take advantage of the opportunities that wait for us.

It comes back to the question of what it means to be in the world, but not of it. The balance here is not easy to find, but we can be sure that avoiding contact with all things worldly is not Paul’s answer.

 


[1] Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002) 692-693.

[2] Ibid., 693-695.

Lamech said to his wives:
“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.
If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold,
then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.” (Genesis 4:23-24)

Have you ever noticed this little poem tucked into the early chapters of Genesis? Doesn’t it seem strange that a poem like this would be recorded in Scripture at all, much less in the beginning chapters of the whole Bible? This is the first poem recorded in Scripture (let’s leave Genesis 1 out of this for now). It’s literally the oldest poem we know of. And it’s a bad poem.

We can learn a lot about culture in general from this one poem. We know for sure that poetry is a good gift that can be used to glorify God. The book of Psalms alone contains 150 God-glorifying poems. So poetry can and should be used for God’s glory.

This is true of all culture. Culture itself is a good gift of God. In fact, God was the first culture maker. He spoke the world into existence in Genesis 1, then stuck His finger into the dirt and formed something amazing out of it—human beings! He made raw plant life, but He also created a garden. And if all of that is not enough to establish God as a culture maker, He took his most glorious creation—the man—and placed him in the midst of his garden “to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15).

So culture was God’s idea. He got the cultural ball rolling. And then God formed a culture making creature and placed him in the midst of His cultural project to keep producing culture (which is what “working” and “keeping” the garden amounts to).  Culture can and should be used to God’s glory.

But as we know, something went horribly wrong. Humanity rebelled. They should have been continuing to form the garden for God’s glory, but instead they found themselves forming leaves into makeshift clothes (culture making again) to hide their shame. Read on a bit further and you’ll see Cain killing Abel—the first instance of death in history. And then we find Cain—the first murderer—forming a city (culture making again; see Gen. 4:17).

And then we come across the first poem, written by the father of a prominent musician (4:21) and a prominent instrument maker (4:22). The poem is incredibly vengeful. Lamech writes a poem about the first murder, glories in a murder of his own, and claims that his murder was far better than Cain’s.

This serves as a great case-in-point for where culture stands in the wake of the fall. What was to be used for God’s glory is now being used as a weapon against God. We see this in so many aspects of our culture. Music, movies, literature, and so many other forms of culture glory in killing, self-promotion, and sexual promiscuity. Lamech’s poem is tame compared to a lot of the rap songs being produced, but the concept is the same.

So what do we do with culture? Turn our backs and put it all behind us? No! Rather, we should remember that culture was God’s idea, it is His gift, and He placed us on earth to be culture makers. And when we remember that, we get involved. Lamech had his poem, and David had his Psalms. Culture can be used against God, but culture can be used for God as well. We can’t give up on culture (we couldn’t even if we wanted to—Amish culture may be defined by the avoidance of the surrounding culture, but it is still culture). We are God’s culture making creation. And culture is too important to turn over to the destructive forces of the kingdom of this world.

 

Yesterday I said that everything in this world is important because of the kingdom of God. If God’s righteous reign is to spread into every aspect of this world, then we need to take everything seriously. This is God’s world, and we should love every inch of it and long to see it redeemed (Rom. 8:19–25).

One of the major reasons we have trouble thinking highly of this world is the reality of sin. Our world is soaked in sin. Sin is responsible for everything from thistles to headaches to rude customers to cancer to death itself. So when we look at the world, we see sin. It’s unavoidable.

So let’s burn the place to the ground! Right? When the milk in my fridge gets corrupted, I plug my nose and pour it down the drain. There’s nothing lovely about spoiled milk.

But our world is different. Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew use a helpful analogy here. They explain that sin is like a stain. It’s messy, it taints what it touches, but it’s different than the fabric itself. There is still good fabric underneath the stain. If I love my favorite shirt enough, I don’t throw it out with my every coffee spill.

Here’s where I’ll carry the analogy a bit too far and into some cheesy territory. I do everything I can to clean my shirt. Very often, I can get the stain out. If that doesn’t work, I can always take it to the cleaners. And lucky for us (brace yourself for the cheesiness), we know the ultimate Cleaner who at the end of all things will bring us back our once-stained world, sparkling clean, renewed, reinvigorated, and—because our Cleaner is also the Master Tailor—made even better than before.

Cheesiness aside, I hope the point is coming across. This exercise would be so helpful for all of us: read Genesis 1 and 2, then skip ahead to Revelation 21 and 22. These are the bookends of Scripture and the parallels are stunning.

So what do we do? We engage every aspect of our world with Christian fury. We look to politics, economics, education, childcare, and entertainment with a passion to see God’s will done in each of these spheres. Rather than turning away in disgust because these activities are too corrupt, we ask ourselves what it would mean for each of these spheres to come under the lordship of Christ and be transformed by his grace.

Of course, this task is difficult. Impossible even. But if God’s plan of redemption is indeed as wide as creation itself, then we will have to represent him across the board. We can’t be defeatist and give up simply because we can’t do the whole job by ourselves. If it’s worth doing, then it’s worth doing even if we’re bound to fail. We labor to see God’s will done in and around us, and we trust him for the results.

Our world is stained by sin, but it’s worth fighting for. Let’s attack the stain but rescue the fabric.