Faith and relevance in the 21st century

Category: Mark Sayers (Page 2 of 2)

Truth in a postmodern culture

Showing Christ to be relevant in a postmodern, largely secular society has its share of conundrums. I will say upfront that I am not an expert on postmodernism; the following are simply my observations of being a follower of Jesus in 21st century Melbourne, as well as some insights picked up from other followers on the way.

I have a deep conviction, and in fact I can say – and I understand that this will seem like an incredibly arrogant assertion to make in a postmodern culture – that I know that Jesus is the answer to the question of life, of what it’s all about and how we deal with it. He is the only one who delivers on the life that humanity is after. This conviction has been borne out of years of surrendering my life to this Christ, asking for His will and not my own to be done in my life each day. As C.S. Lewis said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” You can’t prove that by the logic of reason, and that is one of the benefits of bringing across Jesus today. Many people are not seeking ‘proofs’ these days. As John Smith has said, you could convince someone that Jesus really did rise from the dead, but they could at the same time turn around and say, ‘so what?!’.

People want to know that Christianity works. But whilst it is important to bring that across, it is equally important to remember that Christianity isn’t true because it works; it works because it’s true. Again, this will come across to many people as another seemingly arrogant assertion to make. But I learnt from Rikk Watts some time ago, and I agree with him, that truth is something different to what I had always thought. In these postmodern times where what’s true for you doesn’t have to be true for me, I believe we have forgotten what the definition of truth is. I believe we have been looking at it the wrong way. We are still caught in the trap of our post-Enlightenment thinking that sees truth as a concept. But the Scriptures never describe truth in such a way. Have a read through John’s gospel and you will see it. Truth is personal. The truth has come to us in a Person, the person of none other than God incarnate. A concept is impersonal, and truth is not that.

When talking about truth we have been asking the wrong question. Ever since Pilate asked Jesus that great existential question, ‘what is truth?’ (John 18:38), we have thought of truth as a concept. But John tells us that truth is a person. Jesus said I am the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6). And John in his gospel says that the law was given through Moses, and grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:17). This Truth is the great ‘I Am’, a designation that the Jewish hearers of Jesus would have instantly recognised as nothing other than the outrageous statement of someone who is claiming to be the living God. No wonder they tried to kill him. How dare he make such claims in front of those who claimed to have a monopoly on truth!

I wonder how society would react if He made those claims today. I don’t think it would be much different to 2,000 years ago. We live in interesting times. While we live in a time when modernity seems a relic of the past, there are still strong glimpses of it. People know integrity when they see it. You will not meet many people have major problems with the church who will also write Jesus off. As Dan Kimball has noted in his book of the same title, ‘they like Jesus but not the church. And, as N.T. Wright says, “we generally know deep down what is good. When we see someone living out a Christian life, we don’t ask ourselves if it’s good or not; we just wish there were more people like that around.”

Throughout the ages, from modern days to these postmodern days, actions still speak loudest. If we want to find out whether or not Christian faith is relevant in the 21st century, we need only look at the actions of those Christians who are walking their talk. The fact is that Christians have had a profound impact on society. I have written elsewhere of the massive contributions that people of faith have made over the centuries. It is that more than anything that has convinced people of the reality of God in the world.

If we want to see what Scriptures speak best to a postmodern culture, I think the relevance of Christ today is seen most profoundly in those magnificent words of Colossians 1:15-20. This is what brings it all together for me. Check it out:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

I think this is one of the most radical passages we can think of for the 21st century. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And, contrary to popular church opinion, God did not make everything for our glory. Colossians tells us that it was all made for Him. The creation and all that is in it was not made for us. We don’t own it. We are stewards, and stewards take care of what they have. If the church would only grasp this and get over its mind-numbing superficiality and obsession with growth and success, we would be more of a fragrance of life than a fragrance of sameness and conformity. And we would actually have something powerful to say to a society that is drowning.

We need to be more aware that society has largely given up on modernity and its failed promises of the good life and inevitable progress. But, as alluded to above, people still want to believe in something bigger. Witness the extraordinary outpouring of hope in Barack Obama in 2008. It’s interesting that such an outpouring of emotion and hope occurred in a country with Christian roots, nominal though its Christianity generally is now. It has largely been overtaken by a consumerism that has taken it to the eve of destruction, as Barry McGuire put it so many years ago.

In such a consumerist society, with so much choice, we suffer from choice anxiety. When our only commitment to life is the commitment to – in that postmodern catchphrase – ‘keep our options open’, we become confused people. We become terrified of missing out because we’re addicted to experience. As a result of this we become wired, unable to settle with being committed to something for the long term. That’s why I think Facebook has taken off like it has. It is a service that both reflects and shapes our times. On the other hand, as I have said previously, it is why marriage is so good for the soul: it’s about a commitment for life to one person.

When we ‘keep our options open’, we rarely take up any of those options and we miss out on much of the joy of being alive, of standing for something, of living with purpose. The line from a John Mellencamp song from the 1980s rings true today more than ever: “if you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything.”

Having said all this, some thinkers, notably Mark Sayers, believe we are moving away from postmodernity back into something more akin to modernity. Sayers adds though that while there has been a decline in the concept of postmodernity in the wake of 9/11 and the rise of the ‘New Atheism’ with its modernist catchcry of ‘celebrating reason’, the reality of postmodernity is being lived out by average people in the suburbs. Consider this comment by Sayers:

“Postmodernity is seen most clearly in the ethically incoherent lives lived by Western people. Its beat of relativism is heard most clearly in the contradictory hedonistic/altruistic, nihilistic/optimistic, spiritualistic/materialistic lifestyles of average people everywhere in the West.”

Sayers goes on to say that therein lies the challenge of mission in the 21st century. We do well to remember that postmodernism too has made the same mistake as the church. It too still has traits of modernism about it in that it still sees truth as a concept. It just sees truth as relative instead of absolute.

Whilst in our conversations, the use of modernist concepts like reason (an essentially Christian idea by the way) and logic can have its place, there is a challenge to be given to those who live a contradictory lifestyle. But the challenge first has to be faced by people like me who often decry the subversive effects of the very materialism we secretly still hang on to at times; in my case the very technology I secretly want more of. We too need to walk our talk. That will speak louder than anything.

I wonder if we have let ourselves be walked over by the claims of postmodernism. Can we say that truth still has a claim on the hearts and minds of people today? Can we talk about truth in a world where there is no meta-narrative, no greater over-arching story anymore? We can, but only if we remember the nature of truth, that truth is a Person, that it is about relationship, something that goes to the very core of our identity as human beings. Jesus never spoke in abstracts; he told stories, and people respond to stories because there is usually something in them they can relate to. The Christian message is a story. It is the story of creation, fall, Jesus, redemption, and new creation. Stories touch something deep in us. That is why the Christian Gospel will always touch the deepest part of our soul, that part which wants a place to call home, which wants to know absolutely that all will be ok, that there is love in the universe, and that good will triumph in the end.

My conviction is that Jesus makes internal and external sense. Internal in the sense of giving meaning and real hope as well as joy and the ability to become more loving and more whole. And externally in the sense of being the initiator of the new creation, a world where justice rules, where everyone knows both their own and everyone else’s dignity, a world where all is renewed and in its rightful place, where people are truly humble – seeing themselves rightly in relation to God, a world where grace rules. And it is all because of Him, it is all for Him. He satisfies the hungry soul with goodness (Psalm 107:9) and fills our cups to overflowing (Psalm 23:5). A postmodern culture longs for such Truth.

Finding inspiration in the old hymns

In our Christian culture, with its emphasis on glitz and noise, it is important to look back at times on some of the great hymns that have come to us down through the ages. Some of the greatest hymns of history were written in the most unlikely of circumstances. Consider the most famous of all, Amazing Grace. Its author, John Newton, would later be a mentor to William Wilberforce in his fight against the evil of slavery. But in 1779, when this hymn was written, Newton was a slave trader and wrote Amazing Grace while waiting in a port for a shipment of slaves. 

Another famous hymn, Abide with Me, was written by H.F. Lyte when he was suffering from severe ill-health. Mark Sayers recounts the story of the writing of this hymn in his recent book, The Vertical Self. Sayers says,

on September 4, 1847, the Reverend H.F. Lyte preached his last sermon. Suffering from ill-health, he would be dead before the year was out. He left his chapel, which was filled mostly with fishermen, went back to his home, and wrote the classic hymn, Abide with Me…When you consider that ministers like Reverend Lyte feared that the intellectual foundations of their faith were collapsing around them, the hymn takes on a different tone. It is a plea for God to stay with humanity, because religion seemed to be leaving Western culture.

Probably the most inspirational story of a hymn being written in unlikely circumstances is that of Horatio Spafford when he wrote It is Well with My Soul. Spafford wrote this hymn in the context of losing almost everything he owned in a fire, followed by his 4 year old son to Scarlet fever, and then shortly after, his 4 daughters in a tragedy at sea. The clip below tells the story in moving detail of Spafford’s extraordinary faith in a God who is close to the broken hearted and who provides hope for those who have none.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C3lgJrLhb5Y]

Next time you sing these hymns, remember the stories behind them. They are not just boring old songs of a bygone era. They tell a rich history of the work of a God of grace and restoration in the lives of ordinary people like you and me.

Book Review – The Vertical Self

Mark Sayers’ second book, The Vertical Self, further develops the theme of his earlier work, The Trouble with Paris, by emphasising that only a deep and passionate relationship with Jesus can save us from falling prey to the whims and whispers of our culture of consumerism.

The book is generally aimed at the young adults of Generation Y. This generation is often known to be one that is characterised, at least in part, by self-centredness and a sense of entitlement. What makes me both sad and angry is that this level of self-centredness is almost equally characteristic of many Christians who really live no different to the rest of the world. What a far cry this is from the Christians of the 1st century. Author Robert Wilken says that the early Christians often did not have an answer to the philosophical attacks thrown at them by the pagans of the day. But that wasn’t how they won the Roman Empire. They won the Empire by the quality of their lives, to the extent that by the time Constantine made Christianity the State religion early in the 4th century, half the Empire was Christian. It is a tragedy of modern-day Christendom that much of the church has nowhere near that level of influence and impact. An example of this is seen when Sayers reveals the seduction and confusion that many Christian leaders are exposed to, leading to them “unconsciously starting to confuse their calling with self-promotion as they were lured into the cult of cool”.

It is difficult to review this work without wanting to quote large slabs of it; such is its importance to and insightfulness of the malaise of the 21st century church. Like the frog placed in cold water that is slowly being brought to the boil, much of the church is not even aware that it is being held captive more to the culture of the day than to the liberating life and message of Jesus. To this end, Sayers makes the point that “in earlier centuries, the belief that humans were made in the image of God was…the cornerstone upon which identity was built”. No longer is this the case today though. Sayers believes that “we are now in an age where, for the first time since the birth of the church, the vertical self is not the dominant influence on Western culture’s understanding of self”.

Sayers defines the vertical self as a combination of Judaeo-Christian belief in God-given identity and a Greek belief in virtuous living. It explains the way that identity is developed by being part of a greater order. Further on, he says that the idea of the vertical self is a worldview that leads to a belief in the eternal, the desire to cultivate one’s spirituality so that one moves upward on the path toward becoming more like God. Compare this to the horizontal self, where we try to gain our sense of identity from our peers and from trying to measure up to what is sexy, cool, and glamorous. In fact, this book is divided into chapters that take into account such cultural phenomena as the social self of sexy, the social self of cool, and the social self of glamorous, all of which are ways we act out an image of ourselves. This is what Sayers calls our public image, and it is what many Christians now base their sense of self on instead of basing it on the fact of being made in the image of God.

The message that Sayers conveys throughout this book is one which I believe needs to be the core message of the church to the 1st world; that is, that only more intimacy with Jesus will save us from being sucked into the lie that the lure of our current culture will bring us the life we have always wanted. Tragically, it is a message that the church needs to hear just as much as the rest of the world.

The roots of the malaise of the horizontal self go deep indeed, so deep in fact that they speak to the very core of who we are as human beings. One of Sayers’ most profound insights is that “in a secular culture…religion, spirituality, tradition, and culture cannot tell a wider story that offers the individual a sense of place and meaning, hence the creation of the horizontal self and the creation and cultivation of a public image being paramount”. The meta-narrative of the Bible is no longer the foundation of our culture.

Sayers goes on to say that, in our culture, we no longer try to find ourselves. Instead we act. Identity is exchanged for imagery. Said in this way, Sayers’ message reveals Jesus’ message of building one’s house on the rock of the vertical self rather than on the shifting sands of the horizontal self as being incredibly relevant to our 21st century Western culture. For those who are tired of the failed promises of the horizontal self, Jesus once again shows himself to be the answer. The age-old words, ‘come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest’ whisper across the ages to a culture lost in a sea of failed promises and long-forgotten ideals. The tragic result of a culture lost in the sea of the horizontal self is a life that gradually tears at our psyches.

An interesting observation that Sayers makes in this book, and one with which I agree, is that, often, the more you embed your identity in a vertical sense of self, the more people living under a horizontal self will see something I you that will draw them to you. The vertical self can be recaptured when we commit ourselves to the God who has set eternity in the human heart (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

Overall, the main ideal that Sayers is calling people to in The Vertical Self is a mark of character that seems so old-fashioned that even for many Christians it conjures up negative connotations. That mark of character is holiness. Holiness, as Sayers describes it, is when we are the people God created us to be. It is wholeness, centredness and connectedness. Christians have often given holiness a bad name. We have given off an image of holiness as being closer to legalism than grace. We have given off the image that a holy person is someone who doesn’t swear, doesn’t smoke, and doesn’t have extra-marital sex. All of these things may indeed be marks of a holy person, but they do not by any means define holiness on their own. Ultimately a holy person is a person of grace. And the best example of a holy person I know is Jesus. Being God in person, we are told in the Old Testament that we are to ‘be holy as I am holy’. Then in John’s gospel, we are told that grace and truth came through Jesus. The irony of how holiness is often viewed compared to the life of Jesus is seen in the fact that Jesus was the one who spoke out against the Pharisees for their excessive legalism, and he was the most holy person who ever lived.

Having said all of the above, I did not find myself agreeing with all of what Sayers was bringing across. For instance, he says that, in a culture ensconced in the view of the horizontal self, when we see public figures found out, we chide them for being caught, for not being able to keep up the game of illusion. However the recent example of Tiger Woods would seem to contradict this view. The case of Woods’ infidelity is one where I believe the huge media interest was not because he failed to keep up an illusion, but because he really was living a lie, especially as he claimed to be a family man. And Australians still don’t buy in-authenticity.

That criticism aside, The Vertical Self is a must-read for church leaders today, particularly those in ministry to Generation Y. For me, the marvel of this book is seen in its final paragraphs. Sayers sees this book as his gift to us, the readers. In words that could have been peened by C.S. Lewis or Philip Yancey, he describes his hope that this gift will “work as a key, opening a doorway out of the cramped, stale confines of the horizontal self, filling you with the gusts of fresh air perfumed with the scent of eternity”.

It is only when we are enmeshed in Jesus, in the life of the vertical self, that we are able to resist the lies and deceptions of our culture which tell us that we can have the life we have always wanted and we can have it now. The Vertical Self is a wise and timely book that speaks volumes not just to our culture, but to the culture of the church in the 21st century. Sayers’ thinking has matured since The Trouble with Paris. I don’t know Sayers personally, but this latest book reveals a maturity that I believe is borne only out of a deepening faith and passion for Jesus and His ways – a life lived in the vertical self. That is what makes it so authentic.

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