A Cultural Earthquake
Hookup culture, underemployment, new immigration, global communications and a 4 hour workweek…what do they all have in common? The aftermath from a massive cultural earthquake. These are manifestations of the tremors from the transition to a postindustrial society that is highly educated, hyper-individualistic and maybe a little cynical. Growing up in LA I have experienced a number of large earth quakes, but nothing truly catastrophic…nothing that actually altered the landscape…but these have and will continue to occur. The “Big One” comes and liquefies the landscape making it unrecognizable…landmarks and routes are moved or completely destroyed. How do you navigate in this situation? A map will not do, but a compass will be of invaluable resource. The problem for the church is that this “post-industrial”, “post-modern” state has obliterated the landmarks that we use for guidance and reference in accord with Scripture. This “post” world is becoming synonymous with “post-Christian”…i.e. the church is no longer the epicenter of creating and curating culture, yet we approach exegesis and application as if we are speaking from the center…we are disoriented and need to recalibrate desperately.
Reactions to this shift are mixed: some bury their heads in the sand of the 1950s…pining for a different day. They never reorient to the new setting, they wander the ruble pretending the streets are sanguine and safe. Others frantically throw every noodle of ecclesiological theory and trend to see what sticks; their reorientation is chaotic and reactionary…this is the historical root of cults in America. Still some embrace the cultural ethos of pluralism and relativism. They are in the midst of the ruble and navigating it in circles…unable to see beyond the context of the immediate disaster. Out of this remix of Christendom all anchor (to some degree) their trajectory on the words of Scripture. The problem is the Bible is a culturally anchored text that we are appropriating to guide us as we make the journey from one cultural epoch to another. Amidst the aftershocks of the cultural earthquake (to steal a phrase from a friend) how are we to leverage these Sacred Texts to guide us as the living Body of Christ?
An Outdated Map
Approaching the Bible as a map or manual for life is filled with numerous pitfalls that ensnare our right leaning brothers and sisters far too easily. If we view Scripture as a road map telling us where to turn right or left we inevitably run into some seriously thick walls. This worked ok when the words were given directly to us for a specific purpose and context…the church at Corinth could follow Paul’s words to the “T” for the time that he gave them such instructions. But rigidly applying that hermeneutic two millennia later is like trying to navigate the streets of Los Angeles based on a prospectors map from the 1840s. Navigating the ruins of a city or culture by an outdated map is not only futile, but dangerous. Trying to push through the roadblocks of female head coverings, cultic food and purity laws and Ancient Near Eastern culture will indubitably leave us fighting loosing battles that are no long the “Good News” to the world we live in. What is the alternative?
A Redrawn Map
This is the situation that our culturally left-leaning friends finds themselves situated in…if the tremors of this age shake the surface markers…then we simply need to redraw the map entirely. This may work in the interim but will prove problematic when the next disaster strikes…and it will…as Mike Breen pens it, “we live in the age of earthquakes“. A second trapping of this emerging direction is that it produces an extreme relativism that postures everything in Scripture as debatable. Everything Paul writes in 1 Corinthians becomes culturally relevant…linked to a place and time. Such relativism plays into the idea that “religion” is essentially an unnecessary hangover from premodernity. The long term effects of this approach are shockingly just as rigid as the dogmatic conservatism previously examined. In this movement we see a new doctrine emerge that takes cultural acceptance and biblical impotency as its hermeneutic . Redrawn maps become a new ex cathedra…giving an unhealthy voice to ecclesiastical neobishops. These new authorities of Christian living and thinking issue their platform based bulls so that adherents can know what is safe and not…this takes place in the left as well as the right. The result: followers that are unable to navigate for themselves.
If we stop trying to read and teach the Bible as a road map or manual and embrace it as a principled compass that always aims true…then we can begin the challenging, but lasting work of training the church in how to navigate the disorienting terrain of postmodern life by recalibrating to Jesus…through the Scripture. The writer of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus is unchanging…not only unchanging but the direction that we are to head. So instead of just redrawing a map of our new scenery that helps us make sense of the shifts in morality, economy, family, etc., but fails to give us any direction we find our true north. This requires a nuanced understanding of the entirety of Scripture. If we are to use the cannon as a guide for faithful living we are going to have to absorb the text. I think of the prophet Jeremiah eating the scroll…we need to learn the Word of God so that it is an extension of our thinking. Of course that is much more challenging than the piecemeal approach of pop-Christianity and greeting card theology. For far too long we have called people to love a map, to memorize a map, to live by a map. This makes faith passive when times are coherent and useless when they are cataclysmic.
The thing about using a compass is that you need some understanding of how it works…it requires some math, understanding of astronomy and most importantly…the direction you want to go! If we preach Jesus as the direction and goal of faith and equip the sojourners of the church with the tools to navigate their way forward we need not worry about the next cultural earthquake, we will have the skills and tools necessary to traverse any thing that comes in the future.