Carl Trueman: Why Are There Never Enough Parking Spaces at the Prostate Clinic?

From Carl Trueman‘s monthly article at reformation21 entitled, “Why Are There Never Enough Parking Spaces at the Prostate Clinic?

Some quotes:

One of the modern shibboleths of the evangelical church, particularly the evangelical church in the West, is that of culture. One must be interested in culture, or one is simply irrelevant.

I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater: sure, we need to understand the language and idioms of our culture to the extent that we need to communicate the gospel in such a context in a meaningful, comprehensible way; but I do believe that fascination with culture is now way out of hand in Christian circles and has come to eclipse more important, more central things. Indeed, even as I say that it is important to understand context to communicate the gospel effectively, I am conscious that this seemingly obvious statement needs to be tempered by the fact that some of the greatest preaching ever known was designed precisely not to communicate to the contemporary culture. Just check Isaiah’s commission in Is. 6, and the use of that text in Jesus’ ministry to see how not communicating in comprehensible categories as determined by the immediate culture is a critical sign of judgment on an idolatrous people.

Trueman lists a series of concerns with modern Christianity’s obsession with the culture:

First, I am struck, by and large, with the coincidence of the concerns of the cultural Christian types and those of the middle class chatterati. Plenty of talk about Christian approaches to art, music, literature, sex, even international politics. All very interesting subjects, I’m sure, and the topics of many a chardonnay-fueled discussion after a hearty dinner party. But what about subjects that aren’t quite so interesting? Take street sweepers, for example; or hotel lavatory attendants; or workers on an umbrella manufacturing line. Why no conference on the Christian philosophy underlying these vital callings and trades?

Second, I am also struck by how Christian talk of cultural engagement has coincided with a watering-down of Christian standards of behavior and, ironically, thought.

I have lost count of how many times I have been told in recent years that Christians should be able to watch any movie, providing they do so with a critical, Christian eye. There are several obvious problems with that kind of statement.

For a start, such a categorical, sweeping statement has little, if any, scriptural or exegetical foundation and indeed seems not to take any account of texts such as Mt. 5: 27-30, Eph. 5: 1-3, Phil. 4: 8, etc.

Second, even those making the case rarely mean exactly what they say: ask them if Christians can therefore watch child pornography, and none that I have spoken to have been prepared to go that far, except in the necessary cases of those professionally involved in the detection and prosecution of paedophile crime. No, Christians shouldn’t watch child porn, they’ll say; but the problem, of course, is that definitions of what is and is not pornography, even child pornography, are changing all the time and are driven, by and large, by the wider culture which increasingly mainstreams such material.

Talk of ‘Christians can watch anything as long as they do it critically’ is as daft, unbiblical, soft-headed, ill-thought-out, and confused as anything one is likely to come across. In fact, I have a suspicion that for some it might simply function as a rationalization for watching whatever they like and not having to feel guilty about it.

I always thought it was the Bible that was meant to interrogate the culture; but the order seems to be being somewhat reversed in recent times.

Third, I am convinced that much culture talk is driven by the need to hyper-spiritualise everything. Of course, I believe everything should be done to the glory of God; but that doesn’t mean I believe we need a Christian theory of movies any more than we need a Christian theory of cake baking, homebrewing, or street sweeping.

Fourth, I am increasingly convinced that talking about culture, for all of its loud claims to relevance, significance, and importance, can actually be a first-class way of doing precisely the opposite, of not really talking about things that matter at all. After all, at root, talk about culture is talk about accidents.

What I mean is that talk about culture is talk about particulars rather than universals, local differences rather than transcendent unifiers, and accidental properties rather than natural essences. This kind of disposition lies at the heart of postmodern thought: postmoderns hate to talk about nature and essence because that would imply metanarratival totalizing; they have replaced the old discourse of unified nature with the discourse of heterogeneous cultures.

You yourself can test this appetite for trivia easily. Today, more people in church are less familiar with the basics of the Bible and Christian theology than ever before; so you should ask your pastor to arrange some parallel seminars on a Saturday with one on, say, the elements of the Apostles’ Creed, and one on a Christian approach to movies or sex. I guarantee you that the second will be far better attended than the first. Peripheral trivia trumps central truth every time, even within the ranks of the orthodox consumers in our churches.

Trueman concludes with a facetious aside about starting a website aimed at his own demographic: “miserable middle-aged gits” of whom he claims to be the “foremost representative.” (The odd title is explained in this humorous aside.)

Then he gets to his real conclusion:

Where do I go from here?…I could try to move out of my own little world, start thinking less in cultural and more in biblical terms. I could become less obsessed with particularities and more concerned with universals. I could engage less with the accidents of culture and more with the substance of nature. I might even spend less time training people who don’t know the Apostles’ Creed to watch movies that would have made grandma blush and more time teaching them the basic elements of scripture and doctrine. Horribly modernist, I know; in fact, boringly passé. But it might, just might, prove more relevant in the long run than being able to understand the sacramental significance of Sharon Stone or playing ‘Spot the Redeemer Figure’ in the latest Jim Carrey movie.

Read the whole thing here.

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About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
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