Preaching the Word in a Pagan Age
by Rick Shrader
This article appeared in The Baptist Preacher, December, 1998.
William Wordsworth once said, “Language is the incarnation of thought,”1 which may tell us either why conversation is so scarce these days, or why it is such light fare. But it was Confucius who said, “When words lose their meaning, people lose their liberty.”2 That makes the current state of our language very critical. “Anyone wishing to save humanity today must first of all save the word,”3 Jacques Ellul wrote. As preachers, our interest in language is also utilitarian. It is for preaching the Word; for communicating the truth to our own generation. For us, if truth cannot be communicated in normal, everyday language, or if meaning cannot be given in a straightforward manner, our cause and our effectiveness are greatly damaged.
In communication today, there are many wolves in sheep’s clothing. A postmodern age has brought about an impreciseness in language as well as truth. A devotion to relativism causes us to parse every word for the nuance of meaning we want, and to force truth into any mold that meets our need. In such a time as this, we need to take caution in the manner in which we preach the Word. We must be careful in a number of popular areas.
Polling the crowd for moral authority
Over the last few months Christians in this country have had an uneasy feeling about the way governmental leaders have explained their morals and convictions by popular opinion polls. Because a Christian has a Bible which he believes to be inspired of God and to be an unchanging standard of truth and morality, he recognizes false “truths” which are fabricated by popularity. It is essential to the Christian message that truth be seen as coming from a transcendent God and not something that is created by the majority of people.
Soren Kierkegaard once said, “The thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.”4 If we were told up front that this statement came from Kierkegaard, we would immediately label it as existential and we would, of course, be right. Now consider the following statement, “Our task is to grasp and articulate God’s vision for our future and to facilitate the change necessary to create that future.”5 Though this statement is very close to Kierkegaard’s existential statement, we embrace it because it comes from George Barna and has been proven by polling to be the key to success in ministry. In such ways, what was once considered unworthy of the Christian ministry has become its mantra. And the justification for the change is the power of public opinion. As one observer of modern culture has said, “What is at stake here in the debate over postmodernism’s vocabulary is ultimately our vision of the truth and moral order.”6
Can anyone doubt that we have come to a day when Christian ministries are designed and guided by what the audience wants, and often in direct contradiction to what we otherwise say is right or wrong? I have no bone to pick with Rick Warren’s ministry, but in reading his book I can’t help but notice this very thing. At one point he insists, “Faithfulness is often defined in terms of attendance rather than service.”7 And yet when he is deep into the reasons for his successful ministry he says, “After surveying who we were reaching, we made the strategic decision to stop singing hymns in our seeker services. Within a year of deciding what would be ‘our sound,’ Saddleback exploded with growth.”8 And true to our postmodern way of thinking, the only thing that will be seen as wrong about using this quotation is that I have criticized it!
Years ago, the Englishman, Harry Blamires wrote:
Yet, within the Church as well as outside it, this perverted notion persists. Truth is conceived on a quantitative basis—no doubt under the influence of statistical reasoning and public opinion polls. It is being assumed that the more people there are with different opinions to contribute, the greater ‘truth’ will emerge from the mixing of these opinions in the melting-pot. Truth is regarded as a kind of pudding, or brew, which you concoct from human opinions. But truth is more like a rock than a pudding—a rock which you lay bare by scraping away the soil. And the soil is largely compounded of human prejudice and passion.9
Structuring truth for personal advantage
That brings us to a second area of caution. It has become too easy these days to stretch and reshape history, literature or even the Bible itself into anything we want to say or prove. The culprit in this waning standard of truth is two-fold. First, we are selfish creatures who, since Eve and Cain, have found a way to make God’s Word fit our own wants and desires (insert “vision,” “success,” “growth” etc.). Second, our wants and desires find their fulfillment in the approval of our fellow creatures. The approval of the crowd simply feeds the ego which in turn seeks for more approval. In this way truth is “constructed” by popular opinion. The dangers, however, are these: what is truth today may not be truth tomorrow if the crowd’s desire has changed; morality is replaced by “values” which are seen as belonging only to a specific group; and the most base displays of sinfulness become the norm, according to biblical warning (Rom 1:22-28).
The defenses for this method of structuring philosophy are numerous: none of us can follow the ideal completely and so it is judgmental to hold someone to part of it; the quantity of good accomplished by such structuring far outweighs the lack of quality used in obtaining it; and who, after all, can really be sure of what the Absolute Standard says? Isn’t that all a matter of subjective interpretation anyway?
My concerns in approaching such a topic are these: 1) If repentance is necessary for true salvation, what are we saying about that when we ask the sinner what he would like in order for him to come to God? Though I am not a Calvinist and am not recommending the old Puritan “seeking” period for the sinner, I do believe that a sinner has to completely give up his own desire, pride and self-worth in order to accept God’s help. I fear we have created a way for sinners to have their religious cake and eat it too, by placing their interest first in themselves and secondly in Christianity.
2) I fear that we are adding to the consumer mentality which already has engulfed our culture. Bruce Shelley wrote, “The Christian message and lifestyle, which in an earlier day could be more directly imposed, now must be ‘marketed.’ It must be ‘sold’ to a clientele that is no longer constrained to ‘buy’ . . . . Most churches and parachurch ministries are dominated by the logic of marketing agencies.”10 One of George Barna’s books is actually titled, A Step-By-Step Guide to Church Marketing.
3) We are in danger of quickly taking the direction of our churches out of the hands of our elder saints and placing it squarely on the young. We are committing Rehoboam’s error. In a relativistic age, those who scream the loudest demand and get the most attention. That doesn’t mean it is right. It’s just the way it is.
John Wesley once said, “I love Calvin a little, Luther more; the Moravians, Mr. Law and Mr. Whitfield far more than either . . . But I love truth more than all.”11 Perhaps we should hear Solomon’s words to Rehoboam, “Buy the truth and sell it not” (Prov. 23:23).
Redefining Language for cultural sophistication
The Oxford Dictionary of Current English has this definition: “Sophism: false argument, one intended to deceive. Sophist: captious or clever but fallacious reasoner. Sophistic: related to sophism. Sophisticate: sophisticated person, related to sophism. Sophisticated: worldly-wise, cultured, elegant, highly developed and complex.” G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Mere light sophistry is the thing that I happen to despise most of all things.”12 But I think that today such sophistry has become “sophistication” and it is the thing our generation covets the most.
We see examples of this on a daily basis. Recently I heard the word “iconographic” (usually used in reference to art) used in reference to words and language that defend morality and truth. The speaker was arguing that words are merely icons (symbols, but not the reality) that have come to mean certain things, depending on how culture has affected them. For example, I may say “adultery is sin” but the word “adultery” is only a symbol that has been crafted (deconstructed) to produce a certain connotation in my mind. It may or may not have anything to do with the actual act. In this way “adultery” is iconographic.
These thinkers would insist that Puritanical Christians of generations past decided to attach a negative meaning to this activity by calling it “adultery.” But today’s liberated thinkers are not bound by such moralizing. Remove the attached label, or icon, redefine the word and all such cultural prohibitions are also removed. In such ways, today’s cultural sophisticates have become verbal iconoclasts. Or, as William Bennett just wrote, “They have persuaded many that the sophisticated thing is to dismiss the scandalous as irrelevant.”13 They are effectively reaching into every area of sacred honor and belief and toppling every word that carries moral meaning.
We children of the sixties laughed when the Beatles sang, “I want to hold your hand” because we knew that Mom and Dad thought that’s all they meant. But now we are reaping what we sowed. We groan to hear the most powerful man in the world, himself a product of the sixties, say that adultery is not adultery. He has traded a sacred trust for a mess of iconograhic porridge and he has “found no place of repentance,” even in tears.
As we continue to move from a print-based society to a visual, image-based society, such pillaging of words will continue. The soil is ripe. Attention spans will continue to drop while the demand for entertainment in media will increase. Personal accountability in society and culture will wane while escape to virtual worlds will broaden beyond belief. Reasoning, based on commonly accepted word meanings in conversation, will grow scarce if not disappear altogether. The dictionary will become obsolete.
Technology, far from deepening our mental and verbal skills, has destroyed and replaced them with easier alternatives. Neil Postman wrote, “To every Old World belief, habit, or tradition, there was and still is a technological alternative. To prayer, the alternative is penicillin; to family roots, the alternative is mobility; to reading, the alternative is television; to restraint, the alternative is immediate gratification; to sin, the alternative is psychotherapy; to political ideology, the alternative is popular appeal established through scientific polling.”14
Changing the message for a pagan audience
A specific irritant in this emerging new age will be the preacher, the heralder of “thus saith the Lord,” one who must insist that a written text carries specific meaning, including the word “sin.” He has no right, being only a messenger of the King’s words, to negotiate with the text. His is only to proclaim it. Of course, it will become difficult enough to relate specific truths from specific words to an illiterate society who has become too technologically sophisticated to listen.
The preacher will become contentious for Jude, the Lord’s brother, said he would have to contend. He will need to define meaning and refuse multiple choice answers to eternal questions. He will judge between truth and error by an unchangeable standard, and thus commit society’s greatest offense—that of judging something to be wrong. He will be busily running behind the iconoclasts and propping the words up again, only to see them fall as soon as he walks away.
Lest we end our thinking here, on what could easily be defeatism, let me suggest the good news with the bad. The bad news is that the western civilization we have known for a few hundred years, a civilization greatly influenced by Christianity and theistic thinking, is being overrun by paganism. This paganism is bringing with it a whole new way of defining and coming to truth—a way that leads unto death!
The good news is rather ironic. If our job as heralders of God’s truth is to put ourselves in a biblical frame of mind with the biblical writers, then our job is much easier now. Our new pagan world is much like their old pagan world. Their world was awash with thinking about gods being known through nature, experience being the basis for truth, the natural world enmeshed with the supernatural world and therefore as changeable as the seasons, and (something we forget) sex being an integral link between physical experience and celestial significance. Even history had no significance to the pagan because meaning could only be secured at the moment. “The supreme norm is always the status quo.”15
There is apparent danger with the good news. We must not become attracted to the pagan world and think like it rather than in a biblical way. We don’t need to poll the crowd to get our message. We don’t need to structure truth for our advantage because our gospel is established truth. Our Savior is a fact of history. Our message is a revealed truth given in propositional form that transcends centuries and cultures. Our message has clear and unmistakable meaning with words that must not be redefined or changed. Our task is the same as those apostles who first delivered the gospel. We are bringing light to darkness and hope to despair. However sophisticated we become, whatever contextualizing we do, we now have the blessed opportunity to preach the “like precious faith” which they preached in the midst of a pagan age like theirs.Notes: 1. Quoted by A.T. Pierson, Pulpit Legends (Chattanooga: AMG, 1994) xviii. 2. Erik van Kuehnelt-Leddihn, “Liberalism in America,” The Intercollegiate Review—Fall 1997, 44. 3. Quoted by David Wells, No Place For Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 187. 4. Quoted by Ravi Zacharias, Can Man live Without God? (Dallas: Word Pub., 1994) 205. 5. George Barna, The Second Coming Of The Church (Nashville: Word Pub., 1998) 98. 6. Roger Lundin, “The Pragmatics of Postmodernity”, a chapter in Christian Apologetics in a Postmodern World (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1995) 34. 7. Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995) 104. 8. Ibid., 284. 9. Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind (Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1963) 113. 10. Bruce & Marshall Shelley, The Consumer Church (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1992) 20. 11. Quoted by J.S. Baxter, Christian Holiness (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977) 174. 12. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Wheaton: Harold Shaw, 1994) 5. 13. William J. Bennett, The Death Of Outrage (New York: The Free Press, 1998) 10-11. 14. Neil Postman, Technopoly (New York: Vintage Books, 1993) 54. 15. Wells, 268.