Just Have Faith…

We Americans live in an interesting culture. It is culturally acceptable in America to say nice-sounding words without defining our terms. I recently was reminded of this reality as I watched the (amazing) movie Cowboys And Aliens. In one scene, a preacher is helping a bartender learn how to shoot a rifle. As the bartender vents in frustration, the preacher calmly tells the bartender to “just have faith.” This advice seemed to help the bartender, but it made absolutely no sense. Francis Schaeffer calls this semantic mysticism. People like to use words that have religious connotations, but are devoid of any real meaning.

The two biggest words that get misused in our culture are “god” and “faith.” Most Americans who talk about God are either misinformed or uninformed, mainly because they have not gone to the source of information about God, the Bible. As the book Almost Christian notes, many Americans really believe in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism rather than Christianity. It’s very palatable, uses nice-sounding words, and centers around the individual rather than God (sounds pretty ‘Murican). Moralistic Therapeutic Deists don’t need to regularly read the Bible, because they don’t regularly need God. As a result, the god they say they believe in is really just who they would want God to be. They essentially say, “I don’t care who God says He is in the Bible; this is who I want Him to be.” And in the American culture, this attitude is completely acceptable.

The problem is that it’s completely false.

The other word that is misused in America is “faith.” As I watched that scene in Cowboys and Aliens, the big, obvious question I had for the preacher was “Have faith in what?” Faith doesn’t stand alone; it requires an object or source. When I want to wake up at 4:35 AM for work, I don’t tell myself, “Just have faith.” I set my alarm clock. I trust that my alarm clock will wake me up; I have faith in my alarm clock. Similarly, I have faith in God’s character and promises as shown in the Bible, not just some nebulous, meaningless faith. Francis Schaeffer comments on this modern view of faith in his book The God who is There:

Modern man cannot talk about the object of his faith, only about the faith itself. So he can discuss the existence of his faith and its “size” as it exists against all reason, but that is all. Modern man’s faith turns inward…This position, I would suggest, is actually a greater despair and darkness than the position of those modern men who commit suicide. (84-85)

This sort of meaningless faith can survive when life is going well. But when hardship comes (not “if” it comes), trite, nice-sounding, meaningless phrases will not suffice. Our sources of faith are tested when troubles arise in life. For many Americans, the storms of life will show that their faith is false because it has no source. But Christians have a real and steadfast source of faith. They trust in God’s character and promises, which can be known through the Bible. They don’t “just have faith”; they have faith in God. I’ll close with Jeremiah 17:7-8 (see also Psalm 1), which I hope will be an encouragement for fellow followers of Jesus who are currently facing hardships:

Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.

Biased Theology

Paul G Hiebert wrote the book Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, where he builds up different scenarios and cases pertaining missionaries and the cultural baggage they encounter and bring along with them to their respective regions of ministry, and how to be better ministers of the gospel wherever we are. I love this book, and being already “culturally savvy,” I’ve been able to relate to many of the things mentioned in the book, and understand what I have been through and what I still am going through. As I explained in my previous post A Life of Pilgrimage, I’ve lived in Puerto Rico, Mexico and the United States. Moving to culturally different countries has helped me change my perspective in many ways. Life doesn’t look the same for everyone, and that’s okay (It’s actually better than okay, it’s pretty fascinating.)

Anthropological Insights for Missionaries should be called “Culture for Dummies.” Did I mention I love the book? Well, it’s been my favorite read so far. Ever since we started discussing the different things Hiebert talks about, I can see my classmates expanding their understanding on how to approach different cultures, the contextualization of the gospel, and even shining a light over the fact that our way of doing things is not always the only way and it doesn’t work for everyone. Culture is something I am very passionate about, and being able to study culture is not something I was expecting to do in Bible College. Needless to say how confident I feel leaving the classroom knowing I am learning all sorts of truths that impact my every-day life and not only focus on creating an intelligent religious robot. (P.S. Apparently the structure of this last sentence is not common, but remember I think in Spanish, so it makes sense to me. *smiles*)

In the book, Hiebert states:

“We think that our studies of the Bible are unbiased, that our own interpretations of the Scriptures are the only true ones. It disturbs us, therefore, when we begin to discover that our theologies are also influenced by culture… The fact is, all theologies developed by human beings are shaped by their particular historical and cultural contexts–by the language they use and the questions they ask.” (198)

Our theology is biased, and this is, firstly because we are sinners and our knowledge is incomplete; and second, because we live in a specific time and we are part of a specific culture. How is theology related to culture? In every way. Even the books of the Bible have been written in a specific historical and cultural context, and we study that context in order to understand the message being communicated. Yes, the gospel message transcends culture, but our theology is shaped by it. We are not asking the same questions about God, that the Christian community in China is asking. It’s pretty simple, and being aware of this has, in a way, made me feel less pressured about having the answers to every question being asked in today’s world, because I don’t even have knowledge of every single one of those questions.

Another big thing that hit me is the influence language has on our theology. As I was sitting in class today, I noticed we skipped through discussing how language impacts our theology, and I guess it is a tough concept to grasp. Speaking Spanish is different than speaking English. Sentences are structured differently and words may have other connotations and meanings when translated. So I don’t think like most of my classmates because I think in Spanish, and my language has influenced my theology. Ever since school started I don’t go a day without hearing a word for the first time. In many occasions there is no translation to Spanish for that word I just learned, or I have also never heard the word in Spanish nor know what it means. With this I only want to show that what Hiebert is talking about is true and we must be aware of it. I converse with God in Spanish, so I use words that English speakers may not use or don’t even exist in the English language. Can you imagine how different from ours Zambian’s conversations are with God? I think you get the idea.

To be honest, the fact that my theology is now being shaped in English makes me extremely nervous. I’m starting to think in English about theological matters, and go back to Spanish when it is a “less complicated” thought. I have no idea how this will affect me when I go back to Spanish speaking countries, but I guess I’ll find out soon!


Artists and Gardeners

People_Children_Young_artist_023259_Ask any Christian in the world how they respond to and interact with culture and you’re likely to get a wide array of responses. First, because cultures are different around the world. A Christian in India responds differently to Indian culture than a Christian in England responds to British culture. Second, because there’s a myriad of ways for Christians to respond to culture. In one of my favorite books from the first semester of class at Eternity, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, Andy Crouch addresses this very issue.

As in all good discussions, terms must be defined before expounded upon. The term, “culture”, then, Crouch defines as “what we make of the world…the name of our relentless, restless human effort to take the world as it’s give to us and make something else” (23). This idea manifests itself in what people physically create and is always first and foremost effected by personal worldview. Crouch refers to the physical creations of culture–such as movies, music, clothes, and tools–as “artifacts”. Each artifact asks specific questions about the world that it encounters, such as “What does this artifact assume about the way the world should be?”, and “What does this artifact make possible?” (29). To put it practically, what does a movie like Inception assume about the world? What does a book like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows make possible?

The very heart of Culture Making, the meat of the subject, lies in the four ways Crouch perceives Christians interacting with culture:

  1. Condemning. Christians who condemn culture separate themselves from the surrounding culture with the notion that all culture has to offer is strictly evil. This was especially popular during the Fundamentalist revival.
  2. Critiquing. Critiquing culture is taking cultural artifacts and thinking critically and philosophically about their existence and the worldview(s) portrayed through their medium. Francis Schaeffer, before his untimely passing, propagating a cultural critiquing stance.
  3. Copying. Christians who copy culture take the framework of cultural artifacts, empty the artifacts of “secular” content, inject the artifacts with Christian worldviews, then offer the final product to a subculture of Christians. Crouch proposes that the Jesus Movement and CCM made this stance wildly popular.
  4. Consuming. Consuming culture is perhaps the most dangerous. Those who consume culture merely feed on the fat of cultural artifacts without question. They turn into cultural gluttons, blindly gobbling up all artifacts culture offers.

Not a single one of Crouch’s four stances are completely right or, for that matter, completely wrong. There are some aspects of culture that are rightly condemned. Some artifacts require critique before consumption, and some “secular” aspects of culture are rightly painted gray-scale onto the background of Christian subculture. It’s here that Crouch offers two more postures that Christians should take towards culture:

  1. Creating. Within the very definition of what it means to be human is creation, for humans were created “in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). Creators make artifacts that enhance the cultural experience and engage the secular culture with a Christian worldview.
  2. Cultivating. In The Next Christians, Gabe Lyons’ accessible book on the Christian generation following Generation X, the author offers the term “Restorers“. Cultivators, or restorers, take the artifacts culture offers and improves upon them as part of their God-given ability to be creative. This posture directly interacts with culture in an effort to make it more beneficial for the common good.

Culture Making begs the reader to take an introspective look at the way they live their lives, and assess their personal interaction with culture. It’s a challenge to look at how the reader’s posture towards culture betters, or unfortunately damages, the world around them. Christians come alive when they create and cultivate the culture that surrounds them in an effort to continually better the world and point back to the original Creator who gifted them with creative abilities.