- Sunday, July 30, 2000
We should not be afraid of trying to understand the times, because if we do not understand them, we will not be understood ourselves. So as I begin, I have a plea for you. Please be a little patient as I try to get to the heart of the subject. The first few thoughts may be difficult to fully grasp. But after we get past them, we will be in more comfortable and familiar territory.
My goal is to help us understand the depths and the breadth of our cultural shifts, and then to frame a response for us as evangelists. But we will be mistaken if we think that somehow we stand rather removed from the changes. We ourselves are part of the change.
May I begin with two illustrations that capture our predicament? One I owe to Bishop John Reid of Australia. He tells of two Australian sailors who had just come off a ship, and made their way to a local pub in London. They had been drinking pretty heavily, and when they came out of the bar, were shocked to see that a dense fog had blanketed the city. Rather unsteady on their feet and standing by the door, they suddenly saw another man entering the bar. They did not know that he was a highly decorated English officer with medals flashing from his chest. As he came close, one of the Australians said, Say you bloke, can you tell us where we are? The officer rather offended by this disrespect, stared at them and said, Do you men know who I am? At this point, one of the sailors said to the other: We are really in a mess now. We dont know where we are, and he doesnt know who he is.
That is a most appropriate description of our times. We truly do not know who we are as human beings and where we are on the scale of progress.
But there is another illustration that I want to bring to your attention. I have a friend who suffered a massive heart attack. He is a medical doctor. He said to me that there was only one way to describe it. Every other pain I had ever felt, he said, was described as an extension to myself. My foot is hurting. My arm is hurting, and so on. But, he said, When I was in the throes of my heart attack, the only description I could give was that I was in the pain. The very organ that was to pump out life was pumping out pain. I have thought of that very fascinating description and have been reminded of how our cultural shifts have been so completely engulfing. We are immersed in it. From the things that entertain us to the conflicts that surround us, life is controlled by impressions coming upon us from every direction. And generally speaking the impression is one of lifes utter meaninglessness. There is a sense of stark confusion.
But as I have just stated, we cannot talk of this influence as something from which we are separated. The power of shaping our thinking is all around us, and we are in it. We cannot escape some of cultures stranglehold. On the other hand, we are totally immersed in the influence of our changing world. With these forces and trends, we must ask, what will our world look like at the end of the next century, if the Lord tarries? What will the Church need to look like, if she is to survive the strident attack upon the truths and the message of our Lord Jesus Christ?
The best way I know how is to look at what has happened in the last century and then turn to the Word of God for answers.
I would like to underscore at least five areas in which we have faced dramatic change. Not all of the changes apply to every part of the globe, but in principle, there is enough common ground.
THE INFLUENCE OF ATHEISM
1. First and foremost, is the bold face of atheism that I believe will become bolder yet. Those who seek to explain the world in natural terms and who disbelieve in the supernatural will make stronger and more direct attacks upon the faith of our children. There was a well known philosopher who died in 1900. His name was Friederich Nietzsche. Interestingly enough, Nietzsche was the son of a pastor and both of his grandfathers were in the ministry. Yet, somehow, young Nietzsche lost his faith in God. He is the one who at the close of the nineteenth century popularized the phrase God is Dead. But he went on to make two assertions as a result. He said that because God had died in the nineteenth century, two things would happen in the twentieth century. First, he said, a universal madness would break out. Second, that the twentieth century would become the bloodiest century in history. While his philosophy was wrong, he, at least, saw the logical connection between disbelief in God and the behavior of man. Indeed, we have shed more blood in the twentieth century than the previous nineteen centuries, maybe more than all of them put together. In ironic fashion, Nietzsche spent the last thirteen years of his own life insane.
I remember, as well, talking to the famed English journalist, Malcomb Muggeridge, some months before he died. He repeated to me a conversation he had with Svetlana Stalin, the daughter of Joseph Stalin, who told of the last moments of her fathers life. Many of you may remember that once upon a time, Stalin was a seminary student, preparing to go into the ministry. But somehow, he too, lost his faith in God, and was determined to obliterate faith in God from his people. As he lay dying, he sat up in bed, one more time, clenched his fist towards the heavens and fell back on his pillow, and was gone. Imagine! His last gesture on earth was to clench his fist towards God. Thankfully, history has shown that Stalin could not kill the Gospel in his land, though he tried hard.
But now as we enter the twenty-first century, the philosophy of Nietzsche is gaining popularity. There is an even greater boldness in atheism than ever before. It is not possible to go into a university today in Europe or America or Canada and not run the risk of facing a direct attack upon the Christian message.
There may be one significant difference: Whereas the Nietzsches and the Stalins boldly asserted their atheism, many who read them did not take them seriously. Today, there is a seriousness to atheism and something more: There is not only a boldness to disavow God, but a willingness to live with its ramifications. Let me illustrate. Recently, I was speaking at Oxford University. A student came up along with others, to challenge the possibility of Gods existence. He went on to say that God did not exist, good and evil did not exist, and that we had just created these categories to control people and put fear into peoples lives. I asked him a question: If I brought a baby to you, and then took a knife and cut that baby up into pieces, would you think I have done something immoral? He did not even pause, and answered, I would not like it, but I would not think you have done anything immoral. How do you like that for an answer? Romans 1 speaks of such a state of mind, of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them (Romans 1:18b-19).
You see, ladies and gentlemen, you must understand that the only way to justify the existence of good and evil is if you also accept the existence of God. Now, in order to deny God, some will go to any lengths and even deny that there is such a thing as good or evil. G. K. Chesterton once said, The tragedy of disbelieving in God is not that the person ends up believing in nothing; alas, it is much worse, he ends up believing in anything. Such is our society in many parts of culture. In previous centuries, when God was denied, there was an attempt to try and minimize the implications, by suggesting that we would have the capacity in ourselves to avoid extreme behavior and beliefs. But now, we face the unbelievable reality that intellectuals are not only willing to deny God but at the same time to accept that the ramifications are dire and shrug it off as nothing of which to be fearful. To those of us in our middle years, this may not seem as threatening, but may I alert you that anyone raising a young family will face the stark reality of an atheism that is willing to live with any consequences.
THE GROWING IMPACT OF EASTERN SPIRITUALITY
2) There is a second change. It is said that Nature hates a vacuum. As the west has gradually lost any center for spiritual direction and openly attacks the Christian faith, religions from the east have come flooding in. Ideas like, Discover the God that is in you, or, reincarnation, or meditation upon a mantra or a chant of another deity have gradually taken on huge followings amongst societys so-called elite. It is possible today to be given a free hand to talk on any dogma of eastern pantheism, or even forms of eastern theism, but to mention the name of Jesus Christ is to do so at great intellectual risk.
What all this means for the future is very significant. This is a fascinating turn of events. You see, all along, through history, in the east, religion and culture were interwoven. You could not separate the two. So for one to question ones culture was in effect to question one religion. Eastern culture has prided itself in its age, in its values and in its sense of spirituality. With such confidence, it now seeks to live within a western context which has evicted Christianity as a dominant factor. But it is not just a culture that is imported, it is a worldview steeped in a particular religion that has accompanied it.
What will the future look like when mysticism and spirituality in the name of culture have denied the possibility of a single way to God? The result, I fear, may well be the pointed question whether Jesus Christ is indeed unique, or is He just one among many ways? We are already seeing articles written calling the Christian claim The myth of Christian uniqueness. I can assure you that you and I will be answering this question far more than we realize. The psalmist reminds us that a culture ultimately becomes like the idols it worships, and therefore, the future looks fearsome. Indeed, Psalm 135:15, 18 reads: The idols of the nations are silver and gold, made by hands of men. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.
THE DOMINANCE OF THE VISUAL
3) There is a third change, and that is the staggering impact of the visual. The medium of entertainment has become the shaper of a generations way of thinking. Centuries ago, poet William Blake warned us of the risk of the eye as a means of knowing truth:
This lifes dim windows of the soul
Distorts the heavens from pole to pole
And goads you to believe a lie,
When you see with and not through the eye.
You see, we are meant to see through the eye but with the conscience. Instead, today we see with the eye and devoid of the conscience. Jesus warned us that the eye was to be single. He meant by that, that we could not victimize the eye by any images. Yet, is this not the very assault of the world of entertainment? From the Far East to the Far West, our eyes are being tantalized by violence and sensuality. How can the soul not be plundered when such an assault is upon us? I believe we must pause and understand this, or we will lose the eyes and hearing of the world.
Malcolm Muggeridge gives a powerful illustration in one of his books. He talks of the time during the Biafran War in Nigeria, when he was covering the story as a journalist. At one point, he said there were some political prisoners to be executed. They were lined up, and the executioners were readied with their weapons. There was a host of media representatives watching. The commanding officer shouted: Ready! Aim! Just then, one cameraman for a news network screamed out: Stop! My battery is dead. The execution was suspended for a few moments while he got his fresh battery pack in place. The commanding officer was informed, and the command began again: Ready! Aim! Fire Bang! Bang!And the execution was done. Muggeridge went on to ask the question, Some future generation will discuss as to wherein lay the greatest barbarism? On the part of the executioners? On the part of the viewers? Some wise person, said he, might opt for the cameras.
What did he mean? I believe he had a profound understanding of the power of the camera to distort. What then do we make of our time when the camera controls the imagination of young minds? I am afraid some day we will wake up and wonder how we were so foolish to have missed this powerful influence. And we cannot run from it. We are in it. From the pictures that tell the story, to the music that is now visualized, we are in it. The sensations are being propelled through the eye-gate. It is not without reason that Jesus warned His listeners to let the eye be single, for it is the lamp of the body.
The implications here are extremely important. For decades science has been seen as an exacting discipline of the intellect, and the arts as a free-floating realm of the imagination. With the advance of computers, may I suggest to you that the two disciplines will converge, and the imagination may place the demand upon the sciences till a free-floating technological power will play the role of a creator of peoples fantasies. The intellect will be seduced by the imagination. The tower of Babel could well be built with one languageonly it will be in pictures and accessed by buttons.
But there is another side to this, and we should not forget it. Just because this generation thinks visually does not mean they do not think deeply. They do, about the issues that trouble them. One day my eighteen-year-old son phoned home from school and said he would be a little late after school because he was stopping at the shopping mall to get something. When my wife asked him what it was he was getting, he was a little reluctant to share it because he was not sure how we would react. Then he told her what it was. He was stopping to order a little chain to put around his neck, with a pendant that just said 13. It did not take long to figure it out, and he explained his reason. Just a few days before, in that dreadful shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, thirteen had been mercilessly shot to death. I want to remember them, he said, especially the courage of the ones who were willing to lay down their lives for Jesus Christ. You see, none of us adults would have thought of expressing it that way. Our expression was in words. Young people often do it in symbols, and they are just as deep.
A WORLD SHAPED FOR THE YOUNG
4) The fourth is the increasing power of a youth dominated world. The economic and emotional component of the young in the world scene is certainly playing a dramatic role. Here, the east will be in for a titanic shift.
The story is told of a western diplomat, years ago, when he was at a gathering of world leaders and happened to be sitting next to the Chinese Prime minister, Chou En Lai. In an effort to make some conversation of the past, and knowing of the Chineses affinity for history, he asked the premier: What do you think of the French Revolution? Chou En Lai paused for a moment, and then said: Its too soon to tell. The diplomat was in for a shock. Even two hundred years was not far enough in the past for a culture that boasts thousands of years of history.
Well, here is the reality now: How are cultures that have cherished the past and placed a great premium on age, going to cope with a generation which lives only for the moment and finds every new commodity or capacity with a shelf life of a few weeks? It is as if their novelties come marked, Use before you reach home. And the producer of modern machines and entertainment has that generation in mind rather than the one that wants to hold on to the past.
A LOST CENTER FOR CULTURAL MOLDING
5) Fifthly, there is a lost center for cultural moldingmeaning that there is no one single source from which life gains its coherence. There is no single source of authority. No one has the right to lay claim to moral direction. Some years ago, a Peruvian airliner took off from an airport in Peru, and shortly thereafter, came crashing into the mountains. Why did it happen? Shortly before take off, the plane had been washed and cleaned. During that process, masking tape and other forms of covering had been used to cover the sensors of the plane that feed the information into the instruments. Unfortunately, after the plane had been washed, the cleaners forgot to uncover the sensors and the instruments in the plane were conveying misinformation. The pilots were yelling in the cockpit that their instruments were not making any sense.
Likewise, how does a society live when there is no right source of information with which to guide us? The result is a built-in fragmentationan accepted disconnectedness. If there is one force that seems to connect it all, it is the world of music, and even that changes with rapidity. How is life going to come together? God reminds us that we need a light for our path and a lamp for our feet (Psalm 199:105). Where will this culture turn for such guidance?
I believe that we as evangelists have an enormous challenge ahead of us. Five great changes: again, 1) the willingness of atheism to live with its dire ramifications; 2) the sweeping impact of eastern mysticism that will deny the uniqueness of Christ; 3) the controlling impact of the visual; 4) the rising reality of a youth-oriented world; and 5) the lost center for cultural molding. If I were to take all that I have said and reduce it to one sentence, it would be this: How do you reach a generation that hears with its eyes and thinks with its feelings? That is it in one statement.
Well, thankfully we know two things. Someone once said that all new news is old news happening to new people. While the outward signs may change, the inner hunger often remains constant.
Second, the Word of God reminds us that "heaven and earth may pass away but His Word abides forever" (Isaiah 40:8; Matthew 24:35).
So let us look to our methods that can bring the focus back to that which is eternal:
First and foremost, we will need to have a proclamation that is not only heard but also seen. We cannot just speak the Gospel. We will have to embody the Gospel. Gipsy Smith once said: There are five GospelsMatthew, Mark, Luke, John and the Christian. And some people will never read the first four.
A few years ago, my wife and I happened to be in Hawaii. While we were there, we made arrangements to visit the island of Molokai. The reason I wanted to go there was because I had read of the famed Belgian missionary Joseph Damien who went to Molokai to work with those who had leprosy. That was the island to which anyone contracting leprosy in the Hawaiian Islands was sent. Molokai is beautiful, but leprosy is not. And so, in this sad mixture of the lovely and the dreadful, these poor victims were sent. Damien made it his lifes goal to minister to them. He preached to them, he loved them, he lived with them, and finally, one fateful day, he noticed something. He was pouring hot water out of a kettle into a cup. The water came swirling out and fell on his foot. But to his surprise, he felt nothing. He was terrified of what if meant. He deliberately poured some more scalding water on the other foot. Again, no feeling. That morning when he went into the chapel to preach to his congregation filled with people with leprosy, none of them knew why he changed the opening lines of his sermon. He used to begin with the words My fellow believers. But this time he began with the words, My fellow lepers It was not long before they understood that his life had taken on their pain.
When we were leaving Molokai, I asked the guide: Is Joseph Damien buried here? The reason I asked that is because I saw a grave with his name on it. No, she said, He is buried in Belgium. She went on to say that after Damien died, the Belgian government asked for his body to be brought back home. But the people in Molokai pleaded that he be buried there in their compound because that is where his heart was. Finally the Belgian government agreed to cut the right arm of his dead body, and send that to Molokai. As I was flying out from there, I said to my wife, Isnt it fascinating? Leprosy removes feeling from the body, but it could not remove the feeling from the soul. You see, Damiens life and hands touched them in a way that words alone could not.
If our proclamation is to reach a generation like ours, we too will have to live lives that make the Gospel visible. Jesus said: Let your life so shine before men that they might see your good works and glorify your father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:16).
Secondly, we will need a proclamation that is not merely argued but also felt. There are at least two factors that must be borne in mind. Our preaching cannot be so cerebral that it loses the heart and passion. More than ever, our proclamation will have to be rooted in conviction. This cannot be a passion that is artificial and manufactured, but one that is birthed in conscience. That kind of passion comes from living with the Word and walking in the midst of those whose lives are lost. You see, we can easily lose a battle here. With the flood tide of machines and technology it will become very easy to send the message but never carry it. But let us not forget: God did not merely send us a letter. He became flesh and dwelt among us. Proclamation with feeling necessitates proximity to truth and the ones who need to hear it. But there is another component. Here, I am afraid, I cannot expand upon it, but must at least say it. Evangelism to be lasting in its impact must have a goal in mind. That goal is to bring an individual into the realization of worship. That is what God seeks in usthat we worship Him in spirit and in Truth. Why is this more important than ever? If life is fragmented, then there must be an expression that binds all of our passions, and that is in worship alone.
Archbishop William Temple, years ago, gave us a definition for worship. He said,
Worship is the submission of all of our nature to God; it is the quickening of conscience by His holiness; nourishment of mind by His truth; purifying of imagination by His beauty; opening of the heart to His love; and submission of will to His purpose. All this gathered up in adoration is the greatest of expressions of which we are capable.
There you have it. Worship binds the diversities of our nature and gives it a unity of expression. Life is no longer fragmented. Life is unified. And from that internal unity flows worship in a community of believers. I do not believe that it is accidental that in two of the most dramatic encounters that Jesus hadone with the woman at the well, and the other with the woman who poured out the alabaster ointmentthe theme of worship is the culminating point. The whole purpose of Gods dealing with Israel in the wilderness was to show them what true worship was meant to be. The final book of the Old Testament, the book of Malachi, the theme is on worship. The culminating vision in the book of Revelation is a scene of worship. Our heavenly Father seeks such in us. If our Gospel is to be felt, it will be felt in the community of worship. In fact, a worshipping community may be one of the most powerful forms of evangelism. That is why the church must remain central.
Thirdly, we must rescue not only the ends of the Gospel, but also the means. We must recover the power of language once again. With the immersion into the visual and all the other ways we have of communicating, we must work hard at the very task of language and its beauty. We have often heard it said that a picture is better than a thousand words. I would like to suggest that a well-chosen word is better than a thousand pictures. For example, I have seen many artists paintings of the miracle of conversion of water into wine that Jesus performed at Cana of Galilee. Those paintings are wonderful. But none overwhelmed me as much as one statement by the poet Alexander Pope, who described it in these words: The conscious water saw its Master and blushed. What a magnificent description! The water blushing in the presence of its maker.
Brethren, I plead with you. Our task in this generation is hard. And it will take hard work. One of the disciplines will be that of learning to speak words that stir the imagination and demand the attention. In the beginning God spoke. Throughout history, He has spoken. He reminds us that it is His word that abides forever. Words are a vital part of our human distinctive. Let us recover the beauty and power of language. You see, the Bible does not say, In the beginning was video. It says in the beginning was the Word.
May I summarize? There are five great changes that have taken place and three responses that I propose:
1) a proclamation that is not merely heard but also seen; 2) a proclamation that is not merely argued but also felt;
3) a message that rescues not only the ends, but also the means.
You see, Nietzsche and Stalin are dead and gone. But God still reigns in the lives of millions of people because the word has been proclaimed and His church still gathers together for worship.
I would like to close with a very simple illustration of Sir Thomas More from the play A Man for All Seasons. In that story, More is asked to give support to a kings desire to do something immoral. He refuses to give consent. He is condemned to death for his refusal. Finally, his daughter pleads with him and suggests that he just utter the words of consent without meaning them within himself, just to escape death. More rebukes his daughter, and says he had taken an oath. And then he says this: When you give somebody your word, you put your life in your hands. Like holding water in a cupped hand, if you break your word, when you look into your hands, you shall not find yourself there.
I cannot overemphasize the point I am making here. Our word to this culture, that we are called by God to proclaim His truth, is the equivalent of putting our life in our hands. If we break our word, we will look down and not find ourselves. The greater tragedy is that they will think that God has not kept His word. What an awesome responsibility!
How do you reach a culture that hears with its eyes and thinks with its feelings? A culture where life and feeling are synonymous? We reach them with a life that is synonymous with the word, in which word and life are identical. And how shall they hear without a preacher?
This Amsterdam 2000 speech text is under copyright. The author has rights protected by international law. This text is not for reprint or republication. The message actually delivered at Amsterdam 2000 may have differed significantly from this text.
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