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Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Dr. James Emery White

Dr. James Emery White's weblog

At the risk of gross over-simplification, there are three primary ways of looking at reality, at least among those of us who reside in the West. Each is deeply important to grasp. 

First, there is the Greek way, which is largely descriptive and explanatory. The Greek way of looking at the world has an emphasis on rationality. Aristotle, for example, felt that once you defined a thing, you had exhausted its essence. When you approach something with Greek questions, you tend to be searching for shape and substance and definition. So one might approach water and ask “What is water?”, “What does it look like?”, “What does it feel like?” 

A second way of looking at reality could be termed the Latin way, which is primarily concerned with method. A Latin question would ask, “How does this work?” So in terms of theology, a Latin question might be, “How is one saved?”

Greek and Latin questions form the currency of much of our thinking, including how we approach the Bible. The problem is that you can’t always ask Greek or Latin questions of the world and certainly not of the Bible, namely because it’s not a Greek or Latin book. The New Testament might have been written in Greek, but except for aspects of the apostle John’s strategy in the fourth gospel, it was not written from a Greek philosophical orientation.

Which brings us to a third way of approaching reality – the Hebrew way. The Hebrew mind is concerned with what a thing is for, and whether it works. Matters of use, utility and value are paramount. This is why you can read all four gospels of the life and teaching of Jesus, and never once find a physical description of Him. To the Hebrew mind, it simply wasn’t important. So when the Old Testament says that an angel visited, the question was not, "What did he look like?", but "What does he want us to do?"

One of the great challenges for many readers of the Bible is that they often come to its pages with Greek and Latin questions that the Bible simply doesn’t answer because it’s not a Greek or Latin book. It is a Hebrew book and framed from a Hebrew mindset. So when we read Genesis, and want to know how God created the world, we are never told. The narrative simply tells us that God did it and that it was good.

There is much being written about the modern and the postmodern; between enlightenment assumptions and those that reject such moorings. Perhaps we might find firmer footing if we go back further in the history of ideas and deeper in the cultural current to discover what has most shaped the West: Greek, Latin and Hebrew approaches to reality.

Doing so would highlight two very important challenges: first, helping those who ask Greek and Latin questions of the Christian faith to grapple with what will inevitably be deeply Hebrew answers; and, second, to extricate ourselves from giving Greek and Latin answers to those who are wrestling with deeply Hebrew questions. In more ways than we might realize, this may be what truly lies at the heart of much of our current cultural impasse.

Both challenges – if not met – can force us to miss engaging culture and those within it at their point of greatest need.

Which is, in itself, a deeply Hebrew concern.

James Emery White

Editor’s Note: This blog was originally published in 2008 and is an adaptation from Christ Among the Dragons by James Emery White.


About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

In Christ Among the Dragons: Finding Our Way Through Cultural Challenges, I proposed some introductory ways for those within the church to regain our sense of true north in the four arenas that once brought us together, but now threaten to drive us apart and leave us bereft of a sense of direction: 

  1. The nature of truth and orthodoxy
  2. Cultural engagement and evangelistic enterprise
  3. Christian community civility
  4. The identity and character of the church

Because it is precisely in these four arenas that the contest will be won or lost in regard to not simply having an evangelical presence in our world, but a unified Christian witness.

Together, they will determine whether we are renewing ourselves for a new generation or falling from great to good, or even worse.

Why these four?

Consider truth: Since Pilate’s retort to Jesus’ claim, the question of truth has been central to the Christian faith. Not simply in terms of whether Christianity itself is true, but in what sense is it true.

And the church: Jesus said that He came to establish His church, and that it would constitute and reflect His ongoing presence – His very body – on earth.

And culture? The Great Commission and the cultural commission inherent within it form our principle marching orders.

And of course the great high priestly prayer of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of John made it clear that the truth - which has been revealed, embodied by the church and carried to the world - would be received only if there were an observable love between those who bear Christ’s name.

So pinpointing the nature of truth and orthodoxy, grasping the nature of the church, developing the deepest and most biblical sense of cultural engagement and mission, and fostering love within the Christian community are far more than unique to evangelical faith.

They are the faith.

The four dimensions of our conversation – truth, culture, unity and church – are like the four points of a compass.

Together if properly calibrated and coordinated, they give us a clear sense of direction.

Medieval cartographers sketched hic sunt dragones (translated “there be dragons”) on the edges of their maps. Yet maps of that era often held another image – Christ.

The Psalter map (c. 1250), so called because it accompanied a copy of the book of Psalms, featured dragons on the bottom, as well as Jesus and the angels at the top.

Such a map reminds us of the availability of “true north” as followers of Christ.

Yes, there be dragons.

But there is also Jesus and the angels.

And we can follow Him – and find our way.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Excerpt from James Emery White, Christ Among the Dragons: Finding Our Way Through Cultural Challenges (InterVarsity Press). Available on Amazon

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Ever googled “Is it okay for a Christian to…” and then filled in the blank with everything from watching Game of Thrones to cremation, attending a gay wedding to getting a tattoo, practicing yoga to drinking wine?

You’re not alone.

But don’t get the answer off the internet.

There’s a better way.

I sketched the following out on a whiteboard at the start of our most recent weekend series, and one of my faithful staffers polished it up a bit for better consumption. I used it as a schematic of sorts on how to walk through things that present themselves to us in our modern day.

Let me take you through it, and see what you think.

Finding out whether something is “okay” begins with the top left box, which reflects going to the Bible to see what it has to say. If you want to know whether something is okay for a Christian, then you need to start with the authoritative guide for Christ-following.

When you do, you’ll find that the Bible gives you one or more of three answers: permission, prohibition or principles.

If blanket permission is granted, your investigation is complete. You are free to partake or pursue. If there is a direct prohibition, then you are not.

But most of the time, particularly in regard to many of the issues puzzling Christians in our culture, there is neither a blanket permission or prohibition. More often than not, it’s thrown into the “freedom” box of life. 

But it’s not cut-loose freedom; it’s freedom within the confines of a set of biblical principles. These principles form the boundary lines for freedom in Christ.

So is that the end of it? You simply pursue the freedom you’ve been given in light of the principles of the Bible? 

No. 

There is another box, perhaps best labeled “wisdom.” While you and I may have joint freedom in Christ on a particular issue, it might be foolish for me to exercise it, but not for you. We all have backgrounds and dispositions, histories and inclinations, strengths and weaknesses.

Less sophisticated is just common-sense wisdom. Just because you’re free to do something doesn’t mean it’s smart.

(You may be free to get that tattoo, but having “I love Samantha” inked on your arm at 16 may not be smart when you might start dating Sarah at 17, or want to marry Sharon at 23.)

Finally, there is the consideration of living out our lives before a watching world. In this regard, the apostle Paul gives two primary guidelines: first, do not do anything that would lead the world to believe you have disavowed Christ and worship another god; and second, do not exercise your freedom in a manner that would lead a fellow believer in close proximity into sin themselves. 

Let’s call these ideas “witness” and “weakness.”

This is the gauntlet you run the questions of life through. 

Sounds simple enough, but knowing how to do so is one of the principle lessons of discipleship, and few invest the time and energy needed to engage its dynamics.

As mentioned, at Meck we just completed an eight-week journey through this very exercise. Here were the eight topics we explored:

Is it okay for a Christian to…

…watch Game of Thrones? (or anything rated “R”)
…drink wine or smoke marijuana?
…gamble?
…practice yoga?
…participate in, or even go to, a gay wedding?
…vote for _________? (many ways to fill in this blank)
…get a tattoo, be cremated or have cosmetic surgery?
not go to church?

If you’re interested in the series, you can get it here. It has already proven to be one of the most popular series in the history of our church through various metrics we track. 

Why?

People want to know what’s “okay.”

They just don’t know how to find out.

James Emery White


About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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