- Sunday, March 01, 2009
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming Our Culturalized Christianity by S. Michael Craven (NavPress).
Chapter 1: The Crisis Confronting the American Church: Rethinking Cultural Engagement
Looking back over the last two millennia of Western history, one cannot help but be impressed with the role Christianity has played in shaping and forming, for better or worse, this great civilization. Throughout the centuries, Christianity has faced enormous struggles. From virtual obscurity, Christianity rose to challenge and conquer one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen: the Roman Empire. Christianity served to civilize and educate an entire continent; it gave birth to the modern ideals of freedom, human dignity, equality, free market economics, and social justice. Christianity forever established as universal human virtues the concepts of compassion, love, sacrifice, and forgiveness. The monuments of Christianity can still be seen everywhere: from the cathedrals of Europe to the music of Bach; from the intellectual heritage of Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin to the literature of Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare. From the colonization of America to the abolition of slavery, Christianity has been the most powerful and, one might add, most positive, formative influence on culture in the history of the world.
It has been the unique influence of Christianity that has produced the greatness of so-called Western civilization. However, I must stress that we are not to confuse Christianity and Western civilization, or being Christian with being American, as these are by no means synonymous.
Christianity stands on its own, and where Christianity flourishes it naturally brings with it personal, social, and cultural transformation. Conversely, where Christianity fails to flourish or, more specifically, where the followers of Christ fail to think and act faithfully, cultures will likewise decline or fall short of their potential. This point was recently reinforced when a leading scholar from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, speaking to a group of Westerners in 2002, said,
One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world. We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West has been so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don't have any doubt about this.1
This Chinese scholar acknowledges the obvious historical facts only when he recognizes that Christianity has been the central forming influence of the world's most successful civilization. Frankly, this success is an inevitable result for any civilization that, first, builds and maintains its social and cultural foundations upon truth that is consistent with reality and, second, rightfully acknowledges the source of this truth.
Christianity in Twenty-First-Century America
So here at the dawn of the twenty-first century, what has become of Christianity in the West? What new struggles does it face? What can be said for Christianity in Western civilization and specifically in America as we look to the future?
In comparison with its past achievements, it is safe to say that evangelical Christianity today is in a pathetic state of decadence and decline in the West. It is, to a large degree, fragmented, watered-down, and retreating from relevancy. For the past two centuries, too many evangelical Christians have lived on the periphery of responsible intellectual and cultural existence. We have traded in Milton's Paradise Lost for Left Behind, the arias of Bach for contemporary Christian music, and Rembrandt for Thomas Kinkade. It is not my intention to denigrate Tim LaHaye or Jerry Jenkins, the contemporary Christian music industry, or Mr. Kinkade. However, the fact of the matter is that much of what passes for Christian art and literature today fails to rise to the same level of quality and achievement as that of historical Christian artists and writers. It is this substandard quality that necessitates the subcultural category now necessary to identify Christian art and literature as its own category.
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