Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The New Paganism

The two previous posts have raised the issue of culture. The following is a sermon I preached in my former congregation 17 years ago this month. I have not edited the content at all; it is presented just I as wrote and proclaimed it in July 1993. That I'm posting it "as is" is to imply my affirmation yet today.

Haddon Robinson is one of the teachers on the Radio Bible Class. He also chairs the preaching department at my alma mater, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, in Massachusetts. I was there two weeks ago for a conference on preaching for which Haddon was the speaker. In the course of his sessions he interjected a thought which I immediately wrote down: "All cultures are Satanic; they keep people from knowing God."

There is a popular tendency for people to recall the "good old days." It is easy to wistfully compare some idealized time in the past with a present that seems to have more than its share of trouble and bad news. It is right to remember that since the Fall no place and time on earth has been totally "good" or "Christian" or whatever term one might want to use. At the same time, it is right to admit that some times and places have been better than others. For instance, eighteenth-century England (which was affected by the Wesley-Whitfield revivals) was a better place to live than eighteenth-century France (which had bloody revolution instead of revival). Or again, America in the 1930s and '40s was better than Germany, and America in the 1950s was better than Stalin's Russia. But that is not to say that America, with its racism, its underground organized crime, and its materialism was an ideal society.

That brings me to Haddon's observation: Every culture is demonic in the sense that it tries to pull us away from God. Every culture is infused with evil. There are spiritual powers which work in and through things which, by themselves, might seem innocuous. On the other hand, some cultures are better than others –– are more pleasant to live in and come closer to the standards of God's truth.

Perhaps some definition of culture would be helpful. Culture is more than the arts. It is a whole design for living shared by a society. It affects the way people understand and use matter, society, art, religion and language. Culture shares a world-view that molds values. Those values, in turn, form institutions like law and education. Law and education shape and protect the values that formed them –– values which are shown in the way we relate to material possessions, behavior and relationships, and social customs.

Culture is not inherited; people learn culture as they live in it. It is amusing to sometimes run into people who think that our Korean daughter, who came into our family when she was three and a half months old, might talk with a foreign accent or have an inherent taste for kimchi. Culture shapes people –– their tastes in clothing, food, and music, their expectations for laws, their role in relationships.

At the same time, people shape and change culture. Culture is not static. Tastes and styles change. Meanings for practices change. In our technological world, meanings can change rapidly. There was a brief period a few years back in our culture when homosexual men wore a single piece of jewelry in one ear to indicate sexual orientation. Today both heterosexual and homosexual men wear earrings in both ears, and there is no single inherent meaning. I have more to say about that kind of thing later.

There is a strong conviction in secular anthropology that culture is neutral, that all cultures are equally valid. A primitive tribe in the Brazilian rain forest is supposedly no better or worse than Calvin's Geneva or the 1990s New York City. The idea is that what works for humans in one time or place is not necessarily better or worse than what works for humans in another time and place. That could be true if "what works" for humans is the ultimate concern and humans are the ultimate authority.

The Bible tells us something about culture that the social sciences will not accept because it is beyond the realm of verification. The Bible tells us there is not only culture, there is also the supra-cultural –– that which transcends the cultural. There is a dimension to earthly existence which goes beyond culture, dynamics which need to be reckoned with that cultural analysis alone cannot find, and certainly cannot understand. The secular anthropologist studies individual traits within a given boundary. One can isolate, for example, music or dress patterns within a culture and find reasons for the data as well as a contextual beauty. The Bible says there are forces which go beyond the observable data, forces that can move cultural practices that, when isolated, seem morally neutral to practices that are actually good or evil because of how they relate to the supra-cultural. A more familiar way to refer to the supra-cultural is the kingdom of God and the demonic. As Christians we must remember that the gospel is the story of our world as it has been affected by powers we cannot see. Culture is never neutral. The gospel is never the guest of any culture; it is always an invader. The gospel is always culture's judge and redeemer.

This means the mundane things we do from day to day are not really insignificant mundane things. What we wear, how we look, what music we listen to, the television we watch, the way we decorate our homes.... all of this has spiritual significance.

To illustrate this I would suggest reading the nineteenth and twentieth chapters of Leviticus. This is not an easy application. Whenever we go to the Old Testament we have to do three things to come to a practical understanding. First, we must try to understand the law of Moses on its own terms, within its own historical environment. God intended it to be heard and understood by Israelites who had recently been redeemed from Egypt. Second, we must try to understand how the New Testament completes God's story and God's word that he began to speak in the Old Testament. Third, we must apply God's word to ourselves and our own circumstances and then obey. To understand our circumstances, we need to understand the implications of the supra-cultural, and not merely look at our world the way unbelievers do.

In Leviticus we find God forming, on the basis of a supra-culture (the kingdom of God) a culture (laws, religious observance, diet, attire, relationships, holidays) among a people (Israel) who had just escaped one ungodly culture (Egypt) and were going to a territory occupied by people of other ungodly cultures (the Canaanites). There were issues which affected Israel culturally because of the supra-cultural implications of the cultural practices of the ungodly societies from which they had come and to which they were going. Notice what God explicitly said to Israel: You must not live according to the customs of the nations I am going to drive out before you. Because they did all these things, I abhorred them (Lev 20:23).

Why did God abhor the customs of those nations? Why did God tell Israel, for example, not to cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves (19:28)? Those nations did not have God's law as Israel did. God had not carried one of their people into a mountain and given ten commandments. How can certain customs of a society be abhorrent to God? The best (and most succinct) answer to that is in Paul's letter to the Romans:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness 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. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities –– his eternal power and divine nature –– have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator –– who is forever praised. Amen. (1:18-25)

There are two concerns here. One is more obvious, and that is the call, in Paul's words, to glorify God as God and give thanks to him. The basic difference between Christians and non-Christians, godly people and pagans, is the place that God has in one's life. It is not an issue of religion or ill-defined spirituality; many pagans are religious, finely tuned to the spiritual in an occult sense. The issue is whether the one true God is honored as such in a person, a family or a culture.

The other concern is not so obvious, and that is the general awareness of the implications and repercussions on a person, a family or a culture when the one true God is not honored as such. An ungodly person is not merely an individual who does not know or honor God; an ungodly person is a pagan who has either knowingly or unknowingly sided with the powers of darkness in opposition to the kingdom of God. Likewise an ungodly culture is one that is being affected by the powers of darkness in substantial ways because God's truth is not given honor and authority. That means that the so-called mundane activities of life which are often understood as culturally neutral are subject to the manipulation of destruction and evil in ways that cannot be seen by people who will not acknowledge God.

It is imperative that we understand this framework before we try to move to application. When we move to application we find ourselves limited by at least three things: 1) immediacy (it's often hard for us to see something that's too close), 2) spiritual immaturity (spiritual discernment grows as a person walks close to God over a long period of time), and 3) human finiteness (we can hardly comprehend the gracious power of the gospel to demolish the many tentacles of paganism. Because the gospel is powerful, many Christians on the one hand ignore the implications of paganism on a culture; because paganism is often repulsive to God's people, many Christians on the other hand try to define and limit paganism with codes and rules. What I hope we can do is be sensitive to the issue for ourselves and yet open and loving to people who might be caught in it. In fact, that's a good way to respond to God –– maintaining both high expectations of holiness and a high level of forgiveness.

To illustrate that, notice something from the nineteenth and twentieth chapters of Leviticus: In 20:23 there is a general warning about the customs of the "alien" peoples, i.e., anyone not of Israel –– a pagan. In 20:1-5 there is a specific warning that any pagan (or pagan-influenced Israelite) who sacrifices a child to Molech must be put to death. On the other hand in 19:33 there is instruction for graciousness toward the pagan as a person: When an alien lives with you in the land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. In other words, Israel was to avoid the practices of paganism, but they were to be gracious towards the pagans who lived among them. Israel did not do a good job at that, but neither has the church perfectly modeled it for the past two thousand years.

Now everything I've said up to this point has been a framework for us to try to live wisely in this world. I like frames. They establish boundaries and give space for the details to be filled in. I like ideas and principles; they provide vehicles we can use to respond to God (and that is the most important thing).

At the same time, most people want examples. You may find a frame to be insufficient –– you want me to give you a picture. You say, "It's not enough to talk about the issue of paganism; show me something that's pagan." Well, filling in the frame with specific pictures is like asking me to choose the art work for your house. I may choose a legitimate piece of art, but it may not "fit" your particular room. Defining paganism is like the courts defining pornography; someone has said, "Maybe I can't define pornography, but I know it when I see it!" I think that's true of paganism, too. Nevertheless, I'm going to be bold and suggest three issues or patterns in our culture right now which have their roots in paganism.

Even as I say that I need to give a disclaimer. To criticize certain issues in general on the basis of supra-cultural concerns is not to accuse individual people who have identified in some way with those issues as necessarily not being a Christian. The insidious thing about culture is that it can present itself as neutral, and people often participate in an action or with an appearance without giving the supra-cultural dimension any thought. More than anything else in this sermon, I am making a plea that God's people try to do just that –– think through the supra-cultural ramifications of cultural expressions.

One sign of a new paganism inflicting our society is the animal rights movement. I do not say that because I do not care about animals or because ethical treatment of animals is not worthy of concern by Christians. I say this because of the pagan presuppositions which are behind this concern on a foundational level. The Christian view of creation holds that humans are a special creation, made in the image of God, unlike any other life. God gave Mankind an authority over the rest of creation which included the use of animals for food and work. The roots of today's animal rights movement denies the fundamental difference between humans and other animals. That does not mean Christians do not care if animals are sadistically mistreated. It does mean that Christians do not accept the assumption that life is life, and that an animal should not be used for food or for research that could save human life.

Environmentalism is in the same context. Yes, Christians need to respect our environment as part of God's creation. But the idea that the earth is our mother, that some life force is inherent is all the earth so that we are parts of one big whole, is nothing but a blend of Eastern pantheism and pagan animism. Christians need to be critical of causes that are popular in the culture. Most of the time they assume something that is not true about God.

A second issue that is affecting us culturally is physical nudity. I admit this is hard to define when it's isolated and viewed totally from a human culture point of view. Limits of modesty have certainly changed over the past century in our culture, but is there no point or way that God's people can say enough is enough? This could take a whole sermon, but if I started with this particular issue apart from the context of supra-cultural concerns it would surely sound both provincial and legalistic. But those who take the time and trouble to trace what the scriptures say about "nakedness" would find it connected with shame, with sensuality and with pagan ritual –– in other words, things that are the opposite of holiness among people whose find their identity in God. Speaking supra-culturally, I would say, for example, that thong swim wear modeled in public is going way too far. A spiritual view of life recognizes that the body should not be flaunted.

One last issue in our culture that disturbs me is the incredible rise in popularity of what we might generally call "body modification." By this I mean things like piercing, tattooing, branding and scarring. Am I saying that a woman who has pierced ears is a pagan? Of course not. I am saying that when I see a young woman at the mall with fifteen rings encircling one ear she has been affected by more than she probably realizes, and Christians need to think about the issue beyond the cultural level.

The same thing with tattooing. Again, I am not talking about an individual with a tattoo. I am talking about whatever spirit it is that compels a person to permanently mark a body that is the pinnacle of God's creation. I do know that the Bible says, Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body (1Cor 6:19,20). What I notice about both tattoos and piercing is that it draws attention to the physical body, often in a sensual way. And those kinds of things are invariably introduced into the culture by people who are anything but models of Christian spirituality. The Bible says that God's people should be noticed for their distinctive attributes of character and spirit.

I have a file I've compiled on body marking. An article in the Harrisburg Evening News (1/29/91) refers to people who "[poke] needles through lips, noses, tongues, genitals, belly buttons, and yes, ears, for beauty, ritual and erotic sensation." And another (8/6/91) says, "nostrils, nipples, navels, lips, septum, tongues, eyebrows, cheeks, genitalia and even the webs between fingers and toes are among the places people have taken to wearing jewelry." The former article cites "Roman centurions wore nipple rings as a sign of virility and courage, navel piercing was a sign of royalty to ancient Egyptians, and ancient Hindu men pierced their genitals for erotic pleasure." The common denominator among those peoples is their paganism.

We are at a stage in our culture where it is not sufficient to look only to a particular activity to decide whether it is right or wrong. Few things can be proscribed so neatly. We need to be people who learn to test the spirit behind the fashion, behind the look, behind the sound or whatever it is that might be culturally popular.

God's word came to Israel and demanded that they be different from the other cultures. The word for it was holy. God's people today need to recapture the call to holiness –– to distinctiveness from the pagan ways which surround us. You must not live according to the customs of the nations... Some "customs" are designed to grieve God's spirit and so keep us from intimacy with him. Ask God to give you wisdom as we confront the new paganism of our culture.

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