Does ‘Jesus is Lord’ Translate Today?

A couple months ago I did some reading on postmodernism or on as John Stackhouse refers to ‘hyper-modernism’ with the aim of understanding the moderate evangelical understanding and response of the current cultural landscape. Several mainline Liberal authors or Emergent leaders have weighed in on the repercussions of postmodernity over the years but I wanted to learn something of the history of thought leading up to this cultural shift in North America, hence the following two articles by Craig M. Gay and John G. Stackhouse.

In The Way of the (Modern) World, Gay investigates the conditions and causes by which modern society has and is becoming increasingly secular and practically atheistic. Within the central orientation of modern structures, values and thinking, exists the implicit organizing principle that God, if he exists, is superfluous to lived human experience.[1] The New Testament, contrastingly, defines and treats “the world” and “worldliness” as attempting to explain human affairs apart from the reality of God. Three impulsive themes of the modern world are control, secularity and anxiety. These result, in large part, because of Christianity’s banishment and the subsequent dehumanization of personhood. Gay, contends that to uncover the deeply embedded secularity and atheism in our society is to begin to understand why we willfully construct a world without God in it.

Stackhouse, in order to explicate postmodernity and postmodernism(s), distinguishes the former from the latter by describing it as a condition to which the latter is a response.[2] Modern thinking, concerned with apprehending truth, is not a significant departure from premodern thinking, save its focus on locating new understanding to better navigate the future. Premodern thinking, conversely, looks to the past to establish current knowledge. Within Postmodernity, the confidence that knowledge is accessible to all is not present, instead it is widely held that human thinking is perspectival and subject to, both, the point of view and the viewer herself. The outworking of such thinking is represented in our current notions of pluralism and multiculturalism, wherein the intended acknowledgment of multiple vantage points have resulted in a multiplicity of perspectives that can fragment rather than unify through diversity.

A natural question then, how would one currently characterize the relationship between Christianity and contemporary culture? And: what, if anything, is to be done about it?

The Christian faith finds itself, presently, as one proposal in the marketplace of ideas. While its place in the past can be understood chiefly as one of considerable power and influence over contemporary culture, it has undergone something of a shift to a playing field that is, so we are told, plum level.

Whether our current modern/postmodern society is truly open and ensuring the equality of all thought and perspective is doubtful. As Gay asserts, there is a practical atheism that punctuates our way of life, meanwhile implicitly promising what it cannot deliver. Christianity has had an ironic part in determining its current habitation.[3] While upstanding citizens efforted a new and better world for all humans influenced in large part by the Christian view of personhood, God was overlooked.

The relationship between Christianity and culture can, as Stackhouse argues, no longer be defined by dominance. On the contrary, I believe that Christianity today must give up any reverie of possessing power over culture and return to its latent power-to posture, an undeniably effective standpoint from where we can lean back against the work of the Holy Spirit; active from age to age, embody true humanness and collaborate with the mission of God.

In the advent of increasing secularization and bewildering pluralism, it is not enough for Christianity to define itself over-and-against the multitude of perspectives within postmodernity. Granted, ‘Jesus is Lord’ has signified a dangerous form of criticism in the past, however, to contemporary culture today, it is nonsense. This declaration must ring new with assertive hope, given as confession and perhaps then heard, as if, for the first time.

  [1] Introduction in The Way of the (Modern) World, pp. 1-28.

  [2] “Postmodernity and Postmodernism(s)” in Humble Apologetics, pp. 22-37.

  [3] See Os Guinness’ “Gravedigger Hypothesis”.

“Stark” Differences Between Christians and Pagans in the Roman Empire

It is one thing to attend and lament, as is popular to do right now, the brute reality of Christian Empire, established and extending from Constantine through centuries of colonialism, but it is an altogether different enquiry to investigate the rise of Christianity amongst the ordinary, everyday people living in tumultuous 1st century Palestine.

How did a fledgling Jewish sect spill outward into nearly every nook and cranny of the Roman Empire, transforming the way people think and behave within only a few hundred years?

Cultural theory has a really hard time with this one.

Rodney Stark, in The Rise of Christianity argues that the spread of Christianity within the Greco-Roman world occurred within the locus of certain social developments. These different developments entailed prevalent opportunity for Christian witness and expansive conversion. In particular, Stark understands the catastrophic epidemics of 165 and 251 AD as providing the backdrop for Christians to provide a coherent, alternative account of why such catastrophe had occurred.

In addition, the Christian ethos of community care uniquely equipped adherents of the faith to better withstand such disasters, contributing to greater resiliency in surviving the disease. This, in turn, influenced a shift in the social landscape as pagans replaced their interpersonal bonds, decimated by increasing pagan mortality, with new attachments to Christian social networks, thus increasing the probability of conversion to the faith.

Stark also argues that the higher status of women in Christian subculture represents another factor in Christianity’s rise. As a result of greater domestic egalitarianism, social desirability of widowhood, a higher fertility rate and the prohibition of infanticide and abortion in Christian subculture, a significant difference in the male-female sex ratio developed wherein greater numbers of women contributed to a higher fertility rate and a rapidly growing Christian population.

Attending to the efficacy of Christian doctrine to bring about major numerical growth and social impact in the Greco-Roman world, Stark contends that Christian right practice represents the ultimate factor in the rise of Christianity. The introduction of a merciful God exhorting people to deal in mercy with one another revolutionized 1st century human experience and offered a coherent ethic wherein ethnicity or social status could be disposed of, giving place to a new rule of love.[1]

How did the lifestyle and values of Christians in the first few centuries differ from the Greco-Roman culture around them? In what way were they actually similar?

The lifestyle and values of Christians living in the first few centuries are enigmatic yet defined. While the identity of Christians can be described by distinctive custom, practices and, in greater detail, ethic, they were also members of a shared Greco-Roman culture. In this way there was nothing eccentric about them. The paraphernalia of culture, represented by food, clothing and language among other aspects, was for the Christian and pagan quite similar.

In matters of major difference from their fellow pagans, Christians did not worship the Emperor and as a result saw their activity in various civic customs as minimal. It can be said that Christians’ loyalty was to the empire but their devotion was unto God.

Furthermore, it was God who Christians sought to imitate. In doing so, pagan, or more broadly, Roman values and practices such as infanticide, abortion, denigrated status of women and male sexual promiscuity were condemned and prohibited by Christians. For instance, Christians possessed a substantively different view of women than their pagan counterparts. Herein, Christian doctrine actively contributed to the better treatment of women in Greco-Roman society. In addition to injunctions to care for wives and widows, the Christian value of community care resulted in a higher degree of solidarity within Christian subculture. Such solidarity and ‘love for neighbour’ distinguished Christians from others and indeed as Stark argues, imbued them with affective resiliency in the face of epidemic disease.

Pfft…there goes the sociological neighborhood!

  [1] Rodney Stark, Chapter 4: “Epidemics, Networks, and Conversion”, Chapter 5: “The Role of Women in Christian Growth”, and Chapter 10: “A Brief Reflection on Virtue” in The Rise of Christianity, pp. 73-128, 209-215.