Living in the Matrix

David F. Wells
Wednesday, January 7th 2009
Jan/Feb 2009

In 1996, Samuel Huntington's highly influential book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order appeared. The old lines of conflict between Marxist ideology and Western, democratic capitalism, he argued, were receding. They were being replaced by a new and different set of tension points. These would not be ideological any longer but, rather, civilizational. Central to these conflicts would be religion.

After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, Huntington's words seemed to have been eerily prescient. Islamic fanatics did indeed declare war on the "Christian" West, taking aim at its symbolic sources of power. But while his thesis seemed to be prescient from one angle, it was strangely out of touch from another. The West is "Christian"? That is hardly the case, regardless of how elastically we understand the word Christian. Today, most of Europe has been denuded of any Christian presence. It is only the empty churches and cathedrals that remind us of what was once there. Much the same is true of Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. In all of these countries, church attendance of any kind, on any given Sunday, hovers only between 2 percent and 5 percent of the population. It is, in fact, outside the West that Christian faith is growing, at least numerically, not inside the West. It is burgeoning in Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia.

In the United States, attendance at church is better than in other Western countries. It is not in the 40 percent to 50 percent range that Gallup and other pollsters have routinely reported over the years, but somewhere closer to 20 percent when we find out who actually attended rather than how many told the pollsters that they attend. But even if, in this respect, Christian faith is doing a little better in the United States than in Europe, it is still struggling to sustain itself in the midst of this highly complex, modernized culture, one which is technological and affluent in its form and postmodern in its mood.

The church is part of this culture and yet it must stand apart from its culture. It is rooted in what never changes, Christ, and yet it must live in a world that is constantly changing, and it has no hiding place from that change. This is simple to state but, as we all know, complex to work out. Nevertheless, let me try to make a start here.


It used to be that when people spoke of culture, they were thinking about Shakespeare, Bach, and Michelangelo. High culture was what was in view, the kind that has the power to elevate the mind and satisfy the aesthetic senses. But today, we are not thinking along these lines at all, at least not when we are thinking about culture. In fact, when some speak of culture, they are thinking only about the surface ripples in our society, the fashions and fads that are commercially driven and that come and go with breathtaking rapidity. This is what fascinates Barna and many of his fellow pollsters, not to mention quite a few of our hipster pastors. If culture is no longer about what is high, however, we should also say rather emphatically that it is not about trivia, either.

No, we should be thinking about it as an alternative understanding of reality, the way of construing the meaning of life, one that takes on the status of being "normal" for people living in this context. It is not a meaning that is always spelled out for us, but one that is communicated more often by assumptions than stated ideas. It is communicated as much by contact as by conversation. It is encountered in the images that enfold us in movies, DVDs, and advertisements. It is what forms a network of fabricated understanding in the workplace, in our neighborhood, and in the nether-reality into which the Internet takes us. It is the Matrix. It is pervasive and it is intrusive. And it is increasingly global, looking about the same whether we encounter it in New York, Paris, Bombay, or Shanghai.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit a Masai village on the plains beneath Mt. Kilimanjaro. Those who lived there had no electricity, no running water, no newspapers, no television, and no supermarkets. They lived among their cattle and the predators that preyed on the herds of wild game that roam the plains. Our guide, at one point, showed us a root that he said was found in the upper reaches of the mountain. "This," he said, "is our Viagra." How accurate this was I don't know. But one thing was unmistakable: the power of a brand-name in this increasingly worldwide, commercialized culture-one that has the power to reach into places far removed from its own centers of power.

While it is the case that all over the world we encounter the same products-the same fast food, the same blue jeans and t-shirts, the same movies, the same consumer impulses, and the same culture of television, advertising, asphalt, and waste-it is also the case that to all of this there is given some local coloration. In the West, this has come, first, from the long dominance of the Enlightenment and now, second, from the falling debris of its collapse. This collapse has brought about some stunning reversals in the way we are now thinking.

The hard center in the Enlightenment's thinking, at least in America, was heard in the Humanist Manifesto published in 1933. The universe, it declared, is self-existent, the supernatural is a myth, social well-being is the goal of life, and human nature contains within it everything we need to reach this goal. In its later revision, it took on a more militant attitude toward religions and religious authority. This, in fact, is what we are hearing today, many years later, from the "New Atheists"-Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens-all authors of runaway best-sellers. We know enough now, they say, to be able to kill off the gods and to live free from the tyranny and ignorance of religious authority. Why these books have struck such a responsive cord is curious since the percentage of atheists in America, at least, remains static at 4 percent. However, the actual situation may be too subtle for pollsters to get, and more nuanced questions that are able to include different kinds of agnosticism as forms of functional atheism might bring the number closer to what we have in Europe, which is 18 percent.

But, like most philosophies in the modern period, once these ideas leave their incubators in the minds of the West's elite, intellectual circles, and when they spill out into the wider society, they lose some of their hard edges. But they also gather new followers.

Today, these ideas are ensconced in important pockets of our society-Hollywood, the elite press, academia-and they have spawned a whole set of attitudes at the center of which is the thought that God and the supernatural must be marginalized for the good of society. God, or the supernatural, are entirely irrelevant to what is important to our society and they are alike harmful to our autonomy. This secular-humanist impulse, though, continues to evolve. Especially in the 1980s and 1990s, it was effective in making the argument that religion belongs only in the private sphere and that our public life must be governed by nonreligious ideas. This is a very appealing argument in all Western societies because immigration, legal and otherwise, has brought into all of them a multitude of different religions with the new immigrants. Indeed, this is the reason that America now appears to be the most religiously diverse nation in the world. By what religious ideas, then, are we to order our common life? Those from Islam? Buddhism? Christianity? Our growing religious diversity, ironically, has unwittingly given support to those who wish to banish all religious ideas from the public square as being potentially divisive.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Christians obsessed over the triumph of secular-humanism but, quite unexpectedly, the tide began to turn and this had very little to do with Christian apologetic efforts. In fact, in 2006, a Pew poll indicated that 69 percent believed that "liberals" had gone too far in excluding God from schools and from government, but this attitude paled in comparison to the sudden upsurge in the importance of the spiritualities that began to flood the airwaves, bookstores, and the workplace. The truth is that the flat, horizontal, secularized worldview of the Enlightenment had exhausted itself. It had ended up in obvious bankruptcy. It was now set aside by the human spirit that quested upwards, naked, empty, and alone, searching for a meaning larger than life, a reality other than that of malls, asphalt, buying and selling, and the unremitting pablum of television, all of which are the stuff-the only stuff-of our daily life in this highly modernized world.

In 2000, Gallup reported that 80 percent of Americans now saw themselves as being spiritual, which was a stunning finding. All Western countries, according to Enlightenment dogma, should now have progressed beyond such infantile notions. This figure, of course, included those who were also religious, but within this 80 percent were many who were not. So it was that the mantra, "spiritual but not religious," became a part of our language. We hear it on television, from our next-door neighbors, and from Hollywood starlets. What is being rejected by these newly aware spiritual people are truths that are divinely revealed, doctrines that put those truths into cogent formulation, ethical rules that are not self-originated, and expectations that spirituality should go hand in hand with some kind of corporate involvement, such as in a local church. If one is really serious about being spiritual, the new wisdom says, one will not be "religious" in these old ways because they inhibit the discovery and expression of the self. When this shift in mentality took place, the game changed.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that this turn to spirituality has left many Christians baffled. They are still thinking in terms of set battles with atheists and secularists, identifiable enemies arrayed against Christianity. But now, all of a sudden, they find themselves up against something entirely different-urban guerillas, dressed in civvies, who often pose as friends and allies. This has left many evangelicals quite befuddled.

And that is what probably explains the almost audible sigh of relief when the New Atheists hit the headlines in the 1990s. Here, at least, was an enemy who could be identified, who clearly was willing to fight, and who therefore could be fought.

Yet even here the ground was shifting. With respect to the gospel, how different are the New Atheists when compared with those in Islam or Hinduism? In 2008, Robert Schuller said that Islamic imams were actually serving Christ unbeknownst. He had, of course, let the cat out of the bag. His self-focused religious understanding has always been incipiently liberal. It turned out to be a straw blowing in the wind. The evangelical world as a whole is now adrift when it comes to other religions-the recent Pew study found that 57 percent thought that salvation could be had in other religions-but it is especially adrift when it comes to the whole range of spiritualities it is now encountering.

The old secular humanists were anti-religious, anti-spiritual, overt enemies. The newly spiritual are not anti-anything except a God who is transcendent and objective to them, before whom they are accountable. They are more chameleon-like and so it has been tempting, especially to evangelicals whose own faith has lost much of its doctrinal scaffolding, to see them as friends, as potential allies, in the fight against unbelief, however different is the language they are speaking. And that, in fact, has been the intuitive strategy of many of the marketing megachurches. They are trolling in these new, spiritual waters to attract takers for a message of spirituality, one that is non-doctrinal, non-church, one in which ethical standards are apparently negotiable, and all of this, Christian though it is said to be, is little different from our diffuse cultural spirituality. And the Emergents, who are themselves marketing but to a younger generational niche than the innovators who followed Hybels, are becoming far more "generous" in their thinking than they are orthodox in this regard. They are often indignant about those who are "judgmental" with respect to those in other religions and spiritualities-is there not an irony here?-and who think that salvation is found uniquely in Christ.


Our cultural situation in the West today, remarkably, brings us much closer to the New Testament period than we have been throughout the years when this aberrational Enlightenment ideology was virtually unchallengeable. Yet in the apostolic churches, we see none of the fumbling, none of the equivocating, that now characterizes many evangelicals as they come face to face with the New Spirituality.

Christian faith was born into a world quite as religiously diverse as our own and one suffused with spiritualities of all kinds. And yet nowhere in the early churches do we see what was typical of the spiritual then or of the spiritual now in our postmodern setting. Then as now, the spiritual is thought of in terms of gradations, a scale with the really spiritual on one end and the not so spiritual on the other. The apostles thought in categories of in or out, light or darkness, knowing God or not knowing him. This is nowhere stated more plainly, more bluntly as I have suggested in Above All Earthly Pow'rs, than in the Johannines. Here the contrast is "above" and "below."

There is a line drawn between God and ourselves. It clearly is invisible to us as sinners, otherwise we would not imagine that the sacred can be accessed on our terms and when we want. The reverse is, in fact, true. It is that God hides himself from us. His salvation is not within our grasp, it is not on the market as another product, nor is it emerging from deep within the self. God is inaccessible to us. We are locked out. It was he who had to cross that boundary line that separates us from himself because, no matter how urgently and earnestly we reach upward, no matter how spiritual we want to be, we cannot connect. This line is crossed only from his side, not from ours. It is crossed only by him and never by us because in crossing it he must do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. That is why repeatedly in the New Testament we read that Christ came from "above" (e.g., John 6:33, 8:42, 10:36) and we should infer from this that he is therefore never a discovery from "within," as if self-exploration is a religious quest, nor can he be accessed by our reaching upward toward him. No, he was "sent" into the world (e.g., John 3:31, 8:42, 13:3, 16:27-28, 17:8) and came to us who are "below." At the cross, he did for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He bore our sin in substitutionary atonement and in so doing he instructed us on how we must understand our spirituality. At its heart, spirituality is moral because at the center of all reality is God who is holy. That is why there is no authentic, saving spirituality without Christ's atonement.

The Church

The church stands between these two coordinates in our mind, Christ and culture, but it is important to see exactly how we should resolve their relation. Our culture is constantly contesting the validity of the biblical view of life, and we experience that discomfort in our minds. At the same time, biblical faith is constantly invalidating the worldview of our culture and we are always aware of that tension. It is at this psychological nexus, this inner clearing house for two contradictory impulses, that so many of the issues arise today as to what the church is, what ministry is about, how to "do church," and how to reach out evangelistically.

Modernized, Western culture has two central, driving impulses. They are freedom from the past and freedom for the self. The first of these comes from our incredibly inventive, fecund, and innovative world that has filled our malls with products, expanded our choices, improved our circumstances and, because of so many medical breakthroughs, greatly lengthened our lives. At its core is the assumption that whatever has been done in the past is now obsolete and can be improved. How many times have we seen products advertised on television as "new" and "improved"! All of this creates a mentality that looks askance at the past and is positively averse to tradition in any form. The second impulse, freedom for the self, is one of the threads of continuity linking the modern to the postmodern. It is an impulse that was at the heart of the Enlightenment world and it is at the heart of the postmodern.

It is not difficult to discern the work of the first of these impulses, freedom from the past, in the contempt with which the traditional church is now being assailed by many today. Not everything from the past, of course, is worthy of preservation. Yet, at the center of this dismissal is really a distaste not only for old hymns, liturgies, pews, and pulpits, but for traditional ideas of authority, especially of religious authority. That is why church marketers conceal the doctrinal beliefs of their churches. These beliefs limit how novel the church can be, link it to the past, diminish its appeal as a cutting-edge product, and call into question the freedom of the self that is so cherished by both moderns and postmoderns. The situation is a little different among the Emergents. They have tasted the emptiness of this kind of marketed faith and are now reaching out for something with greater depth. And yet the casual blending of different belief systems in their churchly experimenting-a bit of Catholicism here, a bit of Greek Orthodoxy there, a hip rendition somewhere else-has also come about because of a rejection of traditional ideas of authority and because the self is exercising its autonomy to shape its spiritual context the way in which it wants.

It is tempting to think that in order to be successful we must recast the church in the form that culture is taking but, actually, success lies in doing exactly the opposite. I know this is counterintuitive, but it is nevertheless true. We can experience no greater freedom than to be free from the tyranny of the self and free from the whole matrix of cultural expectation about what we should be. It is entirely appropriate for the church to be inventive in the ways it gives expression to these twin freedoms-from self and from culture-but let us understand that it is not its inventiveness that secures these freedoms. These are freedoms won in the death of Christ, declared in his gospel, central to our worship, celebrated in his Supper, and lived out in our service of others. Nothing is more beautiful, or more invigorating, than these truths. This is a message, contradicted as it may be by our culture, about which we should not be confused but, rather, joyfully and confidently declaring. Are we, in short, going to take seriously the message given to the church, a message as distinctive as is the Christ who is its center and substance?

Wednesday, January 7th 2009

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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