The Myths of Progress and Relevance

Photo by Andrew Preble on Unsplash
Editors’ note: 

During the last few decades, books such as The Gagging of God by D. A. Carson and No Place for Truth by David Wells spoke prophetically about the church’s response to changing cultural trends. The Gospel Coalition’s Theological Vision for Ministry affirms the need for such wise assessment, because “we want to be a church that not only gives support to individual Christians in their personal walks with God, but one that also shapes them into the alternative human society God creates by his Word and Spirit.” So TGC editors asked several writers to identify the cultural trends currently challenging the church to be faithful Christians in the world and suggest how we might we respond.

 

As we present the timeless good news to a post-Christian world, two related myths may need to be exposed in order to gain a wide hearing: the myth of progress, the widespread belief that most things are getting better; and the myth of relevance, the expectation that Christianity will confirm contemporary perspectives.

The Myth of Progress

A question confronts us on every page of the Bible. Who will I listen to: my cultural moment or God’s eternal wisdom? It is one of the most significant questions of the spiritual life. It was an ancient question as much as a modern—-but for very different reasons.

The ancients were generally suspicious of the “new.” For the average Greek or Roman, the “old” traditions were stable. They had been tried, tested, and found to be true. The long and glorious histories of Greece and Rome meant that drawing on the past was a key to living in the present and securing a bright future. Part of the problem with Christianity when it was first proclaimed in Corinth, for example, was that it was recent, novel, and therefore unlikely to offer something reliable. One reason Paul’s letters are filled with references back to the Old Testament—-even in a letter to recent pagan converts—-is surely to underscore that the news about Jesus was in full accordance with the promises of the most ancient of traditions. A similar theme motivated the second-century apologists as they sought to show that Christianity was more ancient than Greek paganism because it continued in the Israelite tradition. In short, the ancient dilemma was: Why listen to a seemingly new and novel message?

People today have the equal but opposite dilemma. For moderns, the “old” is suspect and the “new” is more likely to be reliable. Because Christianity now seems so very old, why would we bother listening to it.

Many today have an evolutionary view of life. I don’t mean in terms of biological evolution—-though that story has no doubt contributed to the perspective. I mean that most of us grow up with the unquestioned assumption of “progress.” We look at advances in medicine and technology and extrapolate to society’s opinions about other important things, such as meaning and ethics. Because I can put 10,000 songs on my iPod and watch endless videos on my iPad, the society that produced these wonders must be more in-the-know than previous generations.

Almost by definition today, the old is inferior to the new. Our culture has invented powerful boo-words that dispense with the traditions of the past in an instant. When skeptical friends call Christian perspectives dated, antiquated, or medieval, they imagine there is no more arguing to be done.

There have been plenty of advances in the last 200 years. Leaving aside the obvious medical and technological leaps forward, we can point to the abolition of slavery as evidence of progress. The demise of government-sanctioned racial discrimination is another example, as is the increasing rights for women.

Yet, even here, things are not so clear-cut if you take a 2,000-year view. As early as the fifth century, Augustine tells us, Christians were conducting regular raids to free slaves from the slave-trading ships, feeding them and secreting them on their way. And the racial problems in Western Christendom, particularly in the United States, were not the continuation of an ancient tradition gratefully overturned in the 20th century; they were a recent aberration in the history of the West. Discrimination between light- and dark-skinned peoples was not nearly so prominent in first-century Greece or Rome; within Christian communities of the period it was virtually non-existent. The modern civil rights movement was as much a recovery of an ancient Christian tradition as it was an example of recent human progress.

Then there are all the ways in which contemporary society is worse than older societies. There are things happening today that would have been virtually unthinkable in, say, medieval times or ancient Christendom. Nearly half of all marriages fail, and half of these involve children. Whatever one’s view on divorce, these statistics are a disaster for Western society. Charitable giving as a proportion of income is actually falling, at least in Australia. And the rich in Australia give away less in percentage terms than the poor. Add to this list the horrific fact that nearly a million girls are trafficked each year for sex, and the top destination countries include Japan, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, and the United States—-the seemingly advanced countries.

Terry Eagleton, one of the UK’s leading public intellectuals and distinguished professor of English literature at the University of Lancaster, rightly challenges the modern myth that everything is getting better, reserving his harshest criticism for the New Atheists:

Today, ironically, a mindless progressivism poses a greater threat to political change than an awareness of the nightmare of history. The true antirealists are those like the scientist Richard Dawkins, with his staggeringly complacent belief that we are all becoming kinder and more civilized. It is true that some things get better in some respects. But some things also get worse. And of these the dewy-eyed Dawkins has scarcely anything to say. Nobody would gather from his smug account of the evolving wisdom of humanity that we are also faced with planetary devastation, the threat of nuclear conflict, the spreading catastrophe of AIDS and other deadly viruses, neo-imperial zealotry, mass migrations of the dispossessed, political fanaticism, and a reversion to Victorian-type economic inequalities.

Whether a person is duped by the contemporary myth of progress or its ancient cousin that all things “good” were fixed in the past, the gospel poses a challenge: the relevance of Christ is found not in confirming what we already think but in offering a voice from eternity that trumps both the heritage of the past and the fashions of the present.

And herein lies our second myth.

The Myth of Relevance

It is not the church’s job to make the gospel “relevant” in the superficial sense of making its teachings fit with what our culture thinks. Our task is to show the Bible’s relevance in the substantial sense of being a timeless Word with things to say to every changing time and place.

I must admit there was a time in my ministry when I worried that the Bible seemed out of date and so irrelevant. I worried away, seeking “connection points” and “cultural signals” that could show my audience—-whether live or in print—-that Jesus is as relevant as MTV. Those who have read any of my recent works will know that I have not actually abandoned the “Areopagean” task of showing how the Risen Judge speaks to contemporary culture. But something changed in my ministry about ten years ago. Something dawned on me—-or, more likely, was pointed out to me—-that dispelled the worry.

Cultures are constantly changing, in some respects improving, in some respects getting worse, but always in flux. And yet the people of every particular culture think their special perspective is the high point. In this sense we are products of our time and place.

If the Bible affirmed what every passing culture believed, that would surely reveal that it was not a body of wisdom for every culture through all time. Imagine, however, that there was a book containing eternal wisdom for all cultures. What should we expect to find? We would discover that it was always at odds with every culture at some point, for cultures are always in flux, sometimes coinciding with the Truth, sometimes departing from it.

The true relevance of the gospel is found in its studied irrelevance to any particular culture, whether ancient Corinthian or modern New Yorker. We do not need another message that affirms what we already think in all our foibles and cultural particularities. We surely need one that is free to challenge, rebuke, frighten, and enlighten us, as well as comfort and affirm us when appropriate. That message is the gospel. It is precisely because the gospel was not crafted to endorse ancient Athenians or modern Americans that it is wonderfully relevant to both.

In this post-Christian age, exposing the myths of progress and relevance will allow our hearers to contemplate the possibility that something as old as the gospel of Jesus Christ provides the most “modern” men and women with the truth they did not know they were looking for.

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