Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Mars Hill Audio, the Incarnation, and Market-Driven Religious Culture

A few years ago a clergy colleague turned me on to the Mars Hill Audio Journal. In each issue of the Journal, Ken Myers interviews scholars working in a diversity of fields, including religion, history, sociology, psychology, the arts – you name it. And it’s all for the sake of furthering this mission:

MARS HILL AUDIO is committed to assisting Christians who desire to move from thoughtless consumption of contemporary culture to a vantage point of thoughtful engagement.

We believe that fulfilling the commands to love God and neighbor requires that we pay careful attention to the neighborhood: that is, every sphere of human life where God is either glorified or despised, where neighbors are either edified or undermined. Therefore, living as disciples of Christ pertains not just to prayer, evangelism, and Bible study, but also our enjoyment of literature and music, our use of tools and machines, our eating and drinking, our views on government and economics, and so on.

We endeavor to encourage sensibilities and habits of thoughtful cultural engagement through creative audio resources, produced at our studio in rural central Virginia. Our primary resource is a bimonthly series of audio programs called the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal. Each program is ninety minutes long, consisting of ten- to fifteen-minute interviews with a variety of guests on a broad array of topics.

I sometimes find Ken Myers’ perspective a bit too conservative. But overall I find this Journal to be a helpful, stimulating, and insightful resource for thinking about the interactions between Christian faith and contemporary culture and society. You can read more about Mars Hill Audio and even sample the Journal here.

In the meantime, here’s the greater part of an Advent letter written by Ken Myers to subscribers of the Journal in which he offers reflections on the implications of the doctrine of the Incarnation within our market-driven religious culture:

In the past few decades, it has become increasingly common for churches to rely on marketing data to determine the shape of their ministry. It is widely accepted that the Church is like any other provider of a commodity – that the desires, expectations, and assumptions of its potential “customers” or “clients” must be honored. In preparing to celebrate Advent this year, I have been inspired by this model of ministry to imagine what might have happened if God had relied on market research to tailor the form of his ministry to mankind. Given the religious and philosophical assumptions in the world 2,000 years ago, I think it’s safe to assume that consumer-defined salvation would not have involved the Incarnation. At best, we might have gotten something like Good Friday, but certainly no Christmas, and maybe no Easter.

As St. Paul observed in his visit to Athens, the world of his day included many religions, many schemes and strategies to implore deities for mercy and favor. The idea of the necessity of salvation for human beings was not as implausible then as it is for us now. Israel understood the need for salvation, the need for forgiveness in light of human sin. The descendants of Abraham believed in the coming of Messiah, but most likely the idea that their God would enter human history as a human being was not widely entertained, in spite of the fact that one of God’s appellations was Immanuel: “God with us.”

The Greco-Roman world believed in something like the Logos, but the idea that the Logos would be made flesh was repugnant (which is one reason why the apostle John is so emphatic about this reality in the prologue to his gospel). The idea that the Being above all being would become a baby in need of care was metaphysically incorrect. The Greco-Roman mind could not imagine that (in the words of theologian Michael Williams): “The power that called the world into being [could take] on the weakness of creatureliness. Contrary to the universality and changelessness sought by the philosophies of Greece, John declares that meaning and truth are to be found in historical particularity, a specific historical person: Jesus of Nazareth, the Word become flesh. The scandal of the Christian faith is that God became flesh in Jesus Christ.”

If God had been looking for a way to establish a plausible, immediately recognizable religious brand in the region around the Mediterranean 2,000 years ago – a product that would meet the felt needs of the residents of Syria, Asia, Macedonia, and Italy of that period – it would certainly not have included something as humble as the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

A religious program modeled after the natural human expectations may have included something like the cross. It may have included a desire to be right with God, to be delivered from death and judgment and anxiety and strife. Even a “consumer-driven” religion might well require a Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. But in God’s own redemptive plan, the Lamb of God is also the Son of Man. The cross which accomplishes our salvation is bracketed by a manger and an empty tomb, which define the shape of our redemption as something with human, earthly consequences. More than just a logical precondition for the Atonement, the Incarnation also establishes the trajectory for our new life as a truly human life. There is a theological link between confidence in the full humanity of Jesus and a recognition of the ramifications of our salvation across the full range of our own humanity, across all of the ways in which we engage God’s creation.

Much of modern culture, with its Gnostic undertones, alienates us from creation and its givenness. Theologian Colin Gunton sees the affirmation of the Incarnation as essential to our enthusiastic participation in creation and therefore in cultural life. “A world that owes its origin to a God who makes it with direct reference to one who was to become incarnate – part of that world – is a world that is a proper place for human beings to use their senses, minds and imaginations, and to expect that they will not be wholly deceived in doing so.”

Christians have the only account of human and natural origins that can give cultural life meaning. But even after 2,000 years of opportunity to reflect on the Incarnation, many contemporary Christians persist in believing in a Gnostic salvation, a salvation that has no cultural consequences. In such a dualistic understanding, our souls are saved, the essential immaterial aspect of our being is made right with God, but the actions of our bodies – what we actually do in space and time – are a matter of indifference if not futility. Salvation is an inward matter only. It affects our attitudes and some of our ideas. But insofar as our cultural activities have any Christian significance it is as mere marketing efforts – things we do to attract others to our essentially Gnostic salvation.

Believing in a gospel that has few earthly consequences is, ironically, just the sort of state our secularist neighbors would wish us to sustain. They, too, are dualists, believing that religion may be a fine thing for people, so long as they keep it private. Their secularism isn’t threatened by Christians as long as they aren’t too “Incarnational.” As long as the cultural lives of Christians aren’t significantly different from those of materialists and pagans, secularism is safe. Christians may pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” but as long as they don’t actually do anything that demonstrates how such a petition should affect their political, economic, and cultural activities, the Enlightenment legacy is safe.

A hearty appreciation of the meaning of the Incarnation could deliver us from serving the interests of secularists. In his recent book Far as the Curse is Found
, Michael Williams writes that in his gospel, “John does not conceive of Christ as a Gnostic heavenly Savior who comes from heaven to bring souls trapped in the world back to their home above. Rather, Jesus comes to bring his people eternal life on earth, a life that will mean the resurrection of the body at the last day.” Later in his book, Williams argues that the Incarnation is evidence that in saving his people, God does not thereby abandon his creation. “By participating in our reality, the Man from heaven affirms the goodness of creaturely life, the redeemability of creation and creaturely existence. The gospel is not the fracture of heaven and earth but the wedding of the two, embodied as they both are in the incarnation of the one who is vere Deus (‘fully divine’) and vere Homo (‘fully human’). In the incarnation God declared his intentions not only for humanity but also for all creation. The creation is as much an object of the sovereign love and redemption of God as is the soul of man.” …

I began this letter by suggesting that a religion shaped by popular opinion would not have involved the Incarnation. Similarly, religious practices shaped by raw consumer preferences are unlikely to resist disordered cultural fashions. As long as people assume that religion is a matter of cleaning up their inner lives, of changing only their hearts, they will choose forms of religion that fit the cultural conventions with which they are at home. As long as they are essentially dualists, as long as they think of religion as something detached from their humanity in all of its details, the claim that some cultural forms honor the order of God’s Creation better than others will remain implausible to them. Unless the Church bears witness to this idea, unless the Church takes cultural life seriously enough to be willing to make distinctions between healthy and unhealthy cultural forms, neither seekers nor disciples are likely to get beyond their dualism.

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