CONTOURS OF CULTURE
What’s God Got to Do with It?
Not long ago, while flipping through the pages of a prominent Evangelical magazine, I noticed an ad for a software package. The application was designed for worship leaders (or, more accurately, Worship Stage Directors or Worship Production Managers), and the ad copy promised that the software would keep track of all sorts of details surrounding the worship experience: musicians’ schedules, whereabouts of media production elements, licensing fees, and so on.
I use computers (and mobile apps) for all sorts of things, and as a church music director, I have some experience in planning worship services. But the notion that the “production elements” of worship would be so complex (and so driven by technology) as to require specialized software was a bit disturbing. More disturbing still was the display type in the ad, which promised: “Here’s one less thing you’ll have to pray about.” In other words, God need not be bothered concerning the details of worship, since we have such powerful technology. How comforting. How marvelous.
Tending Toward Practical Atheism
And how typically modern. That ad reminded me immediately of the wise observations and arguments in Craig Gay’s The Way of the (Modern) World: Or, Why It’s Tempting to Live As If God Doesn’t Exist. Gay, a sociologist teaching at Regent College, asserts at the beginning of this important book that, to the extent that we are good modern people, “we are for the most part tempted to go about our daily business in this world without giving God much thought. Indeed, we are tempted to live as though God did not exist, or at least as if his existence did not practically matter.”
God does not matter practically—in the practices of everyday life—because the chief end of man in modernity is the maintenance of control over reality, and we can adequately achieve such dominance through science and technology (and through social and cultural institutions that are scientific and technically ordered). As Gay puts it, “a modern society is one in which the prevailing conception of the human task in the world is that of mastery by way of systematic manipulation.”
In such a society, religion is assumed to be helpful for private life, for directing our personal inner worlds. But when it comes to defining how we deal with the external world—in political, economic, commercial, medical, and other social contexts—we can safely set God-talk aside and focus on technique. The issue of God doesn’t enter into the affairs of “real life,” even for people who believe in and enthusiastically worship him (with or without the help of computers).
The Way of the (Modern) World features chapters on politics, economics, science and technology, and the characteristic view of the self in modern culture. Gay makes it abundantly clear that the tendency toward practical atheism is not principally a matter of post-Christian ideas or arguments circulating in the media, higher education, or popular culture, but the intuitively assumed posture of all those participating in modern social structures. He writes that his book is “concerned to discover how and why it is that the practically atheistic outlook has become so uniquely plausible even for Christians in the modern context.” He surveys the work of dozens of thinkers who have identified how this radically secularistic mindset is embedded “in institutional arrangements that we probably take largely for granted.”
Gay’s compelling arguments stand as a challenge to those well-meaning Christian leaders who carelessly embrace allegedly “neutral” cultural forms, ignoring the ways they convey a mentality of godlessness. And those who think that concern about “modern” culture can be ignored—since we are past all that now and dwell in the hazy, protean, emerging realm of the postmodern—need to take seriously Gay’s insistence that postmodernity “represents only a kind of extension of modernity, a kind of ‘hyper-modernity.’”
Resisting the World’s Ways
While many of the thinkers with whom Gay interacts will be familiar to readers, I’m certain that his footnotes will yield some treasured resources for almost anyone. The theological breadth and pastoral passion that he brings to this material is particularly striking. I found most helpful his framing of the problem of modernity in the biblical language of worldliness, a vocabulary that—despite its prominence in the New Testament—is almost entirely absent in the writings of Christians who address matters of cultural engagement (it is, after all, not a worthy concern for sophisticated cosmopolites).
Gay acknowledges that there have been inadequate formulations about the locus of worldliness, by fundamentalists and social gospellers alike. That is not, however, an adequate reason to abandon concern about being conformed to (Rom. 12:2) or stained by (James 1:27) the world. “What if the essence of ‘the world’—and hence of worldliness—is not personal immorality and/or social injustice as such, but is instead an interpretation of reality that essentially excludes the reality of God from the business of life?”
In the book’s final pages, Craig Gay offers rich guidance concerning the theological themes and spiritual practices necessary to resist the world’s ways. He makes it clear that the Church’s faithfulness at this time—as in all times—requires an emphasis on obedience and holiness, as well as wisdom, eschatological watchfulness, and willingness to suffer. It also requires the recognition that Christ has overcome the world. This may not shorten our prayer list, but it does give us cause for hope. •
Ken Myers is the host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Formerly an arts editor with National Public Radio, he also served as editor of Eternity, the Evangelical monthly magazine, and This World, the quarterly predecessor to First Things. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.
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“What’s God Got to Do with It?” first appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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