Decoding Our Culture, Discovering Our Mission: New Book Charts Clear Course

By Tom Gilson Published on June 8, 2019

It’s about problems. It’s about solutions.

The Church has a mission problem in the Western world. Atheism and religious apathy are on the rise.

We have an image problem here, too. Our heritage of hugely positive contribution has been overshadowed by charges of “hate” and “bigotry.”

Christianity has a voice problem as well. Mainstream media, education and even social media are all tilted to the secular left.

We owe it to our Lord and to a lost world to take those problems seriously. And no one has done a better job of that than Paul Gould. See his new book: Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World.

Missions in Action

That term, “cultural apologetics,” may be unfamiliar. Apologetics comes from the Greek word for “answer” in 1 Peter 3:15. It’s the study of reasons for confidence in the faith. Cultural apologetics takes that study into the role of understanding how our message can best reach the world. Or as Gould defines it, it is “the work of establishing the Christian voice, conscience and imagination within a culture so that Christianity is seen as true and satisfying.”

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Which is really a statement of what missionaries have done for centuries now. Their first task is always to decode their host culture: its language, religion, stories, customs and questions. Only then can they speak the Gospel’s timeless truths in ways their listeners can hear it for what it is.

And now we face exactly the same task here at home. For in our culture — or cultures, really — there are languages, beliefs, stories, customs and questions that have little to do with our Christian past. As Christians we need to decode again, so we can know how to translate again. Absent that, we have little hope of reaching our neighbors again.

The Deadly Triad: Disenchanted, Sensate, Hedonistic

Gould’s “read” on our culture is spot on. We’re disenchanted, for starters. As he puts it, “The view of the world presented to us in the Bible is sacred and beautiful, yet our culture treats it as mundane, ordinary and familiar.” He adds, “We are ‘under a spell’ of materialism. … Yet there is a universal longing for transcendence, a nostalgia for an enchanted cosmos, that will not leave us.”

It’s a crucial insight, well-expressed. “Humans are created to worship that which is ultimate,” says Gould. “But given the idolatry of the human heart in an disenchanted cosmos, the result is … shallow and ultimately unsatisfying.”

“Is it possible for our culture to transition from seeing the church as an evil witch to an alluring bride of the King? I believe the answer is yes.”

We’re also sensate. That is, our culture’s thinking is dominated by “the physical, the sensory and the material.” And we’re hedonistic: We “move from one desire to the next, filling ourselves up with bite-size pleasures that give an immediate sensual payoff, but end up enslaving us.”

Restoring Beauty, Truth and Goodness

Disenchanted, sensate and hedonistic. It’s a death-dealing triad of faults. But Christianity can answer it through a trifold response of beauty, truth and goodness. To do that, says Gould, we must learn — or relearn — how to present the Gospel with imagination, which could paradoxically bring us a “return to reality,” a return to God Himself. We must also rediscover the Church’s intellectual heritage, and reinvigorate our conversations with it.

And we must restore a Christian conscience. Says Gould: “If the church is compromised and nominal, how might Christianity be seen as good to those outside the church? Is it possible for our culture to transition from seeing the church as an evil witch to an alluring bride of the King? I believe the answer is yes.”

Strategies and Answers

This is the decoding part, and only a hint of all that Gould has laid out in Cultural Apologetics. Of course the Church must grapple with practical strategies and answers as well. Gould has done his part in that, too. Far more than mere analysis, his book is filled with ideas and approaches for the Church to take under very serious consideration.

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Few of us have walked through the day asking ourselves, “What is cultural apologetics?” But many of us have asked, “How can we reach our failing culture with the good news of Jesus Christ?” Cultural Apologetics provides the clearest, most comprehensive road map I’ve seen by far.

It’s not an easy answer. No one ever said missionary work was supposed to be easy. But at least Gould takes seriously the fact that we’ve moved long past Christendom in the West. We’re all missionaries now. It’s time we thought and acted accordingly.

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