Bags of Bran

Three Days Among the Evangelicals, Part Two: This World and Home
February 13, 2014, 11:39 pm
Filed under: Biography

I couldn’t at first put my finger on it, but the pastors at the conference were decked out with cultural representations that went way over the line of mere polite conventions such as wearing pants and glasses, and having haircuts: they all wore the same kind of pants, the same kind of glasses, and had the same kind of haircuts. And when the musicians played certain signals, they produced identical responses. The sheer homogeneity of those factors was stunning. What drum were they marching to?

I don’t think that the pastors at that conference or their spokesmen would like to be called “worldly.” It’s a charge I’m hesitant to just toss around because I feel the sting of it myself. But worldliness, we must admit if we have some sort of stake in any kind of Christianity, is the perennial problem. I suppose there is a whole spectrum of ways to deal with worldliness: the extremes of the scale would be monasticism (complete isolation from all worldly influences as far as I am able) on the far right, and free adoptionism on the left. There aren’t a whole lot of monastic voices these days, and the weight of gravity is definitely pulling toward free adoptionism.

This is especially rampant among the New Calvinists, who have drunk selectively from the well of Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper, a statesman and theologian of the Dutch Reformed tradition, made (as we are all prone to do) some statements that make life difficult for sane people in later generations. This is probably because he was a complex thinker, not easily or safely reduced to sound-bytes or maxims. His most famous and oft-cited quote is this: “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'”

Now, to be fair to Kuyper, he provided plenty of context to prevent what is happening today with that quote. There is the context of his personal life, which was, by all accounts, marked by sobriety and moderation. There is the context of his religious life, which was punctuated by a departure from the Dutch Reformed (state) church because of their liberalizing tendencies, as well as a markedly conservative trajectory. Then there was the actual speech in which the quote lives, a speech about Christianizing society, and not about “societizing” Christianity (See his “Calvinism and Religion” in Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), pp. 33-69 for more on his view on this matter). Finally, there is the quote itself: Do you see the words “mental” and “Christ?” Can you conceive of a “mental” world, a world of ideas, a world that might have another god in charge of it at this particular moment? This is what Kuyper was addressing. In his view, Christ’s sovereignty extended to the furthest reaches of this world system, and His sovereignty should be actively transforming the world of ideas through believers. This would result in cultural transformation, not cultural adaptation or absorption.

There is no license in Kuyper for New Calvinists to walk around the physical world and cry “Mine!” at every glowing idol and twinkling bauble that looks like it would make the Christian life a little less like a cross and a little more like a timeshare. I don’t even agree with Kuyper’s real position (for reasons worth revisiting in the future), but let’s at least read him honestly for what he is saying before we cite him as authority to do what Scripture and the whole rest of Christian tradition decries.

What are the implications of this neo-Kuyperian trajectory, which essentially cloaks its love for the world’s pleasures in a garb of “cultural redemption?” Gradually many believers have found themselves in a position of not being able to credibly take God’s side against the employment of golden calves in the worship cultus at Bethel and Dan (1 Kings 12:28-33; 2 Kings 10:18-29). Gradually many believers have become suspicious of a large portion of the New Testament as much as they have been taught to suspect the Old Testament, because some of the stiffness of the Old Covenant toward the world carries over into the church age. See John 17, for example.

Cultural absorption used to go by the name of cultural “engagement,” as though by being worldly they were going to attract the world. Nowadays, under the influence of neo-Kuyper, cultural absorption usually goes by the name of cultural “redemption,” as though by being worldly they were going to change the world. As for the former, most do not claim to engage culture anymore because it hasn’t worked: just ask poor Carl Henry in his later years, or Francis Schaeffer in his. As for the latter, the more you tell yourself that you’re redeeming culture, the more it looks like it’s working: you think you’re taming the culture, but the culture is taming you. Either way, the result is a worldly church, led about by marketing, and full of defeated, halfway-Christians and their divided allegiances.

If, under the guise of cultural redemption, you can actually Christianize your favorite worldly pleasures and call them virtues, and virtually no one will question you, why waste time actively pursuing holiness when you could be out redeeming some culture? That seems to be a question that evangelicalism is still working through.


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