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Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 10/19/97
"Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us out of this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father."
We live in an age that is obsessed with its age, in which people's generation seems to be the most important fact about them. Whether you are a Cold Warrior, a Boomer, a Buster, an Xer, or a Millennial is supposed to determine everything about how you view the world. It is an age of a yourth culture that is aging rapidly. All those who in the '60's refused to trust anyone over the age of thirty are now graying and balding. It is an age of insanity in which all the ancient verities, all the old trusted landmarks, are not just questioned but forgotten, or remembered only with contempt. Therefore it is an age in which it seems especially important to remember Gal. 1:4, which reminds us that Christ "gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us out of this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father."
Now, the primary reference of this passage is not of course to our current moment in history but to an epoch that was already unfolding when the Apostle Paul wrote these words almost two millennia ago. His primary reference is eschatological: "this present evil age" is the time that comes between the past age of goodness that existed before the Fall and the future period of goodness that will exist after Christ returns. Part of the purpose of Redemption in Christ is to deliver us from our entanglement in the evils that accompany and indeed characterize this period in which Mankind's rebellion against God is working itself out. But Paul's words are relevant to our particular time in history, for our age is a part of "this present evil age." It may well be that prophesied time in which the grip of evil on human society is building toward the climax it will reach before its ultimate destruction when Christ returns (2 Tim. 3:1-5). Whether that is so or not, it is part of Paul's "present evil age," from which Christ came to deliver us.
Surely this means that one effect of Redemption should be that Christians should not be slaves to the times in which they live. It means that we should understand the particular forms that evil is taking in our own generation so that we may avoid them and effectively counteract them rather than being co-opted by them. Otherwise, part of Christ's very purpose in redeeming us will not be manifested in our lives as it should be. Yet never has the Church been more accommodated to and assimilated by the culture in which it finds itself. I recall being rebuked for forming a Christian folk band back in the '60's, on the grounds that by playing music derived from the styles of Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary, and Simon and Garfunkel, I was being "conformed to this present world." When I heard the music that was approved for Christians by this critic, I understood that for him the alternative was to be conformed to the world of thirty years ago. That kind of shallow and superficial analysis has not served us well. Whether the materialism and utilitarianism of American consumer culture among the masses or the acid hermeneutic of Post-Modernism among the intellectuals, it has given us a Christian subculture that is just a more pious version of what the World is doing. When Francis Schaeffer challenged the Church's accommodation to secular culture in THE GREAT EVANGELICAL DISASTER back in 1984, his words were prophetic. The situation is worse now. We need to do better if we want to experience the fullness of what Christ died to give us: deliverance from this present evil age. And we need to do better if we are going to preach and live His Gospel with any credibility and integrity. Therefore we need to understand the particular characteristics of our version of this present evil age and understand how Christ delivers us from them.
Our current position in history has often been characterized as "Post-Modern," and many of the phenomena to which I will be referring are often associated with Post-Modernism. But that word has been used to mean many things, not all of them bad. "Modernism" was the hope that human reason alone, using the scientific method, would be able to produce purely objective knowledge that would give us control of nature and of our own destiny as well as meaning and purpose. Biblical Christians have always known that this was a false hope doomed to failure from the outset, and getting past it is something we can celebrate. But because we never thought reason alone could produce such results, we did not tend to become disillusioned with reason when it failed to do so. Because we always knew that fallen human objectivity could never be more than partial and provisional, we did not abandon objectivity as a worthy goal, or any form of objectivity as a dangerous delusion, when the objectivity promised by rationalistic science was exposed as the fraud we had always know it was. Or, at least, we shouldn't have. But many who are called Post-Modern have understandably been disillusioned in precisely such ways, and too many believers have been more influenced by their perspectives than they realize, with disastrous consequences.
All these unfortunate forms of disillusionment are unified by a rejection of authority. This is not just the rejection of particular authorities thought to have been unmasked as unreliable, but the rejection of the very possibility of any legitimate authority at all. Once burned and twice shy, angry at themselves for having been taken in by modernity's false hopes, this type of Post-Modernist rejects at the outset any possible grounds for anyone or anything claiming any authority at all. This rejection manifests itself in several ways.
Deconstruction is an approach to literary interpretation that rejects the very possibility that any literary work could contain a coherent meaning. It assumes that all truth claims contain inherent contradictions. So the job of the interpreter is not to discover and evaluate the meaning and significance of a text but to push it until it reveals these contradictions and undercuts its own meaning, until its apparent meaning falls apart or "deconstructs." Actually, this tendency manifests itself in many different schools of interpretation that are popular today, of which deconstruction is simply the most radical. But all of them reject the very possibility of an author actually communicating anything true to a reader. Notice that the word "authority" contains the word "author." If you don't want to deal with authority, you have to banish the author from the process of interpretation. There can be no meaning unless there is someone to mean it. If the text doesn't mean what the author meant it to mean, it can mean anything and will eventually mean nothing. That is why Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstruction, says that "the author must die so that the reader may live." And he explicitly connects the death of the author with the death of God, the ultimate Author, making it crystal clear that it is rebellion against the authority of God that ultimately lies behind his movement. That is why Christian philosophy has always maintained that authorial intention is, not exhaustive of, but essential to and basic to a text's meaning and therefore to all interpretation of a text. Yet one too often sees Christian scholars picking up the techniques of deconstruction with no apparent awareness of their roots or of the philosophical baggage that inevitably comes clinging to them. And this is not just an issue that matters to English majors. Do not think that the Bible can continue to function as an authoritative text in our lives in any meaningful sense if that trend continues!
Now, it is good that we come to know other cultures so that we may understand and appreciate them. They are all fallen, and they all contain some good by common grace. But the agenda of what is called multiculturalism in education today often goes beyond this helpful goal. Because of this same rejection of authority, it objects strenuously to the "privileging" of Western culture in Western education. Instead of being held up as role models whose thought and art is indispensable to the development of responsible citizens, Homer, Virgil, Socrates, Augustine, Shakespeare, Milton, Washington, and Jefferson are dismissed as "Dead White European Males" (DWEMs) who are the sources of the evils of Western colonialism. Now, Christians must be careful to evaluate all authorities against Scripture, the only Authority which we hold as infallible. These men were not perfect. But they did give us a precious legacy that we are responsible to steward well. To accept the leveling of all the heroes of the past to the same relevance as the latest leftist fad is to accept a resistance against all authority that we are naive to think will not be extended to Scripture as well.
Because the individual is no longer thought to be able independently to connect with meanings, universals, or attributes which are thought to be chimerical anyway, he has no place to stand against the sociological forces now thought to be absolutely determinative of his thinking. So people think only as members of groups; they think and say what they do because they are Blacks or Women or WASP's or Rednecks, not because their thoughts could possibly be true or false. This tendency was brought home to me one day when I was in Athens, Ga., doing some research in the University of Georgia library. I had taken a break for lunch, and when I came out of the deli I saw that a demonstration was taking place in the street, sponsored by the National Organization for Women. Two young ladies were standing together, holding signs which they obviously thought to be compatible, parts of the same cause. One said "End Racism Now," and the other said "Protect Abortion Rights." Well, I thought, you can't serve me up a home run pitch like that and expect me not to swing! So I went up to them and asked (very politely, I thought), "I wonder if you could explain something for me. Why is it wrong to classify someone as less than human because of his skin color, but not because of whether or not he has passed through a birth canal?" I tried to ask it as one who really wanted to know. But one of them got very angry. She turned a livid red and spat out, "You wouldn't say that if you had a womb." "I beg your pardon," I said, "but I do have one--that is, I have joint responsibility for one. And therefore I make jolly sure that nothing goes into it that I'm not prepared to take care of when it comes out." This did not help matters. At least I did not say what I was tempted to say: "Do you realize that you have just confessed to me that you think with an organ other than your brain?" Her reply, while irrelevant to the issue at hand, was very instructive anyway. It illustrated that the authority of Reason is dead. Because I was not a member of the correct advocacy group (women), I did not need to be refuted, for I was not even eligible to participate in the discussion. I was a male (the enemy), and therefore did not need to be refuted, only excoriated. Civil discourse becomes impossible in a world in which authority is rejected.
There is no truth, only different people's perspectives communicated through their stories, or "narratives." And all stories are equal. None is better than another, none can be "privileged" as more true than another. All stories ("narratives") are of equal value except any story claiming to be THE story (a "metanarrative"). And that story is of no value at all. Modernism thought that science gave objective truth, and was relativistic about anything (such as values) that could not be put into a test tube. Post-Modernism is relativistic about everything. Modernists thought that truth claims (outside of science) were deluded. Post-Modernists of the type I am describing think they are evil, an attempt to fraudulently gain power over another person. So we are tolerant of all views EXCEPT those that actually claim anything is true, and we are virulently intolerant of those. But is it TRUE that no metanarratives are true? Ahem. The increasing dominance of this kind of thinking cannot be unrelated to the increasing reluctance of the Church to advance with clarity the uniqueness and exclusivity of the claims of Christ to be the only way to God--"No one cometh to the Father except by me."
This then is a portrait of the particular form that rebellion against God takes in our own version of this present evil age. And the Church is powerfully influenced by it. Yet Christ died to deliver us from this present evil age. How does He do it? How can we tap more powerfully into this aspect of our Redemption? Christ does this in at least three ways.
He had His Holy Spirit inspire His Apostle to write this very passage to teach us that we need just such a deliverance. He teaches us that to provide it was part of the very purpose of the Atonement, one of the things for which He died. Such teaching constitutes a command to be aware of the form that evil takes in our own age so that we are not assimilated by it but can recognize it and stand against it. It reminds us of the necessity that we conceive of the Church as a Christian counter-culture. Can we really call ourselves that today? I don't think it would be a very comfortable question for a lot of our churches to ask. But this passage demands that we at least pull our heads up out of the sand and begin to ask it.
He gives us a larger place to stand, above our own age, so that our thinking need not be determined by our place, or "situatedness," in time. When it is functioning properly, the Church does this. It is supposed to be a trans-generational community in which our oneness in Christ overcomes our tendency to get mired in our own generation. (This might mean we should think seriously of putting some limits on our addiction to rigidly generational programming.) But it connects us to more than just our parents and grandparents. The Fellowship of the Saints should include all our fellow believers who have gone before. In other words, the Church is not just a Trans-generational Community, it is also a Traditional Community. It exists to keep not only the prophets and the apostles but also Athanasius, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, John Newton, the Wesleys, C. S. Lewis, etc., etc., etc. as active members, people its currently living members converse with through their writings as their brothers in Christ. Yet how many of its pastors are even remotely prepared to do this, much less even conceive of it as part of their job description? Until we change this, we cannot claim to be taking seriously the Apostle's teaching that Christ "gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us out of this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father."
Christ connects us to eternity through His Body the Church, but He does it in other ways as well. The Bible speaks to us from another era, and is a Book that stands over all eras. God stands in judgment over all the ages through His Word. And Christ is Himself the eternal Lord, with whom we have fellowship through His eternal Spirit. Which leads us to the last point.
He not only provides the helps we have already listed, He energizes them and works through them. To be a true Christian is to be in touch with an inner spiritual dynamic that is stronger than the influence of the times. The Spirit of God is stronger than the Spirit of the Age! But we must understand what the battle is, actively engage ourselves in it, and ask for His aid, or that dynamic remains largely untapped.
Too many Christians today are like ships drifting with the cultural tide, blown about by every wind of doctrine. I call upon you to join me in being different: to sail against the wind, to transcend your own generation and your own times so that our Community of Faith may be an island of sanity in this sea of chaos. This takes understanding, commitment, and work--but not to accept the challenge is to frustrate a part of Christ's very reason for redeeming us: to save us out of this present evil age.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams