Holding the Line
This article is adapted from a longer paper, “Holding the Line Against Evil,” written for Gutenberg College’s 2013 Summer Institute.
Several times Jesus intimates that few will keep the faith when the curtain closes on history. The faith Jesus is talking about is substantive. It is not Disney faith—that is, belief that the miraculous can happen. Nor is it mere belief that God exists. Rather, it is the profound conviction that the God who made us is both just and righteous and is willing to save any and all who will embrace Him as Lord and Master. God is a good and loving God. If we value Him, then we will value what He stands for—that is, we will value goodness. So the question I want to address is this: In a society that has turned its back on what is good, how do we keep from being swept along? How do we hold the line?
We could talk at two levels about holding the line. We could talk about how to keep society as a whole from becoming more wayward, but I am pessimistic we can stem the tide. The other level at which we can talk about holding the line is at the individual level: How do I keep myself anchored in what is good and true? I find this issue personally challenging.
I think often of the experience of Lot as described in Genesis. He chose to move to the well-watered plain. At first he was camped outside of Sodom, but later we discover that he and his family have moved into Sodom itself, where the Apostle Peter says that Lot was “oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men (for by what he saw and heard that righteous man, while living among them, felt his righteous soul tormented day after day with their lawless deeds)” (II Peter 2:7-8).
But whereas Lot was tormented by the surrounding culture, his wife and daughters were seduced by it. Having been warned not to look back as they fled Sodom just before it was destroyed, Lot’s wife could not restrain herself and was reduced to a pillar of salt. Lot’s daughters resorted to incest as a solution to their childlessness. So Lot paid a high cost for living in a society with no regard for God and His moral principles. How do we keep from being carried along with our culture?
I have witnessed stunning cultural change over the course of my life. First-hand experience is particularly important. A few years ago our family decided, for reasons that now escape me, to start raising sheep. Neither my wife nor I had any experience raising sheep, so we bought books to educate ourselves. I read in one book that sheep do not eat at night. A few weeks later I went out into our pasture in the middle of the night to check something. It was very dark and still. When I got out in the pasture, I heard a sound and pointed my flashlight in that direction. A half dozen sheep were staring at me and chewing grass. The sound I had heard was the sound of sheep grazing. So I know that at least some sheep eat at night. You could show me a whole stack of books that say that sheep don’t eat at night, and that would not shake my certainty.
I know what cultural change I have witnessed over the years. Some of you may be old enough to have witnessed that same change; some of you are not that old. My experience cannot replace first-hand experience for you who did not experience it, except to the extent that you deem my recollections reliable and trustworthy.
I was born in 1953 in Stayton, Oregon, a small town of about 2,000 residents. Throughout my childhood I felt safe and secure in a very stable environment. My parents were loving and happily married, and I knew they would stay that way. I was living in the town where they and many of my relatives had grown up. When I was seven, my family moved to another community where I had no relatives, but the environment was nevertheless stable and secure.
This environment began to change quite suddenly and quite significantly, however. I remember sensing the change as it happened. Everybody sensed it. To some the change was unsettling; to others it was exciting; to most it was a little of both. I can even identify the event in my life that marked the beginning of the change.
In 1964 one of my classmates let his hair grow out until it touched his collar. This was against the dress code. I can’t say for certain whether or not it was actually against the dress code because I don’t really know if there was a dress code. In the fifties and into the sixties, there were many things that people just didn’t do. Males never wore hats in a building. Children never addressed adults without saying “Mr.” or “Mrs.” People never failed to dress nicely before going into the city (for us that was Salem). This list could go on and on. One of those things that males just didn’t do was grow their hair long. So my long-haired classmate knew he was breaking a social taboo whether or not there was a dress code.
This began a steady stream of increasingly frequent and bold challenges to the existing norms. Multiple challenges to the dress code were followed by issues of student government and the right to protest. Alongside this were challenges to the moral code. Drugs became common. Sexual promiscuity became common and socially acceptable, which became very evident in our sex education classes. My class was among the first in our school to have sex education as a part of the curriculum. The classes were not particularly objectionable, but the class was punctuated with side comments from some of the popular kids that the teacher was unable to control. Those comments communicated to all the students that sexual promiscuity was very cool and anyone who thought otherwise was a “prude.” To call someone a “prude” was one of the worst insults that could be uttered.
Music played a huge role in the changes that happened in the sixties. The music was very attractive and strongly promoted the changes in morality that were underway. Drugs were promoted as a way to see the world through different and more beneficial eyes. Promiscuous sex was depicted as harmless fun, for example in these lyrics from a Steven Stills song: “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” The propaganda value of music at that time should not be underestimated.
The changes I witnessed were mirrored in communities all across the nation. The cumulative impact of all these changes was a huge cultural transformation, a revolution.
The sixties revolution was a typical revolution. Revolutions are best at deconstructing; the thing they do worst is reconstructing. The sixties destroyed the culture that existed in the fifties. That was the goal. And Christianity was seen to be right at the heart of that culture. So the sixties had Christianity in its crosshairs. This is the origin of the antipathy towards Christianity that we still see in popular culture.
While I would not argue that the fifties were perfect or even particularly good (they were brutal to anyone who did not rigidly adhere to the lengthy list of social norms), the environment of the fifties seems to have been more conducive to the development of psycho-emotional health. Today our children are growing up in an environment that has no shape, no structure. To steal a phrase from Karl Marx, “Everything solid melts into air.” Now very little is solid, and very little can be counted on. Broken families have become very common. The social norms of the fifties are gone, and in its place we have a “roll your own” culture. Everyone has to figure out what his or her role in society will be, what marriage is, what one’s gender is. You name it—we are on our own to figure it out. The sixties considered the culture and the structure of the previous generation as bad and sought to destroy it. We are now living in the ruble of the sixties.
This is the environment in which we find ourselves. We live in a society of confused and troubled people, and this creates a confused and troubled culture. And, like it or not, unless we were to completely isolate ourselves from it, this culture influences us all to one degree or another. It is our job to keep our heads screwed on straight, and that is a difficult job.
Living in this environment, we find our concept of right and wrong challenged at every turn. Every value we hold is raised up and examined from every angle by the issues posed in our culture. Friends and relatives, who are decent people and from whom we don’t want to be alienated, embrace contrary values. How do we deal with this?
I can identify very well with Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof. He wants very much to maintain the traditions that were passed down to him, but his three daughters each force him to reexamine those traditions in the context of who they will marry. He reluctantly makes concessions for daughters one and two, only drawing a line when his third daughter asks the unthinkable—to marry a non-Jew.
Tevya’s experience matches my own. Every concession to the culture is followed by the request to make a further concession. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand, it forces us to clarify our values ever more precisely, and it helps us to see that we need to change our minds with respect to some of our views. On the other hand, it is very seductive. We find ourselves making a whole series of incremental concessions to the culture—changes that we would not make were it not for the intense cultural and interpersonal pressures applied. It can be hard to know for sure when we are making good and necessary adjustments to our understanding of God’s values and when we are being seduced by the culture.
An example of one cultural issue that has seen dramatic change is homosexuality. When I was young, homosexuality was universally seen as wicked. Now in popular culture, homosexuality is not only seen as acceptable, but it is even seen as cool. Attitudes have changed so much that I expect that homosexual marriage will be the law of the land within the next few years.
When I was young, homosexuality was not talked about. I don’t think I had even heard of such a thing until I was in high school. My understanding of homosexuality was primarily shaped by the teaching of the church and what I learned from my family, but the view that I formed was for the most part consistent with the views of the culture at large. I thought that homosexuality was one of the worst—if not the worst—possible sin and that homosexuals were monsters. I don’t think anyone said that homosexuals were monsters, but that is what I came to think. And so it made sense to me that society needed to be protected and isolated from such people. The changes in our culture caused me to reexamine these beliefs. It is now clear to me that homosexuals are not monsters; they are human beings worthy of my respect. And homosexuality is not the worst possible sin, but it is a sin, and it takes its place along with the myriad of other sins that people commit. This is not to say that it is trivial—no sin is trivial. This is just to say that it is not uniquely wicked. I used to think that Paul referred to homosexuality in chapter one of Romans because it is particularly evil. Now I do not think that is correct. Paul refers to it because it is such a clear example of how rebelliousness against God’s law results in confusion about who we are as human beings. Homosexual behavior is, from Paul’s perspective, an obvious example of confusion with respect to the created order and, therefore, a form of rebellion against the Creator himself.
However, the biggest issue for me regarding homosexuality is how I ought to relate to homosexuals. I have taken the approach that I will relate to homosexuals as I would relate to anyone else, but I will not give approval of homosexual behavior. What that means in my day-to-day relationship with homosexuals is that I don’t go out of my way to bring up the topic. I don’t force a conversation about the morality of homosexuality, but if the topic does come up, then I do not hide my convictions.
Is this the right balance? I think so, but I have to acknowledge that the evolution in my views has been due to the changes in our culture. I don’t know if I would have changed my thinking had the culture not prompted me to do so. The critical question is this: Did I change my views because the changes in culture moved me to reexamine my perspectives, or did I change my views because I was seduced to do so by the culture? That is a critical distinction.
So what are we to do? How do we hold the line in a society that has turned its back on what is good? I don’t have any genius solutions to the problem. The most valuable thing is to be aware of dangers that we face. Beyond this I have three suggestions as to what we can do.
My first suggestion is to become more aware of the ways in which our culture affects us. When anyone is immersed in a culture, its values and perspectives tend to seem self-evident. It can be very helpful to step outside our culture and look at those values and perspectives through different eyes.
There are two ways to get outside our culture. One way is to go to another culture and become sufficiently familiar with that other culture to be able to see life through its people’s eyes. The second way is to experience another culture at a distance. The best way to do this is to read, either books from another contemporary culture or books that help one to understand how people in the past viewed life. C. S. Lewis wrote an essay, “On the Reading of Old Books,” that expounds upon the advantage of old books over new books.
My second suggestion for how we can hold the line in our culture is to study the Bible. I am not recommending devotional reading or studying the Bible for inspiration. Such approaches are of minimal value—if they have any value at all. I have written and spoken elsewhere about the goal of studying the Bible, and so I will not go into great detail here. Suffice it to say that the sensible goal of studying the Bible is to gain greater clarity as to who God is and what He is up to. This is the most critical thing to understand; from this, answers to all other questions flow.
This is especially true with respect to understanding God’s moral values. I liken this process of gaining clarity about God and His purposes to the process that a child uses to understand what he ought to do in every situation in order to be obedient to his parent. Every situation is complex and unique. A child must develop an understanding of his parent’s conception of right and wrong that can be applied to every situation. To achieve this, a child must create in his mind a model of how his parent sees the world. Having constructed such a model, the child can then look at any situation that arises through the eyes of the parent. Creating a model like this is also critical to the process of understanding God’s system of values; no shortcuts can be employed to truncate this process without negative impact. So Bible study must be for the purpose of getting to know God and what He is doing. Only from this broader perspective can God’s moral code be safely grasped.
My third and final suggestion is to pray. The most appropriate prayer is very simple: “I believe; help me in my unbelief.” This prayer recognizes two very important facts. The first is that our faith is not perfected; it is always in need of becoming more solid and stable. The second fact is that we are dependent on God for developing that faith. It makes sense that if we want to be faithful to God, then we will do everything we can to bring this about; but it is very important to recognize that God is ultimately the author and finisher of our faith. Our efforts toward Him are feeble; His movement toward us is powerful. In our relationship with God, He is the one who does the heavy lifting. God is able and willing to pull us to Him. That is a fact in which we can take great comfort.
My hope and prayer is that we will be able to hold the line against evil, that we will be granted the wisdom to determine when our understanding of good and evil needs to be changed and when we just need to stand strong against the siren song of the culture. Maranatha!
Copyright August 2014 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.