Voila, Transformed!

walking backwards

In the most recent installment of the White Horse Inn Mike Horton interviewed Dr. Craig Carter, author of Re-thinking Christ & Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective. Amongst other salient points, Carter makes what I think is a helpful distinction between Christendom and Constantinianism. (I am inclined to think he overstates things to deem the latter as “heretical,” nevertheless, his distinction bears consideration.)

Yet not everything was as helpful. While I agree, for example, that Catholicism does much better at fending off the tide of modernity against the so-called “culture of death,” I am not convinced that the assumptions which underlie a censure of the “culture of death,” are those that confessional Protestants have much stake in at all. We do better to distance ourselves from that which begets the natural conclusions of one form of moralism or another. Other comments made also seem to reveal how Constantinianism can tend to be evaluated with more ideological than theological measures. Where some discern conservatism others think they hear a progressivism; thus eschewing the transformative nature of Constantinianism, both can be less cognizant of what really ails: confused theological understandings of nature and grace, creation and redemption (about mid-way down, under Q.6).

But the segment of the interview which really knit my brow came in two parts. At one point in the interview (about 20:18 minutes in, to be exact) Carter claims approvingly that, between Acts and 300 A.D. the early church fathers did indeed transform culture. Horton then asks a rather leading follow up question:

“Do you think the difference is that they didn’t set out to transform the culture, but they set out to defend the Christian faith and pursue their common callings, and the culture ended up being transformed; whereas, when we set out to transform culture it tends to happen in the other direction?”

Carter responds in the affirmative, characterizing it as “the great irony in history.” The early church created a “Christian culture” that rushed in to fill the void when a pagan culture, for whatever reasons, crumbled, and then the “Christian culture” became dominant (insert implied glee). And I guess that’s when all the good stuff took root. And “if we do the same thing they did” maybe modernity will take a hit. (Of course, Carter takes pains to point out that he doesn’t see modernity going away like paganism did back then. It’s not clear why he thinks this, but my hunch is that this vague and convenient caveat reveals that deep down he may not be buying his own argument. His inner two-kingdomite may understand that there really is nothing new under the sun and that any notion of transformation is religious fantasy.) Later, toward the end in the roundtable discussion, this notion is picked up again and tossed around approvingly.

I have heard this perspective before. Apparently, the transformation of culture is the goal. What it turns on is the modus operandi. We’re not supposed to work at it, but just let it happen as we go about our creational tasks. I picture a man walking backwards, at once insisting he is not trying to get from A to B while periodically peaking over his shoulder to see how close he is getting to B. My grandfather had a term for the beast-of-burden sense of such cardinal direction, and it was never meant as a compliment to he who thought backing into a thing was the right way to do it.

To the extent that there is an eye toward cultural transformation, I can’t help but think this is a bit of finger crossing. The early church is referenced. (This always makes me nervous as it almost always ends up being one form of Golden-Ageism or another.) Ideals about what sort of ideational and behavioral posture Christians are to have are linked up with what is deemed cultural cache. Here is the formula: Pick whatever is universally thought of as good for your particular cultural place and time (literacy, abolition/civil rights, education, art). Explain that the only way any of these things came about was “fill-in-the-blank.” If you’re a theocrat, fill in the blank with Constantine; if you’re a transformationalist, Kuyper; if you’re an anti-Constantinian two-kingdomite who still might nurse a need to have a seat at the table, well, it might be hard, but just go with someone somewhere in the dawn of western culture and the early church. Fast forward to the present, and this is how whatever is deemed as ailing culture will be rectified. And if you are in the last group, this means you are to go about your sacred and secular vocations without much fanfare, and voila, things will look up (whatever that really means).

But here is my awful dilemma. I was reared to be quite conscientious about my vocations, even as it was an upbringing in unbelief. We paid our bills, brushed our teeth and did our homework, took out the trash, were loyal to friends and family, sought the general welfare of our neighbors. And, to be quite frank, not much of that changed after I converted to true religion. Of course, perspective changed in terms of impetus, allegiance and wherewithal. Even so, in all my years now as a believer, I can’t say that putting my nose to the proverbial grindstone and doing what ought to be done, even in grateful response to the gospel, has yielded much of any “transformation” of my immediate circumference, to say nothing of that which lies well outside its reach. I am a loyal spouse and father, a good employee, a tax-paying and courteous neighbor, an active and faithful church member. I pay my bills and (mostly) obey traffic laws. I help with homework, PTA and benevolence committees, do dishes, fold laundry and wait my turn in DMV lines. Yet, I can’t say with any measure of confidence that I have made my own little corner in the kingdom of man “better” (in fact, just as often it seems like I make things worse). If the early church forebears backed into glory, I haven’t done the inconsequential man’s equivalent of overhauling philosophy, medicine, law, statecraft, art or education. It sure seems like I do way more maintaining than transforming. I can’t even get my drive-through orders to not return to me void. What gives?

At the risk of flirting with prosperity gospel, maybe I don’t try hard enough? But, beyond the fact that I feel fairly well exerted by the end of each day, that can’t be it. After all, the suggestion here is that being deliberate is exactly not what one should be. I understand this follows the counter-intuitive formulation of those of us who would a theology of the Cross, in an anti-Bull Durhamish sort of way (“don’t build and they will come”). But, being an insufferable contrarian who also thought his grandfather was onto something, I am quite suspicious that their coming is the point in the first place. Besides, counter-intuition doesn’t always work and common sense is actually what is needed. Getting something done, like transforming culture in ways Carter suggests, really does require deliberation. Call me kooky, but something tells me my wife won’t buy the plea that my conscientious effort at minding my own business reading a book will get the dinner dishes clean or the homework done. So if the question is going to be framed this way, where effecting change really is the goal however tangential, then the outside-in theocrats and inside-out transformers easily win. Maybe I am just a sore loser, but I’m not ready to cry uncle just yet.

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28 Responses to Voila, Transformed!

  1. Bruce S. says:

    Zrim,

    Crouch in Culture Making gets pretty excited about how the Acts narrative details the culture making/changing that he sees going on there. Stay tuned for installment #2 when I get to his take on it.

  2. DrollFlood says:

    -I’m sick of the abstruse mysticism to the neglect of what I need to be doing. If I gain a hearing with Caesar sometime in my life, so be it. My wife’s honeydo list is sure getting long while I wait for my chance to appeal to Caesar.

    -On being a contrarian, what do you mean? A person asserts something and you have an impulse to speak to absolve yourself from any obligation to their assertion? Or…?

    -Zrim on the side-like: What does “funkypancake” have to do with you other than the fact you have this as a blog pic?”

    -Please excuse me while I go puke. The latest plague has taken my family into its bosom.

  3. Zrim says:

    Droll,

    -…mmm?

    -All I mean here is that I’m not buying the suggestion that something which requires deliberate effort (like shaping/transforming/whatever culture) can be produced by not trying to do it and just sort of backing into it. That makes no sense. And I don’t buy the suggestion that Christians are beyond the rules somehow.

    -The image was supposed to go along with my suggestion that the above idea is like “a man walking backwards, at once insisting he is not trying to get from A to B while periodically peaking over his shoulder to see how close he is getting to B.”

  4. GAS says:

    Zrim,
    at this point I’m wondering if you see any ethical difference between the believer and the unbeliever? I’m mean we’re not Romanists or Mystics of whatever variety who believe in an ontological change. The Reformation was in large part a distinction between the philosophical categories of ontology and ethics.

    The Romanists try to capture culture so the priest can magically transform the captured culture. Today’s Evangelical mystics try to conjure up enough faith to call down the HS to perform his work.

    In either case it’s a faulty assumption that somehow there is a change in the very essence of a person. It is this type of “transformationalism” that is defective. But if we are going to throw out a tranformation of ethics we have nothing left. Bavinck was all wet.

    You claim that you cannot see any results from your ethical behavior effecting any change but you don’t address what the cumulative effect of a class of people all performing Christian ethics might result in. I believe history is pretty clear that good community Christian ethics, not merely moralism per se but an ethics based on principles not legalism, did effect the culture in a significant way.

  5. Zrim says:

    GAS,

    You claim that you cannot see any results from your ethical behavior effecting any change but you don’t address what the cumulative effect of a class of people all performing Christian ethics might result in.

    If I haven’t effected any transformation I guess I don’t understand why 100 me’s will.

    I believe history is pretty clear that good community Christian ethics, not merely moralism per se but an ethics based on principles not legalism, did effect the culture in a significant way.

    I’ll grant you that if you grant that Muslims and Buddhists have also “affected the culture in a significant way.” People with ethics tend to do that. I get the impression you might mean to say Christians do it better. But what do you do with the church at Corinth?

  6. GAS says:

    Zrim said: If I haven’t effected any transformation I guess I don’t understand why 100 me’s will.

    Me: The cumulative effect. If your neighbor just sees Zrim being ethical then Zrim is just wierd. If your neighbor sees 100 Zrims being ethical they might begin to believe that’s the way they should act.

    Zrim: I’ll grant you that if you grant that Muslims and Buddhists have also “affected the culture in a significant way.”

    Me: Yes it’s significant but not in the right way. True ethics can only be performed out of love for the Father in faith.

    Zrim: I get the impression you might mean to say Christians do it better. But what do you do with the church at Corinth?

    Me: We are not Wesleyian Holiness perfect but yes our ethics are a better standard than all other pagan standards yet baby churches such as the one at Corinth should not be expected to be as mature as what we should expect from our churches today.

  7. sean says:

    “Me: The cumulative effect. If your neighbor just sees Zrim being ethical then Zrim is just wierd. If your neighbor sees 100 Zrims being ethical they might begin to believe that’s the way they should act.”

    Aside from possibly peculiar temple practices. Don’t we have these ethical community practices going on in Salt Lake? Noticed I stayed away from the compound polygamists. I have some theonomy friends from college who have similar chiliastic desires, and I’ve got Doug Phillips doing his vision forum community down the road. They all end up in christian ghettos that never transform anything, they just set up their own and curse the pagans. Rome did Christendom and later the inquisition. This seems to always end badly.

  8. GAS says:

    Sean,
    Why do we need to flatten out all distinctions between pagan Mormonism, ontologically transforming Romanism and purposely directed Reformed theonomy with just plain Christian ethics?

    Why can’t good Christian ethics directed to God’s glory affect culture?

  9. sean says:

    “Why can’t good Christian ethics directed to God’s glory affect culture?”

    Well, my problem is it always ends up in an over-realized eschatology. If we can all deliberately, mind our own business, work with our hands, respect, honor, submit and pray for those whose mandate from God it is to execute justice in this temporal life, do good to those of the household first and others as we are able, then I’m good with it. There is however in that mandate an implicit purposefulness to not overstep or short-circuit God’s purposeful bounding of this temporal life, that includes living amongst and in peace with those outside the fold, and in doing so in such a way that the visible community of faith as expressed in corporate participation of word and sacrament remain the only visible manifestation of glory. There’s a purposeful “plainness” or “ordinariness” to our cultural interactions in this life that bear witness to a glory to come. We are called to live in tension.

  10. Zrim says:

    GAS,

    If your neighbor just sees Zrim being ethical then Zrim is just wierd. If your neighbor sees 100 Zrims being ethical they might begin to believe that’s the way they should act.

    Why would they think I’m weird for being ethical? And why would 100 of me change their minds? Your question seems to assume that my pagan neighbor has no idea how to act until he watches me. What happened to the law inscribed on every human heart? And what about the fact that plenty of pagans behave better than me?

    True ethics can only be performed out of love for the Father in faith.

    Huh? So when my Hindi or Mormon friends do what is right I should tell them they are not really being ethical, it’s really an illusion? I suppose my unbelieving father wasn’t as good a father as a believing one because of his unbelief? But to utter such a thing seems to me to be a violation of the fifth commandment. True, good works done in faith are the only ones acceptable to God. But they are still more dirty rags than not; and when a pagan keeps from lying, believe it or don’t, he is really and actually being a truthful person. All ethics are God’s ethics, no matter who is doing them.

    We are not Wesleyian Holiness perfect but yes our ethics are a better standard than all other pagan standards yet baby churches such as the one at Corinth should not be expected to be as mature as what we should expect from our churches today.

    I agree that a Calvinist ideal is quite different from a Wesleyan one; I’m just not sure you are. And, uh-oh, here cometh the primitive church argument. This argument, GAS, is grounded in the arrogance of modernity: those unenlightened people back then and over there aren’t quite as good as us. Sinners are the same as they have ever been. Not only does this have us being better than pagans, it has us better than fellow saints. There is no end to the troubles of the primitive church argument.

  11. GAS says:

    Sean,
    You live in a country in which you are duty-bound to use discretion to choose between alternative representation thus having to actually look at the candidates worldviews and how they align biblically.

    It may be easier to stick your fingers in your ears and sing, na na nana na, but then your just acting like a fundementalist with gnostic notions of this world is bad and the only important thing is the coming world but calvinists believe that God created this world very good and the Christ event is a renewal, in part, of what sin corrupted. Subscribing the “already” aspect of the Christ event to merely a spiritual realm is just another form of gnosticism.

  12. GAS says:

    What happened to the law inscribed on every human heart?It was darkened by sin.Huh? So when my Hindi or Mormon friends do what is right I should tell them they are not really being ethical, it’s really an illusion? I suppose my unbelieving father wasn’t as good a father as a believing one because of his unbelief? But to utter such a thing seems to me to be a violation of the fifth commandment. True, good works done in faith are the only ones acceptable to God.NO, it’s not an illusion but the restraining grace of God. Did Jesus break the fifth commandment when he said he was going to set a man against his father? If the only good works are done in faith the what is ethical about any other work? And, uh-oh, here cometh the primitive church argument.No, it’s not the primitive church argument. There are baby churches today. Or have you rejected the historical-redemptive model? I suppose we should throw out the reformation since those folks were grounded in the arrogance of modernity.And what about the fact that plenty of pagans behave better than me?Those pagans have been restrained by the grace of God to perform evil deeds and you have failed to employ the power of the HS to free yourself from the bondage of slavery to sin.

  13. sean says:

    GAS,

    How did I know this was going to be a political consideration for you. Yeah, I’m not a big fan of jewish dreams of any stripe. You get busy renewing and I’ll get busy imbibing and we’ll see which better honors God’s good creation.

  14. Zrim says:

    GAS,

    I fear I will only get repetitive here. But there were new and seasoned churches while John was sitting on Patmos, and it’s the same today, nothing has changed.

    “…failed to employ the power of the HS to free yourself from the bondage of slavery to sin”? How is this not a form of prosperity gospel? And no fair going “all Edwards” and trying to delineate between a good and bad form of something completely subjective. Revival is revival and the same goes for prosperity gospel. (Sigh, why can’t failure to live perfectly just be a failure to live perfectly instead of translated into something more than that? Is that the same button one pushes to deem ethical behavior by an unbeliever “false ethics”? Talk about smoke and mirrors.)

  15. GAS says:

    Zrim,
    It seems you have a problem with Calvinist anthropology. I can understand the desire due to your existential situation to flatten out the antithesis but unfortunately that’s not biblical christianity.

    Now I find out that ethics is the prosperity gospel. That’s a new one. I’ve never equated being ethical with wanting a new car or house or any other material item. At this point I’m wondering what sort of Thomas Jefferson editorialism is going on.

  16. Zrim says:

    GAS,

    Prosperity gospel is easily dismissed when one is working with a caricature instead of a characterization.

    So how does one “employ the power of the HS to free himself from the bondage of slavery to sin”? It sure sounds manipulative to me.

  17. GAS says:

    It starts with belief. Do you really believe God can affect a change in your behavior. Then you go to the cross to find out why you reacted in a particular situation or how you should react and what desires of the heart lead to that particular action or what desire you should use in a particular situation.

    See Tim Lane and Paul Tripp’s book: How People Change.

  18. Zrim says:

    Do you really believe God can affect a change in your behavior?

    Yes.

    Then you go to the cross to find out why you reacted in a particular situation or how you should react and what desires of the heart lead to that particular action or what desire you should use in a particular situation.

    You lost me. That sounds like a lot of sentiment with no substance. While God is busy mysteriously sanctifying me, I think I’ll stick with the third use of the law.

  19. GAS says:

    “For from within, from the heart of men, proceeds evil thoughts…”

  20. Zrim says:

    GAS,

    I like to think I am as Calvinist as they come, but I’m still lost. What does that mean in relation to this conversation?

  21. GAS says:

    Zrim,
    I’m not sure what you mean by “but I’m still lost”?

  22. Zrim says:

    GAS,

    You’ve gone from a rather cryptic suggestion about “going to the cross” to therapeut one’s way through covenant keeping (which, frankly, reads like something one might find in a best selling book) to a quotation of scripture.

    It might help to simply speak in your own words to convey what you intend.

  23. GAS says:

    Zrim,
    Sorry I was cryptic. Going to the cross is the process of repentance and renewal stuff.

    The “heart” should be interpreted as a man’s desires and will and used throughout the bible. If that’s therapeut then I guess the bible and reformed theology has an aspect of therapeut.

    “My heart I offer to you, Lord, promptly and sincerely”

  24. RubeRad says:

    Z, sorry I’m late to the party, but I held off reading this until I listened to the WHI myself, and I held off listening until I finished listening to and indexing the KP lectures (which index I will post eventually).

    So what does Gen 1:28 mean to you? While transformation of culture may not be the goal, it is a goal. I’m totally on board with Horton and what you describe as “backing” into transformation. It’s really not that different than “backing” into sanctification by focusing on the gospel.

    At some point, I think you’ll have to admit that your 2K, Z2K, is beyond the W2K you seek to affirm

  25. Zrim says:

    Rube,

    (“Z2K,” that’s pretty good, I still get a chortle.)

    I don’t want to just get repetitive, but here is what I think:

    1.) Gen. 1:28 is about creating, not transforming.

    2.) If transformation is a goal, then I am unclear on just what is so wrong about the “active” posture and why the “passive” one is superior. That seems Edwardsian to the extent that he tried to delineate good subjective experientialism from bad. That always comes off as arrogant (probably because it is).

    3.) While both require an active posture and not a passive one, transforming is way harder than just creating. It makes little sense to me how something that requires an active posture gets done by way of passivity. In some ways the passive is worse than the active since it demands we deny what is true about the realm of creation, namely that you need to get things done in order to get things done.

    If transformation is a goal, I say the transformationists are right. It isn’t that profound.

  26. RubeRad says:

    1.) is about creating, not transforming.

    But what can we create? How can we do anything more than transform what God has created?

    If transformation is a goal, then I am unclear on just what is so wrong about the “active” posture and why the “passive” one is superior.

    Because that’s the only way fallen men can realize any moral transformation.

  27. funkypancake says:

    bit weird seeing a ‘stolen’ picture from my blog on your post – which is actually a picture of me outside windsor castle

    :-/

  28. Zrim says:

    It’s weird that someone named “funkypancake” found his way here. Must be what happens when one walks like that–he goes for Windsor and ends up in the loo. Let that be a lesson, transformationalists.

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