This blog post is the first part of a book review of The American Mind Meets the Mind of Christ which was written by ten Concordia Seminary professors and edited by Robert Kolb.
Why does American Christianity need The American Mind Meets the Mind of Christ?
In Southern California, NOTW bumper stickers litter the back end of vehicles as much or more than the popular Coexist sticker. It took me awhile to figure out what the NOTW sticker meant – “Not of this World – in reference to Jesus’ statement about his followers in John 17:16 in which he says, “They are not of this world, just as I am not of it.” Though Christians are members of God’s eternal kingdom and are “aliens and strangers in the world,” as Peter describes us, we are still very much in this world. In other words, the reality is that Christians who are NOTW still coexist in a culture and society with people who display the Coexist bumper sticker sold by Peacemonger, a printing company that specializes in stickers that lean towards religious syncretism and the endorsement of New Age beliefs and Eastern spirituality and are only negative against the Christian faith. It is in this state of social pluralism with a multiplicity of religious beliefs and values that the Christian daily swims, and though the conservative Christian with the NOTW sticker on his car can likely agree that we need peaceful tolerance of diverse ideas and expressions of belief in American society, he probably hasn’t drunk deeply of the other message that Coexist is often interpreted to espouse – that all religions are equally valid and true paths to God.
Even though many Christians have avoided the growing ethos of religious universalism, there are many American Christians who belong to church bodies who have not successfully held on to the exclusivity of Christ’s message to be the only way to the Father. But the NOTW sporting Christian shouldn’t grow too comfortable, thinking he’s escaped the culture war or religious unionism due to his sticker, because culture is a multi-headed beast that is the conglomeration of all the people’s diverse opinions and experiences in a society that blend together to form uniquely particular presuppositions about life and the world for the group as a whole. Since not everyone in American society is “not of this world” it means that American Christians have certainly had their worldviews formed by cultural presuppositions that are derived from the ways of this world that stand in opposition to the mind of Christ. This leads us to have to struggle to discern and know the mind of Christ revealed to us in Scripture, because we inevitably are bringing our American-tinged minds to the interpretation of God’s Word.
To help American-Christians wake-up to elements of the American way of life that stand in opposition to the message of Christ and his will for our lives and to aid us in proclaiming the goodness and truth that God has gifted to us within our culture, nine Concordia Seminary professors have taken on the task of thinking deeply on various aspects of our “American minds” to see how they align with the “mind of Christ.” The articles they have generated comprise The American Mind Meets the Mind of Christ and cover the cultural landscape of health and wealth, individualism and community, religion and religiosity, science and culture, and media. With the seminary’s mission professor emeritus of systematic theology, Robert Kolb, at the helm of editing this tour de force of the good, the bad, and the ugly of the American culture that most American-Christians have taken for granted as being rather neutral or positive in our alignment to the mind of Christ, the Church in American has been given sage advice on how to best witness to the culture through the culture in mission and ministry.
Recognizing Idols, Taking the Middle Path, and Being the Spiritual Gurus that we Truly Are
Three major ministry and mission themes emerge throughout The American Mind Meets the Mind of Christ. The first theme is recognizing that most aspects of American culture are idols or prone to be idols and these elements must be ditched in order to properly walk with God. This first theme leads to the second theme, which is that there is often times a middle-path within the idolatry-prone aspects of our culture in which we can tread to the glory of God, and it is on this path that we can call others to walk through our ministries and missions. The third theme follows the first two in that Christians should be the spiritual gurus in our culture! We know the truth. We know God. We of all people in our culture should be the spiritual gurus – the teachers that enlighten the path to God. It’s time to teach, teach, and teach some more the mind of Christ that we alone can know since we have the Word of God and the Spirit of Truth that knows the mind of Christ. In doing so, we’ll show people their idols and help them ditch their false gods as they hop on the middle-path centered on Christ.
As I explained in the introduction, culture is deeply ingrained within us – it’s as natural to us as water is to a fish. Because of this we are not always aware of how it forms our presuppositions on all matters of life and because our American culture is second nature to us we don’t easily recognize when we become dependent on our cultural norms for how we ought to live our lives. This is where many of the authors recognized our American idols. When we are dependent on anything but God, we have made an idol. Also, multiple articles pointed to Luther’s definition that an idol is anything that we fear, love, or trust above God and our culture provides much to fear and love and trust that entices us into idolatry.
For instance, Dale Meyer suggested that our American consumerism can become an idol as we are prone to find our satisfaction and joy in our possessions, created things instead of our Creator. (Kolb, p. 19) R. Reed Lessing reminds us that many Americans have placed trust in medicine over and above God as they pursue to perfect their bodies for their own glory instead of God’s. (Kolb, p. 33) Joel Biermann teaches that the American concept of individual and personal rights is a cultural construct that is not shared by all cultures. Our demand for personal rights drives us inward to our centers which Biermann says, “invariably ends with the individual self-enthroned and both God and the neighbor deposed” (Kolb, p. 46) There were numerous other examples of idolatry embedded within American culture, but I’ll close with one more. Joel Okamoto demonstrates how science and technology are both sources of great hope (in that they better our lives to the point that we couldn’t fathom living without them) and fear (in that sometimes they give us devices like the A-bomb or the possibility of losing our humanity through transhumanism – which is something that some hope in instead of fear). And as sources of great hope and fear, science and technology thus become idols by Luther’s definition of what a god is.
Once we recognize what the idols and potential areas of idolatry are for us within American culture, we must relinquish our hold on these idols and the solution the authors of the book gave again and again was to “beware the extremes and go down the middle [path]” (p. 19) An example of the middle path route to an aspect of our culture came in Lessing’s article on bodily health. Too often we either reject the body (obesity is the second leading cause of death in America) or we strive to perfect it (as I mentioned above). Both of these our extreme sides of American health that pull us away from God’s design for our bodies that the middle path approach of “respecting the body” can avoid. This respect is grounded in realizing that we are persons comprised of both a body and a soul. The one who rejects the body, typically does so by valuing the spiritual aspect of humanity over the physical (Lessing says this is an on-going influence from Gnosticism), and the one who strives to perfect the body essentially is pursuing a godhood grounded in his own physicality. Respecting the body leads one to see that God has made our great bodies for us and that “our goal is to be available for Jesus Christ for the longest amount of time, with the greatest amount of energy, and the highest degree of emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being” (Kolb, p. 39). This availability is to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God as we serve him and our neighbors through ministry and missions.
Another middle path approach to culture came through David Lewis’ approach to watching American movies, though Lewis didn’t directly speak this middle-path; he demonstrated it. Far too often Americans dive into movies head first for entertainment, not considering that movies convey messages and can form us as we partake in the viewing of the American culture embedded within the films. Some Christians however do see this influence of movie consumption and to avoid being moved to sin avoid much of popular American culture. This approach pulls them away from having the opportunity to be able to speak “sometimes with, and sometimes against, the values of the surrounding culture in this American context in which we are called to confess and live out our Christian faith” (Kolb, p. 140). Lewis demonstrated how this speaking can be done through an in-depth analysis of the architypes of American movies in relationship to the architype of the mind of Christ and showed how embedded in two of the great classics of American cinema is the message that the ideal pattern of living is that of Christ’s – to deny one’s personal desires and wellbeing and to consider others before yourself. This also happened to be the suggested path in Biermann’s article on individual rights – it’s best for us to approach life as if we have no rights since we are to put others’ rights before our own.
The third major theme that emerged through the book was an answer for what Christians should do with the two previous themes, in particular what pastors and future pastors should do with these themes since this book was written by seminary professors with that audience primarily in mind, and that is to teach the counsel of God on all of these cultural matters. Essentially, it is the pastor’s job to help the congregation recognize the idols in their lives that they likely are unaware are false gods for them. It is the pastor’s job to correct cultural lies and norms that are in opposition to the will of God for the lives of his congregants. Finally, the fruit of such teaching is for our relationship with the Lord to be strong and vibrant. He alone is our all-sufficient savior and any cultural idols that pull us away from him could lead us to reject our faith in God as it is a real potential that our love and fear and trust in such idols could grow to the point that we decide to squeeze the true God out of our lives entirely – to our eternal damnation. As Christians learn the middle path approach to culture in which we avoid the idolatrous ditches of the extremes of our culture, we will know how to not just emphasize the NOTW aspect of our identity in Christ, but we’ll also know how to better witness and serve our pagan neighbors as we are in the world and in the culture in missions and ministry to them. I think in this way we’ll become the spiritual gurus of our culture – because if we can shirk our idols and walk the path God has intended for us in this world, we’ll shine like stars in this crooked and depraved world (and culture) and some people will be drawn to us for the knowledge of God that we readily teach and proclaim.