The American Mind Meets The Mind Of Christ Part 1

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.

The American Mind.jpgTo 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.

Contradict Evangelism Table

table evangelismAs many of you know if you have followed my blog, the Contradict logo was birthed from evangelism at University of California Irvine.  From many trial and error attempts at initiating Christ-centered conversations on the campus, I found that the best method for my personality is to set-up a table and draw people in to talk with a catchy poster on a table.  My first attempt was a Led Zeppelin poster with a sign saying free bootleg CDs.  I actually had purchased some bootleg CDs and was raffling them off, but, to enter the raffle the person had to take my “Stairway to Heaven” Gospel tract that I had written.  They also got an invitation to a Bible study on UCI’s campus.  I got a few emails this way so I could keep in contact – spamming people, if you will, about events I was hosting on campus.  I never got anyone to show to those events – :(.

Then I met a lady that was a full-time missionary at University California Los Angeles.  She told me what worked best for her was hosting a “Blessing of the Brains” night every mid-term and finals week.  She said students were up late studying and that she would offer them coffee and the opportunity to have their brains blessed with prayer!  She would pray for them right then and there if they wanted, or just collect prayer requests in a prayer box.  I did that method twice!  Both times – very successful.

All of these attempts were when I was as an undergraduate student at Concordia University Irvine during the 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 school years.  After a Masters degree and three years teaching in China, I was back in Orange County in the summer of 2009 and asked if I would kickstart evangelism for a congregation at UCI.  I wanted to set-up another table with a poster that would draw people in to talk and I wanted to also offer coffee.  Sort of a combination of the two best options I had done before.  I had many other attempts along the way that I won’t mention.  From UCLA pastor, Mark Jasa, I learned of a cool sign approach to evangelism. He set-up a table with a poster that read, “Religion is for the Weak.”  His approach was that people would see this and not know what he believed!  People usually think he is an atheist, and then get caught off guard and are intrigued to hear more when they find out he is actually a Christian.  He presents that everyone is going to die and religion offers a solution to the problem, yet there are really only two religions – Free and Not Free.  Christianity is the only Free religion – saved by grace through faith in Christ.  Then the discussion begins!

Adam Stetson also saw a presentation from Pastor Jasa on his “Religion is for the Weak” method of starting an evangelism conversation. Together we bought a table and went to UCI’s Freedom of Speech Area.  We started with small print-out pages that said “Religion is for the Weak” and other slogans we came up with. The only one I still remember is the one that I made up which was “Christianity is not a way of life.”  If someone asked what it meant I’d share, “Christianity is life given to you for free by the work of Jesus.  It’s not a list of rules you must obey to be saved.  Therefore it is not a way of life, it is life.”  We also had a big poster board that said, “Got Prayer?”  We did a lot of stuff like that.  It was a smorgasbord of little flyers taped to everything on the table.  People would get coffee and as they shook their sugar into their cup, they’d ask what the message meant on the sugar container.  It was quite comical.

One week, Adam said, he wanted to make a Contradict sign to counter Co-exist.  I thought it was great!  I found a few designs already made online and we started to use them on the table too.  It became my go to every time someone asked why were out there giving out free coffee.  Adam and the others with us began to always gravitate towards it too.  Eventually Adam had a Contradict poster made!  And then we ditched everything else and just used a Contradict poster exclusively, taped to the front of the table.  “Religion is for the Weak” didn’t work so great for me for some reason.  Before launching the site http://www.contradictmovement.org, I designed my own Contradict logo with my friend Danny Martinez.

I love the Contradict conversation starter.  It’s simple.  Someone asks what does this mean and I get to simply say, “It means that all religions contradict each other and they can’t all be true.  They could all be false, but they can’t all be true.  I personally believe Christianity is true, that Jesus is God and died for your sins and I am here to share that good news and answer any of your questions about what I believe from the Bible.”  I have presented the central truth-claim of Christianity, and now the ball is in that person’s court!  Often times, they might be shocked that I am Christian. For example, I once let an atheist talk a long time about his views on religion.  He thought I was an atheist too, so he was just laying it really thick against all religions and religious people, and when I told him what I believed he was stunned.  And his mouth was open, and he asked, “Wait, you’re a Christian?”  He thought by Contradict, I somehow meant they were all wrong!  No.  It means they can’t all be true, not that they’re all wrong – which is what many people first think the sign means.

Anyways, it’s a great conversation starter!  I encourage you to give it a try somewhere, at a park, a campus, a store front, a fair, a street corner with a lot of foot traffic.  There are handouts at http://www.contradictmovement.org that you can download and print for free.

If you are really into this idea, I encourage you to check out my book, Contradict – They Can’t All Be True.  It details the entire message I’d share with someone if they gave me 3-4 hours of their time.  And believe it or not, sometimes, people actually give that much time!  Many people I have talked to are very intrigued.  They are craving God (although they don’t know that’s what they’re missing and needing as they are lost in their sins) and few Christians have given them the straight up truth from Scripture.  And few Christians have sat there to listen to their questions and answer them.  A big portion of my book is to help equip you to know what questions are most often asked from the Contradict conversation starter.

Here’s a video for more info on how to get started. God bless you.

Please, let me know if you give this a try.  And you might find that something else besides Contradict works best for you.