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.

Augustine – The Church in the World

Excerpts from Augustine’s The City of God, taken from New Advent:

Book 18, Chapter 49

“In this wicked world, in these evil days, when the Church measures her future loftiness by her present humility, and is exercised by goading fears, tormenting sorrows, disquieting labors, and dangerous temptations, when she soberly rejoices, rejoicing only in hope, there are many reprobate mingled with the good, and both are gathered together by the gospel as in a drag net; (Matthew 13:47-50) and in this world, as in a sea, both swim enclosed without distinction in the net, until it is brought ashore, when the wicked must be separated from the good, that in the good, as in His temple, God may be all in all.”

Book 18, Chapter 51

“Thus in this world, in these evil days, not only from the time of the bodily presence of Christ and His apostles, but even from that of Abel, whom first his wicked brother slew because he was righteous, (1 John 3:12) and thenceforth even to the end of this world, the Church has gone forward on pilgrimage amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God.”

Quotes in my analysis below of these two brief excerpts come from the translation found in Readings in Christian Thought edited by Hugh T. Kerr.

Christians Thrown to the Lions.jpg


Augustine of Hippo stands as one of the greatest theologians of all time.  His works are still appealed to as an authority in both Roman Catholic and Protestant tradition on numerous and diverse subjects across two-hundred and thirty-two works.  From Augustine’s Confessions, we learn of his conversion from paganism to Christianity after living a life of grandiose sinful indulgences in his thirties.  Born in 354 AD, he lived through the roughly last fifty years of the Roman Empire’s existence, the first half being a pagan, and the second half being a Christian.  Augustine lived roughly another quarter of a century after the fall of Rome in 410 AD.  His mother was a Christian and his father was a pagan until his deathbed. This life experience deposits him into an advantageous position of first-hand familiarity with the mind of both the pagan and Christian, in a world where Christianity is the religion of the State and in which it is not.  After the fall of Rome, Christians received the blame for the end of the Roman Empire and the calamity and suffering that followed.  To comfort Christians, as well as to defend against such blame, Augustine wrote The City of God, drawing from his well-spring of knowledge of the inner workings of both the pagan and Christian worldviews as he wrote, to demonstrate the tension, even battle, between the kingdoms of man that continually rise and fall and the eternal kingdom of God that forever stands.

In the above excerpt from The City of God, Augustine writes with the purpose to remind Christians that the world is not their friend.  Despite the appearance of it for a time when Constantine Christianized the Roman Empire, the days are evil, and Augustine argues that this is to the Church’s benefit, because Augustine writes, “through the lowliness she now endures is winning the sublime station she is to have in heaven.” He justifies this position with two key points: a summary of Paul’s words in Romans 5 on the fruit born through suffering and an appeal to the historical suffering of God’s righteous people.  Like Paul, Augustine argues that suffering produces a deep-seated joy in the hope to come and a willingness to wait out the evil days until Christ separates his own from the children of the devil.  To keep the Church from getting too near sighted, thinking their current plight is unique to them, he reminds them that the apostles and the Church fathers suffered before Constantine made Christianity the religion of the State and that in fact God’s people have always agonized under the oppression of evil men, tracing all the way back to the beginning of man, when righteous Abel was murdered by his wicked brother, Cain.  Augustine concludes that as it was in the beginning with Abel, it will continue to be until the end of this age.

Underlying the purpose of his writing to remind his Christian readers that cities of men inevitably fall but God’s city will always remain is the question, “What then shall we do?”  With the evidence and reasoning Augustine provided, the answer appears to be nothing but a single answer – what Jesus said to the seven churches of Revelation – “Stand firm until the end.”  This single answer is to give the Christian the necessary knowledge to live in sight of better things to come, to not be attached to the world that certainly will end in fire and destruction at Christ’s return – to pull one’s head out of the “now” and to hope in the “not yet” reality of the City of God.  There are of course many activities the Christian can be pursuing in this world of woe: loving God, serving one’s neighbor, helping the poor and widowed, comforting those who mourn, being a voice for the voiceless, speaking the Gospel to all in his life, and etc., but the knowledge gleaned from Augustine’s answer is that none of these activities will put an end to suffering.  They might lead to a relative life of ease if the work of the Church through the Gospel and the Sacraments wins over the State as what had occurred with Constantine and Rome, but such peace won’t last, because it’s only given when the City of Man adopts the veneer of the City of God.

I thought this small, two paragraph excerpt from The City of God provided great insight for today’s Church in America (potentially the West as a whole, but particularly the American Church).  From personal experience, I have heard many, Americans and non-Americans, express the notion that America was founded on Christian values and liberties, going so far to say that America is a “Christian nation.”  Many of these same people argue that America has fallen from these traditional Christian values, often times using the term, “Post-Christian,” to describe the nation.  I read an article a few years ago by a LC-MS pastor about the shift Christians have experienced in America from being a people of “privilege” due to their religious majority to now being a people “unprivilege.”  In many ways, the City of God veneer has stripped away from the City of Man in America, and the Church is now seen as a resistance, a stumbling block to the progress the City of Man wants to make in the realms of sexual identity and activity, abortion on demand, religious syncretism, socialized programs that put more trust and power in the City of Man than in God and the love of one’s neighbor to help out in times of need, and even science because of the common Christian rejection of Darwinian Evolution.  Augustine reminds us too – this is nothing new.  It’s always been.

In America, we have excesses in material wealth and luxuries in comfort that many in the world cannot even comprehend.  Our extravagances can lead us to be attached to this world, to love the City of Man, in a way that others with less wealth might not be tempted to cling.  I lived one summer in a Mexican town that had no running water, no washer and dryers, no water heaters, now showers, just outhouses, no pavement, just dirt.  It’s common for Americans to come back from such locales and say, “But they were so happy.”  That was my experience too.  They weren’t so attached to the City of Man, and many of the people I interacted with were members of the City of God.  Their hope was in the life to come; not having their best life now.  Augustine’s writing was a wake-up call for me; to not grow fat and lazy; hard times will come.  His use of Abel being slain by his ungodly brother is what shook me.  I have read that historical narrative to be an example of the damaging effects of sin in the world; not the pitting of war between God’s people and the devil’s as Augustine framed it.  It reminded me that there is a war between two cities raging on and that I really should adjust and align myself not so much as an American-Christian, seeking to Make America Christian Again, but as a Christian who is a wayfarer in this world of woe, awaiting my Lord to bring me home.