We see ourselves not as isolated individuals living out a basic lifespan on this planet, but as people who inhabit a society, a culture that has its own history, its own sense of the present moment, and its own vision for the future. We understand ourselves in reference to the society we inhabit and the story that society tells.
The question is not if we as Christians will read the signs of the times, but how well we will do so. Oliver O’Donovan has warned that “those who do not make an effort to read their times in a disciplined way read them all the same, but with narrow and parochial prejudice.”
When Reading the Times is Hard
It’s easy to read the signs of the times “with narrow and parochial prejudice” in the United States. Why? Because false visions of history and the future are subtle. The differences between the stories society tells and the Story the Scriptures tell are not always obvious. We can grow so familiar with a false calendar that we are unable to see it.
In mission work, we find it rather easy to spot and counter rival eschatologies. An example would be Christians in India. Their missionary encounter will confront an eschatological vision of the world that is largely cyclical in nature. The Hindu worldview does not conceive of time in a linear fashion, with a beginning and end, but rather sees salvation in terms of release from the endless cycle of life. Christianity stands out in a Hindu setting, because the church sees the rival calendar and openly rejects it.
In North America, however, the situation is more complicated. We live in a society that has been formed, in some measure, by Christian ethics. Here, it’s easy for Christians to assent to Christian teaching and embrace certain practices common to Christianity, and yet still make decisions from a framework that is more influenced by a rival conception of time, because it remains hidden from view.
“Bible Believers” Living Out of Other Stories
This is a source of continual frustration among pastors.
- We get discouraged when many of the people in our congregations, people who are faithful in attending church and who claim to have personal times of Bible reading, seem to be okay with the fact that their kids aren’t as religiously oriented as they are, as if it’s expected for kids to drop out of church for awhile and hopefully come back (but at least they made a decision for Christ at camp one summer!).
- We get discouraged when we see people put Bible verses on their Facebook page right next to a post about a television show they’re watching, a show drenched in the ethos of the Sexual Revolution and all the lies that come with it.
- We mourn the loss of people who are as kind as can be to us while they’re walking out the door to visit another church that has better services and programs for their kids. We thought they were committed to our church, but they were really just committed to their preferences.
A Question for Our Generation
As cultural currents move faster and we see rapids and waterfalls ahead and wonder what the future holds, one of the questions we must ask is this:
What kind of discipleship is necessary to fortify the faith of believers so that we understand what time it is, we rightly interpret our cultural moment, and see through the false and damaging views of history and the future that are in our world?
That is the question I posed in my workshop at TGC this year: Discipleship in the Age of Richard Dawkins, Lady Gaga, and Amazon.com: Grounding Believers in the Scriptural Storyline that Counters Rival Eschatologies. The audio from the talk is now available here.
What are the disciplines we need as we read our times? Oliver O’Donovan again:
To see the marks of our time as the products of our past; to notice the danger civilisation poses to itself, not only the danger of barbarian reaction; to attend especially not to those features which strike our contemporaries as controversial, but to those which would have astonished an onlooker from the past but which seem to us too obvious to question. There is another reason, strictly theological. To be alert to the signs of the times is a Gospel requirement, laid upon us as upon Jesus’ first hearers.
If you find my TGC workshop on this topic helpful, please share it with other pastors and church leaders who may benefit from it. And please send feedback on the talk so my thinking along these lines will be sharpened.