Dr. Ken Boa addresses matters of culture during the March 13, 2019, installment of GraceLife Church of Pineville’s In Question series. The series is a Q&A format hosted by Michael Stewart.
- Film resources mentioned in the video
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Michael Stewart (MS): Thank you all for coming out tonight. I know it’s been a while since we’ve been together for In Question. I’m very excited to be back here with our frequent guest, Dr. Ken Boa. For anybody who hasn’t been here before, just let me tell you a little bit about what In Question is, how it got started. We decided that we wanted to have an opportunity for us to raise questions that everybody has anyway about faith, about God, about theology, about religion, and as you’ll see tonight, just about culture in general. We are all, I think, curious creatures who have these questions but are often afraid to raise them in church—which is the exact setting where we should be raising them. So, we created In Question just for that purpose.
Tonight’s topic is “How should we respond to cultural chaos?” In anything that you read on the culture, whether it’s recent commentary or older books, chaos seems to be the theme. That word is always popping up. Let me read to you a quote from Peter Kreeft, who has commented a lot on cultural chaos. He says, “Chaos is to a community what disease is to a body. … Community integrates; chaos disintegrates. Community is coherence; chaos is incoherence. Community is construction; chaos is deconstruction.”1 And he goes on to say, nobody makes a TV show about kids today called Happy Days. That’s telling of the culture. I think we can agree to that—and mind you, he wrote that 17 years ago.
Tonight, we’re going to cover undoubtedly what are some unhappy topics. We all realize that something’s wrong. Something’s broken. So, I want to begin first with this question: Tell us what the ultimate goal for humans is. What is it that we’re aiming toward, so we can get an idea of when we talk about culture being broken, what are we missing?
Ken Boa (KB): When you say humans, are you speaking in terms of a biblical vision of humanity? It all depends on the worldview lens through which you are looking.
MS: Yes. So, let’s say, what should we as individuals [see as the ultimate goal], and then as a culture?
KB: As individuals, we’re all looking for a flourishing life, a fruitful life, a life that has relevance and meaning and purpose. And then the question’s going to always be where you seek to find those questions, those answers. At the end of the day, then, everyone has a desire for a meaningful life, a life well lived, and you’re going to give your life in exchange for something. You don’t have an option. The question is what you’re going to give your life in exchange for. And Jesus said, the things that are highly esteemed among men are despised in the sight of God. That’s a chilling verse there in Luke 16 because he invites us to see that it’s very possible for a person to give their one life in exchange for toys, tinsels, and trinkets. So the question is, what are we looking for? Obviously, a theistic vision of life is about relationships, first with God and then proper relationships with one another. And at the end of the day, then our vision is that life is about relationships, not about the acquisition of goods, of properties, of positions, of possessions, of popularity. But I don’t know if that’s more along the lines of what you’re looking for, or not.
MS: I think that’s a good start. I want to read something from the back of a book that you wrote, An Unchanging Faith in a Changing World, that “the world is changing so drastically—by the day, by the hour, by the minute—that sometimes you hardly recognize it. You face more and more challenges to our Christian convictions but have less and less support to stand up for our faith. You wonder if it is still possible to be ready to give a defense for what you believe.” Now that was over 20 years ago now, when that was written. Are we getting worse, or is it simply the case that every generation observes the decline of their particular point in history?
KB: There is some pattern to this where even the ancients talked about how the new generations are completely out of it, and we always remember those golden years, those earlier years, and so forth. There’s a strange idealization that occurs. But that said, however, I would say that this is the best of times and it’s the worst of times. So there are wonderful things that we do not want to overlook that have been, in fact, great advances. The area of racial injustice is one of those areas and the area of women’s rights and opportunities and things of this sort. We don’t want to just throw the whole thing out and just say it’s all going to hell in a handbasket. In my view, there are some wonderful things that have occurred since my youth, and I remember many great changes.
But then at the same time, there has been as well this loss of a collective, moral consensus. So that’s actually, from my point of view, something I’ve never observed in any previous civilization. Every civilization—the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Phoenicians—all had some idea of a moral consensus of sorts. Whether they followed it, it’s another matter, but here, now it’s up for grabs. It’s the first generation that it strikes me has lost the quest for the truth, goodness, and beauty and has relativized all of these three transcendentals. That’s an interesting process to see. So, if anything, what I wrote back in those days is more true than ever.
In fact, I’m kind of envisioning the depressing prospect of having to update the presentation I made in 2005 on The Decline of Nations, in which I did a 10-point comparison between the United States and Rome before its demise. Some of those 10 points included education, government, debt, morality, entertainment, things of this sort. Well, I thought at that time it would lead the audience into paroxysms of despair, but now it’ll be far worse when I update it than it was then, and so I’m not looking forward to that prospect. Nevertheless, I need to see where things are because, indeed, I claim then that we’ve already gone past the tipping point. That said, I don’t end in despair. I’m a pessimistic optimist, which means that it’s going to get worse. Jesus made this clear: “In the days before I come.” What did he say? It’s going to be a great time? No, in those days before the Son of Man comes there is going to be chaos and turmoil (Matthew 24). I believe that the stage is being set for the next day. That said, I end with Daniel. I end with the perspective that God is the one who is the author of history, and these various empires will come and go, but He is creating an empire, a kingdom made without hands that will in fact last forever and will overcome the empires of humanity (Daniel 7:13–14). So, it’s going to end well. We’re part of a story that’s going to end well, that’s how I see it. So, I don’t wring my hands in despair. I actually see these as signs of the times. And in another way, you might say we’re in the times of the signs, not just the signs of the times, but the times of the signs. So, I’m ambivalent in that respect, I guess is what I’d say in that.
MS: Given that we’re talking about cultural chaos, I don’t want to get too far without providing a definition. So, if you could do two things for us, give us what you think a good definition of culture is, and then, realizing that there are subcultures based on geography and ethnicity, maybe define a church culture or a culture that could encompass those who have come to the event this evening.
KB: In a way, culture is defined by the sociological elite, and the sociological elite are those who get to define what is true, good, and beautiful. It’s an interesting thought. For a period of time, when you go in from a Greco-Roman [view], and then that being integrated, connected together, with a Judeo-Christian ethos, we created something that the world had never seen, in which for about a thousand years from the sixth century to about the 16th century, you had a more or less theistic perspective by those who were the culture-shapers. When I think of culture, then, I think about the ideals of morality—of what life should look like, and how we should live together, and how we should indeed go back to those. What is truth? What is goodness? What is beauty? And in my view, then, a culture is a collective understanding of what that looks like; but that’ll be shaped, it’ll be changed, it’ll be according to those who get to define what that looks like.
So there was about a thousand-year period of time in which there was an efflorescence, from a theistic point of view, where those people who shaped culture and those values were indeed largely theistic, and the world had never seen anything ever before like that and won’t again in our time. It was a remarkable efflorescence of beauty, goodness, and truth in a wide array of arenas, including education; including eleemosynary2 endeavors—for example, hospitals, orphanages and nurseries and charities and so forth; including art, music, literature, architecture; and, did I mention, the only appearance of empirically based science that the world has ever seen. All that was formed and actually shaped by that theistic vision of the idea that the One who made all things made us as well.
And, therefore, there’s a correspondence between our minds and the Mind of the Maker. And furthermore, it’s not sacrilege to study and understand the natural world, but rather we’ve been given the mandate to have dominion, but that’s a responsible dominion of stewardship, where we will be accountable. So to me, it was such that the world has not seen. And then of course, we went from that vision, and culture was now shaped and reshaped by new influences in the so-called Enlightenment. I always call it that because it was more of an “endarkenment,” in which you then went from a transitional worldview, from a theistic worldview, to a nontheistic worldview, a materialistic or atheistic worldview. It was too much of a cognitive dissonance to go from theism to atheism. So instead, there was a transitional worldview called deism. It was quite popular in the 17th and 18th centuries.
And deism was the clockwork universe where one gave lip service to God, but after He wound up the clock, He hasn’t been seen since. So it was a nice way of transitioning away from that into a more naturalistic worldview. I don’t know if that’s answering your question.
MS: It touched on several areas—it’s science, it’s politics, all of those things, even architecture comes into culture. As far as who we are, is there a way to define the culture of the people that are sitting in this room? I know at least broadly it’s Western, but beyond that?
KB: Yes, we have these three basic forces today, and one of them is a theistic vision of life. Another one is what we would call—and no one can really define postmodernity—basically a postmodernity vision that would basically eschew anything that’s claimed by a theistic perspective and go into total relativism and, indeed, the autonomy of the subjective self. And then the third one is Islam. And what’s interesting is the postmodernist view will plump in favor of Islam, though it’s radically contradictory to everything that they believe. So, they [postmodernists] don’t mind being totally irrational as long as they are against Christianity. It’s an intriguing time. So, the last time I checked, Western thought, the postmodern vision of what life is about, was against slavery, against the harming of women, against the abuse of children and of these things, and yet those are the very things that they find are problematic vis-à-vis the Islamic realm. And consequently, it’s intriguing that they don’t like it, and yet they don’t know what to do with it. So, they’re in a strange tension point. You can’t live that way. It’s totally irrational.
But it’s always been open season, and [especially] in our time, for the critique of Christianity in its various forms. But if you tried that same critique, the same objections to any people group or any ethnic group, any ideology other than Christianity, you’d be in serious trouble. For some reason though, with Christianity, it’s open season—and that’s not a surprise. I remember I predicted this depressing thought back in the early seventies. I was telling people, even though I couldn’t be sure yet, I was certain that eventually there’s going to be persecution in the United States. I just didn’t know how and when. Now I see we’re on the edge, right on the edge, and it’ll come to the point where people will lose their jobs and a variety of other things. It’s moving rather quickly, and it’s not linear. It’s becoming exponential. So, there are processes that we have to explore.
MS: I want to ask you a question I asked of a discussion group recently, and it led to somewhat heated debate. Are some cultures better than others?
KB: Great question. My answer to that would be, those cultures that conform to what is true good and beautiful would by their very nature be that. But then the objection would be: What do you mean by truth, goodness, and beauty? And if you’re a relativist, it’s up for grabs. So, you can see, then, that it’s not an argument you can win, because who gets to define the terms is always [in question]. So the basic parameters of engagement are going to be two people, two groups in this case, and perhaps one is making an argument and the other a counterargument, but they’re going past each other. There’s no hearing of either side, and rather than a both/and it’s just an either/or. There’s no communication whatsoever. So in the whole idea of “Come now let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18), there’s almost a kind of a sense in which we have to disabuse or to dis-educate people so that they can properly think again, because we have now been in a culture and in a context in which people have lost the ability to think on the basis of rational conclusions and empirically based evidence, empirically warranted evidence, let alone common sense.
And with the loss of that, what are the arguments today? What do you notice are the memes in media? What are the arguments that are generally used? Typically, guilt by association and name calling. Last time I checked, those were not very good arguments. They have no argumentative force whatsoever. And yet people somehow are cowed by that. They’re terrified by that, by being called “one of them.” So it’s like a phobophobia. And there are some people who are “philophobias”—I just made that up, a “philophobiac”—one who loves fear.
MS: Well, I think you’re hitting on something there because of the judgmental culture; no one wants to be the one that’s labeled when they say, “One culture is better than other”—but it seems obvious, your appeal to common sense. I think another apologist one time quipped, “In some cultures they love their neighbors, in some cultures they eat their neighbors.”3 And it seems fairly obvious that some cultures would have to be better than others. What do you think is the most powerful influence upon culture today?
KB: It strikes me that there are two. One is the relativistic notion. And, of course, as soon as you embrace relativism, then by the very definition, “Says who?” is your argument. What’s your authority? And as soon as you eschew any kind of absolute basis for authority, everything is up for grabs, or so they suppose, but if you really pressed it, there are reasons why I think that doesn’t work. I tell people that one easy way to turn a moral relativist into an absolutist is to cut in front of them in line. I don’t need to do a philosophical argument. All I need to do is, in a long line of people, cut to the front and watch the fun. Suppose half of the people are relativists; they just become absolutists: “Who do you think you are, getting in the front of the line?” And, well, I’m a kind of social Darwinist, “Might makes right. You have any problem with that?” Now, if I were seven feet tall, I might use that argument. But the fact is, though, people know better, and they live better than the logical implications of a relativistic worldview. They know that there are some things that are true, some things that are good, and some things that are beautiful. What I try to do is appeal to that. This is why I use film and media and art and literature—story, narrative. I start with beauty first, and then beauty becomes a portal to goodness, and then to the truth. It’s a different way [to reach people]. Because if you can speak to the heart, people know. There are a lot of people who are not followers of Jesus who like Tolkien. They love the Lord of the Rings series. Why is that? Because there’s something about truth, goodness, and beauty that is radically appealing to them. And that, by the way, is why R-rated movies do not sell as well as more family-rated (G-rated) kinds of films. Because people are looking for something that’s coherent and meaningful.
By the way, I have a good series I’ll recommend to you right now, five seasons: Friday Night Lights. If you haven’t seen it, check it out.4 It’s based on the film. But here you’re dealing with Coach Taylor, a guy who goes through all kinds of opposition, which is about character formation. What’s interesting about our films today is there’s very little about character. Have you noticed that? It’s more about trying to shock or technological pyrotechnics—very little substantive material. So I would encourage you to check a series like that out. And each season, in my view, gets better than the one before, and it’s realistic and it also comports with the Christian vision surprisingly well. So, there is material out there that does appeal to people, and in my view, people know better.
Again, if we are created in the imago dei, the image of God, then by definition, we will live better than a nontheistic worldview. You will live as if there’s meaning; you will live as if there’s value, as if there’s purpose and hope, even though your worldview provides no basis for that, you’ll live better than that. Because part of it is that you can’t eradicate the eternity that God has embedded in the heart (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
People live better than the logical implications of a relativistic, nontheistic worldview. They live as if there’s meaning; they live as if there’s value, as if there’s purpose and hope.
MS: You hit on several areas there as far as cultural influences . . . education in terms of postmodernism; entertainment, it lines up exactly with what Peter Kreeft said regarding church and state. He said those are no longer the most powerful influences; it’s Harvard and Hollywood.5 You have done so much on entertainment. I do want to talk about a little bit about that, especially its influence on society. There’s a Scottish politician who said, “If a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should write the laws of a nation.”6 So when it comes to that effect of media on the culture, how is it that it affects us both in a positive and a negative way?
KB: As I see it, public education, media, and entertainment are really your sources of culture shaping. Those are the things that shape the vision of what is construed as public education, of media itself and all those variations thereof, and then just general entertainment. They create memes, and people are defined, I find, by the memes of social media and the images that are carried on. These concepts are carried on, picked up, and people act as if that’s original thinking, and they think that they are then agents: “I’m an autonomous agent. I’m thinking clearly.” No, you’re not. You’re part of the mooing herd. You’re just following the followers. You don’t have any idea about what it means to be original. In fact, you try so hard to be original that you got the perfect way of not being original: it’s that. Lewis rightly says at the end of Mere Christianity, when you stop trying to do that [be original] and seek to honor God, then true originality in art [will come]; true greatness comes when you’re not trying to get the attention for yourself.7 I find that fascinating. There’s a change in art, change in music, change in architecture, change in literature—all of these things where people now are posturing and posing and positioning themselves as stars rather than people who were careful about their craftsmanship and the excellence and didn’t care a whit who got the credit. And so it’s a change, it seems to me, in the fiber and the fabric of our culture.
3 Sources of Culture Shaping
And indeed, I think you’re absolutely right to mention media, because it’s education, media, and entertainment that get to define those kinds of things, it strikes me. And so, that the power sources behind those who have authority—that is to say, the sociological elite, those spheres—are radically left of the center—there’s a consistent vision there; in fact, they’re left of the typical left. And so, although it is a small, small number of people in terms of percentage, the influence is radically disproportionate. They exert a huge influence and it then multiplies because of these vehicles—it becomes viral—and people then succumb to that idea, and again, as if it’s their own thinking.
MS: What do you think is behind that? How is it that this small, disrepresentative minority has the kind of influence that it does?
KB: Again, most people again don’t think very clearly; they’re not very original in their thinking at all. And they are hoping to find out, “Who am I? What is my source of identity?” They’re looking for identity, they’re looking for purpose, they’re looking for meaning. And someone comes along that provides something, the illusion of that, and it becomes, again, something viral if it speaks to the heart. The problem is, though, it’s not speaking to the head at all. It’s kind of a manipulative process here where people aren’t thinking very clearly, but they are very, very emotive. They base their views on their gut, on their feelings of what feels good and sounds good rather than on thinking or evidence. That’s why it’s interesting looking at virality of videos and various things of this sort—what makes those things viral? And often it’s just some really strange thing that isn’t beautiful or good or true but bizarre, off the edge.
Don't Be a Sponge!
Want to actively participate in what you watch, rather than just soaking up whatever your screen shows like a sponge? Check out Ken’s guide on how to watch motives with a critical mindset: “How to Read a Film.”
MS: You’ve mentioned these viral cycles, this idea of social memes. We can’t talk about culture today without talking about technology and what it has allowed us to do. One sociologist has written and said that we’ve come to the place where we’ve invented technology that gives us the illusion of companionship but without the demands of friendship.8 Why is that dangerous?
KB: That’s a good word. When we think of social media as a general whole, we’re looking at that very dynamic where you have a virtual community. And so what we have are people who are becoming increasingly comfortable with texting, which is really a portion, a fraction, of what it means to communicate. As you know, when you have a full-orbed message, it requires eye contact because there are about 400,000 nonverbal cues that we have. It’s easy to multitask. But the problem is that you’ll thin yourself out. People have the illusion that they are skillful at doing so. No, actually you’re not. And the fact is that without the visual component, you lose a huge component of communication.
So, when we reduce things down to texting, then we’ve lost the vast bulk of the information and the relational dynamics that are to be had. “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”9 What T.S. Eliot is saying is that the “cycles of Heaven” have gone for centuries and we’re getting “further from God and nearer to the dust.”10 You might say, “Where is the information we’ve lost in factoids?” So we go from wisdom to knowledge to information to factoids and then to texts, and it gets diminished and diminished, so that even the very language that is being used, the emojis and other components there, represents a fundamental diminishment of communication skill. Then you multiply that by the illusion of intimacy and relationship without the reality of it.
When we reduce our communication down to texting, we’ve lost the vast bulk of the information of relational dynamics. … There are about 400,000 nonverbal cues that you miss.
This is why it’s very difficult for many people who have been raised in this to look you straight in the eyes. And so you’ll see two people in the same room, and they’re texting each other, because they’re not as comfortable in having a conversation. They’re not accustomed. They don’t have those social skills. So the idea of a virtual community is the illusion of community without the relationship. And there are no obligations. No commitments. If it doesn’t work out, you go to another chat room or whatever you want to do. And so people, I think, are being basically emaciated, and they long for authenticity in relationships, but the vehicles that are being used diminish that.
When you used to go, for example, to a convention or to a conference and there was a break, what happened in the past? People used to have a thing called conversation. They’d actually speak to one another. And with the advent of these little guys [cellphones], that’s all gone; it’s a thing of the past. Everyone’s on their phone and it’s so depressing to see people in restaurants and they’re looking at their phone and not having a relationship with each other.
There are fundamental, basic minimal courtesies that are now being violated. How is it that this incoming message trumps where I’m actually face-to-face with somebody? How do I allow that [text message] to trump that? How do I allow this to divert me from the eye contact that’s necessary? Because you and I were meant for that. We were meant for authentic authenticity, that is to say, an incarnational encounter with other people. Christianity by far is the most incarnational worldview because it’s based upon the One who not only spoke the world into being, but then the Word, the logos, became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). So now He’s immersed and embodied in this—it’s astonishing to me that that concept—so everything matters and that this world, though fallen, still points beyond itself to truth and goodness and beauty.
We were meant for … an incarnational encounter with other people.
So in my view, it’s a very incarnational faith, and it requires an authentic connection with people. I remember when I was in New Zealand, I was speaking in Auckland, and I got to know a number of the people in the Maori culture, which were the indigenous people who were in New Zealand. They have the most fascinating way of actually greeting one another where they’ll put their hands on each other’s shoulders. So, you’d put your foreheads together and look into each other’s eyes for about five seconds. That’s weird. But I kind of liked it. I actually kind of got into this and the astonishing idea that the eyes are the way into the soul. And they knew that, by that open look, that time is dilated in relationships. So I’ve done some experiments with that, with dilating of time, … where I actually look people full in the eye and I … put my hand on their shoulder and then give them a pause. And that active silence, as I like to think of it, invites them, perhaps, to go one level deeper. And in that connection … a blessing takes place, and time is dilated. A lot of things are compressed in that moment and you see the souls can connect. That’s what I think: we long for that connection of souls and I think very few people know what it even is.
MS: The irony of this won’t be lost on you: I’ve got a text from the audience here. The question is, so what can we do about it? Our cellphones, are they Pandora’s box? Is it irreversible?
KB: It’s a useful tool but not a substitute. I’ve always thought of texting as a tool or utility, but not a replacement for conversation. It’s a good thing when you’re late for a meeting, you text somebody, that’s fine, but it’s not a substitute for a relationship by any stretch, and nor is email. None of these things are—they can be useful for their purposes, but they were never intended, in my view, to be a substitute for the authenticity of a relational face-to-face encounter. It’s an intriguing notion, that there’s some desire we have to know and to be known, to have an authentic connection with another person, and where you have a sense of affirmation and of their presence where they are present with you, not thinking about what they’re going to do in the future.
People are very poor listeners, by the way. You notice, we don’t have courses in listening. We learn how to speak, learn how to write, we learn how to do various things, but we don’t learn how to listen, and so people are not skillful in this area at all, but actually people long for the connection of listening. True, effective listening requires other-centeredness, because otherwise you’re playing this game of “What’s my next move?” And you’re not even fully attentive to what they’re saying because you’re thinking about what you’re going to say next, or you jump to conclusions, or you step on people’s ideas—like stepping on their toes, you step on their ideas. I think embracing those things that I think are evident in Scripture—and certainly manifest in the epistles and in the life of Christ—would bring us to a more authentic connection when people see how they love one another.
Last time I checked, that’s the mark of the Christian. If they have a diversity, and a unity in that diversity, there are going to be differences, yes, but there’s going to be a commonality that is based upon the most fundamental things. If we have that authentic connection, and it’s based upon that relationship that we have as authentic people who are actually children of the living God, therefore in that respect it’s even closer than blood. But I think most of the world is thin, and I fear that believers follow the followers and largely imitate many of the things we see in the culture. So, my desire would be for us to be more authentic in our connections and our relationships. Again, not to be Luddites: we want to leverage technology. Omnibus Media Ministries, which Michael and I are working together on, is all about discipleship in a digital age. So, how can you leverage those things? It’s never a substitute, though, from the authenticity of a personal encounter and a measure of vulnerability, of transparency, of openness. There’s got to be some of that as well. And there’s always a risk in relationships. But that, to me, is what people long for, not only being known and being accepted but also being affirmed and having a proper sense of identity that transcends merely the cultural means of our time. You have to have an identity that transcends whether you’re young or old, rich or poor, married or not married, wealthy or employed or not employed. It doesn’t matter. There’s got to be something bigger than those things. Those are circumstantial. The heart issue is really that we are people who are speaking to eternal beings. Lewis was right; he never met a mere mortal.11 So treasure them for what they are. Look at it from heaven’s view, and you see that this person is an image-bearer and therefore has a dignity, an identity, a meaning and a purpose. I think that’s what we’re looking for. But we look in all these wrong places and suppose that fame is going to make the substitute. Remember the old silly statement by Andy Warhol, that everyone really should be famous for 15 minutes? That’s not going to do the trick. And a lot of people actually have followed that by becoming murderers, and they got their fame alright, but they became infamous, but at least they were famous. But that’s not a way of living. It’s a way of dying.
MS: Speaking of that heavenly perspective, the idea of eternal things, the idea of things above. We’re talking about culture, and most of us are familiar with the term cultural warfare. As Christians, we’re reminded of spiritual warfare. What’s the effect upon a culture that denies those spiritual realities?
KB: You see this because then those cultures exclude that dynamic. Because we, according to the Scriptures, have three powerful forces. You have the inner force, which Paul calls the flesh. Then there is also the world that actually provides opportunities for the flesh. And then the third is the devil and his angels, which amplify the flesh. May I submit to you concerning that second one that in the world, there has never been so much opportunity as there is now. I remember what I had available to me was nothing in comparison to what any child can now have access to. And the interesting irony is, though the parents might try to put blockers, the kids are better technologically and they can do end runs around that. So we have a real dilemma where the problem is then that pornographic imagery and sexting and all these other things become far more common.
The oddest thing, though, is that people will send things out on Facebook that they wouldn’t dare tell their friends. It’s the strangest thing. I try to figure out, “What were you thinking? Don’t you realize you can’t erase this thing? Once you hit send, it’s gone and it can be amplified and multiplied forever. It’s a frightening thought. People aren’t really thinking very clearly. But at any rate, I think again, using technology, leveraging it effectively, is what we’re seeking to do. But also trying to say that there’s not a substitute for the authenticity and vulnerability in relationships and give-and-take.
MS: We’ve obviously talked about religion. We hear it in church, we’re used to that. Now we’ll talk about the other thing that you’re not supposed to talk about at Thanksgiving dinner, and that’s politics. So much of our division in the culture right now seems to be about that. I think there are several elements we should cover. I want to start with this one, though, and it’s the idea of American exceptionalism. Many, I think, have begun to attack this idea, not understanding what it is. Their thinking is that we have said somehow that the value of American individuals is greater than those around the world, instead of understanding that American exceptionalism is about the exceptional—compared to the rest of history—form of government that honors individual liberties, individual freedoms, things like that. What is it about our particular form of government, our founding, that has affected culture for the better?
KB: Checks and balances was a wise understanding. It was an understanding of the Founding Fathers of this country, and it was an incredible array of genius. When you think about the number of people who collectively were connecting with one another. When I think about John Adams and Hamilton and Madison and Jefferson and Franklin, it’s astonishing. We’ve never seen anything like it before. These were people who were statesmen. Statesmen are gone today. They’ve been replaced by politicians. They’re not the same thing. One of the things about these men was that they weren’t being paid. They were actually doing it on their time and their dollar. They would do this to serve their country and then they would go back to what they were doing.
But the idea that the natural mindset here is that the collective is more important than the individual [is not accurate]. If we really take a look at what the biblical vision is, Christ didn’t die for a collective. He died for people, and you have value because you are an image-bearer. And as a consequence in America, there was this amazing understanding, affected by many thinkers in Europe, but really taking the very best of those insights, and crafting a Constitution that actually talked about life; liberty; the pursuit of happiness, which really, at that time, meant virtue. And we now are in a context where virtue is greatly diminished. But I think that they [the Founding Fathers] understood that and understood that too much power in one hand [is dangerous]. So that’s why you had the three branches [of government], because power needed to be played off of one another because human nature being what it is, you’re going to distort power. So now we have checks and balances being replaced. We now have a bunch of bureaucrats who are not elected officials and therefore have no accountability. … But the phenomenon here is, what that led to, was a context of enterprise that led to the development of wealth that affected others. Now the mindset—Keynesian economics has this idea of a zero-sum game, whereas classical economics understands that, no, it’s not a zero-sum game; economics have this mindset today that it is basically a pie, and if one gets rich, it’s because he got more of the pie at another’s expense. Nonsense! It’s a bakery shop. There are plenty of pies! And the more pies that are being made—yes, there’s a disparity between the very rich and the very poor, and the politics of resentment are used to emphasize that disparity, instead of looking at the fact that actually, the collective has gone up vastly in the last few decades. … This has led to flourishing and the creation of wealth that did not exist before, and so to me, we’ve created a culture of hard work, of diligent endeavor, of virtue, and indeed, [Alexis] De Toqueville was right in Democracy in America. He said democracy can only be sustained by a measure of virtue, and once that virtue is gone … [it’s] a free people’s suicide, as Os Guinness’s book talks about. And there must be freedom for there to be faith, and faith in turn produces virtue, but virtue then produces freedom. . . . So, you see what’s happened? The process has stopped.12 So the losses of freedom now are such that virtues are greatly diminished in the public square; there’s a loss of that. And instead identity politics seems to be the thing, and I know we’re going to go there. So, it’s complex. There are so many components that are rooted together and connected. So I’m not looking forward to doing a series on culture, but I feel I’m going to have to do that—look at various aspects. Because what we’re looking at now is more of a collectivism. It’s kind of a new version of Marxism, but now instead of economics, it’s identity and power.
There must be freedom for there to be faith, and faith in turn produces virtue, but virtue then produces freedom. … You see what’s happened? The process has stopped. … Instead, identity politics is the thing.
MS: Some have argued that Christians really shouldn’t engage in political debate. What’s your response to that?
KB: I think if you’re going to engage in it, it needs to be done where you hear both sides of the thing rather than being one-sided. Instead of talking across one another, it’s, “This is what I see is true and this is what I think is problematic and then come, let’s meet together, let’s reason together,” and then do it in a calm manner. But I think people are almost afraid of that.
So politics and religion are the two things you’re not allowed to talk about. You see, it’s always been those two things. And yet those things are unavoidable. It’s not a question of whether you’re going to talk about politics and religion; it’s the way you’re going to do it—with civility or with a lack of civility, with dignity or with indignity, with name calling or with reason. So in my view, we should actually set the table for more robust dialogue, if anything, and be the ones who, through an incarnational understanding of what life’s meant to be about, then manifest that life of love. And that’s why I always like to speak about these three things. Our call, in part, as followers of Jesus, is first to love well, second to learn well, and third to live well … that’s the being, the knowing, the doing; it’s the heart, the head, the hands. I’m always harping on that because it’s absolutely fundamental that we not just look at one part but the whole. … So I think we can add to that debate if we contextualize it in the larger realm.
It’s not a question of whether you’re going to talk about politics and religion; it’s the way you’re going to do it—with civility or with a lack of civility, with dignity or with indignity, with name calling or with reason.
MS: I’m glad you bring up economics in the context of politics because I think some of the areas of morality that we quickly jump to—whether it’s Hitler’s rise to power or American slavery—both of those were greatly tied to economic thoughts of the day. And Dr. Boa has had a lot of posts lately on this, a whole economic series, that I encourage you to check that out. Quickly related: The buzzword of the day, in the current political election season that is going to be put in front of all us, is socialism. What is that and what is its effect upon the individual and upon culture as a whole?
KB: Socialism, a collectivistic mindset, says that really the individual is here to serve the state, the collective whole. The problem with that, and there are a lot of issues with that, but at the end of the day the problem is that the individual, the person, loses dignity and they just become part of a herd of people who are being then collectively moved into a certain direction. And it never works that way because there’s always an elitism that takes place. Always, in spite of their talking about the collective, [there is] a tremendous jockeying for position [along with] the elitism that drives it. We can’t avoid that. So it sounds very good, but who controls the controllers? And what you’re doing now is [you have] more and more power at the top, and the potential for abuse is extremely great.
Is Socialism Biblical?
MS: The next topic for the night is I think one probably everybody expected us to go to when we think about culture. Whether it’s the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah or the content of our entertainment, why is sexuality so key to our culture?
KB: It strikes me that a lot what drives our culture is this quest for autonomy and being driven by our glands. It’s the strangest thing. But people become almost reductionistic, almost animalistic, as it were. They want what they want when they want it, and they don’t want any binding forces that would prevent them. They don’t want any consequences of an action that would appear to be amoral. So it actually creates a culture of death, which is an interesting thing. In order for us to sustain our sexual freedoms, we will do whatever it takes, including changing our views in order for there not to be any things that bind us from those consequences of those acts.
MS: Well, I’m glad you mentioned the culture of death because I think that’s obviously a hint toward abortion. And so many times that topic is discussed outside of the realm of sex. We’ve somehow separated from that. So, in terms of cultural chaos and sexual issues, I think the two hot-button issues are going to be homosexuality and the abortion problem. Many, I think, maybe are upset sometimes with the church because they think that they singled this sin out. But it seems to me that it’s actually the media that has pushed it to the forefront. What are your thoughts about how [the discussion regarding] homosexuality in media is so prevalent?
KB: It is [prevalent] for several reasons, but it’s a disproportionate thing. What’s intriguing here is when we look at various denominations that then change their views and so forth, instead of looking at the fundamental issue of authority, they’re going to be zooming in on [the idea that] they’re against you, that sort of a thing. And then they’ll make it appear that the church is vilifying certain people and treating them in a homophobic way— that’s a word that can mean so many things but doesn’t mean much of anything.
The point is that they’ve taken it cleverly and moved it from the real issue to a secondary issue because it’s not the primary issue at all in denominational splits. It’s, “What is your view of authority?” At the end of the day, who gets to define the rules? And so, if it is God, then I do very well to listen to what He has said. So, the real issue at the end of the day always comes down to who gets to define truth, goodness, and beauty. What’s your authority for truth? And that’s where the issue should have always been centered because, you see, if the living God has made us in his image, He ought to have a good idea of what it means to have a flourishing, fruitful life.
And Jesus said, for this reason, a man shall join himself to his wife (Matthew 19:5–6). And the two shall become one flesh. And Jesus alludes right to the pre-fall imagery in Genesis 2:24. This is overlooked. People often will suppose He never spoke about it, and He did very directly, because His presumption was that it was male and female, he created them both in the image of God. And it requires both male and female to constitute the image of God. And thus, the idea of the union of that diversity is actually a manifestation in this world of the unity and diversity of the divine Trinity so that you need that other rather than the sameness. And so to me, always getting it off onto political or hot-button topics like the idea of sexual mores is a clever ploy to avoid the real issue, which is, “What’s your authority for truth?
The real issue at the end of the day always comes down to who gets to define truth, goodness, and beauty. … What’s your authority for truth?
I tell people that everybody has a worldview: why we’re here, where we came from, where we’re going, what’s our problem, what’s the solution. But not many people can carefully and clearly articulate their worldview. Of those people who can describe their worldview, a tiny number of people can actually define what are the logical implications of how one ought to live in light of that worldview. And of that small percentage, an even smaller percentage have actually compared the way they live with those logical implications. My claim is that people cannot live consistently with the logical implications of a nontheistic worldview. We are wired for truth, goodness, and beauty. And in spite of your attempts to relativize it, you can’t do it because you’re kicking against the goads (Acts 26:14), you’re fighting against the very One who made you and gave you a certain image of what is really right.
In other words, there’s something in us; we know better, but the idea of just separating and pulling out these sexual issues seems to me to be a clever ploy to focus on secondary matters. And that’s why I say, we as a body of believers need to be focusing on what we’re for rather than what we’re against. I’m for a flourishing community that is in fact inclusive and loving of other people, but that at the same time acknowledges that God gets to define what moral boundaries are, and He gets to define what a flourishing life looks like. And indeed, He says, “I have a better idea of what a good life looks like than you might suppose. And you suppose this is going to be good, but actually, I’m looking for what is better.”
I’m for a flourishing community that is in fact inclusive and loving of other people, but that at the same time acknowledges that God gets to define what moral boundaries are, and He gets to define what a flourishing life looks like.
Now, if a person is gay, I want them to know who Jesus is rather than focusing on arguments about the matter of what the Scripture says about [homosexuality]. Focus on that. Do you want to have life? Do you want to have a new hope and purpose and meaning in life? Get to know this Jesus and then we’ll go from there. In other words, if I can get them to love Jesus, I think I’m moving them in the direction I’d like them to be, rather than getting them to be against something else.
MS: I’m going to throw out some arguments from the culture. If you could, give a quick comment. “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” What do you think of that?
KB: Indeed, we do that with ourselves very well. You notice how if you have made an error in driving, you’re looking for grace. Someone else does it and it’s malice of forethought. You want justice; you notice how we are—we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. So, in part, “loving the sinner, hating the sin” is to treat others the same way we would like to be treated. So there’s a sense in which that is the case, but it’s really not so much hating the sin as hating how it injures the person. You see, sin is inimical to a flourishing life. So if I love a person, I want what’s best for them. Rather than being against sin, I am for righteousness. I’m for a good life. I’m for a meaningful life. So, I hate that which destroys that vitality, that integrity, that meaning, that identity. It’s not just I’m against sin so much as I am for what God intended all along—for us to relate and have a unity and the diversity that transcends the thin ideas of this culture.
MS: As for abortion, I’m going to throw out some typical arguments. Here’s justification for abortion: it wouldn’t be loving to bring an unwanted child into the world.
KB: Then you have the question of who gets to define what is loving and also what is human value. And so the real question is, are you saying then that this person doesn’t have the right to be because of the fact that he or she would be an accident, in which case then you yourself might have been eliminated in that same situation?
People aren’t thinking very clearly on the idea of who gets to define the value of a life. And then, of course, you see the idea of actually screening for embryonic problems for Down’s syndrome and so forth. What’s their intention? Clearly the intention is, “If this child has it, we’re not going to bring the baby to term. So the assumption is we get to define what a quality life looks like, [but] only God can define the value of a human life. So it’s playing God at the end of the day; it’s supposing that because they’re unwanted, therefore they have no value.
MS: Should abortion be allowed in the cases of rape or incest?
KB: Again, it’s the same principle. The conditions of a birth are not definitive of the value of the human being. Because you’re dealing as well with a developing human being. I hate it when they just call it an embryo or fetus. It’s more than that. As soon as you have the creation, you have now unity. And then you have a unity where suddenly you have a new being that has different DNA. On the idea that a woman should have the right over her own body: it’s not your body. By definition [the baby] has different DNA. So it’s not your body. You are hosting another body that’s not your body. It’s not the same DNA. And indeed, we’re dealing with a developing human being by definition. We’re dealing with the question of human life itself. If you’re talking about a human being, you’re talking about an eternal being, an immortal being who transcends any culture. If that’s true, it has a huge implication.
MS: So many of these questions could have been an In Question in and of themselves. Before the night is over, I do want to ask you a question about race. Again, it’s the topic that’s in the news; there are a lot of slogans out there regarding race: Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter. Is this issue too serious to be consolidated into little catchphrases like these?
KB: I think it is. I think it’s because what you’re doing, then, is defining a group by their race and then it’s a diminishment of their true humanity by vilifying or just focusing on one side. I think it’s far better for me to be colorblind, not to even make it an issue, just not even to see that. And in my view, there is neither male nor female, there’s neither Jew nor Gentile, barbarian, Scythian, slave, or free man, but we are all one in Christ (Galatians 3:28). So the unity that we have in Christ transcends race, transcends consanguinity, the union of blood. You see, it transcends all those things. We have the same destiny, the same dignity, and the same derivation. No longer are you in Adam; you’re in Christ. You have a new derivation, you have a new dignity, you have a new destiny. Doesn’t that give me a lot more in common with a person of another race than anything else that I can think of? I think that’s a huge thing. We’re going to share heaven forever.
MS: We’ll end the evening with allowing you to say something about our individual responsibilities.
KB: The best thing for me to do is to humble myself under the mighty hand of God, thank Him for the fact that all of life is gift and grace, and recognize that I’m to be a person, a mediator, an agent of grace, love, civility, kindness, fruitfulness, and flourishing, rather than an agent of spite, resentment, and division. And that to me is what we were meant to be, agents who love one another in spite of all the thin distinctions that people use to shape identity, whether it’s race, economics, or gender, you name it. Those are thin compared with the deepest reality that you are an eternal being made in the image of the living God, and there’s no one like you, not fully. So there’s a uniqueness. To me that’s a positive note, and that’s what I think the gospel has always been meant to be. The key to the whole matter is realizing all of life is gift and grace. … What do you have to be proud of? What did you receive that you weren’t given? Then why do you boast as if you didn’t receive it? (1 Corinthians 4:7). Nonsense. Here’s the astonishing thing: that the Logos who created the sun and the moon and the stars, and the galaxies now embraces that reality, taking the sin of the world upon Himself and offering His freedom, His grace, His love. This is astonishing. I can’t even begin to imagine! The more I learn about myself, the more astonished I am at God. If I could see the human heart, if I were God, [I would say,] “Who needs this grief?” God wasn’t bored or lonely. He doesn’t need this nonsense! You should be glad I’m not God. Marvel at the wonder of the grace of God that reaches down. The great saints become increasingly aware of two things, the holiness of God and the sinfulness of sin. And the more that barrier increases, that huge yawning gap, their vision of grace increases, because He is the One who still reaches down, more than you ever thought.
The great saints become increasingly aware of two things, the holiness of God and the sinfulness of sin. And the more that barrier increases, that huge yawning gap, their vision of grace increases, because He is the One who still reaches down, more than you ever thought.
- Peter Kreeft, How to Win the Culture War (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2002), 47.
- That is, charitable, relating to charity.
- Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God (Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group, 1994) 182.
- Readers are always encouraged to look up film reviews prior to viewing to ensure that they’re aware of its content, considering its appropriateness in light of audience.
- Kreeft, How to Win the Culture War, 54.
- Originally printed in Andrew Fletcher, An Account of a Conversation Concerning a Right Regulation of Governments for the Common Good of Mankind (Edinburgh, Scotland: 1703), 10.
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996, orig. 1943), 191. The exact quote reads, “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”
- Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 1.
- T.S. Eliot, Choruses from “The Rock” (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1934), 7.
- Ibid., 7.
- C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 46. The original quote is “You have never talked to a mere mortal.”
- Os Guinness gives this process a name: “The Golden Triangle of Freedom.” Read more here.