08 September 2010

Advancing the Kingdom of Christ (Part 2 of 4) The Error of Transformationalism

Transformationalism seemingly stands at the opposite end of the Christ and Culture debate, and in some sense it is, but it's built on the same foundation as Pietism.

While rejecting Pietistic subjectivism and looking at the inward experience, this camp instead looks outward and gauges the Christian life in reference to one's impact on culture. They seek to build and conquer culture and tend to despise any hint of what they call retreatism.

While the Pietist shuns popular movies and music, the Transformationalist embraces them, insisting they must be digested and interacted with. Relevance and apologetics are key concerns for this camp. To fulfill the mandated answer of 1 Peter 3.15, one needs to not only know the pop culture but be able to interact with it and refute it. Piety is often gauged by one's knowledge and ability to wage culture war.

As with Pietism, I have certain sympathies with some of these notions. It's good to know something of the ideas floating about that are influencing us and the people we interact with. But we need not work ourselves up into a frenzy trying to keep up on it and master it all. And there are many things, music and movies which are simply not appropriate. I can take many facets of society and engage a 'take it or leave it' attitude. Some things in certain circumstances can be used and employed but other times it's better to just leave it and have nothing to do with it.

For the Transformationalist this is not an option. It must be conquered. It must be transformed. No stone can be left unturned. Why? Because all, everything, this world must be transformed in the Holy Kingdom. As Kuyper famously argued there is not any portion of the universe that Christ does not claim as His.

Though it sounds good, the problem is a failure to distinguish between Christ as King of the Universe and Christ as Head or King of the Church. All of the universe is under Christ's Reign as Creator and thus accountable, and in that sense, His. But only His people are seated with Him in the heavenly Realm. Christ's Realm is Holy and only that which is Holy may enter it. And in that sense, the Holy Realm is His in a way the Common is not.

In addition only that which is Holy will survive the fires of Judgment at the 2nd Coming. This world and its works will perish. The Common Grace realm of the present is legitimate; a venue for the gospel of grace to work, but it is not part of His Holy Realm. The Transformationalist says the Common Grace Realm or the City of Man must be converted to the City of God. I would argue that is not possible nor do we ever have any notion from Scripture for that expectation or goal.

In fact many Transformationalists believe the cultural achievements here will be translated into heaven. There we will have not only Gothic architecture, Jane Austen, and Bach, but we will have Rembrandt and computer technology too. So for the Transformationalist, the work we do is not just a means, but an end. They believe that by crunching numbers on a calculator at the bank, laying shingles on a roof, or playing the violin…you are building the Kingdom of God.

I believe we as Christians can do those things, and we need to do our work as Christians, but the work itself does not actually build the Kingdom. Raising and providing for my family is Kingdom work, and thus doing my work to provide for them is a good and necessary thing. It's a means, not the end. Later I hope to explore how we build the Kingdom. For now it is sufficient to say, that it's not by painting fine art, chiseling stone, or cooking gourmet.

So when we approach culture we don't need to flee from it as something evil and try and set up a subculture, nor do we need to conquer it and try and make it Holy. Instead we live in it as Pilgrims. How then do we interact? With wisdom. That's what I mean by 'take it or leave it.' When it's profitable, use it. I suppose the pressing question for many would be…Is entertainment legitimate? Yes, with wisdom. Who can draw the lines? It differs according to where each person is at.

The Pietist says we need to put up walls to protect people. The Transformationalist says you have to engage. I'm saying, engage or disengage as need or even sanctified desire demands. We need to be careful we're not fooling ourselves and embracing sin, but the Pietist by thinking he's more holy by abstaining can be in just as serious of an error as the person deceiving himself. The Scriptures deal with this very strongly. More on that later…

I hope no one misunderstands me and thinks I'm arguing for situational ethics. That type of ethic does not acknowledge universal Truth and makes decisions based on often arbitrary personal feelings. I'm arguing for a universal Truth, but in the New Covenant we are expected to apply it with wisdom in messy fallen world. We are in the age of maturity in terms of Redemptive-History. No longer under the tutelage of Moses we are expected to live as heirs in exile. Our ethic is a Kingdom ethic and the interaction between a Holy Spiritual Kingdom and a fallen world is not always easy or clear. We are engaged in a mission to build the Kingdom. What does that look like? How does it come about? What did Christ Himself say regarding these matters? Did He, like the Transformationalist speak of a Kingdom that would become a tangible geo-political entity, an expression of culture?

Why are they driven to do this? Because like the Pietist, the Transformationalist (often synonymous with Dominionist) views culture and society as Holy....meant to be the Kingdom of God. Not content to survive and live in a sub-culture like the Pietist, they have a vision of civilization conquest. They want to be the mainstream, the new establishment. As I've said, they want to re-establish the Middle Ages and look to the Medieval order for inspiration, but they are confident they will do it right the next time around.

With both groups there is a failure to recognize the nature and principle of the Kingdom. Both cast it in worldly terms. The Scriptures define the Kingdom in spiritual terms, a Kingdom not able to be seen by those not born again, one not of this world.

Unlike the Pietist there is a strong intellectual drive in Transformationalist circles. But I often wonder is this emphasis in order to know God or is it about acquiring knowledge in order to crush opponents? I can't answer that. I can't see into their hearts but others have made the same observation.

While the level of doctrinal ignorance is much lower among these folks, the main thrust of their conversation and their main areas of study and expertise and in relevance to the Culture War. How has this manifested itself in recent times? When I engage these people, are they driven to try and understand Ephesians 3 or Baptism in the New Covenant? Not particularly. Usually the conversation is dominated by gay marriage, health care, socialism, or whatever else is driving the media narrative. In fact politics and media can exhibit a strong influence in shaping the discussion and emphasis of this camp. And I would argue it has been shaped more by history and politics than the Scripture.

I'm not saying these things aren't of importance. We need to be aware of what's happening and we need to talk about these things. But the spirit at work in Transformationalist circles is different. With them, it's a political strategy session, in fact almost everything is politicized as one might expect of a group seeking power. Someone will even admit that all questions in the end are political.

Years ago when I was around the more extreme end of this crowd I remember them trying to make me feel guilty because on a Friday night I was happy to stay home and read or go to bed early. They were off to the local watering hole, guitars in hand, reading to folk-evangelize the bar crowd. This was living with Christian boldness.

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with playing folk music on a guitar. I'm not going to tell anyone that it is a sin to drink a beer. The Bible condemns drunkenness, nowhere does it condemn drinking alcohol. Again, wisdom and what do the Scriptures say? While they don't condemn drinking, I've been among some Transformationalists that seem to act like you're sinning if you don't imbibe.

Not viewing the culture as Holy, I see no need to go out and exercise Dominion at the local bar. In fact, in most cases, it's probably not a good place to be. That said, this would not apply in every cultural context. American bars are one type of scene. I can travel around Britain and without hesitation enter many pubs. I've walked out of some, but the majority are little more than restaurants serving a specific type of food (pub grub) and also happen to serve alcohol. I could without any qualms take my children in there. Or in Italy, coffee shops often serve the same function. A completely family-friendly environment where alcohol is served but drunkenness is frowned upon. In Italy, if you want to go and act stupid and sinful…you go to a club.

Different cultural applications. In America, I'll skip the bar scene thanks, but in Italy I have no problem going into coffee house/bar.

I hope you see my point, or at least can respect the distinctions.

The young Transformationalists hitting the bar represent a bit of an extreme but it exposes something of the overall mentality.

Hollywood has to become Christian Hollywood. Wall Street has to become Christian Wall Street. The White House has to become a Christian White House.

I don't find anything in the Bible's teaching concerning the Kingdom that allows me to include Hollywood or Wall Street, or Washington in any Kingdom scenario. I wouldn't even know how to define them as 'Christian,' nor do I find any hope, expectation, or emphasis in the New Testament of such notions.

I say Hollywood is what it is. If it's there, fine. If it's gone tomorrow, that's fine too. I can watch some movies, reject others, but it is destined to burn with the rest of this fallen world. Providence gives us a government and an economic system. One is not necessarily more Christian than the other. Now some might be better in terms of allowing us to live as Christians, that I will certainly admit, but no system is specifically Christian. The New Testament teaches us how we should think about the State, or how we should think about money, but nowhere are we taught a political theory, nor an economic system. So what do we want? That which allows us to lead quiet lives, working with our own hands, minding our own business, and going about the work of the Kingdom.

But this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none;  And they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not;  And they that use this world, as not abusing it: for the fashion of this world passeth away. (1 Cor. 7.29-31)

Transformationalism is also bound by its host culture. It's no surprise that among American varieties of this school, we find the 'Biblical' vision is for one of free market capitalism, republican government, individual and property rights, and yes, the profoundly important right to keep and bear arms. All these things become Christian, and they are quite shocked to find European versions of Transformationalism have deliberately advocated socialism, a more fluid democratic government, societal and corporate emphasis, and they have viewed it as quite Christian to remove arms from society.

They're both wrong. Both again are thinking of the Kingdom in terms of a geo-political order. Both share a chiliastic vision of a Kingdom physically manifested on the earth.

As far as the right or wrong regarding each of the political issues I just mentioned?…Christian liberty determined by wisdom. I'm not going to bind your conscience and you shouldn't bind mine. What does the Word of God say for France, Germany, America, or China?

Nothing. The Bible is written to the Church. Christians in France, Germany, America, or China need to wisely live the Christian life in those lands. Again, what do we want? Stability, order, peace, and as much freedom as possible to propagate the gospel. This will sound real situational, but I'll even argue it might look and work differently depending on what country we're talking about. One type of political and economic order might work best for the Church in northern Europe, and be just fine…while something else might prove better for the Church to function in India or Kenya.

And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you; (1 Thes. 4.11)

I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. (1 Tim 2.1-2)

So would it be easier to do that in the United States than say in China? Of course, but that in no way means the American system is more 'godly'. In fact the cultural context in China might actually be more conducive to people becoming Christians. People in China might be wrestling with questions right now that fat, rich, and overly entertained Americans are not. Sometimes what is best for the church is not always what is best for our bellies.

When Christian Transformationalism joins with Imperialism it seeks to transform the conquered realms into new Christian realms or nations. But are those cultures transformed? I'm assuming their argument for a moment…

Looking at the historical result I would have to conclude no, the end result is more like colonial versions of the mother country rather Christian versions of those countries. Look at the British Empire. Look at Spain in the New World. Look at the Dutch and the Huguenots in South Africa. Their visions of Colonial Transformation were not about creating South African, Indian, or Bolivian (if I may speak anachronistically) Christian societies. No, they were trying to transform these places into copies or miniaturized versions of Western European nations such as Britain, and Spain. They wanted to recreate the motherland in typological form as it were. They viewed their own nation-cultures as the Christian ideal.

Many Christian workers in other countries are reliant upon funding from American churches, but beg and plead that the Americans would stay home. Why? Because without even realizing it, American Christians bring not the gospel of the Kingdom, but the gospel of America, and in the end can do more harm than good.

This perhaps has been the greatest irony to me that with both of these camps, they make the same error regarding the Kingdom and culture and are blind to their own cultural presuppositions and biases. By viewing culture as something holy, they instead promote their own culture (in some form) as equivalent with the Kingdom. One camp merely looks forward, and one looks back, but they're both looking in the wrong place.

If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.

(Colossians 3.1-2)

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matthew 6.19-21)


Victoria said...

This is a good description of transformational error.
Like you, I've worked in other countries and cultures, being paricularly gifted I believe with cross-cultural fluency, and it helps one see "americanism" or any kind of colonialism.

Philip Robinson said...

Some really good points about the way some Christians in mission (more particularly in 2-week mission tourism trips to 3rd world Christian communities) cannot distinguish between promoting Christ and promoting their own (western) cultural values.
It is refreshing to see an American recognizing it in America! I went on to Malawi a couple of years back, and (on reflection) saw the same thing from a UK, middle class cultural comfort zone perspective. Why we were handing out English Bibles only seemed to be questionable to me.