Education, Doctrine, Culture, and Apologetics

Pres. Bush delivered a [great commencement speech](http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2005/05/20050521-1.html) at Calvin College this weekend.

Two thoughts:

+ This is **exactly** what I’ve been trying to work toward.
+ Now how come we couldn’t get a guy like this to come speak at *my* commencement?

Actually, I know why. No community can extend itself very far beyond it’s own culture. Valerie’s commencement speaker was the president (or dean, I forget which) of the Charlotte branch of [Union Theological Seminary](http://www.union-psce.edu/), which is housed on the Campus of Queens University. UTS is a [PCUSA](http://www.pcusa.org/) Seminary, and I’m sure he gave a speech that was very moving to the modern liberal view, but it left something lacking for the evangelical Christian. On the other hand, Bush is evangelical, and it shows. He presents a worldview that allows for the individual, and calls for community which supports that which is right.

I think it was at my baccalaureate that it really clicked that I was probably in the wrong school, despite the wonderful wife I’ve acquired there. How can you preach a sermon that carefully avoids mentioning the name of Jesus Christ? The message was deliberately vague as to the god it proclaimed and the values it enshrined. What value is there in unspecific values? This despite the fact that I know that chaplain there is a very sincere and devout Christian. She simply thought that an open-ended, unspecific homily was the best one to preach at a baccalaureate.

Understand, the education I got there was fine, as best I can tell. Obviously, you can always acquire more data. But Queens puts a great deal of effort into imparting to its students a certain civic virtue, and while I readily apprehend the need for civic virtue, the specific values of these virtues served better as an example of what I didn’t want.

I was hoping to save this for a later post, but this seems as good a place as any: Something I’ve been learning in my seminary studies is that the Bible isn’t presented to us as theology. We don’t get set of handy syllogisms. Nor do we get a nice clean creed, or book of church order. Instead, the Bible is presented to us *[in situ](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_situ)*, that is, in the middle of the situation. A writer of an epic (and any good science fiction) tends to start *in medias res*, or in the middle of the thing. As a result, a lot of times the Bible seems to be deliberately vague on the very subjects we think we most need answers to.

Obviously (or maybe sometimes not), God’s intention in giving us the scriptures in the way he did was not to be deliberately vague. One reasoning I’ve read is that the text had to make sense to its original audience, which is true enough, and it certainly explains why we need to understand the original audience before we make judgments on the scripture, but I think it might be a little insulting to God’s intelligence to say that He couldn’t have given us a nice creed or something that would have been fully comprehensible to both the original audience, and anyone else who happened to encounter the text. A better explanation for why so much of the Bible is culture-specific is that belief cannot be divorced from culture.

Take hospitality toward strangers as an example. Scripture tells us both in the New and Old Testaments that we are to be as hospitable to strangers as possible, going out of our way to feed and house them, “for by doing this some have welcomed angels as guests without knowing it.” Nowhere in scripture does it mention that this might be a risky proposition, that your guests, being strangers , might mistreat you. In fact, the only times that the norm of hospitality to strangers is violated in scripture are when the **strangers** are terribly abused by the **natives**. So, in scripture we are told to be hospitable, and this is reinforced by the culture related to the scripture.

Compare that to modern western culture (at least in my part of the country): Children are told don’t talk to strangers. Drivers are warned not to pick up hitchhikers. Adults in their homes are warned by police not to open their doors even to help somebody who is being attacked in the street, let alone to show hospitality to a traveler. As a result, we have a booming hospitality industry. Angels can stay the night at the local holiday in, and treat themselves to a continental breakfast and complimentary hi-speed internet access. I understand completely that today (somehow unlike in ages past) there is a very real risk to opening up our homes to people we don’t know. We have valuable stuff that needs protecting. We have children who could be kidnapped or abused. There are whole black market industries built around terrorizing our potential hospitality. These things exist.

Nevertheless, how does out culture of protection affect our beliefs? How many people are there out there who actually believe that showing hospitality to strangers is the **right** thing to do.? Not many, because it’s not part of our culture. It’s human nature to fix our beliefs primarily according to our culture, not according to clear, concise doctrinal statements. Doctrinal statements can help us know what we should believe, and how we should live, but we *won’t* until we find a way of getting it into the culture. Doctrine, of course, is very important. It’s a distillation of what the scripture says into a clear understanding about what is right and what God wants. But just because I have a doctrine doesn’t mean I actually believe it, or that I’m living according to it.

So,* doctrine* is acquired theologically; values are conscribed *culturally*. The distance between doctrines and values is apologetics. Thanks to the popularity of folks like Josh McDowell, it’s easy to think that “apologetics” consists of attempting to prove that the bible is true and that God exists. That kind of debate is definitely within the boundaries of apologetics, but making a ready defense really consists of engaging and attempting to correct the thought-processes that are engrained in a culture, and which undermine the possibility of believing the Gospel. A less academic expression might be [“pulling down strong holds.”](http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2%20Corinthians%2010:4-5;&version=77;)

Even as a Christian, I find that the greater part of “working out my salvation” consists not of the hard work to stop sinning, but the process of recognising where my culture, all my lifestyle assumptions, don’t line up with the ramifications of the gospel. So much of what we believe as Christians is not what has been acquired from systematic study of the bible, but simply what has been passed on to us culturally, and in a Christian culture, we assume that what’s passed down to us is essentially Christian. My favorite example I got from my [mom](mingobird.blogspot.com): We had just moved to a new town and were visiting the local megachurch. The pastor (I think some time in the benediction) mentions that the bible says that if we “touch hands and agree” it will be done in His name. “Touch hands and agree” isn’t in the bible any more than “neither a borrower nor a lender be.” Afterwards, my mom pointed out, “the bible doesn’t say that; his grandmother said that.” Probably she did.

Honestly, it makes sense that changing my mind would be the greater part of changing my life. We get thrown off because the English word “repent” comes from a latin word meaning “to creep along the ground,” as in a big public act of penitence. But the Greek New Testament words *translated* “repent” are *meta noeo*, meaning to change one’s thoughts, and *meta melo*, to change one’s affections. Once those are changed, a change in action follows much more naturally. The trick is *getting at* those untoward thought-processes. To do so, you must have a rigorous theology, so that you will have an accurate mirror to hold up to the world and evaluate how they stand up to the true Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Which, hopefully, brings me back to my school. Part of the job of a school, in my opinion is to work in conjunction with Paul’s mandate in 2 Corinthians: “We demolish arguments 5 and every high-minded thing that is raised up against the knowledge of God, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” This is not simply a religious task. It is an intellectual task as well. I have seen politics, logic, economics, literary theory, and casual conversation all bleed into rising up agains the knowledge of God. These things cannot be separated. All knowledge is related, and the student’s job is not only to acquire raw data, but also to understand and evaluate worldviews, mindsets, and thought processes. Queens understands that, and they go through a great deal of effort to bring students to the *understanding* part, but when it comes to evaluation, they fail to hold these things up to the mirror of the Gospel. They have a different set of standards. The school is honed to perfection to produce students of “noble lives, productive careers and global citizenship,” but not necessarily Christians.

When I first started college, I didn’t realize I was opting into a lifestyle. I thought I was buying a product. I give them $60,000 (before scholarship), and they give me a piece of paper that says I’m a smart guy who knows a few things. I had learned that this piece of paper was absolutely essential to moving on to better things. Now I’m finding that a mere one-time exchange of cash is not enough. I need to be committed to my school’s survival, continually making donations and eventually recommending my own children to my alma mater. Unfortunately, I don’t feel that kind of loyalty. I’ve almost bought into Calvin’s idea that the entire church should rotate around its education, (Seminary – even part time – has had a powerful effect on me) but in the process, I’ve raised my standard for what a school should be. I have every intent to make that kind whole-hearted of contribution to the life of a school, but not to my alma mater.

4 thoughts on “Education, Doctrine, Culture, and Apologetics”

  1. I’m not sure where you’re getting your etymological information, but it’s wrong. The English ‘repent’ comes from the Latin ‘repento’, which means to turn around or turn back. The root ‘pento’ is simply the word for turning, and this is one of those cases where the result of adding the prefix is exactly what you’d expect given the meaning of the root and the prefix.

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  2. Sorry. I should have included a link in my definition. I got my etymology from [Dictionary.com](http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=repent). [Bartleby.com](http://www.bartleby.com/cgi-bin/texis/webinator/ahdsearch?search_type=enty&query=repent&db=ahd&Submit=Search) gives two definitions:

    1. to feel sorry, from the latin word re + pentir, pentir meaning pain, and
    2. as a usage in biology, creeping along the ground, from the latin repere, to creep.

    I had also always thought that repent had a connotation of physically turning around, but I can’t find a dictionary that supports it.

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  3. Latin class! Hey, I took a few years of Latin too. I’ll check my latin book for repento and see what it says there. Maybe that’s where it came from.

    Either way, though, my original point about *metaneo* and *repent* meaning different things seems to stand

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