How can we make sense of the world around us? Here are a couple of great videos looking at a biblical theology of culture by Christopher Watkin, an old friend of mine from university days, now a lecturer at Monash University, Australia.
On an academic level, Watkin specialises in contemporary French philosophy, while on a more popular level, he has been developing a whole suite of resources under the heading, Thinking Through the Bible, with the twin aims of ‘explaining the Bible to the culture’, and ‘explaining the culture through the Bible’.
The two videos below were posted on YouTube in November, having been prepared for a conference that ended up taking place online. It’s one of the strange benefits of the Covid-19 pandemic that they have ended up in a much more accessible format than might otherwise have been the case (and very professionally done too).
One of the recurring motifs of the videos is that a biblical understanding of culture cuts across – or ‘diagonalizes’ – the polarities of contemporary culture (see video 1, 19:20). In other words, when our culture says it has to be either A or B, but not both, the Bible is frequently able to hold both A and B together.
Here are some of the key points, following the familiar sequence of creation, fall and redemption, with the videos included below:
Ultimate reality is personal (10:50). This gives dignity to the human person. It also ‘breaks apart the fact-value dichotomy that besets modern ethics, and that has driven the sciences and the arts ever further apart’ (14:30).
Ultimate reality is absolute (15:20). The biblical concept of God is unique in combining absoluteness with personality. This cuts across the polarity between law and freedom, giving a foundation both for the sciences and for the arts.
Ultimate reality is Trinity (19:50), in other words, Ultimate reality is love (21:00). This means that relationship is part of the fabric of the universe, which cuts across individualism and collectivism. Love and peace, not power and violence, are at the heart of the universe.
Sin and judgment (23:20). Creation is not the end of the story. But creation and fall are different. This provides the basis for …
Multi-lensed anthropology (26:15). Conventional anthropology is single-lensed, and has no way to assert that the way things are now is not the way they ought to be. So the only way to challenge the status quo is by force. In contrast, a biblical view asserts that we are created to be better than we are.
Utopianism and pessimism (28:40). Utopianism can lead to violent activism, while pessimism can lead to a quiet passivism. Utopianism seeks to explain away evil as an illusion, while pessimism seeks to explain away good as an illusion. The biblical account, in contrast, can affirm the existence of both good and evil. However, …
The asymmetry of good and evil (32:10). Evil is not original. This has four implications:
- Asymmetry and identity (34:15). Our sin cannot define us.
- Asymmetry and cultural critique (35:10). Neither simple affirmation or simple condemnation. We cannot find the ultimate reference-point for good and evil in this world.
- Asymmetry and politics (37:30). Violence is not the ultimate truth. A radical critique of the political order is possible.
- Asymmetry and culture-making (39:20). Christian art should place more weight on good than on evil.
Redemption: Incarnation (3:55)
Incarnation and culture (6:40). The incarnation cuts across the cultural dichotomy between an ideology of power and universality, and an ideology of compassion and uniqueness. Think Brexit: ‘Remainers’ value universality, whereas ‘Brexiteers’ value locality. The ‘scandal of the incarnation’ has three elements:
- The scandal of the personal (11:20). Modernity asserts that ultimate reality must be universal, but in the incarnation the universal has become personal.
- The scandal of the historical (13:30). Modernity asserts that ultimate reality must be ahistorical, but God has entered time in the incarnation. History is going somewhere, which provides the basis for the modern Western idea of progress.
- The scandal of the material (15:40). Modernity asserts that ultimate reality must be abstract, but Christ came in a physical body. This cuts across the dichotomy between reductive materialism (which knows nothing of the spiritual) and reductive spiritualism (which has lost any mooring in history or in the material). This also dignifies the human body.
Incarnation and sustainability (19:55). ‘We care for the world, in part, because God himself walked on it.’
Redemption: The Cross and Resurrection (20:25)
The cross involves a swap (substitution): Jesus receives what his followers deserve, so that they can receive what he deserves.
The grace narrative (23:05). Our culture has an ‘n-shaped dynamic’: we perform, and God rewards us. Performance leads to reward. But the Bible has a ‘u-shaped dynamic’: God shows grace, even though we don’t deserve it, and we are grateful. Grace leads to gratitude.
Grace, violence and social cohesion (28:00). Tim Keller points out that all people draw lines between the ‘in group’ and the ‘out group’. But the performance narrative leads you to look down on members of the ‘out group’, which leads to social fracture. In contrast, the grace narrative prevents those in the ‘in group’ from looking down on those in the ‘out group’, because those who live under grace know that they are no better than anyone else. This leads to social cohesion, and propels Christians to be agents of reconciliation in the world.
The cross subverts the logic of vengeance (36:55). Our culture sets before us the choice between victory through power, and defeat through weakness. But the cross provides us with a paradigm of victory through weakness and a refusal to retaliate. A Christian activist will refuse both the ethic of brute power, and the passivism of inaction.
Here are the videos …