/ church and culture / Rut Etheridge III

How "Back in My Day . . ." Harms Our Witness in ". . . Such a Time as This."

There’s a lot to be upset about in our day and age, and with our culture. And now that political season is ramping up, there are votes to be gained and even more money to be made by generating needless anger and weaponizing legitimate grief. It is an especially crucial time for those who name the name of Christ to live, act, and bear public witness in a manner worthy of his gospel.  

Addressing cultural woes in a godly way is as difficult as it is necessary. It’s powerfully tempting to become lazy and self-righteous in the process – refusing to thoroughly study situations we’re upset about, decrying nuance as code for compromise, or fancying ourselves above the fray so as to criticize all the people we think aren’t nuanced enough in their commentaries. Even when we think we’re being humble and compassionate toward people or groups that upset us, our disclaimer “There but for the grace of God go I …” can really mean “Thank you, Lord, that you have not made me like other men…” (Luke 18:11).  Especially for us increasingly aged folks who’ve lived a materialistically and socially privileged life, some of our studies, sermons, and certainly our social media posts – composed ostensibly in zeal for holiness - amount to little more than screaming “Get off my lawn!” at those we blame for stealing the moral peace, societal power, and material prosperity we believe we once had.

When we pine for what we consider to be the relatively cut and dry, clear-thinking days in which we grew up, or for certain holiness-minded epochs of church history we read about, we might be revealing that our evaluation of the present is less Scripturally studied than we think, and that our understanding of the past suffers the same lack of Scriptural perspective. Church historian Carl Trueman writes “. . . it is truly very hard for any competent historian to be nostalgic.”[1]

The Reformed orthodox dogmatician and cultural analyst Herman Bavinck (1854 - 1921) warned against repristination, the retrospective glamorizing of the past coupled with the effort to recreate those conditions in the present. He considered that effort to be not only unbiblical, but essentially un-Reformed. Surveying dire spiritual conditions in his own day in view of the confessional, Reformed heritage of his people, Bavinck encouraged his contemporaries,

To the alarming fact that unbelief is increasing on all hands, the Reformed do not close their eyes. They do not wish to repristinate, and have no desire for the old conditions to return . . . As children of their time they do not scorn the good things which God in this age has also given them; forgetting the things that are behind, they stretch forward to the things that are before. They strive to make progress, to escape from the deadly embrace of dead conservatism . . .”[2]

Ironically, Bavinck himself, in this same speech, might have painted the Calvinistic past of his beloved Netherlands with too rosy a hue. That such a capable student of Scripture, philosophy, and history can unduly polish up the past reminds us that none of us, no matter how well-learned on the complexities of cultures past, is immune to perspective-altering biases and preferences as we evaluate days gone by. Revisionist history is all the more tempting when we very rightly love and miss people, places, and events that have blessed our former years. We need to be ever mindful that an unbalanced view of the past reveals a faulty scale of evaluation at work in the present (Proverbs 11:1).       

None of this is to say we should turn a blind eye to the beauties of the past or to deny that ethical conditions can indeed worsen over time. It’s only to say that when we’re waxing nostalgic as we lament present conditions, we’re often overlooking a whole lot of sinfulness that characterized whatever past we’re pining for. Indeed, a significant amount of the sinfulness we observe today results from the fact that in the recent and distant past, so much sin was ignored, rationalized, covered up or flat out denied to be sinful. God will not be mocked (Galatians 6:7); there is always a reckoning to be had for sin, and it would be utterly foolish to think that the hot mess of our present day has not been simmering beneath the surface for some time.

For example, praise God for those who’ve stepped forward in our day to call out abuse and abusers. So many in the recent and distant past stayed silent, not for lack of courage, but because they were led by trusted voices in the pulpit and coerced by peer pressure in the pews to think that the sinful way they were being treated was simply the way things were supposed to be, or that it was the duty of good Christians to keep quiet about the ungodly, dehumanizing words and deeds to which they were subjected. That our culture is palpably more willing to sound the alarm and call sin for what it is – the “secular” world sometimes having to shame the church into doing so – is, to use Bavinck’s phrase, surely one of the “good things” with which God has blessed us all in our time.    

There is an absolute imperative for Christians to call out and take action against the evil in our day, beginning, as our Lord commands, with the evil in our own hearts (Ephesians 5:11, Matthew 7:3-5). As we reckon with and repent over the personal and corporate sin we’ve covered up, ignored, and rationalized, we’ll understand more accurately the sinful realities of our present day. We’ll spy out sin’s more subtle forms lurking behind the scenes in the church; we’ll be spiritually sobered up to see and to flee the ungodly leaders and organizations that conservative Christians look to as allies in times of cultural crisis (Matthew 7:15; 2 Timothy 3:1-5, 1 Peter 5:8). And we’ll appreciate more fully why Scriptural recitations of the past often rebuke bygone eras, and never repristinate them (Psalm 78).  

There’s certainly place for fond memories of particular parts of the past, and we must remember and praise the Lord for bountiful blessings given and enjoyed in days gone by. At the same time, applied Scriptural wisdom keeps our memory from twisting the truth; it leads our hearts away from naïve nostalgia and the repristination which always damage the Christian integrity of our witness in the present.   

Lastly, if our hearts really are broken by the evils of our day, and if our hearts really are open to those who do not know the Lord and who popularly promote ungodliness, we have to realize that simply yelling at people and political organizations does not actually promote righteousness (James 1:20). Painting glossed pictures of the past and publishing lazy analysis of the present drives us all away from the revealed wisdom that the Lord of eternity has for us “in such a time as this” (Esther 4:14, Psalm 119:97, John 7:24). It is the beautiful, searing light of God’s holy law that will bring clarity and conviction, to us and to others. Lovingly, uncompromisingly spoken in language conversant with the times, that light shows the way to the life-giving grace of the Lord Jesus, the only Savior of people, cultures, and nations.

Instead of demanding that people get off our lawn, let’s invite them instead to the risen Lord who shepherds us to green pastures.  

[1] Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), p.30

[2] Herman Bavinck, “The Future of Calvinism,” The Presbyterian and Reformed Review, 1894, p. 13.

Rut Etheridge III

Rut Etheridge III

Husband to Evelyn; father to Isaiah, Callie, Calvin, Josiah, Sylvia. Pastor and Bible Prof. Loves the risen Christ, family, writing, the ocean, martial arts, Boston sports, coffee, and more coffee.

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