In our first article, we laid the groundwork for a Biblical understanding of culture. In the second article, we introduced the concept of the religious nature of culture – arguing that culture is composed of liturgies (practices), stories (doctrine) and groups (community). In this article, we will take a closer look at the stories our culture tells.
Stories that give meaning
“Culture is the stories we tell that express meaning about the world.” (Daniel Strange, Plugged In, p. 23)
In Christianity, we have “Doctrine” – what the church teaches and believes is true as deduced from the Word of God. Secular culture also has its “doctrines”. It teaches and disciples its adherents in these cardinal truths and even exercises “church discipline” for those who go outside the bounds of its orthodoxy.
The culture, in effect, is preaching its own “Gospel” – its own way to salvation – fully equipped with its own doctrine and story of creation, fall, redemption and consummation.
This story is what some call a “worldview”. These stories or worldviews answer four main questions:
- What were we made for? (Creation)
- What went wrong? (Fall)
- What can solve it? (Redemption)
- What’s the hope of “the good life”? (Consummation)
We only have time to take a look at one of these popular competing ‘gospels’ in our culture, but there are many more we could use this framework to analyze.
I. Dangerous Stories | Another ‘gospel’
In 2019, British doctor, David Mackereth lost his job because he refused to use preferred pronouns for his transgender patients because of his Christian beliefs. He took his employer to court and lost. What is most revealing about this particular case is what the tribunal stated in regards to Dr. Mackereth’s case. The tribunal stated:
“Belief in Genesis 1:27, lack of belief in transgenderism and conscientious objection to transgenderism in our judgment are incompatible with human dignity and conflict with the fundamental rights of others, specifically here, transgender individuals.”
This is not just a case somewhere across the Atlantic. Today in Canada, Bill C-6 is being legislated to criminalize what it calls ‘conversion therapy’. Bill C-6, if passed, would criminalize our Biblical ethic of sexuality with jail time and fines. The Bill explicitly states:
“The Bill would discourage and denounce harmful practices and treatments that are based on myths and stereotypes about LGBTQ2 people. These include myths and stereotypes that the sexual orientation or gender identity of LGBTQ2 people are undesirable and temporary conditions that can and should be changed.”
Notice how any opposing view of sexuality other than the currently accepted LGBTQ2 narrative is called a “myth”. These secular stories are not just other competing narratives – they actually are starting to become more antagonistic to the Christian story. The Biblical story is now a “myth”, even something harmful and dangerous. What is the alternative “truth” that the LBGTQ narrative offers to counteract this myth?
The alternative story that the transgender narrative offers is an alternative Gospel. It has a doctrine of our origins (Creation) usually derived from materialistic naturalism – that we evolved from the chaos of an unguided process, yet also embraces a gnostic version of the soul – that who we authentically are, our true self, exists within and apart from our physical body. It has a doctrine of fallenness – what went wrong? What’s wrong is that some people are born with bodies that do not correspond to their authentic self. This is possible because we’re just a product of unguided processes not loving design – so there is no inherent purpose or correspondence with our physical and psychological self. Thus someone can be a man trapped in a woman’s body, or any other configuration of gender disconnects. There is also a doctrine of redemption and “the good life” – what will make us right? Through gender transitions, hormone therapy, surgeries, etc. – a person can become in line with their authentic self and live happily ever after. Or so the story goes.
Stephen McAlpine notes:
“What is arriving is the hope of a new world that is all glitter and rainbows: a good-news story! Online articles, news stories, movies: these all showcase people who, once lost and confused or struggling with identity because of societally imposed standards, have now been freed by being true to who they feel themselves to be. The former Bruce Jenner, an Olympic champion decathlete and epitome of masculinity, is unveiled to the world as Caitlyn, an example of how we can soar above our pain and hurt and become someone new-and all of our own making. We are being offered a rival gospel: a narrative that seeks first to expose the Christian gospel as bad news, and then to replace it with much-needed good news.” (Stephen McAlpine, Being the Bad Guys: How to Live for Jesus in a World That Says You Shouldn’t, p. 18)
Dangers of a false ‘gospel’
However, this alternative ‘gospel’ does not give true hope. Seldom is anything told about the long-term health effects of such treatments and irreversible damage such as infertility, inhibiting proper bone growth and permanent side effects that would make de-transitioning impossible if they were to change their minds later. In one study, over 80% of teens who originally reported same-sex attraction and sexual activity reported exclusively heterosexual attraction and sexual activity within 6 years. (See Diamond and Rosky, “Scrutinizing Immutability”)
A study done in Sweden (a country where the culture is strongly supportive of the transgendered) on long-term follow-up of people who had undergone sex reassignment surgery found that overall mortality was significantly higher – the suicide rate among those who had undergone sex-reassignment rose twenty times that of their comparable peers. The study concluded that “sex reassignment, although alleviating gender dysphoria, may not suffice as treatment for transsexualism”. The American Heart Association has linked terrible health implications to those who undergo hormone therapy. A Dutch study noted doubled the average stroke risk, doubled risk of heart attack in men and triple the risk in women.
Additionally, our secularizing culture is not just putting this other ‘gospel’ out there, but also actively trying to suppress and silence the truth – all in the name of their version of love and acceptance. Just recently, Ryan T. Anderson, Senior Research Fellow in American Principles and Public Policy, who researches and writes about marriage, bioethics, religious liberty and political philosophy has written about his concerns with sex-reassignment and transgenderism – and for this, his books have been banned by Amazon.
A hospital for the hurting
These ‘other gospels’, while promising fulfillment and life, actually deliver disillusionment and death. If we don’t worship the True God and honour Him – seeing that our sexuality and gender identity are good gifts He gave to us, then we’ll worship ourselves.
“When we take the place of God, we do not emulate the Christian God who cares for his creation, is providentially involved in its every facet, and became incarnate for its redemption… But in our role as gods, we are not righteous at all, demanding that reality serve and obey us but doing nothing that brings salvation. Our very attempts to exalt ourselves to the point of taking God’s place disclose how sinful and small we are, as the god we turn ourselves into is pathetic, tyrannical, unloving, and unworthy of worship.” (Gene Edward Veith Jr., Post-Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture, p. 75-76)
This other ‘gospel’ has been spread amazingly effectively through college campuses and our media and entertainment – discipling our younger generation. From some polls, it is estimated that one out of every six young people in iGen identify as LBGTQ. That is a staggering increase from previous generations. The rapid growth in kids and teens undergoing hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgeries will undoubtedly lead to many who find themselves irreparably damaged in a culture without the tools to provide true hope of restoration. This should make us as Christians concerned and compassionate to those who struggle with issues of sexual identity.
The false gospel of the sexual revolution will eventually collapse on itself (as will all unbiblical ideologies). However, the question is how many will be damaged by the sexual revolution’s ideology before it collapses totally? More importantly, will the church be seen as a hospital for the hurting to those who have been left damaged and disappointed by this other ‘gospel’?
We live in a time of strange paradox:
“…our culture has rarely been more hostile towards the gospel, but at the same time it has rarely been more open either… Our time would be better spent preparing for what I believe will be a tsunami of the broken and wounded who wash up on our shores.” (Stephen McAlpine, Being the Bad Guys: How to Live for Jesus in a World That Says You Shouldn’t, 74-75)
II. Distorted Stories | algorithms & agendas
In addition to the dangerous stories our culture tells, it also distorts stories.
We live in an information age – or perhaps, these days, more appropriately called a mis-information age. We live in the age of fake news, manipulated social media algorithms, and also those who unwittingly share misinformation. Additionally, the fact is that a handful of companies control the majority of the world’s access to information. The majority of our digital information is provided by Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft. As we saw earlier, nothing in our culture is ever neutral. Our access to information is also determined by their algorithms and policies which are affected by their agendas or worldviews – after all, at some point a human has to program the machines.
Examples of How Big Tech’s Agendas Shape our Culture’s Stories
YouTube (owned by Google) recently permanently took down LifeSite News Channel and every single one of their videos. LifeSite News had over 314,000 subscribers and is a non-profit internet service dedicated to issues of culture, pro-life and family from a conservative perspective based in Toronto. LifeSite reported that their ban from YouTube was from strikes against their account because of videos by a nun, a medical doctor and a bishop and finally for comments by a vaccine expert which YouTube determined was violating their misinformation policy around COVID-19. Facebook, which has over 2.3 billion users, has likewise instituted similar policies around issues which ban any speech contradicting what they have deemed acceptable on such topics.
Twitter has flagged Focus on the Family for what they labelled as ‘hate’ speech in telling the truth about biology, purged massive amounts of followers from conservative accounts like PragerU, banned ads from Pro-Life groups like LiveAction, and even banned former US president, Donald Trump. Amazon has been known to censor books which they consider against their own ideology and when they were looking to establish their second headquarters judged potential cities by their LBGTQ policies – compelling many cities to fall over themselves to attract such a boost to their economies. Amazon also owns some of the largest server farms for hosting web services and have removed competing social media platforms like Parler and Gab from their servers. Now, whether or not you agree with these big tech company reasons for labelling some content as misleading or their right to do what they want with their private businesses, it does illustrate the immense power these companies wield to direct public thought by controlling what access to truth we have and even over cities and governments due to their economic impact.
This is simply to point out that these big tech platforms are not operating neutrally and will censor and curate things on their platforms according to their worldviews. In addition to the effect of their algorithms which are designed to keep users addicted by showing more content that they will likely engage with – this has the effect of magnifying biases and creating an echo chamber of ideas. Not only is bias introduced on the end of the providers of these services, but also on the consumer end – because humans use these services. And so, people can manipulate and extort the algorithms behind these services for nefarious purposes. The YouTube Channel, Smarter Every Day, did an interesting series of videos exploring social media manipulation – one of which you can see below.
Social Media and the Internet are not the only sources of distorted stories in our culture. News is also affected in its objectivity. In Canada right now, news agencies like CBC and CTV receive massive funding and support from the Liberal government (Over $1.2 Billion tax dollars and almost $600 million in tax cuts). Furthermore, our news cycle is so fast now that it multiplies the urge to need to respond immediately to every breaking story and injustice right at this moment. The majority of people don’t read their news anymore, we watch it. Images rather than texts tend to invoke more of an emotional and visceral response than a logical response. And, as we’ve seen, this can lead to a lot of poor decisions and not a whole lot of progress.
In our day, we must realize that you’re not just watching news – you’re watching a narrative being weaved using facts. This is true on both sides of the political spectrum. Liberal news sources like CNN, MSNBC, CBC, CTV, CP24, and conservative media such as Fox News, the Epoch Times, Rebel News, True North, The Post Millennial and Toronto Sun all have their own implicit biases. There simply is no such thing as an uninterpreted fact. Every news agency is making decisions on what to show and how to show it. Every fact must be placed within a larger story for it to have meaning to us and depending on who’s telling the story and what their underlying commitments are will determine what the narrative is. It seems like in this information age, we’ve gained lots of information but might have lost truth in all the clutter. Zeynep Tufekci notes this in an article in Politico:
“…the glut of information we now face, made possible by digital tools and social media platforms, can bury what is true, greatly elevate and amplify misinformation and distract from what is important… As a result, open and participatory speech has turned into its opposite. Important voices are silenced by mobs of trolls using open platforms to hurl abuse and threats. Bogus news shared from one friend or follower to the next becomes received wisdom. Crucial pieces of information drown in so much irrelevance that they are lost. If books were burned in the street, we would be alarmed. Now, we are simply exhausted.” (Zeynep Tufekci, “An Avalanche of Speech Can Bury Democracy,” Politico, Sept 2018.)
How the Stories of a Culture Affect Gospel Receptivity
Why is all of this important to us as Christians?
The stories that a culture tells inevitably affects what people in that culture will be willing to believe. It creates what is called a “plausibility structure.” James Sire explains,
“A plausibility structure is a web of beliefs that are so embedded in the hearts and minds of the bulk of a society that people hold them either unconsciously or so firmly that they never think to ask if they are true… One of the main functions of a plausibility structure is to provide the background of beliefs that makes arguments easy or hard to accept.” (James Sire, Naming the Elephant, p. 112)
Thus, these shifts in the stories of our culture also represent a challenge to Gospel proclamation to the people around us. Christianity isn’t just one of the options out there on the religious menu, it is increasingly not even in the restaurant! And seen as irrelevant and ridiculous. Not only that, the mass of information available can make people feel lost and hopeless in ever finding any objective truth.
“The good news of Jesus Christ is deeply implausible in our culture at the moment. It’s not that most people have spent endless hours studying Christianity and then decided that it’s not for them. It’s not that they’ve necessarily had a bad experience of Christians in the past which has turned them off (although some have). Rather, it’s that the cultural air they’ve breathed in all their lives has shaped them to assume that Christianity is irrelevant, untrue and intolerant. And that’s why we often hit a brick wall in our evangelistic efforts, and are left scratching our heads as to how we can ever get past first base with people. Our culture is such that Jesus is so far down people’s agenda that he’s not even an option to consider, much less one to accept.” (Daniel Strange, Plugged In: Connecting your faith with what you watch, read, and play, p. 32)
What Can We Do?
Brett McCracken makes the observation that our social algorithms are today’s Lady Folly. Lady Folly in Proverbs is the personified as “the forbidden woman” who speaks “smooth words” (Prov. 2:16–17) whose lips “drip honey” (Prov. 5:3), she is “loud,” “seductive,” and “sits at the door of her house,” “calling to those who pass by” (Prov. 9:13–15). McCracken notes that:
“A. W. Tozer describes lady folly as “moral folly personified” who “works by the power of suggestion.” In today’s world, we see “lady folly” at work through the “watch this next!” algorithms that lure us into constant distraction by putting “suggestions” into our minds.” (Brett McCracken, “Social Algorithms are Today’s ‘Lady Folly’”)
McCracken comments that “Just as the devil is a smart deceiver, tailoring his temptations to our particular weak spots and sinful proclivities, so too are algorithms.” And so, we have in our digital age the new incarnation of Lady Folly – and many are lured to her doorstep as we wander aimlessly on social media – pulling the slot machine lever for her to offer her curated wares to tickle our fancies and lead us to destruction.
I. Wisdom in a Distracted Digital Age
What’s the solution that McCracken offers? Firstly, simply to go online with purpose. He advises us:
“The antidote to dangerous distractibility in the digital age is purpose, focus, and intention. Proverbs 4:25 says, “Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you.” This is wisdom in contrast to the unwise woman of folly, who “does not ponder the path of life; her ways wander, and she does not know it” (Prov. 5:6).”
When you go online – ask yourself what is your specific goal? Instead of being distracted, be purposeful and intentional.
Secondly, we need to remember the effect of these social algorithms and biases in the media. This will cause Christians to think soberly before reacting. You don’t need to respond immediately and have an opinion on everything. Do research and check the facts and context out yourself.
In the Bible, the standard of justice for any case was to have at least two or three independent lines of witnesses to safeguard from false testimony and bias (see Deut. 17:6 & 19:15; Num. 35:30; Matt. 18:16; 2 Cor. 13:1; John 8:17; Heb. 10:28; 1 Tim. 5:19). So, Christians who want to stay updated and balanced on current issues will have to check independent sources from various political spectrums. In this world of fake news, manipulated algorithms and outrage culture, Christians would do well to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to get angry (James 1:19).
II. Connecting the Gospel’s Story to Culture
All of these dangerous or distorted stories our culture tells express the longing inside each of us…
“Another reason that the truth keeps bursting through is that we are made in God’s image, and so we speak and make only as creatures. We can’t even make stories out of nothing! That’s why throughout history there seem to be perennial questions, themes and plots that storytellers are attracted to time and time again-the search for love, riches to rags and rags to riches, heroic self-sacrifice, the quest for home. One theologian calls them “magnetic points”-primal questions to which we are irresistibly attracted. All these stories are mere echoes of the gospel story.” (Daniel Strange, Plugged In, p. 69)
Telling a better story
Daniel Strange continues:
“Are we always consuming culture and never creating it? Why aren’t we telling better stories with all the same realism, imagination, subtlety, complexity and beauty, but without those aspects which make it difficult and unhelpful for us? Why aren’t we strategically locating, discipling, resourcing and sending out Christians gifted in the arts and the media?” (Daniel Strange, Plugged In, p. 88)
The challenge for us as Christians is to act in the right play. Know the right script and don’t dramatize the wrong story. We counteract these false gospels – such as materialism – by letting our lives reflect the true gospel that calls us to costly self-sacrifice in the now for lavish returns in the future Kingdom with Christ. Or, as Paul puts it: “live in a manner worthy of the Gospel” (see Philippians 1:27).
We need more Christians to take up the mantle of not just consuming the culture’s stories, but also challenging it with the true story of the Gospel through music, arts, literature, movies, business, teaching, parenting, dance, acting, selling cars, and much more. Why not raise up and encourage young people to aspire to be the best at their crafts and professions – to climb the corporate ladder, or become a film director, principle of a school, or professor or hold political office so that they can live for the benefit of the city – because in its welfare you will find yours too?
All of this is part of how we love God and love our neighbors practically. We cannot be silent and love our neighbours if the culture is shouting its dangerous stories. All of this is part of the mission. We need to expand how we think about the mission of God in our lives and see that there is no part of your life that is not ‘on duty’ for Christ – after all, no soldier gets entangled with civilian affairs but seeks to please the one who has enlisted him! (2 Timothy 2:4)
The Gospel message of the Cross will both CONFRONT and CONNECT with our culture at various points. It will take Christians who take God’s Word seriously and have applied themselves to knowing thoroughly the story of redemption – being fluent in the Gospel – to be able to speak as prophetic voices to our culture. This is why we cannot neglect a love of doctrine and theology – not for the sake of itself, but for the sake of loving God and loving others and witnessing to the truth. You cannot confront and connect with which you do not know.
Acts 17 | What does this look like?
We see Paul model this for us in Acts 17 as he enters Athens and “his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols” (v16). Daniel Strange lays out a helpful model for us in his book:
- ENTER – Step in and listen to the story. “I passed along and observed the objects of your worship” (v23)
- EXPLORE – Search for elements of grace and the idols attached to them. “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious… I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’” (v.22-23)
- What story does _________ tell?
- How does ____________ fit into our story?
- How does ____________ shape our story?
- EXPOSE – Show up the idols as destructive frauds. “Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.” (v29)
- “To point out the religiousness of our idolatry means pointing out things like veganism, yoga, soul-cycle, and a thousand other diet/exercise/financial freedom/beautification methods/sexual identities/etc., that carry with them the promise of ultimate freedom and satisfaction if lived out fully. Utopia awaits not just the individual, but society itself if we cared enough about animal welfare/social equality/fitness, and so on. These goals are unattainable, and if our lives become oriented around them, they’ll crush us.” (Mike Cosper, Redemptive Participation: A “How-To” Guide for Pastors in Culture, p. 32)
- EVANGELIZE – Show how the Gospel is the fulfillment they were really looking for. We direct them to the correct target to aim their desires toward. “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (v23)
To be effective disruptive witnesses in and to our culture, we must enter, explore, expose and evangelize our culture.
Two great books seek to help us do just this are: The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long For and Echo the Truth by Mike Cosper and Plugged In: Connecting Your Faith with What Your Watch, Read and Play by Daniel Strange
Questions for reflection
- What are some ways you’ve observed that the stories our cultures tell make it more difficult for people to receive the Gospel?
- How have you ever caught yourself being influenced by the distorted stories our culture tells due to algorithms, agendas or biases?
- What are some fruitful ways you’ve found to connect the Gospel’s true story to the longings that our culture’s stories express?
In our next article, we will consider the groups that define us – these are our culture’s communities. I hope that you’ve enjoyed this series so far. Please consider sharing this article and subscribing to our newsletter.
Articles in this series:
- Series Introduction
- The Religious Nature of Culture | Liturgies
- Our Culture’s Doctrine | Stories that Give Meaning
- Our Culture’s Communities | Groups that Define Us
- Culture & the Christian | Our Response to Culture