Influences on Discipleship (3 of 6)

Whether we are reading a story in the paper, watching a television show or movie, listening to a radio program, or simply having a conversation with someone on the street, we are having a theological conversation that can shape and form the way we view the world. We also have the opportunity to gain insight about how those with whom we will be interacting understand God and his place in the world.

As believers, we can’t avoid false narratives or the institutions, organizations, and cultures that advance them.  We cannot isolate ourselves from the world if we are to be lights within it.  Rather, we need to recognize that they can and do influence the way we understand God.  We need to ensure that our view of God is as faithful to the Scriptures as possible. At the same time, we have a responsibility to engage those with different theological narratives and to correct their perceptions of God. 

To correct those narratives and to avoid being subject to them, we have to understand how they are influencing us.  We need to recognize that even institutions God has established (like the state), seemingly mundane transactions (as in the buying and selling of various goods), and the deep assumptions we hold as a society (as expressed through culture) can hinder our walk with the Lord.  

Statecraft as Soulcraft

Men and women are biological facts.  Ladies and gentlemen—citizens—are social artifacts, works of political art.  They carry the culture that is sustained by wise laws and traditions of civility. At the end of the day we are right to judge society by the character of the people it produces.  That is why statecraft is, inevitably, soulcraft.

George Will, The Pursuit of Happiness and Other Sobering Thoughts

Will conveys clearly one of the effects of the state: the creation of citizens.  In a sense, we can celebrate this role of the state because sustaining order and retraining evil are part and parcel of God’s appointed representatives in the political realm.  As such, the state should be shaping citizens who exhibit a respect for God-given authority wielded by the state.  That is all well and good.

The problem comes in when we move from “well and good” to “end all, be all.”  In other words, if and/or when the state becomes the mechanism by which the world is made right, we lose sight of the fact that the political realm’s scope is not restoration, but restraint and maintenance.  Our political leaders are to align with God’s pre-established order.  Within the complexities of governance, such alignment is likely to be partial rather than complete. 

As such, our conformity to political systems and leaders is nested within our primary identity as disciples of Jesus Christ.  God is sovereign.  Christ is king.  We interact with governing powers in an appropriate manner because we are loyal to Christ.  Our formation as citizens, then, is not necessarily pernicious, but can become so if and when our citizenship begins to eclipse our Christian identity.

Formed by the Market

To more effectively woo consumers, manufacturers shifted their emphasis from function to style.  Suddenly consumers could by Turkish towels in colors other than white; even toilets came in alluring new shades.  Automakers began painting cars different colors; in 1927 General Motors began making annual changes in body styles, a practice that came to be known as ‘planned obsolescence.’ The stated mission fo GM’s research division was ‘the organized creation of dissatisfaction.

Erik Larson, Naked Consumer: How Our Private Lives Became Public Commodities

Larson highlights the challenge of living within a system where “planned obsolescence” and “the organized creation of dissatisfaction” become normal, accepted strategies.  While much of what we have heard in the news about social media’s potential to manipulate our behaviors is true and worthy of our attention, it isn’t as novel as people may think.  Those who seek to “sell” us have often resorted to tactics that cause us to question the benevolence, sufficiency, and wisdom of God.  After all, why would God give me a white toilet when light blue clearly matches my towels better?!?  

Consumerism seeks to enhance our already misdirected desires.  We already want more.  Most, if not all of us, struggle with gratitude, contentment, and greed.  Those who want us to buy their products have simply adapted to our existing predispositions.  They play into the idea that what we need is “more.”  

Our propensity to want more, however, can become a distraction because we begin to pursue material positions rather than pursuing Christ.  Larson’s comments highlight how some seek to make us disciples of our own desires seeking not to sit at the feet of Jesus, but for the next product or service that will bring us fulfillment.  

Cultural Formation

Blind faith in illusions is our culture’s secular version of being born again.  These illusions assure us that happiness and success is our birthright.  They tell us that our catastrophic collapse is not permanent.  They promise that pain and suffering can always be overcome by tapping into our hidden, inner strengths.  They encourage us to bow down before the cult of the self…The culture of illusion, one of happy thoughts, manipulated emotions, and trust in the beneficence of power, means we sing along with the chorus or are instantly disappeared from view like the losers on a reality show.

Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle

We do not exist in isolation.  We are part of families, social networks, organizations, and nations.  The groups of which we are a part understand and operate in the world in particular ways.  To the extent that we desire to be part of those groups, we adapt our behaviors to the rules of the group.  We adopt some of the group’s ideas and practices.  

What Hodges describes as the “culture of illusion” 

As Christians, we are to immerse ourselves in the scriptures and in the life of the church so that we learn to resist the ideas and practices that might hinder us from becoming faithful disciples.  Being and making disciples for Jesus does not require the rejection of culture, but it does require that we dismiss the illusions that obscure reality.

Identifying Influence

While there are a number of ways to develop as a disciple, the questions we ask play a crucial role in helping us navigate the world faithfully.  Despite my background in theological education, theological research, and Christian ministry, navigating the world’s complexities theologically isn’t easy or automatic. It still requires a set of strategies that keep me from defaulting to behaviors that are less Christian than they are cultural.  In other words, it is easier to be a “nice guy” than it is to be a theologian in my daily life.

Learning to ask questions differently has proven to be a helpful strategy to get me thinking about what I’m doing (or not doing) in theological terms. In this respect, I have come to appreciate John Vervaeke’s work on different ways of knowing. Using these ways of knowing to evaluate different situations, perspectives, and written work has been quite helpful.  

Avoiding influence that would hinder my walk with Christ and being transformed through the renewing of my mind (cf. Rom 12:2) requires, among other things, a strong understanding of God’s word and the broad story of the scriptures, an understanding of our context, and a keen self-awareness.  The Four Quadrant Approach is intended to help cultivate a deeper understanding of our own way of thinking, as well as offering a framework for understanding the thoughts of others.  

As we identify hindering influences, we can devise ways to deal with specific problems. However, if we are not diligent about discipleship, we will likely find it difficult to determine what to do in any given moment.  The best way to learn to navigate the world is to be prepared and supported by (1) participating in a local congregation, (2) studying the word, and (3) engaging in practices that remind us that our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20).

JAMES SPENCER, PHD is President the D.L. Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization based in Northfield, MA, and author of Useful to God: Eight Lessons from the Life of D. L. Moody and Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind