unfashionable is in

Given the cover story of last week’s Newsweek, “The Decline and Fall of Christian America,” we Americans who believe in Jesus can expect to fall increasingly out of step with our culture.  Life was somewhat different in the 1950’s, when “under God” was added to the pledge of allegiance and “in God we trust” was put on our money.  Then an evangelist like Billy Graham could rise to prominence by preaching the simple gospel of repentance and faith in Christ.  Christianity was popular, and so was he.

Times have changed.  Newsweek trumpets the advent of post-Christian America and Billy Graham’s grandson, Tullian Tchividjian, has just published unfashionable: making a difference in the world by being different (Multnomah).  Just as Billy represented the acceptance of evangelicals into the American mainstream (every president between Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush claimed to be born again), so Tullian represents a younger generation who refuse to bow the knee to Baal (I’m thinking of young pastors like Driscoll, DeYoung, Bartels, and the Grand Ledge guys).  

Tullian’s main point is that “Christians make a difference in this world by being different from this world; they don’t make a difference by being the same” (9).  He elaborates:  “There’s an irrelevance to pursuing relevance, just as there’s a relevance to practicing irrelevance.  To be truly relevant, you have to say things that are unfashionably eternal, not trendy” (17).

And despite the obvious difference between Christian and post-Christian America, Tullian convincingly argues that his thesis was true even in his grandfather’s day.  He recounts the advice that a Hollywood actor gave his grandfather in the 1950’s:  “Billy, don’t ever try to compete with Hollywood, because Hollywood will always do it better than you.  You give the world the one thing Hollywood can’t—the straightforward, timeless truth of the gospel” (23). 

Here is what I like about this book:

1. I like that it was written.  Sometimes I feel surrounded by cultural Christians who read their Bible through our culture rather than the other way around.  Tullian and the generation he represents give me hope.  Here is someone who gets it and isn’t afraid to say it. 

2. I like Tullian’s emphasis on the Kuyperian worldview.  He says that the whole reason to be against the world is because we’re for the world (10).  We contribute to the restoration of this world, not by going along with its fallen desires, but by proclaiming and living the gospel.  Readers of my Heaven is a Place on Earth will find similar themes, and even a couple of quotes, in unfashionable.

3. I appreciate Tullian’s honesty as he describes his youthful rebellion and later conversion to Christ.  He has lived the difference between being cool and unfashionable, and his words are steeped in the wisdom of experience.

4. I like the practical application in this book.  Too many times “kingdom living” is described in general, vague terms.  Tullian’s final section emphasizes personal, practical ways that we can live redemptively in this world.  For instance, he explains how Christians should use money, words, and sex differently from the world.  There is a lot here to savor and apply.

In sum, if you want to be encouraged by the next generation of Christian leaders, if you want to know that you are not alone in your counter-cultural walk with Christ, and if you want to be challenged and helped in that walk, then this is the book to read.  Thanks, Tullian, for saying so well what we all need to hear.

16 Comments

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  1. ” Sometimes I feel surrounded by cultural Christians who read their Bible through our culture rather than the other way around.”

    One has to ask, what culture should we read the bible through? It’s not as if a white suburbian Christian can begin to read the bible from an urban culture viewpoint?

    This seems to posit that one can read the bible apart from their culture. It seems that every reading and studying is done from a cultural viewpoint. It’s not as if we can shed our culture as we read the bible and become objective viewers of our culture. At some level we will have cultural biases, conscious or subconscious that are at operation as we read and study.

    I understand where this type of reaction comes from, but on another level I think it’s wishful thinking.

    It seems to me that the power of the scriptures is the ability to speak to one’s culture, whether white, urban, or any other. Even if we read the bible through our culture, it still has the power to speak to our culture.

    Hopefully I haven’t misunderstood your point. Looks like a good book🙂

  2. Can’t wait to read this book. And looking forward to your visit to our church Sunday, Mike.

  3. Jason:

    I knew when I wrote that that someone would raise your objection, so thanks for coming through. I entirely agree with your point. Obviously we all read the Bible through some cultural lens. I was simply making the broader point regarding what separates liberals from conservatives. Liberals tend to use the dominant culture to interpret the Bible, while conservatives tend to use the Bible to interpret the culture. And lest anyone accuse me of misrepresenting the situation here, I’ve got quotes from liberals to this effect.

  4. “To be truly relevant, you have to say things that are unfashionably eternal, not trend.”

    AMEN.

  5. “Liberals tend to use the dominant culture to interpret the Bible, while conservatives tend to use the Bible to interpret the culture.”

    Hmmm. Maybe I’m misunderstanding what you are saying, but are you insisting that conservatives do not bring a culture to the text, but instead are the innocent ones…simply reading the bible onto culture?

    ?
    -jeremy

  6. Jeremy:

    I thought I was clearly not saying that. At any rate, I don’t believe that.

  7. Jeremy and Jason:

    Here is my attempt to explain the culture question. Let me know what you think.

    1. On a micro level, all of us bring our own unique culture to the text. No one is culture free, nor should we want to be.

    2. On a macro level, theological conservatives are known for wanting to preserve the traditional culture/beliefs of the early church while theological liberals, or “progressives” as they are often called, want to reinterpret the old faith for new times.

    Both (1) and (2) are standard, boilerplate distinctions that I think nearly everyone would accept today (though we might quibble over certain terms, such as “micro” and “macro.” I just made them up, and I’m willing to express it a different way).

    Of course, conservatives and liberals can surprise us and act out of character. E.g., theological conservatives behave like liberals when they desire to use their worship time to honor America on the 4th of July Sunday.

  8. To be faithfull as a Christian is to, at some critical point or another, be counter-cultural. Sounds like Tullian understands that, and that is an encouragment to me personally. To maintain a Biblical prophetic voice means we are going to have to challange the assumptions of both modern and post-modern secular materialism.

  9. I like your distinctions better the second time around🙂

    I would be interested, though, to see if he encourages his conservative friends to stop sashaying in the blatant Americana that so often defines the conservative church in pursuit of Kingdom-living. While I do agree with you that generally conservatives “preserve the traditional culture/beliefs of the early church,” (which I appreciate to some extent) often Uncle Sam is piggybacking on plenty of conservative Christians, pastors and laity alike.

    So, in his pursuit of practicing an unfashionable, irrelevant faith in America, does he call us all to divorce ourselves from the boosom of Mother Liberty?

    just curious…
    -jeremy

    PS-I do agree that liberals have their own problems and thankful T, like you, is taking them to task on the belief end…I just chose to pick on conservatives in this comment🙂

  10. Jeremy:

    Tullian isn’t addressing the liberal-conservative issue in this book. He’s not aiming at liberals or conservatives. This only came up because I said that he is expressing a conservative, counter-cultural position. There is enough in this book to challenge people of either persuasion, but that is not his focus. All to say I don’t remember any swipes at Lady Liberty, but I wouldn’t say that is a blindspot.

  11. ahh ok…and for what it’s worth: I also think liberals suckle from Lady Liberty. American Democratic ideals like Tolerance, Diversity, and Multi-culturalism, while decent things for any society, impinge upon the gospel as much as Capitalism, the War on Terror, and Patriotism does for conservatives…

    -jeremy

    PS-I will say I do think it’s odd not to address how ‘America’ as an idea (both conservative and liberal parts of that idea) hinders our commitment to the “unfashionably eternal.” Though maybe I should read the book…

  12. Dr. Wittmer,

    Thanks for the response, it clarified your earlier statement. Although I do have another question.

    “On a macro level, theological conservatives are known for wanting to preserve the traditional culture/beliefs of the early church while theological liberals, or “progressives” as they are often called, want to reinterpret the old faith for new times.”

    I have a few comments on the above statement.

    1. given the current a-historical position of Evangelicalism, does the church today even know what those “traditional culture/beliefs” are? Enter: Your Book🙂

    2. I think evangelicals have a tendency, and protestantism in general, to assume that their modus operandi is concurrent with early church practices and beliefs. Thus in large ways, we “americanize” the early church.

    3. Lastly, what about changing cultures? Point being an aspect of early church culture was both foot washing and a holy kiss, how come the “conservatives” haven’t “preserved” these aspects of early church belief and culture?

  13. Jason:

    Obviously no conservative completely rightly conserves the entire tradition (note my observation about patriotic conservative churches). But in general conservatives have preserved far more of the early church’s beliefs and practices (especially the former) than liberals, who as Machen rightly said, have devised a whole other religion entirely from Christianity.

  14. How on earth has Driscoll “bowed his knee to Baal?” exactly?

  15. How on earth has Driscoll “bowed his knee to Baal” exactly? (Sorry, I just had to type it in better grammar).

  16. Sam,

    I think Mike is pointing out that Driscoll and those like him REFUSE to bow their knee to Baal.🙂

    As for the book, I’ll certainly grab a copy when I can. It seems to be a common thread in Christianity that just before it seems a culture is completely lost, the Gospel comes back in full force.

    I read J. Gresham Machen’s “The Gospel in the Modern World.” For one, this is a book all Christians should read. Secondly, however, I look to people such as Polycarp or Igantius, standing against an Empire for Christ. Or what of Athanasius and his famous title, “contra mundum” (against the world)? At the time, he was one of the few true Christians left in his area of the world. We can look at Calvin and the Reformers. We can look at Jonathan Edwards or Whitefield.

    It seems that as a culture slowly collapses, some Christians stand up. Now, granted, at some point they stop standing up and Christianity can die in a culture. However, I don’t see that occurring within the United States just yet…

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