The Gospel Meets American Culture

For a couple of decades, Christian scholars have invested a lot of energy in the examination of worldviews — without doubt, a worthy endeavor that had not received enough attention from Christian thinkers. Our ways of understanding the nature of reality, the essence of human existence, questions of what is knowable and how we can know, and the other usual worldview topics that shape our life and values, even if we are not always conscious of how and where these ideas exert their influence. Indeed, one of the most valuable aspects of the worldview exercise is to raise these questions to the level of conscious reflection. Only then can we fully understand the implications of various worldviews and determine whether they are the sorts of ideas that should shape the Christian life. This type of worldview examination is a vital undertaking for Christians, but we are close to a saturation point on it.

In attempts to elevate humanity’s questions to conscious consideration, many worldview surveys have lost sight of another consideration. They do a fine job of comparing a Christian worldview with those that inhabit various corners of the academic and intellectual guild. As a result, well-considered critiques of nihilistic existentialism, postmodern deconstructionism, Marxism, and other influential perspectives are readily available to any believer. The problem is that we do not find vast herds of folks in everyday life who embrace such schools of thought. However, in over-the-backyard fence and overheard-at-Starbuck’s conversations, we get an inkling of a different category of worldview — what we call the “hidden worldviews.”

Hidden worldviews are more difficult to detect because they come to us in bits and pieces rather than intentional and systematic thought structures. Moreover, these are not the sorts of worldviews a person evaluates by directly considering competing schools of thought in the intellectual marketplace, making a deliberate choice to embrace one, and rejecting the alternatives. Instead, these worldviews are part of the cultural air we breathe. As we say in our book, “We encounter them through national heritage, religion, family influence, the educational system, peer groups, various media and countless additional sources. They are transmitted by these sources through such diverse forms as music, political speeches, advertising, unsolicited advice from friends or family and, yes, via our coffee-at-Starbucks conversations” (S. Wilkens and M.L. Sanford, Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives [InterVarsity, 2009], 18). As such, these worldviews are more often absorbed than they are adopted. They are, if you will, hidden in plain sight.

Our book, Hidden Worldviews, is an attempt to go a step beyond the worldviews incubated in the university. We seek to identify, explain, and evaluate some of the most common worldviews embedded in our culture. The eight we have selected are individualism, consumerism, nationalism, moral relativism (and something like relativism), scientific naturalism, the New Age, postmodern tribalism, and salvation by therapy. This is, admittedly, not an exhaustive list by any means. At the same time, it captures a broad range of pervasive cultural worldviews.

Like most Christian books on worldviews, Hidden Worldviews has an apologetics angle. It attempts to show that the cultural stories listed above are inadequate philosophies and that a Christian worldview offers more satisfying answers, both intellectually and as a practical guide to a flourishing life. However, this is apologetics with a twist. It “aims to provoke Christians to adopt a Christian worldview” (11). Here is the problem. We often believe that non-Christian worldviews are obstacles for others, not for believers. In other words, we act as if other people are the only ones with a worldview problem. Our job as believers is to accumulate the proper arguments to help them recognize the error of their ways. However, precisely because the hidden worldviews are so much a part of the cultural soup, they easily slip under the church door and influence our ideas and actions. These cultural stories filter into our lives and co-opt our faith for their own aims. In fact, this book was the outgrowth of an adult Sunday School series that attempted to help Christians detect and counter the subterranean influence of cultural stories on our faith.

We have already noted one reason these “hidden worldviews” can be so potent — they fly under the radar of conscious thought. This is related to a second element that allows them to shape life. These hidden worldviews do not exist primarily as theoretical systems. Instead, they are more like stories. And like all stories, these cultural narratives appeal to us at a broader range of human existence than just the intellect. They are grounded in social structures, traditions, and systems. Thus, they are not something that we just think about (although we do spend a lot of time in the book thinking about them). They are experienced in an organic way; we feel them in our bones.

Even though these hidden worldviews do not present themselves in the same way we encounter more conceptual versions, they do the same types of things theoretical worldview systems do. They communicate a message about what is most real or important. They define for us who we are, our fundamental problem, and the means for overcoming that problem. In other words, they are stories about salvation, even if they do not explicitly use salvation language. For example, what we call “salvation by therapy” views our fundamental problem as psychological and social imbalance. We thus achieve our ultimate goal if a therapeutic method helps correct this. Scientific naturalism limits reality to the physical realm. Individualism places me at the center of the universe as the supreme value. To the extent that I am able to give expression to my preferences and desires (whether in the context of social structures or in rebellion against them), I have achieved my end. In short, these cultural stories are faith systems that promise us the best life available; they are salvation stories that compete with Christianity.

One of the tricky parts of thinking through the various worldviews presented in the book is that each has a kernel of truth that can fit in nicely with Christianity. For example, nationalism rightly recognizes that citizens owe allegiance and gratitude to their country. Consumerism starts with an assumption that is almost too obvious to state. Human beings must consume certain things in order to live. Postmodern tribalism offers a good reminder that cultural backgrounds influence how we view the world and play a key role in our sense of belonging and identity. None of these ideas is antithetical to Christianity, and the fact that we can find good in each of these should not surprise us. After all, God creates us as multidimensional beings — economic, aesthetic, psychological, political, spiritual, moral, biological, social beings who exist in specific times and cultures.

The problem with these, and the other worldviews, is that they can become “-isms,” absolutized belief systems that define us. To use the examples above, when my national, ethnic, or gender affiliation becomes my main source of identity, or if I define my problems and their solutions primarily in terms of financial resources, I fall into one of the many forms of idolatry available to the average American. We are gendered, economic, and citizens, but we are not just that, and any story that excludes the entire vision of the imago dei is insufficient to account for the full range of human life.

In view of the threat of contemporary versions of idolatry represented by these cultural stories, we urge our readers to keep a keen eye out for various forms of reductionism. One version of this is found in scientific naturalism, which reduces reality to its material manifestations. With this reduction in place, we leave no room for God’s activity in history (since this worldview leaves no room for God at all). At the opposite end of the spectrum, New Age thought erases the line between human and divine, reducing human existence to divine selves lost in an illusion of biological and material existence. Scientific naturalism turns science into a god and rejects the spiritual dimension of our existence; New Age turns us into gods and rejects the validity of science. The difficult task of Christians is to maintain a balance in which we see correctly the good and valid use of science and also hold to the reality of our spiritual nature without cutting either free from the other.

Like most worldview texts, much of our book focuses on critiquing alternative views. However, Hidden Worldviews takes a slightly different direction in these critiques (and in the subsequent section on constructing a Christian worldview). Since most worldview examinations focus on countering intellectual systems on their own territory, they rely primarily on reason (and a pretty narrow definition of reason) as the tool for addressing non-Christian viewpoints, with Scripture intermittently thrown in to validate rational arguments. However, since the hidden worldviews come to us as culturally embedded stories, a different approach is necessary for interrogating them and offering an alternative. For this process, we found the Wesleyan Quadrilateral a useful tool.

The Wesleyan Quadrilateral, of course, views Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience as trustworthy authorities for the Christian life. This provides a more complete way of examining faith in the context of competing stories than strictly rationalist approaches. First, while not diminishing the place of reason, the Quadrilateral allows us to bring Scripture directly into the discussion rather than using it as a prop for conclusions drawn from reason alone. We do this by looking at Scripture as God’s Story, a narrative that tells us how things came to be, what has gone wrong, and how the wrong things can be put right. Thinking of Scripture in this way allows Christians to directly respond to competing cultural stories that attempt to answer these same questions. Moreover, we argue that God’s Story provides a more accurate, complete, and life-enhancing story in its drama of creation, fall, covenant, incarnation, mission, and redemption than what is offered in the alternatives stories that compete for our loyalty.

Starting from Scripture also provides an opportunity to broaden the use of reason in a manner that captures the spirit of the Quadrilateral — that is, encompassing the practical and observable elements of everyday life. As a result, our critique of competing ideas does not operate only at the theoretical level. Utilizing the Quadrailateral, we can broaden this to include an examination of the lived implications that follow from the various stories.

An emphasis on Tradition and Experience also find a comfortable place within the narrative approach. Every cultural story envisions a certain type of community necessary to sustain and enhance human existence, and each attempts to encourage certain values that reflect the vision communicated within the story. Christianity’s belief that the Holy Spirit has been and is at work to shape and preserve a People (Tradition) who are renewed and sanctified for love and service (Experience) offers a compelling vision that allows us to see the world in a new way.

The Wesleyan spirit brings an additional contribution to worldview examination that should be highlighted. Despite a broad range of concerns and areas of interest, a Wesleyan approach constantly brings us back to the question of salvation. Whatever we do should have as its ultimate aim the increase of love for God and others, which leads to the flourishing God intends for us. Many Christian worldview books leave the reader with the impression that we have done our job well if we have properly evaluated and organized our ideas. As important as that is, it can obscure the fact that the ultimate aim of worldview is a story that tells us the truth about God’s redemptive work and opens us to a transforming process that allows us to enjoy the full benefits of salvation.

Thus, we end the book with two questions. “What should we expect from a worldview?” and “What are the indicators that we are growing toward the ideal represented by God’s Story?” (217). While it would take a separate book to deal with those questions adequately, we suggest three qualities that should provide a starting point for determining whether a Christian worldview has taken root and draws us toward its ideals. “A Christian worldview should remind us of our multifaceted dependence on God’s goodness, which should foster humility within us. Thus, humility is an important indicator of whether we are progressing toward conformity with God’s story. The same could be said of becoming more loving toward God and others and living a life characterized by gratitude toward God” (216).

Humility, love, and gratitude are, of course, only three of the many indicators that a vision shaped by God’s kingdom is alive in our life. However, these elements, so central to the Christian life, are often overlooked and undervalued in most worldview surveys. Pulling them back into the picture reminds us that the main point of Christianity is not to win an argument, but to redeem lives that are twisted by sin’s effects. Moreover, these dispositions (Wesley liked to call them “holy tempers”) are a reminder of faith’s deep challenge. As important and difficult as it is for Christians to think clearly and reflectively about the deep questions of life, it is even more important, and more difficult, for citizens of God’s kingdom to be transformed in every facet of their being. That, ultimately, is the purpose of getting worldview right.

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