You Can’t See It but It’s All Around You

In the list of things I love, you wouldn’t have to go down very far to find books or coffee. So when I get a bit of free time, I’m liable to wile it away at a place I can get both.

But the most memorable thing I took away from my latest trip to the bookstore didn’t come from what I read or drank, but rather from what I saw and heard. To explain, let me recap two separate scenes.

I happened on the first just few steps into the store. As I walked by a group of teenage boys, I overheard one speaking with real energy in his voice. I’m fairly sure I heard him say something like this: “I hate songs about ideas. I hate that. I like songs that tell a story.” I think he mentioned Eminem as an artist that he appreciated.

The second occurred once I reached the café. Ordering at the register, I was only peripherally aware of another set of teenagers talking—this time a boy and girl—sitting at one of the tables. By the time I turned around with my coffee, the boy was intently doing something on his phone. The girl was staring out over the bookstore.

What then, is so unusual about either of these situations? Well, nothing really. And that’s just the point. For my money, they’re both examples of the “cultural air” that you and I breath every day.

Let’s look at each incident a little closer:

1. In the first situation, why did the boy speaking express disdain for ideas and a love of story? “Ideas” can come across as abstract, grand, and value-laden. They’re related to truth. And as such, they often ask for (demand?) assent and even allegiance. Stories, on the other hand, are concrete and particular. They seldom lecture overtly. Rather, they often invite a kind of participation, letting us see through the eyes of another.

2. As for the boy and girl, I have no way of knowing for sure what the nature of their relationship is: brother/sister, boyfriend/girlfriend, or simply two friends. But in an important way it doesn’t matter. We’ve all seen (or enacted) the situation many times: two or more gather together, at times paying more attention to their technology than each other.

Don’t misunderstand. I love stories. I can appreciate some of Eminem. And I don’t think using technology in the presence of others is always a bad thing by any stretch. But I couldn’t help but think of these two incidents in light of recent discussions regarding modern/postmodern culture in the Seminary 101 class* on Wednesday nights. The legacy of these movements involves several broad trends, including:

  • Rejection of objective truth, morality, or other standards.
  • Distrust for and dislike of authority.
  • In the absence of a unifying meta-narrative (story) for our lives, the embracing of smaller, personal narratives.
  • A greater value on personal autonomy, leading to, among other things: (1) a dislike for conformity and desire to shape the contours of one’s own life, and (2) an increased difficulty in fostering personal relationships.
  • Seeing technology as the key to a good life.

I wouldn’t at all be surprised if all these things were subtly present in the two brief scenes I witnessed. But even if I’ve misinterpreted or overanalyzed these two particular cases, my guess is that we could find any number of other situations in our everyday lives where these cultural distinctives are present in spades. Again, they’re all around us, whether we realize it or not.

And why is this important for us as Christians? There are at least two reasons:

1. There are likely aspects of our own perspective toward God and our faith and owe much more to the cultural air we breathe rather than God’s revelation of himself in the Bible. 

2. If we’re going to reach others with the gospel, it’s imperative that we understand the culture in which we live. We can find example after biblical example of this, and to do otherwise is to make it far more likely that we’ll speak and act in ways that simply miss the mark.

*The Seminary 101 class is based on the online version of Apologetics and Outreach from Covenant Theological Seminary. You can find it on this page by scrolling down.

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