Nancy Pearcey, Teenagers, and following Jesus in Public

Right now, I’m rereading Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity by Nancy Pearcey, and I’m trying to do so with my youth ministry lenses placed firmly on my nose.  This is a great book as a whole; here’s a small bit that is huge for those working with youth in a ministry setting:

There is nothing neutral about the claim that the only way to get at truth is to deny God’s existence.  That is a substantive religious claim, just as it is to affirm God’s existence.  Yet because of the secular revolution, even many believers came to believe that speaking from a distinctively Christian perspective was biased–that to be truly objective they must bracket their faith and think like nonbelievers in their professional work… Faith is often reduced to a separate add-on for personal and private life–on the order of a private indulgence, life a weakness for chocolates–and not an appropriate topic in the public arena.  (pp. 98-99)

This excerpt describes what Pearcey means by “cultural captivity” in this book: that in our culture, belief in any spiritual reality–especially Christianity–is a priori a biased worldview and cannot be taken seriously.  At best, such views can be respected only so far as they do not have any bearing on public life, such as politics, scientific discovery, and one’s own workplace.  As Pearcey notes, this view in itself is a religious claim, which in effect can be translated, “Your religious views can having no bearing on public life, because my religious views say so.”  Of course, we have been trained not to see it this way.  We have been trained to believe that removing religion from a situation makes that situation more neutral. As is much more expertly explained in Pearcey’s book, our culture–in general–has two categories of life.  In the religious or spiritual category, what is right or wrong, true or untrue has little bearing on life, if such things can be known at all.  This category belongs only in our private lives–not at work, not in politics, and perhaps at the local Starbucks if the discussions are kept at a reasonably quiet level.  The other category, which I’ll describe as secular, truth can be known, but only if such knowledge does not rely on spiritual or religious beliefs.

Some readers at this point are rightly asking this question, or another one like it: “What about postmodernism?  I thought postmodernism was taking us in the direction of questioning whether we can know anything as true?”

Good question.  Let me limit myself to a quick paragraph on the topic as I take a mental note to expand on it in a later post.  First, postmodernism cannot be help to a single, sweeping definition.  Perhaps this will be possible centuries from now when the philosophers and historians try to make sense of this time period that we’re a part of now.  In short, postmodernism as a movement, as a time period, or whatever you want to call it, is still playing itself out, and we cannot say, “postmodernism is X” with any kind of authority.  Second, relativism (which is what I think many, if not most, people associate with postmodernism) is adopted by people in varying degrees and in many different spheres in life.  For instance, a college physics major might be very much an absolute truth kind of gal in her sciences classes, but when it comes to spiritual matters, she may wonder if there’s any Truth at all.  While there are some philosophers and scientists who are willing to apply relativism to all aspects of life (even whether we can be sure that gravity exists or that chemotherapy really helps treat cancer), most people live their lives firmly planted in an absolute truth kind of universe.

And this brings us to exactly what Pearcey’s getting at and the connection with youth ministry: as a culture–and even as Christians–we have bought into the false notion that spirituality should only influence our private lives.  But what good is a Christian worldview if it does not inform our entire world?  To some extent, we recognize the disconnect.  We get that something’s wrong when a student is not allowed to bring up her Christian worldview in a graduation speech, even in passing, or when a pharmacist must choose between keeping his job or upholding Christian ethics by not filling a prescription for the morning after pill.  But we don’t fully recognize the whole problem.

I want to make something very clear here: I’m not talking about the Evangelical hot points that pepper the headlines of NBC’s nightly news, such as the Ten Commandments in the courtroom, prayer in public schools, or public funding of abortions.  Those are important issues, but “winning” those battles would not solve our problem and make us a Christian Nation, complete with a thundering applause from angels and perhaps Jesus himself.  They are only symptoms of an epidemic that few Christians fully recognize.  The epidemic: many who claim to adhere to a Christian worldview don’t realize that in practice, they adhere to a very secular worldview.

Our students need to be taught to hold to an integrated, true-in-all-areas-of-life worldview.  So many times in my teaching of youth–especially high school students–is to help them understand what it means to hold to a fully integrated worldview.  This is ground zero for our students, before we really even get to  the Bible, the Gospel, or even the existence of God.  What good is it to teach on a full, multi-faceted view of the kingdom of God as described by Jesus if those listening do not even know that what they’re learning applies to ALL ASPECTS OF THEIR LIVES, including the classroom, their sports teams, their after-school jobs, and their families?

I frequently am approached by people in our church regarding high school or college students dealing with teachers or professors denigrating the Christian worldview in their classes.  In fact, I get it so often that I should give the question its own name: the Tell Me Or My Teenager Or College Student Exactly How to Put a Teacher Or Professor in His Place Or at the Very Least Not Be Totally Embarrassed About Being a Christian in His Class Question.  I love apologetics.  I believe there is truth, I believe that what the Bible says about humanity and God and Jesus is true, and I believe there are very good reasons for believing that those things are so.  And I love talking about those reasons.  A lot.  And so I used to get really passionate about helping people learn basic Christian apologetics.  And then I realized the problem: the people I’m trying to help don’t really adhere to a Christian worldview in all areas of their lives.  I’m not saying that they try and come up short–I come up short in just about everything I do every day.  I’m saying they don’t even try.  Rather, they follow Jesus in their private lives, go on mission trips, attend church, and maybe even pray and read the Bible.  But they have a very secular, my-God-is-a-private-God kind of world view in just about every area of their lives.  And so I’ve found that I need to start at the beginning and help people see what it means to have a fully integrated Christian worldview.  Which, by the way, is very difficult when I’m struggling to do that very same thing in my own life.

We’ve all seen this in action.  We all know a follower of Jesus who’s just–different.  It’s not just that they’re faithful, or that they sacrifice a lot to serve others or help homeless people have a good meal.  It’s…well…they follow Jesus in everything they do.  It’s not over-the-top, as though they’re a walking John 3:16 sign that makes people avoid them on the street.  They simply carry Jesus wherever they go.  They don’t have all the answers, but they’re not afraid to answer what they do know.  They love to tell people about Jesus.  They’re not freak-you-out-with-a-pamphlet-and-a-bullhorn kind of street evangelists, but more than once you’ve witnessed them telling a complete stranger about Jesus, as naturally as you would giving someone directions to a great new burger joint that you’ve just discovered.  Having a Christian worldview isn’t about getting everything right–only God can do that!  It’s about seeing that what we believe–or don’t believe–about God, humanity, and the nature of reality does affect every aspect of our lives, whether we know it or not.  And if that’s really the case, why should spirituality be private?  If we believe that a statement about reality is true, shouldn’t it apply to all of reality?  Why should issues of morality be discussed only in the context of personal dilemmas?  Why should God’s justice and mercy only have their reign on Sunday mornings or in Bible study?  Why shouldn’t what we believe about the world not apply to all aspects of our world?  Gravity is gravity, whether I’m at work, or a politician, or at home.  If God is God, is he not God in all aspects of our universe?

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