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Natural Man Sees Shadows

If you think in terms of Paul on Mars Hill, man erects idols that are mere shadows of reality. These are monuments to an unknown god. They think by making an image they are making something concrete. They’re actually making something that has no true material existence. It’s a caricature, a parody, a shadow of something they don’t even know.

Now take this brief but loaded comment from Van Til on the state of humanity in sin:

From the point of view that man, as dead in trespasses and sins, seeks to interpret life in terms of himself instead of in terms of God, he is wholly mistaken. ‘From this ultimate point of view the “natural man” knows nothing truly. He has chains about his neck and sees shadows only’…

Scott Oliphant, the editor of Van Til’s book, comments:

Plato (through Socrates) describes people who are confined to a cave and who see shadows only. Eventually they begin to interpret the shadows as the true reality. The philosopher, on the other hand, is the one who escapes the shadows of the cave and thus ascribes true forms to reality. Similarly, the natural man sees shadows only and thinks that such shadows are the substance of true reality. He is never able to get to the basic truth of the matter.

The natural man sees shadows. Those shadows come through in natural man’s work. They come through in movies, novels, art, etc. They cast the shadows onto their canvases. They are common grace glimpses of truth that don’t put forth the actual substance of Christ. But those who have the Spirit see Christ even where natural man only puts forth and sees shadows.

For instance, you see a heroic act of self-sacrifice in a movie. It’s a shadow. And it’s all the natural man sees. Maybe it makes him emotional, but he still misses the substance – it all points to Christ as the ultimate self-sacrificer. That goes for stories of true love, of humility, and probably a good thousand other subjects. This is why Tim Keller has said that, for the Christian, every story is two stories and every song is two songs. It’s shadow and substance.

For more on this, see C.S. Lewis’ essay Transposition. I’ve written about that HERE.

-Quotes from Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, p. 196

As Solomon Used the Cedars of Lebanon

Cedars of Lebanon Common Grace

Let’s talk common grace.

The earth is the Lord and its fullness. When talking about the doctrine of common grace, Van Til makes the point that this fullness includes the cultural works of man. As Solomon uses the cedars of Lebanon to build the temple, Christians are called to subject the stuff of the world to the gospel and use it for God’s fuller purpose in the service of Christ:

It is in this program of God, it is in connection with this work of Christ by which the world that was cursed of God should be reconciled unto him for the greater glory of God, that common grace must have a part. All things in history must serve this glorious consummation…

For those who reject the Christ and those who have never heard of Christ, but who have sinned in Adam, are still laborers, even though unwillingly, in the cultural task of man…All the skills of those who are artificers in iron and brass, all the artistry of painters and sculptors and poets, are at the service of those who, under Christ, are anew undertaking the cultural task that God in the beginning gave to man…

It is the meek who shall inherit the earth. The earth and its fullness thereof belong to the Lord and to those to whom in his sovereign grace he gives it.

To them therefore belong all the common gifts of God to mankind. Yet that it may be the earth and the fullness thereof that is developed, the covenant keepers will make use of the works of the covenant breakers which these have been able and compelled to perform in spite of themselves. As Solomon used the ceders of Lebanon (1 Kings 5:8-10), the products of the rain and the sunshine that had come to the covenant breakers, and as he used the skill of these very covenant breakers for the building of the temple of God, so also those who through the Spirit of God have believed in Christ may and must use all the gifts of all men everywhere in order by means of them to perform the cultural task of mankind

-Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, pp. 136, 137, 138

Fiction in a Buffered World

I’m slowly making my way through Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age.

One of the interesting distinctions Taylor makes about our culture versus past cultures is this: He says before the Renaissance, Western people lived in a “porous universe.” This means that they were vulnerable to outside spiritual forces, They were vulnerable to God. The universe, and the self, could be penetrated by things outside it.

He argues that we are now living in a “buffered universe.” In the age of the ‘self,’ we are isolated and cannot be penetrated by external forces in the same way.  We are not vulnerable to “the world of the spirits and powers” in the same way that our ancestors were.

To put it in another way: Western culture was once enchanted. Now it is disenchanted.

Think of Martin Luther praying to St. Anne during a lightning storm. Most modern Westerners now attribute lightning to merely natural causes. What’s the use of praying to anybody? Just check the weather report before you head out next time.

Let me tie this thought to something else. A while ago, I watched a talk by Alan Jacobs that related to his. You can watch it HERE. He makes a lot of points about fiction in the talk. I’ll let you watch it if you’re interested. I just want to give him credit for the line of thought.

In the age of the buffered self, people do not want to be told what to do. One of the hallmarks of post-modernity was/is rejection of authority and institutions. With this being the case, there were more and more instances happening of people coming to faith, or their faith being sustained, through fiction. C.S. Lewis reading George MacDonald’s book Phantastes is the classic example of this.

In a buffered age, God often uses means other than preachers to penetrate people’s souls. And preachers should take note of this and try to use those things as well. This is no different than the prophet Nathan using a story about someone stealing a sheep to confront King David’s adultery. David was buffered. He was most vulnerable (or porous) while he was listening to a story.

Entertainment (whether fiction books, or movies, or documentaries, or whatever) is a tool through which the buffered self can become porous. It is our primary means of enchanting the disenchanted. This means we need to look for ways to take the things we are consuming and use them to point people to the truth. To point people to Christ. That’s what Seeing Christ in Fight Club is going to focus on.

Literalists Lacking in Spiritual Understanding

My previous post (HERE) on the disciples’ insight into parables mentioned that there was a point (or points) when they demonstrated real perception into Christ’s teachings. Of course there were times when they didn’t as well. Related to that, in Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ classic book, Spiritual Depression (a personal favorite of mine), he likens the disciples to the blind man (at first only partially-)healed by Jesus, recorded in Mark 8. When Jesus asks the man if he can see, the man responds, “I see men as trees, walking.”

From this, Lloyd-Jones argues that Jesus’ miracle was performed this way intentionally in order to demonstrate a spiritual principle to the disciples. Like the prophet Nathan with David, Jesus was pointing the disciples to this partially-healed man saying, “You are the man.”

MLJ puts it this way:

It is difficult to describe this man. You cannot say that he is blind any longer. You cannot say that he is still blind because he does see; and yet you hesitate to say that he can see because he sees men as trees, walking. What then – is he or is he not blind? You feel that you have to say at one and the same time that he is blind and that he is not blind. He is neither one thing nor the other (p. 39).

He goes on to say that many struggling Christians are like this. It can both appear that they are and are not a Christian. This, however, is not my point in this post. So let me get to it.

MLJ describes the disciples in this way: the event of the healing of the blind man (in Mark’s narrative) is fresh off the heals of a discussion with the disciples about leaven (in which Jesus asks the disciples, “Do you not understand? Do you not see? Do you not remember?'”). Because he told them to beware the leaven of the pharisees, they began talking about literal bread. So, MLJ says, “they were literalists, they were lacking in spiritual understanding.” Jesus proceeds to call them out on this.

A literalist, in this sense, is someone who cannot see beneath the surface of a story or illustration or principle (and perhaps someone who cannot see beneath the surface without detailed explanations; maybe they see eventually, but it takes a lot of work). You might call this being spiritually obtuse.

I try to teach myself, my children, and want to teach my church, to be able to get beneath the surface of a story (a book, a movie, an illustration, and even the Bible itself) to see the Truth that is being conveyed – “to bring out treasures old and new” (Matt. 13:52). Call this insight or discernment or being spiritually-minded or whatever.

Douglas Coupland regularly makes the claim that only 20% of people worldwide are hardwired to recognize irony when they see it. I fear it’s maybe the same or less for Christians being able to recognize Truth when they see it: being able to see the not blind, not seeing man and recognize that we’re looking at ourselves in a mirror. The distortion/illustration is meant to allow us to see more clearly. But we find ourselves being stared down by Jesus as he asks, “Don’t you understand? Don’t you see?”

Speaking Against Takes More Skill Than Speaking for and With

The novelist must be characterized not by his function but by his vision, and we must remember that his vision has to be transmitted and that the limitations and blind spots of his audience will very definitely affect the way he is able to show what he sees. This is another thing which in these times increases the tendency toward the grotesque in fiction.

Those writers who speak for and with their age are able to do with a great deal more ease and grace than those who speak counter to prevailing attitudes…

-Flannery O’Connor, The Grotesque in Southern Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, p. 47

To speak against the culture takes more skill than to speak for it.


To Both God Spoke in their Own Language

The birth of Christ was notified to the Jewish shepherds by an angel, to the Gentile philosophers by a star: to both God spoke in their own language, and in the way they were best acquainted with.

-Matthew Henry on Matt. 2

Christ can meet you in unexpected places, such as where you currently are. In the field, in the stars, in the womb, on the back of a horse, in the fishing boat, in the tax booth, in a movie…even on a blog.