“Frankly, in a couple of years it will not matter how much urban ink you sport, how much fair trade coffee you drink, how many craft brews you can name, how much urban gibberish you spout, how many art house movies you can find that redeemer figure in, and how much money you divert from gospel preaching to social justice: maintaining biblical sexual ethics will be the equivalent in our culture
Read the series.
This essay continues the previous post in which I began a list of benefits of studying mythology.
Not everyone will agree with my argument in Part 2 that redemptive analogies help pagan cultures adjust to the message of the gospel. James Davidson Hunter’s recent book To Change the World is just one example of how Christians have developed allergies to “redeeming culture” terminology. And speaking of Paul at Mars Hill, Russell Moore of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary writes,
Yes, Paul takes note of the altar to the unknown god, and yes, he quotes pagan poets. But in neither case is he “building a bridge”…. Paul does not find in the [Greek] poets some form of “redemptive analogy” he can use among a people who don’t acknowledge the authority of Scripture. He uses them to demonstrate that Athenian philosophy and culture are self-contradictory…. The poets lead him not to finding “common ground” with his hearers but to calling them to repentance on the basis of a scripturally revealed storyline of humanity.1
But this sounds like an either/or distinction that I think gives an incomplete picture. Yes, Paul preached the resurrection of Jesus. But he also used recognizable cultural mentifacts2 that the Greeks could relate to. This both/and construction is simply acknowledging that Paul called the Greeks to repentance by means of a language with which they were familiar.
James Fraser (d. 1885) had a novel idea: redeem the theatre. He saw that it portrayed ideas, displayed unwholesomeness, and evoked responses contrary to modesty, dignity, and purity. He was not alone in this sentiment. Clergy widely, strongly, and vocally opposed the theatre. However, church-goers were still attending, enjoying, and even being employed by it.
Fraser envisioned the theatre being used for good, so that it would positively influence audiences and also be a legitimate form of amusement for Christians—one that was dignified, modest, and not degrading. In his opinion, it was futile to exhort Christians to avoid the theatre altogether, because it was a popular form of amusement and he believed Christianity could effect a positive change in and through it. Therefore, redeeming the theatre was the ticket.
As the second Bishop of Manchester, Fraser was in a position to try to persuade those inside and outside the church that his idea was valid and that change was possible. He was well-liked and respected, even by Nonconformists. He was firm in his beliefs and convictions, but not dogmatic, and an advisor and peacemaker on issues outside of the church, such as labor disputes. However, in nineteenth-century England, his redeeming-the-theatre idea was radical.
Mythology is everywhere (see Part 1), and there are biblical reasons that Christians should not necessarily break out in hives when they encounter mythology (see Part 2). The good news is that there can be much more to the Christianity-mythology relationship than narrow-eyed tolerance. There are numerous practical benefits to having a good understanding of mythology.
Knowing where we came from is just part of being an educated person. As one pastor has pointed out, we expect grade school students in Maryland to learn Maryland history—so as heirs of Hellenic and Latin civilizations, we owe it to ourselves to be somewhat knowledgeable about Greco-Roman culture.1 It’s simply our history.
We also have a Judeo-Christian history, but let us learn both instead of gravitating towards one over the other. Neither let us pretend that Christian history is pristine compared to the stories of polluted pagan mythology. Biblical history is nothing more than stories of God’s salvation of pagans.
One could argue that we are to be counter-cultural, and that is true in a certain sense. But being counter-cultural does not mean that we have to counter everything.2 At times, Paul argues from both creational and cultural norms.3 Creational norms are fixed, but there are also acceptable cultural reasons for acclimating ourselves to our surroundings. We may not like some aspects of our culture, but we should be educated in the culture that we find ourselves in.