“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us out of this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.”
We live in an age that is obsessed with its age, in which people’s generation seems to be the most important fact about them. Whether you are a Cold Warrior, a Boomer, a Buster, an Xer, or a Millennial is supposed to determine everything about how you view the world. It is an age of a youth culture that is aging rapidly. (Just look around you!) All those who in the sixties refused to trust anyone over the age of thirty are now in their own sixties (or seventies), graying and balding. It is an age of insanity in which all the ancient verities, all the old trusted landmarks, are not just questioned but forgotten, or remembered only with contempt. Therefore it is an age in which it seems especially important to remember Gal. 1:4, which reminds us that Christ “gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us out of this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.”
Now, the primary reference of this passage is not of course to our current moment in history but rather to an epoch that was already unfolding when the Apostle Paul wrote these words almost two millennia ago. His primary reference is eschatological: “this present evil age” is the time that comes between the past age of goodness that existed before the Fall and the future period of goodness that will exist after Christ returns. Part of the purpose of Redemption in Christ is to deliver us from our entanglement in the evils that accompany and indeed characterize this middle period in which Mankind’s rebellion against God is working itself out alongside that redemption. But while Paul’s words are not about our time, they are relevant to our particular time in history, for our age is a part of “this present evil age.” It may well be that prophesied time in which the grip of evil on human society is building toward the climax it will reach before its ultimate destruction when Christ returns (2 Tim. 3:1-5). Whether that is so or not, our own time is a part of Paul’s “present evil age,” from which Christ came to deliver us. What does this mean for us?
Surely it means that one effect of Redemption should be that Christians should not be slaves to the times in which they live. It means that we should understand the particular forms that evil is taking in our own generation so that we may avoid them and effectively counteract them rather than being co-opted by them. It means in other words that we should learn from C. S. Lewis how to avoid Chronological Snobbery, the uncritical assumption that our own age is right and those that came before were automatically primitive, benighted, and wrong. Otherwise, part of Christ’s very purpose in redeeming us will not be manifested in our lives as it should be.
Yet never has the Church been more accommodated to and assimilated by the culture in which it finds itself. I recall being rebuked for forming a Christian folk band back in the ’60’s, on the grounds that by playing music derived from the styles of Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary, and Simon and Garfunkel, I was being “conformed to this present world.” When I heard the music that was approved for Christians by this critic, I understood that for him the alternative was to be conformed to the world of (what was then) thirty years ago. That kind of shallow and superficial analysis has not served us well. Whether you look at the materialism and utilitarianism of American consumer culture among the masses or the acid “hermeneutic of suspicion” among the intellectuals, it has given us a Christian subculture that is just a more pious version of what the World is doing. When Francis Schaeffer challenged the Church’s accommodation to secular culture in The Great Evangelical Disaster back in 1984, his words were prophetic. The situation is worse now. We need to do better if we want to experience the fullness of what Christ died to give us: deliverance from this present evil age. And we need to do better if we are going to preach and live His Gospel with any credibility and integrity. Therefore we need to understand the particular characteristics of our version of this present evil age and understand how Christ delivers us from them.
- I. THE CHARACTERISTICS OF OUR PRESENT EVIL AGE: THE REJECTION OF AUTHORITY
Our current position in history has often been characterized as a clash between two world views, with one dying and being replaced by the other. Labels are a necessary evil; the labels in question have often been polarizing, generative of more heat than light as people argue vehemently, sometimes over the terms more than the substance. So I am simply going to call them World View A and World View B. (If you can’t figure out the more familiar labels and want to know them, I will tell you privately after the service.) World View A was the hope that human reason alone, using the scientific method, would be able to produce purely objective knowledge that would give us control of nature and of our own destiny as well as meaning and purpose. World View B is the rejection of World View A as a complete failure, a rejection so total that it often involves rejecting the very goals of A (objective knowledge, meaning, purpose) as well as the failed means of attaining them (human reason, science, etc.).
Now, make no mistake: Neither Word View A nor World View B is the Biblical World View. The Biblical World View starts neither from the affirmation nor the denial of reason (it has a place for reason, but that is not its starting point); it starts from faith in the Word of God. The Biblical World View neither follows human reason without question nor does it reject it without question; it trusts it in so far as it is transformed by grace and in agreement with, or at least consistent with, the Word of God. Both World View A and World View B are, in different ways, in rebellion against this Biblical World View. Both of them! For a Christian to take his marching orders from either A or B is for him to be complicit in that rebellion; it is to put himself in the position of aiding and abetting the Enemy. Because A was dominant in the West for many years, it is tempting for many now to think that by switching to B they are moving toward a sounder theology and a healthier spirituality. I am here to tell you that they are only trading one form of rebellion against God for another! But back to the analysis of our current situation: It is a time in which the Biblical World View is witnessing the transition from World View A to B in the world that surrounds it, in which it now has to learn how to respond to B as well as A without being co-opted by either.
Remember: World View A was the hope that human reason alone, using the scientific method, would be able to produce purely objective knowledge that would give us control of nature and of our own destiny as well as meaning and purpose. Biblical Christians have always known that this was a false hope doomed to failure from the outset, and getting past it is something we can celebrate. We were giving devastating critiques of A before it became chic and popular to do so—a fact that gives the lie to the claim of many B’s that any Christian who is not an enthusiastic B is really just an A in disguise. But because we never thought reason alone could produce the results claimed for it by A in the first place, we did not tend to become disillusioned with reason when it failed to do so. Because we had always known that fallen human objectivity could never be more than partial and provisional, we did not abandon objectivity as a worthy goal, or any form of objectivity as a dangerous delusion, when the objectivity promised by rationalistic science was exposed as the fraud we had always known it to be. Or, at least, we shouldn’t have. But many who follow World View B have understandably been disillusioned in precisely such ways, and too many believers have been more influenced by their perspectives than they realize, with disastrous consequences.
All these unfortunate forms of disillusionment with A are unified by a rejection of authority. This is not just the rejection of particular authorities thought to have been unmasked as unreliable (which could have happened and did happen under World View A), but the rejection of the very possibility of any legitimate authority at all. This rejection is the very heart and soul of World View B. Once burned and twice shy, angry at themselves for having been taken in by World View A’s false hopes, this type of World View B-ist rejects at the outset any possible grounds for anyone or anything claiming any authority at all. This rejection manifests itself in several ways.
A. First is DECONSTRUCTION.
Deconstruction is an approach to literary interpretation that rejects the very possibility that any literary work could contain a coherent meaning. It assumes that all truth claims contain inherent contradictions. So the job of the interpreter is not to discover and evaluate the meaning and significance of a text but to push it until it reveals these contradictions and undercuts its own meaning, until its apparent meaning falls apart or “deconstructs.” Actually, this tendency manifests itself in many different schools of interpretation that are popular today, of which deconstruction is simply the most radical. But all of them reject the very possibility of an author actually communicating anything true to a reader. They are thus consistent with World View B’s rejection of the very possibility of objective truth and meaning. If they cannot be had by the methods of World View A, the B-ist apparently thinks they cannot be had at all.
Notice that the word “authority” contains the word “author.” If you don’t want to deal with authority, you have to banish the author from the process of interpretation. (Why do people who claim that authors cannot communicate with readers in their books continue to write books, in which they try to communicate this idea to their own readers? Why do people who believe in the “death of the author” continue to put their names on the spines of their own books? Hmmm.) There can be no meaning unless there is someone to mean it. That’s why the author still matters and always will, no matter what B-is theorists say. If the text doesn’t mean what the author meant it to mean, it can mean anything and will eventually mean nothing. That is why Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstruction, says that “the author must die so that the reader may live.” And he explicitly connects the death of the author with the death of God, the ultimate Author, making it crystal clear that it is rebellion against the authority of God that ultimately lies behind his movement. In contrast, Christian philosophy has always maintained that authorial intention is, not exhaustive of, but essential to and basic to a text’s meaning and therefore to all interpretation of a text. Yet one too often sees Christian scholars picking up the techniques of deconstruction with no apparent awareness of their roots or of the philosophical baggage that inevitably comes clinging to them. And this is not just an issue that matters to English majors. Do not think that the Bible can continue to function as an authoritative text in our lives in any meaningful sense if that trend continues!
B. The second manifestation of this rebellion against authority is MILITANT MULTICULTURALISM.
Now, it is good that we come to know other cultures so that we may understand and appreciate them. They are all fallen, and they all contain some good by common grace. Knowledge and appreciation of other cultures gives us the same kind of protection against mistaking the assumptions of our peers for truth that Lewis tried to give us through knowledge of the past; there is such a thing as cultural snobbery as well as chronological snobbery, and both should be avoided. But the agenda of what is called multiculturalism in education today, driven by World View B’s disillusionments, often goes far beyond this helpful goal. Because of this same rejection of authority, it objects strenuously to the “privileging” of Western culture in Western education. And what is the result? Instead of being held up as role models whose thought and art are indispensable to the development of responsible citizens, Homer, Virgil, Socrates, Augustine, Shakespeare, Milton, Washington, and Jefferson are dismissed as “Dead White European Males” (DWEMs) who are the sources of the evils of Western colonialism.
Now, Christians must be careful to evaluate all authorities against Scripture, the only Authority which we hold as infallible. These men were not perfect. But they did give us a precious legacy that we are responsible to steward well. To accept the leveling of all the heroes of the past to the same relevance as the latest leftist fad is to accept World View B, a resistance against all authority that we are naive to think will not be extended to Scripture as well.
C. A third manifestation of this rebellion is GROUPTHINK.
Because the individual is no longer thought by World View B to be able independently to connect with meanings, universals, or truths which are thought to be chimerical anyway, he has no place to stand against the sociological forces now thought to be absolutely determinative of his thinking. So people in World View B are typically thought of as thinking only as members of groups: they think and say what they do because they are Blacks or Women or WASPs or Rednecks, not because their thoughts could possibly be true or false.
This tendency was brought home to me one day when I was in Athens, Ga., doing some research in the University of Georgia library. I had taken a break for lunch, and when I came out of the deli I saw that a demonstration was taking place in the street, sponsored by the National Organization for Women. Two young ladies were standing together, holding signs which they obviously thought to be compatible, parts of the same cause. One said “End Racism Now,” and the other said “Protect Abortion Rights.” Well, I thought, you can’t serve me up a home run pitch like that and expect me not to swing! So I went up to them and asked (very politely, I thought), “I wonder if you could explain something for me. Why is it wrong to classify someone as less than human because of his skin color, but not because of whether or not he has passed through a birth canal?” I tried to ask it as one who really wanted to know. But one of them got very angry. She turned a vivid red and spat out, “You wouldn’t say that if you had a womb.” “I beg your pardon,” I said, “but I do have one (yeah—she did a double take too!)–that is, I have joint responsibility for one [I did at the time]. And therefore I make jolly sure that nothing goes into it that I’m not prepared to take care of when it comes out.” This did not help matters. At least I did not say what I was tempted to say: “Do you realize that you have just confessed to me that you think with an organ other than your brain?”
The young lady’s reply, while irrelevant to the issue at hand, was very instructive anyway. It illustrated the fact that in World View B the authority of Reason is dead. Because I was not a member of the correct advocacy group (women), I did not need to be refuted, for I was not even eligible to participate in the discussion. I was a male (the enemy), and therefore did not need to be refuted, only excoriated. Civil discourse becomes impossible in a world in which all authority has been “deconstructed” by World View B.
D. A fourth manifestation of this rebellion is TOLERANCE USED AS A CLOAK FOR RADICAL RELATIVISM.
There is no universal truth for World View B, only different people’s perspectives communicated through their stories, or “narratives.” And all stories are equal. None is better than another; none can be “privileged” as more true than another. All stories (“narratives”) are of equal value except any story claiming to be the story (a “metanarrative”). And that story is of no value at all. World View A thought that science gave objective truth, and was relativistic about anything (such as values) that could not be put into a test tube. World View B is relativistic about everything. World View A-ists thought that truth claims (outside of science) were deluded. World View B-ists of the type I am describing think they are evil, an attempt to fraudulently gain power over another person. So we are tolerant of all views except those that actually claim anything is true, and we are virulently intolerant of those.
But is it true that no metanarratives are true? Ahem. What passes as tolerance for all views cloaks not only a radical relativism but also a radical intolerance for any views actually claiming to be true. And world View B makes no distinction between views claimed to be true on the inadequate grounds of World View A and those grounded in the Biblical World View. Truth claims are simply rejected as such. One does not even need to look at the evidence, because we “know” (ahem) in advance that all truth claims are only cynical power plays and must therefore be rejected on pain of losing our freedom and autonomy.
The increasing dominance of this kind of thinking cannot be unrelated, by the way, to the increasing reluctance of the Church to advance with clarity the uniqueness and exclusivity of the claims of Christ to be the only way to God–“No one cometh to the Father except by me.” Christian young people increasingly do not really believe that any more, and many who still do will absolutely choke on those words when they try to come out of their mouths. Where does this come from? This reluctance comes from Christians thinking, not biblically, but World View B-ishly: they try to make Christianity acceptable to B’s by turning it into something it is not and never was. When we foolishly tried to do this for World View A-ists, it gave us classical theological liberalism: a form of Christianity that denied the content, much less the power, of the real thing. We have known liberalism as a denial of the faith for some time—since it was unmasked by men like J. Gresham Machen in the old Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. What this new betrayal of biblical truth will give us, we are only just starting to find out.
- II. HOW DOES CHRIST DELIVER US FROM THIS PRESENT EVIL AGE?
This then is a portrait of the particular form that rebellion against God takes in our own time, our own private version of this present evil age. And the Church, as we are starting to see, is powerfully influenced by it. Yet Christ died to deliver us from this present evil age. If we do not receive that deliverance, that very specific facet of the Atonement, we cannot possibly be faithful witnesses to our present evil age. So how does He do it? How can we tap more powerfully into this aspect of our Redemption? Christ does this for us in at least three ways.
A. First, HE MAKES US AWARE OF THE NEED.
He had His Holy Spirit inspire His Apostle to write this very passage to teach us that we need just such a deliverance. He teaches us that to provide it was part of the very purpose of the Atonement, one of the things for which He died. Such teaching constitutes a command to be aware of the form that evil takes in our own age so that we are not assimilated by it but can recognize it and stand against it. The whole purpose of this sermon is to help us obey that commandment. By giving it, the Apostle reminds us of the necessity that we conceive of the Church as a Christian counter-culture. Can we really call ourselves that today? I don’t think it would be a very comfortable question for a lot of our churches to ask. But this passage demands that we at least pull our heads up out of the sand and begin to ask it.
B. Second, CHRIST CONNECTS US TO ETERNITY.
Christ gives us a larger place to stand, above our own age, so that our thinking need not be determined by our place, or “situatedness,” in time, and He does it in three ways: through the Church, through the Bible, and through the Spirit.
When it is functioning properly, the Church does this. It is supposed to be a trans-generational community in which our oneness in Christ overcomes our tendency to get mired in our own generation and only talk to people just like us. (This might mean we should think seriously about putting some limits on the addiction to rigidly generational programming that prevails in an awful lot of our churches.) But it connects us to more than just our parents and grandparents. The Fellowship of the Saints should include all our fellow believers who have gone before. In other words, the Church is not just a Trans-generational Community, it is also a Traditional Community. It exists to keep not only the prophets and the apostles but also Athanasius, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, John Newton, the Wesleys, C. S. Lewis, etc., etc., etc. as active members, people its currently living members converse with through their writings as their brothers in Christ. It is supposed to understand what Chesterton meant when he called Tradition “the democracy of the dead,” a refusal to be limited by the opinions of those who “merely happen to be walking about.”
The Church in other words should understand what Lewis meant by Chronological Snobbery and be our first line of defense against it. Yet how many of its pastors are even remotely prepared to help with this task, much less even conceive of it as part of their job description? This is especially true among low-church Evangelicals, but it is by no means limited to them. Well, until we change this myopia, until we stop promoting by default our own kind of Chronological Snobbery, we cannot claim to be taking seriously the Apostle’s teaching that Christ “gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us out of this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.”
Christ connects us to eternity through His Body the Church, but He does it in other ways as well. I have spoken most about the church here because it is the only one of these connections over whose functioning we can exert direct influence; after all, we are the Church. But the others deserve mention here and much attention in our lives. The Bible speaks to us from another era, and is a Book that stands over all eras. Its inspiration means that it not only comes from another era but contains revelation that comes from beyond all eras. God stands in judgment over all the ages through His Word. And Christ is Himself the eternal Lord, with whom we have fellowship through His eternal Spirit who dwells within us. Which leads us to the last point:
C. Third, CHRIST BREAKS THE POWER OF THE GOD OF THIS AGE.
Christ not only provides the helps we have already listed, He energizes them and works through them through the Holy Spirit who indwells true Believers. To be a true Christian then is to be in touch with an inner spiritual dynamic that is stronger than the influence of the times. The Spirit of God is stronger than the Spirit of the Age! But we must understand what the battle is, actively engage ourselves in it, and ask for His aid, or that dynamic remains largely untapped—and we remain Christians thinking like A’s or B’s, rather than Christians truly thinking biblically.
Too many Christians today are like ships drifting with the cultural tide, blown about by every wind of doctrine. I call upon you to join me in being different: to sail against the wind, to transcend your own generation and your own times so that our Community of Faith may be an island of sanity in this sea of chaos. You would also be joining our brother and mentor C. S. Lewis, who warned us against Chronological Snobbery and encouraged us to read Old Books. And you would be joining our brother and mentor J. R. R. Tolkien, whose Aragorn told Eomer that “Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men” (Two Towers 48). This takes understanding, commitment, and work–but not to accept the challenge is to frustrate a part of Christ’s very reason for redeeming us: to save us out of this present evil age.
Here endeth the Lesson.
Questions for Discussion: Can fictional worlds join past ages and other cultures to give us a place to stand in contrast to the age we live in? What distinguishes the right use of such fictional worlds from escapism? What are some of the fictional worlds that have cause you to look at your own age in a different light?
Donald T. Williams holds a BA in English, an M.Div., and a PhD in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. He is the author of seven books, including, most recently, Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman, 2006), Credo: An Exposition of the Nicene Creed (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2007), The Devil’s Dictionary of the Christian Faith (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2008), and Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011). He has also contributed to National Review, Christianity Today, Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, Modern Reformation, The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Philosophia Christi, Theology Today, Christianity and Literature, Christian Scholar’s Review, Mythlore, SEVEN: An Anglo-American Review, etc. A minister in the Evangelical Free Church of America with many years of pastoral experience, he has spent several summers in Africa training local pastors for Church Planting International, and currently serves as R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College in the hills of NE Georgia. Material on literature, theology, the Inklings, and other topics can be found at his website, http://doulomen.tripod.com. He blogs at www.journalofformalpoetry.com.
For more places to stand against the whirling currents of time, got to https://www.createspace.com/3562314 and order STARS THROUGH THE CLOUDS!