Hidden Threads There was a time, not long ago, when the evangelical commu-nity had considerable consensus on lifestyle questions and socialissues. We generally agreed on what we should eat and drink and how we might spend our weekends. There was little debate over definitions of vulgarity or morality, and questions of fashion were rarely a matter for discussion. In those days, everyone knew how a family should be raised, and aberrations such as divorce and abortion were simply that: problems found only among hose outside the fold. All of that has changed. Today there is considerable disagreement on such questions, and where there is not disagreement, there is often a reluctant silence or unwillingness to enter into discussion on these questions.
The problem is complicated by the fact that these issues do not always fall neatly into those familiar gaps found among genders, generations, and geographies. Too often we find uneasy disagreement among parishioners or even among clergy in the same denomination. Similarly, tensions are found among teenagers or among parents and not simply between those two groups. In each case where such tensions exist, clear biblical and objective bases for evaluating our modern society are usually not found. Consequently, theological answers to these questions have generally not been helpful. That is not to say we should expect them to be. Much of the difficulty in dealing with contemporary social issues can be attributed to modernity with its tendency to pose problems that all outside of theological answers.
Theology is designed to defend the faith and not to interpret modern culture or to help the believer live in it. It is the province of social science to understand modernity and to explain how it affects all of us. Theology cannot be expected to interpret the impact of computers on modern life any more than social science can be expected to explain the Trinity. What theology can do is to elucidate those universal principles given to us by God that social science may then interpret for modern living. My claim is that modern life has re-defined many of the practices that theology traditionally addressed. State lotteries, for example, have defined gambling in ways unfamiliar to theology.
The revocation of blue laws concerned with Sunday openings has challenged the traditional meaning of the Sabbath. In a modern economy, the biblical meaning of poverty differsgreatly from the meaning found today. In each of these cases, traditional biblical interpretations do not address the questions experienced today. Consequently, there is a lag in theological thinking when contemporary social issues fall outside the boundof traditional theological answer. Our problem is to locate some common ground where theology and social science can join forces, some bridge between biblical truth and the application of that truth to modern social problems.
I would argue that concepts found in scripture as well as in social science form a common, hermeneutical base for the analysis of modern social issues. Referred to here as hidden threads, these concepts tie together, so to speak, the meaning God intended us to find in the world with meaning as we find it today. What is the meaning in the modern marriage that is faithful to God’s plan and what has been added by humans? What is the meaning of money that God would have us keep and what modern thinking should be discarded? These questions can only be answered when theology and social science join forces. The harmful impact made by modernity on society and Christian thought justifies such an approach. To support that claim, I intend in this paper to: l) clarify the crises posed by modernity, 2) develop the conceptual foundation referred to here as hidden threads as it relates to these crises, and 3) encourage the development of a hermeneutic which benefits from the interpretations offered by theology and social science.
Crisis of Meaning Much of traditional life was governed by the belief that society’s rules and norms were appropriate for governing human relationships and were worthy of respect, if not full acceptance. Developments in Western culture over the past 30 years or so have reversed much of this belief and substituted the notion that people shape rules as they interact. Instead of fitting relationships into normative expectations, those relationships may now be used to define new norms for behavior. Consequently, there is no clear agreement on the meaning of either the norms or the behavior. In effect, modern culture is re-defining much of the meaning attributed by God to social life.
Divorce has increasingly been accepted as the norm rather than the exception in marriage. Leisure has gradually become a substitute for work rather than a respite from it. The motivation to be first has replaced the willingness to be last. In each case, a traditional meaning for some practice ordained by God has been replaced by a counterfeit. The Assumption of Consistency Believers have generally made two assumptions about those issues produced when modernity challenges traditional values.
The first assumption is that there is a consistency of meaning in scripture which can be objectively accepted and applied in modern society. Since scriptural meanings are often more subjective than objective and require interpretation before they may be understood correctly, this assumption cannot be made with good conscience or absolute confidence. The case of murder and what it means in scripture is a case in point. From the Ten Commandments, we understand the simple, direct prohibition of the act of murder (Exodus 20:l3). This is an objective meaning given by God to His people which, traditionally, has been interpreted to mean that any act of murder is prohibited. The assumption is that a person will refrain from the act out of fear of punishment, if for no other reason.
Traditionally, this meaning of murder has avoided some of the traps inherent in a broader interpretation of the question. But Jesus gives such an interpretation in Matthew 5:2l-26. His concern is not with the outward action but with sin committed in the heart before the act is committed. The person who is angry with a brother is as great an offender as the one who commits the act of murder. Since the Mosaic Law could only deal with the act, Jesus sets a higher standard, one that is less objective than the act and also open to subjective interpretation.
Especially if the phrase without cause is added as in some manuscripts, murder becomes an attitude of the heart. Consequently, murder has now a subjective as well as an objective meaning. In Jesus’ view, some interpretation of the meaning of murder is required. The need for such an interpretation is even greater today as murder and anger can be expressed in a variety of new and unpredictable ways. The Assumption of Separation The second assumption about modernity’s challenge of traditional values is that believers can clearly separate their lives into that which is worldly and that which is not.
Thinking they share a biblical system of meaning distinct from worldly systems of meaning, believers often assume their world is also separate from and immune to the evils of modern society. In fact, such separation doesn’t exist. The problem as Newbigin sees it is that the layman and woman are themselves part of modern culture and cannot with integrity divide their mental world into two parts, one controlled by culture and the other by the Bible. Newbigin’s statement suggests the problem of meaning is both mental and cultural. Believers are in the world, culturally, and cannot assume they are not of the world without asking, mentally, what that involvement might mean.
There must be some personal interpretation of that culture and its meaning for the believer. While scripture is fundamental for making such an interpretation, a broader hermeneutic may be needed. Thus, Newbigin calls for: a genuinely missionary encounter between a Scriptural faith and modern culture. By this I mean an encounter which takes our culture seriously yet does not take it as the final truth by which Scripture is to be evaluated, but rather holds up the modern world to the mirror of the Bible in order to understand how we, who are part of modern culture, are required to re-examine our assumptions and reorder our thinking and acting. 2 A crisis of meaning, then, is largely a crisis of interpretation, first, as it applies to scripture as objective, but also and more importantly for our purposes here – as interpretations of scripture are to be worked out in our culture. From the earliest times, events in scripture had been interpreted in traditional ways for a traditional culture.
But as Newbigin claims, the interpretation has to be reinterpreted over and over again in terms of another generation and another culture. 3 Modern culture challenges many traditional meanings of scripture which may require new interpretations for living in our world. A Crisis of Culture The principle of culture refers to some shared meaning among persons. Traditionally, people agreed on the meaning of behavior that they experienced in intimate settings. Contracts were not 7 needed and all understood the meaning and necessity of work. Moral behavior was readily defined, and good and evil were clearly separable.
Strong consensus developed as moral definitions were accepted and supported by the community. Much of the crisis of culture today results from the forces of modernity that have redefined traditional meanings for many evangelicals. Gambling and divorce, for example, are often seen as less worldly than they were 30 years ago. Other changes such as the definition of biological life in terms of brain wave patterns or poverty in terms of statistical indices, are now open to personal interpretations that may challenge the traditional culture. In each case, modernity has abstracted traditional meanings or activities in ways that some believers accept and others oppose with equally good consciences.
How to interpret these formerly shared meanings now becomes problematic. The Assumption of Prioritization One of the assumptions of modern evangelicals is that their decision-making is based on values derived from more ultimate and often traditional value commitments. They assume that decisions are largely principial, rather than pragmatic, and guided by cultural values that all agree upon. In fact values are not necessarily given priority in the evangelical community. They may be just as problematic for believers as non-believers when they are too abstract or remote from everyday life.
Modernity has eroded much of the influence that values have traditionally had on the decision-making of evangelicals. Although culture as values has been considered an integral part of the Christian heritage, Swidler argues that people give more priority to strategies of action than to the values guiding that action. 4 She suggests that all real cultures contain diverse, often conflicting symbols, rituals, stories, and guides to action. The reader of the Bible can find a passage to justify almost any act, and traditional wisdom usually comes in paired adages counseling opposite behaviors. A culture is not a unified system that pushes action in a consistent direction.
Rather, it is more like a tool kit or reper- toire from which actors select differing pieces for con- structing lines of action. 5 Evangelicals are not immune to such a tool kit approach to culture. Like everyone else, they experience the discontinuities caused by the inability to maintain traditional lifestyle patterns. They may also choose among a host of new options for behavior. Swidler refers to such persons as those with unsettled lives – those involved in constructing new strategies of action – and suggests they are unlikely to depend on values for decision-making.
Only those with settled lives – those for whom culture is intimately integrated with action – will depend more on values for deciding actions. 6 The Christian ideal of settled lives, as Swidler describes it, is weakening. The trends to increased divorce and dysfunctional families in the evangelical community, for example, suggest the increase in unsettled lives there. The trend is also seen in Hunter’s data on evangelical students which suggest there is a drift toward androgyny as students question traditional roles of men and women. Singleness as a life-style option for women has then become increasingly legitimate not only for the larger population of Americans but for Evangelicals as well.
7 Modernity offers a plethora of new and attractive options for old behaviors. Priority is now often given to these options instead of traditionally agreed upon values. Increasingly, believers shop on Sunday and replace evening services with the Super Bowl. The priority given to the traditional meaning of the Sabbath as a day of rest is now open to interpretation. The Assumption of Integrity Another cultural problem in the evangelical community involves the assumption that a fundamental integrity in the Christian culture assures a lifestyle that is consistent and unified.
It centers in the belief that orthodoxy provides a shield against worldly choices and that Christian culture, by definition, stands above the world’s. Moberg suggests that such integrity cannot be taken for granted: Many Christian group tolerate internal sins..even while they condemn similar failings of others as ‘dirty sins’. 8 Swidler implies that cultural integrity weakens as diverse and conflicting symbols become more influential in rapidly changing cultures. 9 Suggesting that specific cultural symbols can be understood only in relation to the strategies of action they sustain, Swidler argues that old belief systems break down and are replaced by new. l0 In the case of young women today, they are not driven by their values, but by what they find they have become good at, or at least accustomed to. ll This same tendency to rely on personal interpretations of conflicting current symbols is also seen in Hunter’s data on attitudes of evangelicals toward traditional parenting roles. l2 He argues that although evangelicals maintain more traditional views of parenting than the majority of society, these views are changing. While supporting the value of traditional familism, evangelicals are less …