The Gospel in the Postmodern West

We should seek to understand the culture of the people to whom we minister in order that God's grand solution to alienation from him connects with the cultural understanding of the people. It is equally valuable to understand the culture in which we are immersed. Our culture influences how we think and evaluate what is important. It shapes our beliefs and values, and influences how we understand reality.

If sin is fundamentally unbelief, a failure to be the people God then sin can be expressed as breaking God's law, broken relationship with God and others, and a failure to trust God when faced with the threat of spirit powers of demonic origin.

It can be concluded that the message of salvation is not only for those who know they have broken God's law but also for people who have shamed their ingroup and those who are bound by fears from spirit powers. Sin is both legal and relational.

Guilt ? innocence dyad

Traditionally, western cultures have been characterised by the guilt-innocence dyad. This dyad could be expected in a dominantly individualistic and task oriented legal culture. Guilt is an internal regulator of behaviour in the West. Shame and fear may be cultural features but these are minor themes. In these cultures shame is evident but this is personal, not particularly inter-relational. Sin is expressed in legal terms - the breaking of God's law. In this context faith has often been expressed in right belief. Gospel proclamation focuses on the biblical connection between sin and God?s law and expects a sense of guilt before repentance. This view of sin is supported by John who explains that "sin is lawlessness" (1 John 3:4).

In individualistic legal western cultures we are concerned about rules and regulations, the law and penalties for breaking the law. The law is understood as a legal requirement promulgated by the impersonal state. This affects our understanding of the biblical concept of law and sin. The biblical law is established by a personal God based on a pre-existing personal relationship with his chosen people. Our western worldview blinds us to the relational aspects of sin in the Bible.

A paradigm shift in western culture

It is widely recognised that western cultures have undergone a significant paradigm shift at the deep level (worldview) commensurate with changes in cultural values during the late 20th century. The change has been referred to as a change from modernism to post-modernism. Closely associated with that is the change from Christendom[1] to a post-Christian society.

In post-Christian western cultures a sense of legal guilt is no longer dominant in public affairs. It has been assumed, therefore, that western cultures are becoming more shame - honour than previously. However, evidence to support the claim is hard to find. Shame - honour is a dominant characteristic of collective cultures while western cultures are very individualistic. Certainly, commensurate with the development of multimedia, western people are becoming more experience oriented than task oriented. We are more connected than ever before, through the social media, but that connectedness does not translate to committed relationships and mutual obligations. Social media enables people to avoid personal responsibility for statements made, keeps parties at an emotional distance and it can be used to disparage others at a virtual distance.

The lack of a sense of guilt does not imply a heightened experience of shame. It is helpful to recognise that two different forms of shame can be recognised. Simon Cozens[2] clarifies for us that the significant shame in collective cultures dishonours the ingroup of the offender. It does not dissipate until it is atoned for in some way. The shame that can arise in an individualistic culture is the disgrace brought upon the perpetrator. It is personal and primarily an emotion that affects the perpetrator.

The following observations support the observations of a loss of sense of guilt and possibly personal shame in western cultures. A recent leader of the National Party in the Federal Parliament, Australia, had an affair with a staffer. The problem with this, according to other politicians and the news media, was that he crossed an ethical boundary - he should not have had an affair with a staffer. There were no concerns expressed about adultery and unfaithfulness to his wife. In another case an Australian Federal politician, while a trade union employee, was caught using his Union credit card for making payments for a prostitution service. The concern expressed in the media was about using a corporate credit card. There was no expressed shock about his sexual activities outside of marriage. There was no apparent sense of shame or guilt expressed by these two politicians.

With particular reference to Australia, Paul Kelly, editor at large for the news paper, Australian, April 15th 2017, refers to a "new progressive morality" replacing Christian values.[3] There is a discontinuity of the new morality with western cultural tradition.

This observation from the print media expresses a significant cultural change that is also articulated by the Social Affairs Unit in the UK.[4] In one of its publications, The Loss of Virtue: Moral Confusion and Social Disorder in Britain and America, the writers identify a shift in moral values that coincide with the loss of a Christian moral compass in the UK and USA that typifies what is happening in Western cultures in general. Morality has not been abandoned but there has been a significant shift in what is regarded as moral. John O'Sullivan stated in the Foreword of that book:

Traditional morality was religious, duty based, rooted in individual responsibility, governed by objective rules, self-controlled.... guilt-forgiving, repentant... The new morality was secular, rights based, rooted in social causes, governed by subjective interpretation, self-asserting, hedonistic, guilt-denying, therapeutic... universalistic and indulgent.[5]

Socio-political observers of British society state that the key values[6] of obligation, tolerance, discrimination, honesty, service, self-control/restraint, self sacrifice, duty, endurance in adversity, faithfulness in marriage,[7] and civility have been neglected or abandoned. Duty to family, society and nation has also declined. These have been replaced gradually with an emphasis on personal rights, pride, self-indulgence, social justice, and hedonism. This new morality is expressed in legitimacy of abortion, euthanasia, erotic sexual practices, the rights of LGBTQ[8], and unfaithfulness in marriage.   

The breakdown of trust, honour and loss of conscience that has been informed by biblical values has resulted in an increase in the need for organisational statements of conduct, regulation and policing. However, legislation and government regulation strategies to regulate social and moral values are ineffective in the absence of the Spirit?s power.

All of these changes point to a shift from the value of social integrity and personal sacrifice for the good of others to a self-centred drive for personal satisfaction, gratification and happiness.

These trends raise the question: are western cultures shifting to new cultural characteristics? David Williams, director of St Andrews Hall, an Anglican global mission training school in Melbourne, Australia, thinks so. He has proposed the development of a cultural dyad of pain-pleasure.[9] In this paper the dyad is reversed to pleasure-pain.

A cultural shift from guilt - innocence to pleasure - pain

Is this dyad of pleasure - pain a dominant characteristic of post-Christian western societies? Does the gospel address this?

The pain referred to includes suffering, deprivation, sacrifice and loss. We avoid it. No one would normally seek these experiences. This pain is an inevitable part of life, the consequence of human sinfulness from the beginning. It can be self-inflicted. Pain can be a valuable part of life. It can be a self-protecting mechanism.

The use of the word ?pleasure? includes happiness, gratification (instant), enjoyment, comfort and avoidance of pain. It is often a self-centred, individualistic pursuit. This pleasure is an expression of sin against others and God, it is narcissistic and hedonistic. It inevitably culminates in an enduring pain.

All societies are familiar with pain and suffering whether it is deprivation of necessities of life, trauma from conflict and persecution, affliction from unresolved health issues or associated with grief from loss. It can be physical, emotional and spiritual. In western societies we are preoccupied with suffering and hardship avoidance while seeking pleasure. We have developed strategies to avoid any discomfort, perhaps more so than other culture. There is, however, a minor theme in western cultures where pain is valued such as in sports and fitness training.

Some of the social indicators of this change of values include the following observations. In western cultures, people seek a sedentary life style with television viewing, computer use and social media. Gardening space has been reduced possibly to avoid the drudgery of gardening. Mundane routine is avoided in employment and so are household duties by the use of mechanisation and electronics. We are big on fast foods which require no production time for us and a minimum of effort to acquire. Westerners seek instant gratification. The high rate of divorce, in some cases, can be due to people in search of personal satisfaction at the expense of loyalty and commitment.[10] It is reported in the news media that an increasing number of expectant mothers opt for cesarean births to avoid the suffering and inconvenience of natural child birth. People try to postpone aging by applying temporary and superficial anti-aging treatments and surgery. Advertising agencies promote buying what is on offer by appealing to ego and perceived needs, stating that we deserve it.

Death and dying is unsought in all societies but in western cultures we isolate ourselves from the harsh reality. The aged are segregating into aged institutional care facilities. In so doing we reduce the burden of responsibility on their family. Generally, elderly people die in these homes or hospitals/hospices, away from public view. Funeral services are dressed up to be attractive and conducted in peaceful surroundings with soft music. These services focus on celebrating life at the expense of acknowledging death as a part of life.

Each of these on their own may not be indicators of pleasure seeking but collectively they do. There are also people who act contrary to these trends but overall we seek personal pleasure, gratification, affluence, the easy of life, and avoid activities and relationships that involve pain; sacrifice, suffering and deprivation.

David Williams has pointed out that this western cultural preoccupation with pleasure has infiltrated the church.[11] It is manifest as 'prosperity gospel' or 'health and wellness theology'. Some Christian advertising encourages believers to pamper themselves and there are Christian books and contemporary Christian music that appeal to our self-centredness. Self-seeking pleasure is a false gospel. It is ephemeral, superficial and leads to an enduring pain in eternity.

The church is not to simply reflect contemporary cultural mores; it is to be counter-cultural with a prophetic voice in society calling people back to God. When it reflects the values of society it loses its God given mission and its message is contrary to that of Christ.

Pleasure and pain in the Old Testament

The experience of pain is the consequence of human rebellion against God from the beginning. The whole creation suffers. However, God, in his mercy, has not abandoned us to unrelenting pain. He is not the cause of this pain but in his sovereign will he uses it to further his redemptive purpose for creation. His grace is demonstrated in undeserved blessing (Matt 5:45, Col 1:17).

The story of Israel is one of struggle and suffering. Much of it was self-inflicted. Since the time of the Exodus deliverance by God, the people of Israel were led into the land of promise. God owned the land and he would be their King. He spoke, through his prophets, of peace and prosperity in a land that flowed with milk and honey (Lev 20:24) if they were faithful to him. However, the people rejected God as their King and did what they saw as right in their own eyes (Judges 17:6). Life was occasioned by conflict, violence, idolatry, inequitable distribution of resources and exploitation of the less powerful. Certainly, there were times of cessation of conflict and times of prosperity but it was not the general experience of Israel. The letter to the Hebrews lists a number of faithful servants of God from the Old Testament who faced hardship and suffering in this life (Heb 11) clinging to the real hope of a ?better country ? a heavenly one? (Heb 11:16). They could endure the pain in this life for the anticipation of the rest that God provides (Heb 4:1-10) at the consummation.

In the Old Testament, there was the prophetic hope of shalom[12] which was expressed partly in tangible terms familiar to people of the day. For example; ?Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid? (Micah 4:4).

The Jubilee year, when existing inequalities in society would be redressed, debts cancelled and property returned to the original custodians, could have been a present reality under the reign of God as Israel's king. It was not, however, implemented but it eludes to the future experience of living in the Kingdom of God. Isaiah 11 refers to a glorious future where God's redemptive purpose would culminate in that Kingdom where the Messiah will reign in justice and righteousness, uncontested. Then peace with God, between people and within nature will be evident. This was only possible when God?s people submit to his Lordship over all of life. The consequent of this is the experience of shalom under the sovereignty of God.

Pleasure and pain in Jesus life and ministry

The pain of life on planet Earth was experienced by Jesus from the beginning. This is summarised in Isa 53 and played out in his life portrayed in the Gospels. The suffering culminated in his trial and the crucifixion. "For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb 12:2). Jesus was victorious though suffering on the cross and was exalted to the place of highest authority. To speak of this exaltation in terms of pleasure seems inadequate.

In Jesus? teachings the Old Testament concept of the Kingdom faded from view to be supplemented by values such as those expressed in the Beatitudes. The primordial manifestation (the mustard seed version) of the Kingdom of justice and righteousness was present in Jesus' teaching and ministry but the full realisation of this was eschatological. It is expressed in restored relationship with God through Jesus' substitutionary sacrifice on the cross. It includes both individual and socio-communal, and spiritual and physical aspects of life. This Kingdom life is partially experienced[13] now as a blessing - an eternal collective pleasure under the sovereignty of God.

Pleasure and pain in the Christian life

This pleasure is not self-centred. It is deeply spiritual and enduring. It is expressed as joy and contentment, and is experienced collectively. It is not ephemeral or superficial and can be experienced in times of suffering. This pleasure results from a relationship with God and living according to his design.

Pain from identification with Jesus

Jesus instructed his disciples that pain would be inevitable as a consequence of their identification with him (John 15:18-25, c.f. Phil 1:29). This is evident in the Acts of the Apostles. The Apostle Paul experienced much suffering as a consequence of his obedience to his calling (2 Cor 6:3-10, 11:23-28). The Apostle Peter wrote to prepare believers for anticipated suffering (1 Pet). To suffer was integral to their calling to follow Christ. He urged believers to follow Jesus' example in facing suffering for their faith (1 Pet 2:21-23).

Inner pain - a Christians experience

Apart from persecution from identification with Christ, Christians also battle inner pain through spiritual struggles (Rom 7:15-25).[14] That is an unknown experience for non-believers.

The unmatched and enduring pleasure of identification with Christ

The forgiveness of God and reconciliation with him is unsurpassed by any other experience in life. ?There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus? (Rom 8:1). Believers also have the certain hope of the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus in history is the assurance that those who believe will also be raised to new life (1 Cor 15:1-28). But more than that, we are protected by the Holy Spirit from the powers opposed to God. The Spirit's presence in the community of faith is a first instalment of the future Kingdom life and stands as the guarantor of the fullness of Kingdom yet to be realised (Eph 1:13-14).

In the cross, Satan and death was defeated. We are free from this bondage. Nevertheless we are still challenged by the world, the flesh and the Devil, but Jesus? prays for all of his disciples, present and future (John 17:6-19).

While pain is experienced in this life, an example of the collective pleasure of Kingdom life was experienced by the early church when "all the believers were together and had everything in common" (Acts 2:44). This is koinonia, fellowship that involves the sharing of life in spiritual, material and economic terms, an earthly foretaste of the consummated Kingdom.

The Apostle Paul shared his personal conviction that pleasure gained by worldly achievements were incomparable, contributed nothing, and was incomparable, to knowing Christ and ?the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead? (Phil 3:10-11).

Collective pleasure through pain - a biblical reality

There is no pleasure in pain. For Jesus' disciples there is an experience of collective pleasure expressed as joy even in times of suffering for our faith. In the experience of this temporary pain, we are buoyed up by the identification with Christ and the anticipation of being with him in eternity (Heb 12:1-2).

The Apostle Peter explains that believers will face trails which test our faith. These trails establish the genuineness of faith (1 Pet 1:4-9). It is in times of struggle that we learn important spiritual lessons and grow spiritually when we respond to God. James also argues likewise. He considered that it is a joy to face trails in life because these work within us the character traits consistent with the faith that saves (Jam 1:2-4).

Paul shares his personal desire to be raised with Christ but he knew that was only possible through participating in "Christ suffering and death" (Phil 3:10-12). Peter and James confirm the relationship between trials in this life and glorification (1 Peter 1:3-9, Jam 1:12). Eternal collective pleasure is experienced through suffering. It was true for Jesus and true for his disciples.

This pleasure through pain theme is also played out in the book of Revelation and brought to completion with the final judgment when all who seek self-centred pleasure will be condemned. However, those who names are in the lamb?s book of life are released from the pain of a corrupted creation. For them there will be no more pain (Rev. 21:3-4) only eternal collective pleasure. They are truly blessed.

The pain ? pleasure cultural dyad presents a problem; commonly personal pleasure is sought while pain is avoided. Biblically the experience of pain as trial and suffering is not sought, however, it is the God appointed path to eternal collective pleasure expressed as joy accompanied by the reward of glory.

If pain - pleasure is a valid cultural characteristic that has gospel relevance then the four dyads can be represented diagrammatically in a pyramid (see the end of document). Any culture can be located between the 4 apices. Contemporary Australian dominant culture may be located near the pleasure - pain apex with a notable bias towards the guilt "innocence apex and slight bias towards the fear " power apex.

The whole gospel

The gospel addresses[15] guilt, shame, fear and self-centred pleasure. The Apostle Paul expressed the whole gospel in Acts 26:8 when giving an account of his ministry:

? to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.

In Ephesians 1-3, Paul also brings out the various strands of the gospel using words such as: chose, adoption, sonship, holy and blameless, forgiveness, inheritance, God?s possession, great power above all rule and authority, citizenship, household, heirs, love, and reconcile.

In a multi-cultural western culture all four cultural dyads are relevant in communicating the gospel but for a postmodern western culture the dyad of pleasure-pain needs to be given attention.

Conclusion

The unchanging gospel for all people connects with people of each particular culture when it challenges the deeply held values that are contrary to the gospel. Four of these, fear, shame, guilt and pleasure may be present in every culture to varying degrees but one will be more dominant than the others. It is wise to initially focus on the aspect of the gospel that addresses the relevant dominant trait in the culture of ministry.[16] If we don?t do that our message is not likely to connect with the people and not address their key spiritual concerns. This may be the reason some who have started the life of faith do not finish well. Os Guinness describes this failure, not in terms of the inadequacy of the object of faith in God, but the faulty way people have believed.[17]

In a multi-cultural western society all four types of cultures may be present, however, in the post-modern western culture the seeking of pleasure and avoidance of pain is dominant so the way we have communicated the gospel must change from that of the modernist era.

If the pain - pleasure spectrum is valid it has significant implications for building conceptual bridges for communicating the gospel in a western dominant culture context that is oriented towards seeking temporal pleasure.