Culture Friday: More WJI student questions

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Friday the 8th of June, 2018.

Glad to have you along for today’s episode of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

It’s Culture Friday, and today I want to finish up the student-question overflow we had from last time. If you missed the setup: Last week we finished the World Journalism Institute course at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa. We were able to work with about 30 smart and hard-working students from all over the United States and three other countries.

But I invited the students to ask the questions, and not only did we have more than we had time for; we quickly figured out we’d need two programs to accommodate the eight questions. So last week we aired four of them, and this week, we’ll play the remaining four.

John Stonestreet will answer those questions. John is president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

So, here we go.

MARY RACHEL BULKELEY, STUDENT: My name is Mary Rachel Bulkeley. I’m a graduate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. So, Silent Sam is a statue on the northernmost quad of UNC’s campus. In the early 1900s, university alumni and the United Daughters of the Confederacy funded its creation. The statue was made initially as a memorial to the students and alumni who fought and died in the American Civil War. There’s been a lot of controversy over the years over whether the university should take down Silent Sam. Some say it’s an offensive monument that supports white supremacy and racism. Others say it’s an important part of the campus’s history. The conversation is highly politicized on campus, in classrooms, newspapers, and the community. But UNC’s case is not the only one like it in the U.S. There’s a lot more to the story, but how would you analyze the situation and what do you think the appropriate response is from a Christian perspective?

JOHN STONESTREET, GUEST: Mary Rachel, this is a very good question, a very obviously relevant question and also a very difficult question. I think this is a natural, historical dilemma coming out of the sort of brokenness that America went through in the Civil War and especially what some of the ideological divide between them.

There’s no question that there’s a level of identity politics and over-victimization that’s driving much of the voices that are demanding these statues come down, and yet at the same time, we wouldn’t ever, I think, accept a sort of statue celebrating some of the great leaders of the Third Reich because it just was so far over the top. I’m not saying these are apples and apples. They’re really apples and oranges, but I do think we need to consider, do these statues, do these historical memories belong in a memorial, do they belong in a museum, do they belong in education? And I lean towards the latter.

I think there’s also a legitimate part of this conversation which is when were these statues erected and for what purpose? For example, there was a long history after the Civil War of oppression of African Americans and Jim Crow laws and so on and these statues are in many cases more connected with that than they are with, really, the memory of maybe great leaders or something like that.

So I don’t think there’s a sweeping answer that applies to all statues at all times or all contexts at all times. And one of the things that I think is creeping in as a problem from those that are demanding these statues be torn down is that in a sense they’re trying to remove the memory. I don’t think you want to remove the memory because we need to know this history.

Just this year there is the opening of a memorial to the victims of lynching in Montgomery, Alabama. And the founder of that memorial said that one of the reasons he’s reintroducing these images to the American public is that we need a sort of what he called “visual vocabulary” of what actually happened during this time period and I think that’s exactly right. You need a visual vocabulary.

So the question is what’s the right context for it, and let’s take seriously, which Christianity at its best always does, evil when it is evil. Let’s call it evil, let’s confront it as evil and let’s see what we can learn.

JACK PANYARD, STUDENT: Hey, Mr. Stonestreet, this is Jack Panyard from Liberty University and I have a question for you. Everybody in religious organizations keeps on talking about how media is negatively affecting culture, negatively affecting people’s minds. What positive things have you seen out of the evolution of media and out of popular culture and the like in recent years? 

STONESTREET: Well, Jack, I think it’s a good question. I think it was Soren Kierkegaard who said that if anyone ever invented a talking box by which they could communicate to an entire nation all at the same time, that person should be immediately stopped. And, of course, he was talking at the turn of the century, 19th century into the 20th century and way before the invention of the television.

Everyone’s talking about the negative effect of media on culture because right now media has a negative effect on culture. That’s kind of unavoidable.

Is there positive things? I mean, honestly, yeah, of course. I mean, there’s an ability to keep people safer. There’s an ability to get the word out faster. There’s the ability to know more than we’ve ever been able to know before, which is both a good thing and a bad thing.

One of the most positive things, of course, is that evangelicals, in particular, have always been at the forefront of utilizing new media, new technology in order to promote, spread the message of Jesus Christ. This is not actually something pioneered with Billy Graham, although he’s one of the great examples of this in television and in film and in radio. We could also talk about guys like Charles Fuller, you could talk — you could go back and even talk about George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards, who pioneered the use of newspapers, which was a new media at the time, in order to create an expectation of the movement of God. 

And that’s a good thing, but that’s also a bad thing. The willingness to use new technologies and new media to get the message out often creates blind spots. The extreme of this, of the televangelist empires of the late 20th century, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, if you haven’t heard those stories, you’re at Liberty University, Jerry Falwell was one of the great pioneers of this in both good ways and I would say in some ways that should cause us concern because what we forget is what Marshall McLuhen said, which is the medium is the message. Some messages are not fit for some mediums.

It all needs to be considered. It doesn’t mean that you should never use this sort of stuff. I’m with Augustine. I think we can, when appropriate, spoil the Egyptians. But the medium’s the message, so be careful that, you know, that in a use of a medium, the message itself doesn’t get lost, changed, compromised, replaced, or something worse.

LEAH HICKMAN, STUDENT: My name is Leah Hickman and I’m a Hillsdale College graduate. My question is about church hopping. So, I’ve noticed that the Bible uses marriage to help us understand the church better, and biblically-based marriage is a relationship that requires faithfulness through better and worse, but I know a lot of people leave churches for sometimes trivial reasons. So I was wondering if there are any good reasons to leave a church besides the theological issues and, if so, what are they?

STONESTREET: Hey, Leah, by the way, was an intern with the Colson Center a couple years ago. So it’s great to hear your question.

Yeah, there is because theology is not just what you believe, it’s — biblically speaking, it’s the grounding for how you live. So, I want everyone to immediately, if you’ve not read this book, go get it and read it. It’s called Knowing God by J.I. Packer.

The uniqueness of this classic book by J.I. Packer is it is, I think, the best unification of what we would call orthodoxy–right belief–and orthopraxis–right living. And so I think there’s lots of reasons to leave churches that go beyond theological issues, if by that you mean just that orthodoxy. But theology is lived out. It’s lived out as individuals and as communities. So we’ve had an enormous uprising in the Southern Baptist Convention in recent days and that had to do not with right belief, necessarily, but right action.

How do you handle, for example, claims of women for abuse or rape or something like that? And the mistreatment of children, the mistreatment of individuals, the mistreatment of living into freedom. These things are, I think, legitimate reasons for leaving a church. I don’t want to say there’s kind of a — here’s the checklist because I think it’s a little bit more complicated than that, but I do think it’s more than just kind of being able to check off the theological boxes.

And I say all to also acknowledge the fact that you’re exactly right. We treat the church like we treat membership in any sort of club or organization or where we shop. And that’s really what’s driving, I think, our understanding of church. By the way, I think it also drives our understanding of marriage, which is one of the reasons marriage is such a broken thing in culture today.

ANNA JOHANSEN, STUDENT: My name is Anna Johansen and I take online classes at Thomas Edison State University, which is based in New Jersey. Early American literature is very optimistic. We have John Winthrop’s speech, The Model of Christian Charity, where he’s talking about how we’re to be a city on a hill and they just had a very strong sense of God’s special calling on this nation. And, yet, America isn’t a utopia and we have failed in a lot of ways, so I just wondered to what extent the United States really has a special calling from God, if it even does.

STONESTREET: You know, Anna, that’s a source of great confusion. I will say that I think that’s really important to note by John Winthrop’s speech and also some of the other words of puritan founders is that when they use the phrase “city on a hill,” they did not mean, at least by and large, they did not mean suddenly we’re set apart, we’re special, we’re up on a hill. 

It wasn’t in a kind of utopian sense that we’re going to create the new promised land. They were basically having a statement of responsibility, which, of course, also implies calling. And don’t get me wrong, but it had less to do with this kind of triumphant “we’re a Christian nation” God’s called us to do something special here than — it’s less that than we typically hear.

I think somebody who explains this very, very well and — pick up the book Bad Religion by Ross Douthat. Bad Religion. And I think he helps us walk through that history of confusion and brings a little bit of clarity into what was meant by a city on a hill and what wasn’t meant.

I think the best way to understand it is not that Americans have a special calling from God, but all of us have a special calling by God. Because calling implies that there’s a caller and we all live our life, as John Calvin coined it, coram deo. We live before God.

So, I would remind you that all of life is a special calling in front of God and we understand that what our founders were trying to do was build a nation. Some of them had a deep faith, some of them didn’t. Some of them were deeply committed to Christ, some of them were just committed to a biblical understanding of human nature, which really framed how the American revolution was different than the French revolution, and how the ongoing understanding of freedom and virtue and responsibility is different than the French understanding that came out of the French revolution.

So when you understand it that way, I think it brings a little bit more clarity.

EICHER: That’s John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, fielding questions from our World Journalism Institute students — the class of 2018. Thanks to John, and thanks to our great, great students.

(Photo/Dordt College)

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