Monday, March 10, 2014

Your "Biblical worldview" might not match the Bible's

Society is filled with competing worldviews. The world around us is confusing, complex, and vastly interconnected. Human nature throughout all the ages has been to create narratives, stories which explain everything around them. These narratives create a worldview which explains the world around us, and where we are going, and the manner in which we should attain our goals.

Consider the worldview narratives commonplace in our country. Liberals share a worldview where a benevolent government led by the people provides the goods needed and protects the rights of the individual. Libertarians talk about the corruption and oppression of government and the ultimate freedom of the individual. Conservatives see government as okay as long as it remains small, and tell of a time in our past when the country’s values were stronger and commitment to the Constitution greater. Each of these worldviews competes for attention and action.

We individuals are confronted from the time of our infancy with these competing worldviews. Each of us as individuals takes some combination of the above worldviews and knits them together into something new, personal, and individualistic.

For example, I live in a red-state, Bible-belt area. The most common worldview you will find is a mixture of Christianity, American populist nationalism, libertarianism, conservatism, and capitalism. There is no one name for this—though most would call it Republicanism or Conservative Christianity or the Moral Majority. Whatever name you choose, the basic narrative goes something like this:  the Puritans fled Britain for fear of religious persecution; they founded the country on Biblical principles; the Constitution was written to defend those principles; God has blessed the nation as it grew from sea to shining sea as a symbol of Christianity and freedom for the world to envy; we defeated the evil Nazi regime in WWII and began to spread our freedoms throughout the world in the 20th century; our economy is the greatest in the world because it is based on free-market principles which reward cleverness and hard work; and this worldview is currently under attack by liberals and atheists who wish to crippled America and make us into a Marxist state.

I say none of that with any agenda; I would agree with some statements and disagree with others in that list. But that is a pretty fair report of the worldview in this area of the country.

My point is not that this is a correct or incorrect worldview. My point is that we each are exposed every day to competing narratives meant to explain the world around us and—consciously or not—we put these narratives together in a pattern to explain what we see.

The Biblical Worldview

The goal that we all have, of course, is to have a Biblical worldview (or as I prefer, a Gospel worldview). But what does this mean, exactly? Of course, there is no single Biblical worldview:  each book of the Bible is written with a unique worldview, and it provides the context to the contents.

Nonetheless, if we were to try and define a Biblical worldview, what would it look like? What is the one thread which links them all together?

I submit to you that the common Biblical worldview is, “We are an oppressed minority, eagerly awaiting justice.”

The first five books of the Bible are written from the perspective of slaves under oppression, seeking freedom from Egypt. The historical books of the Hebrew Scriptures trace the bloody history of Israel trying to find its promised land and (all too often) losing it and falling under oppression again and again as they defy God’s leadership. Most of the prophets record Israel trying to regain power from under the oppression of Babylon, Edom, etc. The other prophetic books—those written in the rare times that Israel is in power—warn of the coming fall into more oppressiveness. The characters of the Gospels and most of the epistles are under the heel of Rome; the Jewish Christians in Acts, Hebrews, and other books are under the dual heels of Judaism and Rome. Revelation is little more than a book about oppressed peoples, including martyrs crying out for justice.

This is the “Biblical worldview”—that we are oppressed, beaten down on every side, a minority; we are strangers in a strange land, but we have hope that one day our God will return and save us all and, in the end, it is we who will be vindicated. Those who are currently last (i.e., us) will be first. And those who are currently first (i.e., our oppressors) will be last when it really counts.

The danger to us

And therein lies the danger to most of us. Most readers of this blog are (most likely) white, wealthy*, well-educated, Protestants.

We are not the minority in our society.

We are not the oppressed. 

We do not eagerly await the justice of God’s kingdom because we are the rich and privileged who are living it up in the now.

We are the Egyptians. We are the Babylonians. We are the Romans. We are the Pharisees.

We are the powerful who look down on the powerless, and take what is ours no matter the consequences.

And because of that, you and I have a worldview problem. Because we receive so many ‘blessings’ from our government, and have been raised in the dominant superpower of our day, most people sitting in pews on Sunday morning have drunk deep from the well of American nationalism. 

We bristle at those who claim America is oppressive or war-mongering…because we have embraced America’s “freedom spreading” worldview. We get angry at those who attack the 1%...because we have embraced the capitalist worldview. We look down on the poor…because we have embraced the American Dream “if you work hard enough you will succeed” worldview.

We have so embraced the worldview of our culture that we explain away even the Master’s commands! We say that He didn’t really mean for us to forgive our enemies (so it is okay to bomb them). He didn’t really mean for us to be peace-lovers (so it is okay to kill in certain situations). He didn’t really mean that the rich would have trouble getting to heaven (so it is okay to go buy that new car). He didn’t really mean that true religion was measured by how we helped the poor and helpless (so it is okay to pass by that guy on the side of the street).

We are so enamored with our American worldviews that we will flat out ignore the plain teaching of Scripture if it disagrees with that narrative.

Let me ask a question:  How many times do you see someone in the Bible who is among the power-classes come to truly follow Jesus?

It is rare. Very rare.  The Pharaoh’s heart is hardened. The rich young ruler turns away from Jesus, unwilling to do what is needed. Ananias and Sapphira lie to cover up their greed and end up dead. Judas, unwilling to give up his dream of overthrowing Rome, betrays the Lord.

Jesus tells us, in parable after parable, that those who are powerful and wealthy here—by and large—don’t make it to heaven. Those who taste success here generally won’t see the Kingdom. They are too in love with their things, their power, and their pride.

We are too in love with our things, our power, and our pride.

David deSilva points out in his book Unholy Alliances that the church of Laodicea in Rome is criticized as being lukewarm for reasons different than we often think. The hot and cold water are both good things, served with different courses in the meal; between them one would drink and spit out lukewarm water. The lukewarm water is used in Revelation as a symbol of the Laodicean church: just like the glass of water, they had blended into their surroundings and become “room temperature.” They had accepted the Roman worldview and were indistinguishable from those around them.

So let me ask you a tough question. (And don’t worry, I ask it to myself as well.)  Are you really, truly, radically different from the other Americans around you? Or are you lukewarm? Have you accepted the worldview of this secular world, and lived large off of the wealth of being one of the children of the superpower of our era?

To put it simply:  do you feel like someone who is oppressed and can’t wait for Jesus to return and make it right? Or are you pretty comfortable in the role of the powerful elite?

It’s an important question. Because as the Master says, “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”


* Yes, you’re wealthy. You are reading for pleasure, in English, on a computer or smartphone. Only the wealthy in our world get to do that. Don’t feel wealthy? Go visit even a “wealthy” major city in India or China and you’ll realize that all of us in the USA are the “1%”


  1. Tough read, as it always concerning this topic. I was just talking with my dad the other day about issues like this.

    My recurring question is, how in the daily grind of routine do we live a life that cannot possibly be lukewarm? By very definition, it seems the grind of daily routine leads to a lukewarm life, and yet without the day-to-day, it is rather difficult to stay alive in this world.

    Look at the example Jesus set for us. For the first 30-odd years of His life we know nothing (I assume it was rather full of the daily grind), and then the last few years of His earthly life looked very little like anything most Christians today could ever hope to do if they still want to eat and have a place to sleep. Not to mention maintain any sort credibility in the society we live in today.

    Maybe I speak from ignorance or a simple lack of faith, but it is this intense practicality of how I am to apply these things that I have always seemed to miss.

    Perhaps you could help? How do you lead a life that our Master does not call lukewarm?

    1. A brilliant question (as usual, Aaron!). I wish I had it all figured out; I wrote this mostly because to be honest that is my challenge to myself. How do we, as people in a dominant culture with a daily grind, make sure we are following the Lord?

      I have never bought into the 'radical Christian' movement which says that we must move to Africa to be missionaries in order to do God's work. God gifts us each differently for different roles, and achieving those in the most Godly manner possible is the key.

      I think for me, I look at the few positively-spoken-of people in the Scriptures who were part of dominant cultures or extreme wealth: for example, Lydia of Thyatira, Philemon, Zacchaeus, the Roman centurion, and Esther all jump to mind.

      What I see from them is not that they stopped what they were doing, but that they used their positions for the glory of God. God was the center of what they did every day. Esther used her position of influence to save God's people. Lydia used her wealth to plant a church and serve as its patronness. Zacchaeus made amends for his sins and was overtly generous with his wealth because of his love of Jesus. The centurion was willing to humble himself publicly before a peasant preacher. Philemon founded a church in his home during a time of oppression, and Paul believed Philemon would free Onesimus when the slave returned to him and show forgiveness.

      In each case they stayed in the role God had gifted them for, but they responded with a God-focused generosity: either monetarily, or in spirit, or in bravery to do the right thing no matter the personal consequences.

      To me, that is how we avoid being lukewarm. So as a businessman, for example, I find myself constantly tempted and pressured to be just like every other businessman: to play ethical gray areas in order to maximize profits. But can I instead stay not lukewarm, being different regardless of the consequences? Do I have Esther's courage to do the right thing even if it takes away my wealth? Do I have the Centurion's humility to publicly bow down before Jesus even when my peers do not and would see it as weakness? Do I have Philemon and Zaccheus and Lydia's generosity, to use the wealth gained in the business world not for my needs but for the Kingdom's?

      It's not a perfect answer (and it's probably wrong)...but it's the best I have to work with right now.

  2. It turns out that Brian Zahnd said almost this exact same thing a month before me, and said it better.

    Some of the phrasing is remarkably similar; it's possible that I read this quoted somewhere and was influenced. Regardless, feel free to read his: it's quite good.