Theology & Culture (1): Introduction

In 1998, at the age of 24, I left the United States for the first time and moved to a predominantly Muslim republic in the former Soviet Union. I had never traveled further west than San Antonio, further north than the tip of Maine, further east than Nags Head (NC), or further south than Miami. Can you imagine what a never-ending carnival of cultural wedgies the next two years were for me?

The first week in country, I was introduced to a special drink called “kuhmis,” which my buddies told me “will taste a lot like an American milkshake.” And truly, it was white and frothy just like a vanilla milkshake. But it turns out that it was white and frothy because it was fermented camel’s milk. At some point in history, a Middle Eastern or Central Asian entrepreneur decided to take some camel’s (or horse’s) milk, allow it to rot over a period of time, and then bottle it as a delicacy. Later that week, I also was served fish jello for breakfast.

The second week in country I was introduced to the “banya.” My buddies told me that it “will be a lot like an American sauna.” And sure enough, it was a square room with a lot of heat. But there were a few differences. One difference lay in the fact that steam was generated by pouring vodka onto a barrel full of hot coals. (I wanted to join in, but I couldn’t find my bottle of Nyquil.) Another difference lay in the fact that Central Asian saunas have bundles of birch branches in the corner, with which the men whip one another about the back, starting at the heels and working methodically and consistently up to the shoulders. Afterwards, they go outside the banya and roll around in the snow. I’m not kidding. I’ve never prayed so hard for the rapture.

Cultural oddities aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of being immersed in a very complex culture, a culture which was a multi-layered synthesis of Soviet-era atheism and Central Asian Islam. On Friday evenings, I could pay a dollar to attend world-class symphonies and piano concerts at the performing arts center one mile from my apartment. On weekday mornings, I took language lessons in Russian and Tatar, discovering how human languages provide people with unique categories for thinking and with unique advantages and disadvantages when mediating the biblical gospel. On weekday afternoons, I taught at three of the universities that were cultural legacies of years past. In the evenings, I drank hot tea (the manly drink of choice in Central Asia, best imbibed with a spot of milk and a spoon of sugar) and watched snow fall on a mosque and an Eastern Orthodox cathedral which stood immediately outside my apartment window. Often, I had a huddle of undergrad or grad students in my apartment, inundating me with questions about why I believe in God (atheists) or how in the world I could believe that “a man was God” (Muslims).

In the space of two years, I began to realize more fully the deep and resonant effects of religion upon culture, and vice-versa. I was living in a socio-cultural context that had been almost entirely devoid of evangelical gospel influence for generations. At the same time, I began to read Abraham Kuyper. (On my journey to Central Asia, I had packed one suitcase of clothes and four suitcases of books. Nerdy, no?) Upon reading Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Al Wolters, and Francis Schaeffer, I began to realize that Christian theology is relevant to every dimension of culture (arts, sciences, public square, the academy, etc.) and to all of our human vocations (not only family and church, but also workplace and community). Therefore Christians are called to glorify God by working out the implications of a Christian worldview in every aspect of their lives.

Aside from my salvation, that was probably the most profound theological awakening I have ever had, even to this day. In the twelve years since then, I have slowly but steadily built upon the conviction that the Christian mission includes the outworking of the gospel in every dimension of a given culture, in every human vocation, and across the fabric of human existence. Though I’ve read it or heard it quoted probably hundreds of times, I am still struck by Kuyper’s claim: “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'”* In Pro Rege, he writes, “The Son [of God] is not to be excluded from anything. You cannot point to any natural realm or star or comet or even descend into the depth of the earth, but it is related to Christ, not in some unimportant tangential way, but directly.”**

This means that absolutely everything in life matters to God. He cares not only about the goings-on within the four walls of a congregational gathering but also about the goings-on in other corners of society and culture. We must live Christianly not only as the church gathered, but also as the church scattered. We must take seriously our interactions in the arts (music, literature, cinema, architecture, etc.), the sciences (biology, physics, sociology, etc.), the public square (journalism, politics, economics, etc.), and the academy (schools, universities, seminaries, etc.).

For this reason, I applied (with David Nelson) several years ago for a teaching grant from the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. Yale CFC awarded us the grant, and we began teaching a seminar in Theology & Culture. In mid-January, I offered this seminar for the sixth time, and it turned out to be one of the best teaching and learning experiences of my life. As I observed our students discussing and debating these issues, and as I fielded their questions during and after class, I realized again the manifold and pervasive ways in which our answers to “theology and culture” questions affect our daily lives. For this reason, and at the prompting of some students, I’ve decided to provide a blog series along the lines of the major topics of discussion in our Theology & Culture class.

Because of the limited nature of a blog format, I will be able to provide a broad-brush treatment of some of the important issues at the intersection of theology and culture, but not an in-depth treatment. In upcoming installments I will treat (1) alternative views of Christianity and culture, (2) a theology of culture, (3) historical cases studies such as Hubmaier, Augustine, and Kuyper; (4) theology in cultural context, (5) theology and vocation (6) theology and the arts, (7) theology and the sciences, (8) theology and the public square, (9) theology and the academy, and (10) some book, journal, and website recommendations.

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*Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in James D. Bratt, ed. Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 488.

**From an excerpt translated by Jan Boer, You Can Do Greater Things than Christ (Nigeria: Jos, 1991).

Global Context (Russia): Stalin’s Children

Global Context (Russia): Stalin’s Children

By: Bruce Riley Ashford

It was my privilege to live in Russia from 1998-2000 and that is one reason that this book held me captive from the very first page. But that is not the only reason. Stalin’s Children is a masterful work of historical autobiography, telling the tale of three generations of love, war, and survival. It is told from the perspective of Owen Matthews, whose grandfather and father are the central characters of this story. Matthews, who is the Bureau Chief for Newsweek in Moscow, draws upon the voluminous correspondence of his parents, access to KGB files, and his own lived experience of Russia, giving us not only a tale of three generations of his family, but also an ironic, enlightening, and ultimately bleak portrayal of the last seven decades of life in Russia.

“This is a story about Russia and my family,” writes Matthews, “about a place which made us and inspired us and very nearly broke us. And it is ultimately a story about escape, about how we all escaped from Russia, even though all of us-even my father, a Welshman who has no Russian blood, even me, who grew up in England-still carry something of Russia inside ourselves, infecting our blood like a fever.

Stalin’s Children is a story in three acts. The first act tells the story of the author’s maternal grandfather, Boris Bibikov, a privileged Communist party leader in Ukraine, who was a real (albeit minor) enemy of Stalin and his vision for the USSR. As Matthews tells it, one morning Bibikov kissed his wife and two daughters goodbye, never to return again. Bibikov’s wife, Martha, soon disappeared also (imprisoned in the Gulag), leaving their two little girls, Lyudmila and Lenina, to fend for themselves. They became, in a phrase, “Stalin’s children.” The two little girls were separated during the Glorious Russian Patriotic War (Soviet nomenclature for World War II), but were reunited against all odds at the end of the war.

The author paints a bleak picture of this early chapter of Soviet history: “Communists-men like my grandfather-had tried to create a new kind of man, emptying people of their old beliefs and refilling them with civic duty patriotism and docility. But when Communist ideology was stripped away, so its quaint fifties morality also disappeared into the black hole of discarded mythologies. People put their faith in television healers, Japanese apocalyptic cults, even in the jealous old God of Orthodoxy. But more profound than any of Russia’s other, new-found faiths, was an absolute, bottomless nihilism. Suddenly there were no rules, no holds barred, and everything went for those bold and ruthless enough to go out and grab as much as they could.” Rather than creating a New Communist Man, and nourishing a new society devoid of societal ills, the Communist regime produced a police state and a Gulag with millions of victims, and fostered a chaotic and nihilistic society and culture.

The second act picks up some twenty five years after the disappearance of Bibikov and is, essentially, a love story. Matthews’ father, Mervyn, grew up in London dreaming of moving to Russia and soon fulfilled his dream by moving to Russia to become a British embassy staffer in Moscow. While in Moscow, he immerses himself in Russian culture, eventually being recruited by the KGB in the 1960s.

At the same time, little Lyudmila has grown up, become an excellent student, and is trying to make the most of her disadvantaged life. In 1963, Mervyn and Lyudmila meet and fall in love. Mervyn, however is thrown out of Russia for the atrocious crime of making a personal sale (although the author makes clear that Mervyn’s true crime is a refusal to be an informant for the KGB). For the next six years, Mervyn worked tirelessly to reunite with Lyudmilla and marry her. He waged an international campaign through the media, friends, and embassy staffers, to reunite with and marry her. Finally, she was allowed to leave the USSR in 1969, and they were married.

The third act picks up with the author Owen Matthews-at that time a young journalist in Russia-discovering Bibikov’s KGB File which recounts in detail the grandfather’s fate at the hands of the KGB. Matthews is able to put together the pieces of his family puzzle, making sense of the parts of the narrative that he already knew. Among other discoveries, he finds the record of his grandfather’s final act: his signature on a confession of treason. The third act is, on the whole, not as exciting as the first two, but nonetheless provides the author with an opportunity to paint a picture of life in Russia at the turn of the 21st century.

I found myself taken in by this story about three generations of the Bibikov/Matthews family. For one thing, it is a well-told story by a man with an eye for detail. Take, for example, his portrayal of Lt. Colonel Timofeyevna: “The investigator appointed to the case was Svetlana Timofeyevna, a Lieutenant-Colonel of the Moscow Criminal Investigation Department. She was a confident and matronly woman who sized me up with a shameless, penetrating stare, well used to separating men into wimps and loudmouths. She was one of those portly, invincible, middle-aged Russian women, whose kind lurked like Dobermans in the front office of all Russia’s great men; they ruled ticket offices and lorded it over hotel reception desks.” Now that is hard to top.

But in addition to being a well-told story, it also has stirred up a bit of my own affection for Russia. As Matthews recounts Bibikov’s fate, I cannot help but remember my childhood, when my parents received The Prisoner Bulletin, an underground newsletter that told the fate of pastors and other believers who were sent to the Gulag. I think of the deep faith of these martyrs, many of them Russian Baptists, who believed that the Lord Jesus Christ is better than anything that life could give or that torture and death could take away.

Further, as I worked through the chapters of the book, face to face with a Russian family through the past seven decades of Russian history, I remembered my Russian friends and their families whose warmth and hospitality I will never forget. Matthews’ narrative really is an existential entry into the tragedy of atheistic communism and the nihilism it fostered. The majority of my Russian friends found it hard to believe there exists a just and loving God, and likewise could not imagine that their lives had any real purpose or meaning.

Although Matthews does not communicate the point explicitly, the discerning reader will see that Soviet Communism provided a narrative that was intended to subvert and overthrow biblical religion. It provided a false god (the state) with a false savior, (Marx), false prophets (Lenin, Stalin), and a false church (the Communist Party, whose youth meetings were marked by, inter alia, atheistic hymns and sermons), all of which gave hope of a false eschatological salvation (a “New Heavens and Earth” which would appear when the Communist Man has overthrown class society and lives in Communist utopia).

The result of this fundamental misunderstanding of cosmic history has been nihilism, hedonism, and antinomianism. Matthews points out the ills of the past 70 years of Russian history, stretching from the brutality of Stalin’ purges to the chaos and nihilism of contemporary Russian culture. But perhaps the more significant lesson to be drawn for Western readers is that democratic capitalism, while it may fare better as a political and economic system, fares no better than neo-Marxism as a Savior of mankind, or as an interpretive key for cosmic history. At bottom of cosmic history are not economic, political, or military forces, but rather the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of history, and He alone holds history in his hand.

Book: Stalin’s Children (2008)

Author: Owen Matthews

Region: Europe-Russia

Genre: Historical Autobiography

Length: 308 pp.

Difficulty: Intermediate

Global Context (International): The World is Flat 3.0

This series of posts deals with the global context in its many dimensions-historical, social, cultural, political, economic, and religious. We will provide book notices, book reviews, and brief essays on these topics. We hope that you will find this series helpful as you live and bear witness in a complex and increasingly hyper-connected world.

Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century was written in the context of his taking over The New York Times’ foreign affairs column in 1995. Most of his exertions in the hallowed columns of that paper dealt with the themes revolving around the Lexus (his symbol for globalization) and the olive tree (his symbol for civil conflict). He was oscillating between these two themes right up until September 11, 2001. On September 12, he dropped the Lexus theme and went off to cover the (olive tree) wars. But the olive tree, according to Friedman, led him right back to the Lexus.

His thesis is that the world is now (almost) flat. Since the turn of the century, a series of political, economic and technological factors have converged to produce a tidal wave of change in global culture, which will only fully begin to be seen in the next few years. In the first chapter, Friedman points out that there have been other times of massive change such as the invention of the printing press or the dawn of the Industrial revolution. But this change is different: “There is something qualitatively different from other such profound changes: the speed and breadth with which it is taking hold….This flattening process is happening at warp speed and directly or indirectly touching a lot more people on the planet at once.

In the second chapter, Friedman lists ten “flatteners”: The Berlin Wall, IPO of Netscape, work flow software, uploading, outsourcing, offshoring, supply-chaining, insourcing, in-forming, and certain new technologies (“steroids”) that amplify and turbocharge all of the other flatteners. According to Friedman, these flatteners will converge to give us a flat world in which America may not fare as well as it has in the past century. As he tells it, there will emerge a system of global cooperation where no country is as dominant as the Americans have been. Further, Americans need to get accustomed to being 3rd or 4th in the world economy, after China and India.

In Chapter Three, “The Triple Convergence,” Friedman gets to the heart of his book. What he calls the Triple Convergence is the pivot point for the flattening of the world. The first convergence was when (at some time around 2000) all ten of these flatteners began to converge and work together in a complementary fashion. This was a tipping point of sorts. The second convergence is that we have now learned to “horizontalize” ourselves, to value connection and collaboration rather than to operate in top-down “command and control” frameworks. The third convergence is that as the world has flattened, an additional three billion people are now able to walk out onto the playing field-people from China, India, and the former Soviet Union. These three billion people, formerly locked out of “the game,” are now able (thanks to the ten flatteners) to plug in, sign on, and dial out as they connect, collaborate, and compete and, ultimately, define the course of the 21st century.

In Chapter Twelve, Friedman deals with “The Unflat World.” He opens by recounting two fascinating stories. The first is of his experience with Chinese government censors. One of his visits coincided with the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. When Friedman arrived, the government was blocking text messages that had any reference to Tiananmen Square. Because the Tiananmen Square Massacre happened on 6-4-89, the government blocked any and all text messages that contained the numbers 6 or 4. His next story is about a friend’s journey to the Sudan. At the time, in Khartoum, a rumor swept through the Muslim areas that if one shook the hand of an infidel (non-Muslim), that man’s penis would melt. The hysteria was spread by cell phone. Friedman writes, “Think about that: You can own a cell phone yet still believe a foreigner’s handshake can melt away your penis. What happens when that kind of technologically advanced primitivism advances beyond text messaging?

Throughout the rest of the chapter, Friedman deals with those who are unable to participate in a Flat World. Some of them are “too sick,” according to Friedman, meaning that either they are too sick or their governments are broken. This would include those who have HIV, malaria, TB, or polio, and those who lack potable water and electricity. Others are “too disempowered,” meaning that they do not have the tools, the skills, or the infrastructure to participate. This would include some Indians, Chinese, and Eastern Europeans.

Still others are “too frustrated,” because they have been put into close contact with more affluent societies and culture and feel envious, threatened, frustrated, and even humiliated by this. This is especially true in the Muslim world, as illustrated by the 9/11 plotters: “Virtually all of them seem to have lived in Europe on their own, grown alienated from the European society around them, gravitated to a local prayer group or mosque to find warmth and solidarity, undergone a ‘born-again’ conversion, gotten radicalized by Islamist elements, gone off for training in Afghanistan, and presto, a terrorist was born.

Finally, there are those who have “too many Toyotas.” In this section, Friedman deals with the billions of people in China, India, and the Muslim world who are beginning to demand the same conveniences that the West has, and as a result our environment is in seriously bad shape. He gives the example of the Wal-Mart in Shenzhen, China, which sold 1,100 air conditioners in one weekend in the summer of 2005. Can we afford for 1.3 billion Chinese to drive Toyotas and buy air conditioners? Can we afford for China to buy up nearly all the oil in the world, and from some of the world’s worst despots? His answer is no: “From a purely American point of view, we need a president and a Congress with the guts not just to invade Iraq, but also to impose a gasoline tax and inspire conservation at home and abroad.

In one of his concluding chapters, Friedman speaks of two types of imagination that we are seeing at the turn of the century. He contrasts the dismantling of the Berlin wall (on 11/9) and the destruction of the twin towers (9/11). The first type of imagination is fueled by hope and the desire for freedom, while the second type is fostered by hatred and fear. The bottom line, Friedman argues, is that we must work to influence the two forces that most shape the human imagination: (1) the narratives on which we are nurtured, and (2) the context in which we grow up. It is for this reason that America must collaborate with the Arab-Muslim world (for example) in order to produce the right contexts for people to succeed and to have “more dreams than memories.”

In reflecting upon Friedman’s book, I will limit myself to offering three points of interest for believers. The first is that Friedman makes it abundantly clear that the world is now hyper-connected in ways that it has never been before and that, furthermore, we are hyper-aware of this hyper-connectedness. Should we not take it as a gift from God, for the furtherance of the gospel, that we are now able to travel to, and communicate with, the global population in ways never before imagined? It will be a shame if evangelicals in the West do not take advantage of their wealth and this unprecedented opportunity to love the world with the love of Christ, both in word and in deed.

Second, we have good news for those who are too sick, too disempowered, too frustrated, and have too many Toyotas. For those who are too sick, we have the Great Physician. For those who are too disempowered, we offer the Savior who understands oppression and persecution. For those who are too frustrated, we offer the Savior who makes all things level for us at the foot of the cross. For those who have “too many Toyotas,” we offer a Savior who allows us to break the bondage of our idolatry and of our enslavement to money and possessions.

Finally, Friedman affirms and fleshes out what we are told in the Scriptures–that the human imagination is indeed affected by the narratives on which we are nurtured and the context in which we grow up. While we are thankful that three billion men and women from India, China, and the Soviet Union have the chance of emerging from poverty and oppression, we also know that affluence can have a numbing effect on the human soul. The narrative of “the ascent of capitalism” holds forth no food for the soul.

Let us give the world the true and better narrative, that of a crucified and risen Lord who will return again and bring with him a new heaven and earth on which there will be no pain and no tears. And let us give them the truer and better context for life by planting churches where they live, so that they may see the God of life and love as they watch a community of worshipers who are full of life and love.

Book: The World is Flat 3.0 (2007)
Author: Thomas Friedman
Region: Global
Length: 672 pp.
Difficulty: Intermediate