Cultural Narratives (A Unified Theory of Everything, Part 4)

Thus far (see parts 1, 2, and 3) I have argued that evangelical theology often resembles a patchwork quilt rather than a seamless garment, and that to remedy this problem we need a Unified Theory of Everything that brings the varied aspects of Christian ministry together into a coherent “big picture.” I’ve asserted that we find the starting point for such a theory in a biblical anthropology: the idea that human beings are desiring, loving, worshiping beings.

This understanding of human personhood may not seem earth-shattering. And it shouldn’t – it’s as old as the Scriptures themselves. But until we recapture it and rethink our ministries in light of it, we’ll consistently miss the point. This old, rich, biblical, Pauline, Augustinian anthropology has been out-muscled in recent centuries by two different modernist anthropologies: the rationalist view that humans are basically “thinking things,” and the romantic view that humans are basically emotive creatures. Adopting a rationalist anthropology leads to the “classroom church” where everything is oriented toward shaping a right worldview; adopting a romantic anthropology leads to the experience-driven church where everything is oriented toward giving people an emotional high and hoping it motivates them until next week. Astute readers should easily see that, though the categories may be over-simplified, these two ministry models dominate the landscape of American evangelical Christianity.

So if you’re satisfied with the level of worship, discipleship, and mission that American Christianity is producing… I guess you don’t need to read any further. But if you’re convinced that something is missing, might I suggest that we ask how a different anthropology would change things?

I’d like to paint a picture for you by applying the “humans as worshipers” anthropology to each question I listed in the first post. But before I do that, let me simply contrast this anthropology with some other approaches. To cannibalize Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, humans are meaning-makers who live according to some “dominant narrative by which we make sense of our world and the purpose of our lives in it” (Smith, Moral Believing Animals, 64). I think it’s fair to say that every meta-narrative has a basic problem-solution orientation. And every problem-solution narrative assumes a particular anthropology (explicitly or implicitly). Here are some examples:

The historic-Christianity (i.e. gospel-centered) narrative:

  • Problem: though created to image God, humans have fallen into false worship (idolatry) leading to self-centeredness, sinful behavior, and negative emotions.
  • Solution: humans need to be restored to true worship of the Triune Creator God through vibrant faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. This right worship restores God to his proper place in the human life, overcoming the root of negative behaviors and emotions and freeing people to love God and neighbor truly.

The liberal-modernist narrative:

  • Problem: traditional cultural and religious views keep humans in darkness and ignorance and prevent them from reaching their full potential.
  • Solution: humans need to throw off traditional views and embrace modern, scientific, empirical inquiry, which will answer all our questions and bring true enlightenment and happiness.

The liberal-socialist narrative:

  • Problem: society is unfair, and its capitalist economic system exploits most humans and keeps them from freedom and progress. The few prosper at the expense of the many.
  • Solution: humans need the state to exercise its political power to redistribute wealth, enforce equality of opportunity, and create a just and egalitarian society.

The psychotherapy narrative:

  • Problem: humans are basically good; negative behaviors or emotions come from poor self-esteem, poor socialization, or poor family environments.
  • Solution: humans need to learn to think positively about themselves and overcome hindrances from their past; then they will be free to live a happy and fulfilled life.

The atheist narrative:

  • Problem: belief in the supernatural leads to totalizing religious truth-claims that silence opposing viewpoints, cause conflict, and work against human flourishing.
  • Solution: humans need to abandon belief in the supernatural, throwing off irrationality and blind faith and living by the true light of reason and science.

Thoughtful readers may feel that I’ve been too simplistic in these renderings, and I welcome their corrections. I have not aimed to be exhaustively rigorous, but simple and summative. The point I wish to make is this: each of these narratives assumes an anthropology. One reason Christians lack a Unified Theory of Everything is because we’ve bought into the false anthropologies underlying these cultural narratives. We’ve been content to argue about the solutions proposed in each narrative instead of questioning the statement of the problem.

But perhaps I digress. I have promised to show how a humans-as-worshiping-beings anthropology gives us a Unified Theory of Everything for Christian ministry and mission. So to that goal we now turn.

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