Our Culture; What’s Left Of It- Theodore Dalrymple

I have recently developed an interest in gaining an understanding of why society is the way it is today. I’ve always found history fascinating, and whilst my bone-idleness during school was not an accurate reflection of this (a C in History and an E in Ancient History are not exactly grades that give an indication that one has a keen interest in a subject!), my intrigue about the past has not left me. In my adolescent years I was often on the receiving end of the “In my day…” spiel from my parents/ grandparents. I’m sure you can relate to my total and utter exasperation by the time I turned 18 with regard to such chats! Nevertheless, with all the talk about how society has now changed, how Britain is now secular and increasingly antagonistictoward the Gospel, and how church numbers are in decline I decided it might be a good idea to readup on the moral decline and societal breakdown of the once ‘Christian’ institute that was the UnitedKingdom and Ireland. This is my home turf after all.

My interest led me to discover this man- Theodore Dalrymple. I’m currently reading his book ‘Our Culture; What’s Left of It’. I must say this book is a fascinating read and it is rather quite humorous at times when the dry, witty and sometimes cynical Dalrymple let’s rip on the many aspects/people that are, in his belief, largely responsible for the decline of British culture. I have summarised some of his main points below and I think they can aid us as we seek to share the good news of Jesus Christ with 21st Century Britons (I guess one could read the Western world as a whole when I say this).

Dalrymple describes 5 ways to transcend, or find deeper meanings to our lives, however I am only going to look at 4;

1. Religion: answers our need for social utility. But religion has declined markedly. It’s not dead, but fading.

My thoughts: Dalrymple’s research shows us that religion can be a force for good. For Britain in particular, we can show that the deterioration of Christianity has had a negative rather than a positive influence. Richard Dawkins and his fellow Darwinian worshippers may well disagree, but the historical trend shows us that as Christianity in Britain has declined so too has the morality and overall state of the nation. In our evangelism we must point this out to people. Jesus is the answer to this decline. In fact he is the only answer. Of course we are not to negate the main problem of human sin and exchange the gospel for a moralistic message. The gospel is about much more than moral standards. However, this can be used to identify the effect of sin – it leads to decay, and the destructiveness of it is now being witnessed in the rapidly deteriorating values and morals of British culture. Sin destroys and we are witnessing it destroy society first hand on a grand scale.

2. Politics: the idea that the state is more important than the individual is also fading. Nationalism and patriotism have diminished and are seen as backwards. It is now normal for Brits to despise their own country and to even blame the state for all that is bad in the world. There is little value in traditions.

My response: Dalrymple has identified the narcissism (obsession with one’s self) that is now so pervasive in our society. No longer do individuals feel strongly about pledging their allegiance to their country. It’s all about themselves. It’s a Me, Me culture. This may go some way to explaining why people no longer consider it appropriate to pledge their allegiance to the one true and eternal king- the Lord Jesus Christ. Dalrymple’s shrewd observation that people blame the state for all that is wrong in the world is also manifest in people’s attitude towards God- they are content to blame Him for the mess of the world rather than looking at themselves and realising the contribution they have made, and still do make, to the befuddled world in which we live. This has resulted in the growth of ‘Cultural/Worldly Christianity’ which tries to offer self-help religion, in an attempt to make people happy. This simply feeds the narcissistic mindset instead of changing it. Biblical Christianity says be holy, repent and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ; Cultural Christianity of today says be happy, comfortable and trust in the power of your inner-self that God has given you. On the contrary, it is the name of Jesus Christ that is more important than our own and it is human sin that is to blame for the way the world is, not the government. We need to point this out to people. For only when we realise it’s not about us can we truly find peace. It is about Him and knowing that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” and that “no height, nor depth, nor width can seperate us from the love of Christ” is truly a peace-giving reality when one grasps an understanding of it.

It is also interesting that Dalrymple has observed that ‘there is little value in traditions’ in today’s society. Hhhhmmmmmm……..how uncanny then that we see many younger Christians rebelling against traditional Christian beliefs. There are a multitude of churches springing up that are filled with people who are of the same demographic. Since when were Christians told to be ageist/seperatist from older folk? Becoming like the culture are we? Indeed we are and we don’t even realise it. Subtlety always was Satan’s tactic was it not? Of course some of these protests by my generation are legitimate. Old fashioned legalism and an unwillingness to sing contemporary worship songs because the “old people dont like it” is equally as wrong as playing nothing but contemporary worship. Both generations should reach a compromise out of love for one another and meet each other in the middle. We are a family, a body of believers and the head of us all is Jesus. So let’s have none of this mumbling and grumbling, ‘it’s my way or the highway’ attitude that we see so often. There are changes that need to be made. But we must not change the message or that what the bible clearly teaches. We must not exchange sound expository preaching for ‘Pep’ talks. We must not abandon Christ-centred worship for rock’n’roll worship. It’s not about the music, or ‘yea, yea, yea’ pop lyrics; it’s about the meaning behind the words that we sing (Col 3:16, Eph 5:19). If people think it can’t be done then just look at Keith Getty, Stuart Townend, Tim Hughes or Chris Tomlin. Their lyrics are Biblical, God-glorifying and Christ-exalting. Great! We also see people trying to deconstruct historic Christian beliefs. Doug Pagitt, Steve Chalke, Brian McClaren, Rob Bell and Bishop Spong are just a few. Creeds and Confessions of faith are deemed irrelevant and out-dated, when in reality they are more needed today than ever before because people are so undiscerning and don’t know what the Bible teaches due to the lack of diligent Bible study. Mark Driscoll is an example of how we can engage the culture yet hold fast to historical reformed, evangelical, Biblical beliefs. Altough I know some, if not many of you may disagree with me even on that one.

3. Culture: catastrophic. The country is in intellectual ruins. There is no interest in history. Dalrymple often asks youth if they can explain to him who Shakespeare is, and to his dismay they usually cannot. They don’t know about World War I or II either. They don’t think about learning. Most people today live in an “internal present moment” with one event disconnected from another. Strong sensations in each moment are necessary. Silence is threatening as it leaves us alone with our own thoughts. The cultural elite are having their own identity crisis, asking questions like “What is the purpose of the arts?” Most people have little connection to the past, and as a consequence little connection to the future.

My response: This common trend in contemporary British society has also infiltrated the church. We have taken on board the ‘murky water’ of the decaying culture instead of seeking earnestly to be countercultural. As a result the lifeboat of society that the church used to be is now sinking. The Christian no longer considers it important to read and learn about Church history or the apologetic issues concerning our faith. There is also a serious lack of Biblical knowledge amongst confessing Christians. As a result, many cannot defend their faith adequately or give a reason for the hope that they confess. They know what they believe, but they actually have no idea why they do. Their ‘get-out-phrase’ is ‘It’s all about faith’. This is both true and untrue. That is a paradoxical statement, however what I mean is that yes, ultimately one is saved by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ alone, but there are also objective truths that support the gospel message. For instance the Bible is 98.5% textually correct and there are more ancient manuscripts of the Bible than many other ancient documents such as Josephus or Homer’s The Ilyiad. Many accept the latter two without reservation, but disregard the Bible as being inaccurate and unreliable. This belief is simply unfounded scepticism and we must present this to those we evangelise. God has given us brains for a reason and we are to, as best as we individually can, use them for His glory.

People feel no connection to their past so we must trace their past back to the beginning for them showing them we are made in God’s image. That is their past. There is a God. He is the maker of all things. We can no longer presuppose people hold this belief for they don’t. The God of the age is evolution and the self. The connection to the future that we must point out is that we are all a part of the redemptive plan that God has for his creation; some of us our redeemed yet many are still in the bondage of sin and are the subjects of God’s wrath which is to come in the future. This message is the old, old, message that has been preserved and handed down through the ages. It connects people to the past and it connects them to the future, for the old, old message of the gospel points to a coming judgement and restoration of a new creation where Christ will reign eternally as our holy and good King. Only those who are trusting in Jesus Christ possess a truly solid hope and rock upon which they can stand; with Christ there is no uncertainty in life or death. For to live is Christ and to die is gain. Right?

4. Family: broken down. Dalrymple says this is because of easy ‘no-fault’ divorces. Forty two per cent of children are born outside of wedlock. Sixty two per cent of children don’t eat dinner at the table with their families. In the slum where he worked, no children ever grew up with both parents. And in the slum men normally have no sense of duty to their offspring, let alone to the mothers of their offspring. And mothers don’t have expectations of the fathers. So there is almost no sense of transcendence or growth through one’s children, or future generations of one’s family.

My response: The breakdown of the family is also inseparable from the decline of Christianity. Christianity is not dwindling in many places because we are smarter and know more and have thus outgrown our once primitive beliefs. That is simply an evasive excuse. Christianity is dwindling because there has been an abandonment of the gospel message by so many and according to the words of Christ, we ‘love the darkness rather than the light and refuse to come into the light for fear that [our] evil deeds be exposed’. Thus anything that is ordained by God we will naturally rebel against. One such institution is that of marriage and the family. Again we must present to people that God has ordained that marriage is to be between one man and woman, and that sex is to be within the security of a loving, secure marriage in order to protect us and our children. People think the Christian view on ‘no sex before marriage’ is an old-fashioned legalistic restraining rule that is out-dated. Dalrymple’s research would indicate quite the opposite. Instead, more so now than ever before, the Christian has more evidence to show that God’s will for marriage and relationships is perfect and it is there for a reason- to protect us from ourselves. However, once again, the church is becoming infected by this cultural plague. Christians just aren’t being countercultural as we should be, so because everyone else is getting divorced Christians are saying ‘we’ll do it too!’ Seemingly the divorce rate for Christians is around 32% (Barna, however I’m not entirely sure of the accuracy of this figure. What’s going on?

On the whole it is clear that Christians (me, you, we) need to start being countercultural rather than immersing ourselves and the church in the culture. Yes we are to be in the world, but we are not to be of it. Unfortunately it is my fear that we are too much like the world. Our mindsets are the same as our non-Christian friends in so many ways it hurts. The apostle Paul tells us to “not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)

How can we expect to change the rapidly decaying mindset of our culture if we, who confess to love the Lord Jesus Christ, do not allow for our mindsets to be changed through the diligent study of scripture, prayer and fellowship? The answer is we can’t. The only hope we have is to return to the Bible and to the Old, Old message of Christ crucified and to get out there and start proclaiming it faithfully. It’s also time we started living out our faith, rather than keeping it private as so many seem to do. It’s not humble to remain silent about our faith. It’s denying Christ. People are lost out there and we have the message. How will they hear if we don’t tell them? There needs to be another reformation. A reformation back to the original reformational truths, for it is only when the Holy Spirit moves that we can win people for Christ. Orthodoxy (right belief) and Orthopraxy (right practice) are inseperable. Today so many of us tend to focus in on one or the other.

A.W. Pink once said,

“That which Christ requires from His disciples is that they should magnify and glorify Him in this world, and that, by living holily to Him and suffering patiently for Him. Nothing is so honoring to Christ as that those who bear His name should, by their holy obedience, make manifest the power of His love over their hearts and lives. Contrariwise nothing is so great a reproach to Him, nothing more dishonors Him, than for those who are living to please self and who are conformed to this world, should cloak their wickedness under His holy name. A Christian is one who has taken Christ for his example in all things: then how great the insult which is done Him by those claiming to be Christians whose daily lives show they have no respect for His godly example. They are a stench in His nostrils; they are a cause of grievous sorrow to His real disciples; they are the greatest hindrance of all to the progress of His cause on earth; and they shall yet find that the hottest places in Hell have been reserved for them. O that they would either abandon their course of self-pleasing, or drop the profession of that Name which is above every name.”

We cannot expect the Holy Spirit to move if we are abandoning the truths of the gospel. We cannot expect Him to move if we live in unrepentant sin and worldliness. No; instead we must pursue holiness and the renewing of our minds. We must seek the face of the Lord in prayer and reverent worship (with our lives every day), and cry out for His Spirit to fall upon this nation once again. If we do not then we cannot expect things to change. God is not a shallow, unfaithful God. He is a faithful and loving God and he expects us to love him with every ounce of strength we have. Sadly, many Christians today think that the only demand Jesus places on them is that they legalistically attend church once a week, singing a few “I love you Jesus” songs and then say a 2 minute prayer before they drift to sleep at night. That is not so and God will not move amongst a people who’s commitment is as shallow and insincere as that of the culture, which Dalrymple has astutely observed. Instead let’s listen to the Word of God;

“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14)

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