A Rumor of Angels – 2/15/2017

In German folklore a young fellow once lived who was distressed that he never seemed to feel horror like his compatriots did at times, and so he subjected himself to all sorts of gruesome experiences in an attempt to evoke such feelings.  Modern man seems to have the opposite goal of unlearning any conceivable metaphysical terror.  The secularization of society generates an abhorrence of the supernatural, the demise of God applauded by all who despise thoughts of Hell beneath and Heaven above.  (Consider the timeless and unreasonable popularity of John Lennon’s song Imagine, long after its release in 1971.)

So suggests Peter L. Berger, author of A Rumor of Angels:  Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural, a short book published in 1969.  I thought it might be interesting to visit the perspective of someone who, fifty years ago, was in the midst of violent societal upheavals, a sociologist who wondered what the next few decades would hold.  Nearly fifty years later, we can evaluate whether the trends he saw would grow or diminish.

Peter Berger

Peter Berger

Berger was a Professor of Sociology at Rutgers U. when he wrote the book.  He has the refreshing capacity to see his own field’s limitations:  “. . . enough has been said to justify the suspicion that sociology is the dismal science par excellence of our time, an intrinsically debunking discipline that should be most congenial to nihilists, cynics, and other fit subjects for police surveillance.  Both theological and political conservatives have long suspected just this, and their aversion to sociology is based on a strong instinct for survival.  I am not interested at the moment in pursuing the question of whether sociology should, in a well-run society, be forbidden as a corruption of the young and as inimical to good order.”  Amen and amen.

Nevertheless, working from within his dismal community, Berger, as a professing Christian observing society’s theological trends, affirms that “theology must begin and end with the question of truth.”  And truth is the issue of our day, a day of vicious ideological conflicts in politics, culture, and religion, conflicts driven by worldviews, all of which lay claim on truth . . . yet truth is and always has been narrow and jealous (in the best possible sense).

Berger observed that traditional religious beliefs in America had become empty of meaning, not just in the general population, but among many churchgoers.  In the last 50 years this trend has only accelerated, “the supernatural as a meaningful reality is absent or remote from the horizons of everyday life of large numbers . . . who seem to manage to get along without it quite well.”  Typical evangelical church life has been driven by seeker-sensitive, market-driven methods, producing the megachurch phenomenon of the last two decades, and has little relation to the supernatural . . . in my opinion.

Bill Hybels on stage at his megachurch

Bill Hybels on stage at his megachurch

In 2005 when we moved from the hinterlands of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Rockford, Illinois, I discovered that the largest and fasting growing ‘church’ in the area was a Bill Hybels spinoff, which promoted itself as “a new way to do church.”  The “new way” featured a rock and roll ‘worship team,’ theater seats in a large darkened auditorium, a casually dressed winsome speaker, and a series of monotonous low-rent ‘praise songs.’  They couldn’t use that promotion for long, however.  Everyone ‘does church’ that way now.  When my wife and I do ‘field trips’ to small evangelical churches, we see the same pattern, writ small.  We spent a couple of hours with one such pastor, who regaled us with his desire to follow the Hybels pattern to climb the megachurch heights like others have done.  He had no interest in the nuts and bolts evangelism and discipleship that we suggested could be of help.  And so his small congregation, perhaps 80 on Sunday morning, mostly middle-aged and elderly folks, spent a million dollars on a new auditorium and sound equipment, to compete with all the other megachurch wannabes in the area.  It was sadly amusing to us that when one traditional hymn  was sung at the end of the service, suddenly the room was filled with the enthusiastic voices of all the people, especially the older folks who have been robbed of the joy of singing serious hymns with adult content and substantive melody.

Berger calls them a cognitive minority, the remnant of serious believers in a secularized culture, those who have a worldview significantly different from that of the majority culture.  I was asked recently why so few in America get truly born again today and why so few of the truly born again are interested in spiritual growth – on the Biblical pattern – which requires the opposite of the passive experiences of modern church culture.  I’m convinced that the answer is that the ‘churches’ have slurped up both categories.  The occasional lost fellow who is searching for meaning and ‘gives God a chance,’ finds an evangelical church that entertains him, strokes his ego, and gives him false assurance that if he becomes a nominal ‘Jesus follower,’ he’ll be good to go . . . his life doesn’t need to change and he can make better choices to spruce up his marriage, his business, and his habits.  The truly born again fellow gets slurped up, too, perhaps sitting right next to the lost fellow in their theater seats, and is assured that if he ‘shows up, shuts up, and pays up,’ that he is a solid American Christian . . . especially if he is one of the small cadre that shows up once a quarter on a Saturday morning to box up lunches for the homeless or sweep up the leaves of the elderly.  (You might check out my Blog #3 in the 2013 archive to go deeper on this.)

Berger applies his principles across the board to evangelicalism, traditional Protestantism, and even Roman Catholicism.  I’ll restrict myself to what I see as applications to evangelicalism.  He observes that life for the cognitive minority is uncomfortable, not so much because of repression or intolerance, although that is on the increase for actual Christians in America today, but because the majority refuses to accept the minority’s beliefs as knowledge.  If evolution is factual knowledge, you see, then creation is myth.  As an intransigent member of the minority, I know that the reverse is true, of course.

The minority viewpoint is therefore on the defensive, which I observe throughout evangelicalism (and fundamentalism, too).  Playing defense is annoying, though.  It’s much more fun to play offense and score points.  In this ‘game’ however, offense is the Great Commission.  Evangelicals despise what one local megachurch pastor terms confrontational evangelism, which simply means walking up to someone, striking up a conversation, and sharing the Gospel with him.  Even more horrible, apparently, is handing a Gospel tract to a lost individual in the hope he might read it and think about his lost spiritual condition.  Horrors!  So old school!  No, we must entice them to our rocking worship service and win them through the winsomeness of our most winsome stage performers so they can be winsome too!

Berger sees the cognitive minority as continually buffeted by social and psychological pressures, socialized, in the evangelical application, to passivity and timidity.  The ever-dwindling minority who, when they dare, work to emulate the prophets of old, like Isaiah:  “Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and show my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins,” are marginalized and even shunned.  Berger sees the result as a theological crisis, because the Biblical pattern is so despised and so rarely represented that it loses plausibility.  You can literally go ‘oh-for-ten-thousand’ in offering the Gospel via tracts and 121 witness, regarding a life-altering response.  Overseas, this is not the case.  I am encouraged by many accounts of the Gospel taking hold and spreading where Western secularization has not taken hold.

PassoverBerger saw that secularization produced a crisis in Judaism similar to that in Christianity.  Many would say that Judaism is a matter of practice, rather than driven by ideology.  “The practice is, however, rooted in a specific cognitive universe without which it is threatened with meaninglessness.”  Without the supernatural, what is Passover really all about?  The original Passover, of course, was entirely invested in the supernatural.  Berger suggests that despite all sorts of traditions and loyalties, both in Judaism and Christianity, apart from the supernatural, religious practice “takes on the character of religious history.  People may like museums, but they are reluctant to live in them.”  I note that modern evangelicalism has detached itself even from traditions, ever morphing to chase the latest market-driven ploy.  Consider how many churches in the last several years have publicly trumpeted a series on sexuality.  Hey, that will bring the crowds in, they figure.  But then you’ve got to top that the following week.

The cognitive minority has a couple of basic choices in its response to secularization.  It can go along to get along, showing the world that we’re not really any different from ‘everybody else.’  That’s what the evangelicals have been doing since Berger’s time.  But accommodation, Berger points out, leads to cognitive contamination.  “The crucial question then is, ‘Who is the stronger party?’”  The world is, of course.  The Biblical truth is that believers will always be in the position of remnant.

The alternative choice for the cognitive minority is to stick to its guns, “supernaturalism and all, and the world (literally or otherwise) be damned.”  That’s what the fundamentalists do.  Visit a lot of IFB churches and it’s like taking a time machine to the 1950s.  Sticking to your guns is easier if you establish a culture of ‘us vs. them,’ a fairly closed culture, emphasizing 2 Cor 6:14-18 almost every week.  Now, the doctrine of separation from the world that Paul teaches is just right . . . of course.  But the fundamentalists distort and diminish the principle by a focus on such trivial matters as haircuts and suits / ties, and insistence on Old Testament temple tithing to build their own temple facilities and fund the salaries of their own priests . . . yes, the ‘pastors’ in IFB churches function very much as a priestly class with special access to God.

1950s - the good old days?

1950s – the good old days?

Berger notes that the opposite of cultural defiance is surrender and various denominations have done just that, buying into theological liberalism.  Unitarians, along with many Episcopalians, United Methodists, and others have focused themselves entirely on ‘this-worldliness’, in order to be relevant, and expending money and energy on various give-away programs, whether shoes for orphans or cheeseburgers for the homeless.  The evangelicals are following closely behind.  Every evangelical church we’ve visited in the last few years focuses most of its outreach toward the bottom 0.1% of the economic bell curve.  This outreach is almost exclusively physical (clothes, food, etc.).  If the Gospel is in mind at all, it apparently gets transmitted by osmosis.  What about the remaining 99.9% of the community?  To Hell with them . . . literally.  I’m not cussing.  That is the actual consequence of the abandonment of the Great Commission by American churches.

I must point out, as I’ve done on occasion before, that the charitable programs of these churches amount to a small fraction of 1% of their resources.  Facilities and salaries come first and take the lion’s share.  And few . . . few indeed . . . of evangelical church members are brow-beaten into giving anything close to 10% of their income.  (If they did, facilities and staffs would grow hugely.)  For the ‘laity’, big houses, big cars, and big screens come first.  It’s amazing that such little contributions fool American Christians into thinking they are doing great things for God.  If temporal charity is the mission, why not sell the buildings, let the pastoral staff get real jobs, and put your money where your mouth is?  Build city-wide house church networks, just like the 1st century Christians did!  Furthermore, by today’s evangelical philosophy, the ‘best’ Christians who serve God the ‘most’ will be those that have enormous incomes and donate much.  How can a blue collar worker compete at all, spiritually, with someone who is making six or seven figures?  My point is that the ‘system’ makes no Biblical sense.  It is hypocritical and internally inconsistent.

homeless ministryBerger believed that the challenge to Biblical faith from the physical sciences is far less dangerous than that of the human sciences.  He is underwhelmed by those of us who stand on a literal Genesis, for example.  The main threats he saw are from historical scholarship and psychology.

Secular historical scholarship, beginning in the 19th century, worked hard to chip away at Biblical texts, turning history into myth and legend and narrative, refusing to see the complementarity of the Gospel accounts; rather, insisting that differences necessitate contradictions.  When you’re committed to an anti-Biblical secularism, that’s the mindset.  I’ll add that the modern versions of the Bible are sourced from such philosophy, continually re-sorting which Hebrew and Greek texts to use, and employing mushy translation approaches to produce the vast array of English Bibles in use today.  It’s such a mess that most evangelical churches discourage people from bringing a Bible to their services.  The ‘preacher’ will be using whatever combination of versions he finds useful to fit his message, anyway.

Psychology deepens the challenge, ‘explaining’ why people need religion.  Freud, for example, asserted that religion is a gigantic projection of human needs and desires.  The combination of secular history and psychology work to utterly destroy theology in “a veritable vortex of relativizations.”  No absolutes, no foundations, no doctrines . . . everything is relative except the firm pronouncements of scholars and psychologists.

Sociology is built on history and psychology and, when applied to building the modern church, does its destructive work well.  Berger considers a minister who wants to find out how well he’s doing, so he distributes a survey.  Responses indicate that most of his people don’t seem to have heard his preaching at all.  They agree and disagree with things he’s never said.  He’s disturbed and conducts more research.  Some of the people have views that have little to do with what he or his church teach.  Others think that he’s just providing some moral instruction for the children, while he thinks he’s proclaiming the Gospel.  While he wants to impact the congregation’s social and political views, many want him to stay away from that and merely edify their family life.

Berger reports (in the 1960s) that “a good deal of the work in the sociology of religion begins as market research undertaken on behalf of religious organizations.”  This is precisely what has contributed to the modern megachurch movement.  ‘Churches’ have been built on market research and do, indeed prosper . . . in numbers, in income, in prestige, in fabulous facilities.  What does all this have to do with the Great Commission and the New Testament pattern for the churches . . . a pattern designed by God?  Nothing.

Once a successful movement gets rolling along, one of the fundamental propositions of the sociology of knowledge takes over – Group Think!  We tend to obtain our notions and views about the world from others around us.  The more pervasive the notions, the more plausible they are.  Powerful psychological pressures are brought to bear by ‘the group’ to encourage us to conform.  It’s a nonlinear process.  Standing against the flow is no fun at all, unless you’re a contrarian, perhaps.  Maybe that’s my problem.

Berger does a brief review of modern theological history.  He sees Protestant liberalism growing in the 19th century, up until World War 1, driven by secular anthropology (evolution).  The mood was driven by confidence in the rationality and perfectibility of man.  The horrors of the war ended this optimism and brought aspects of utopian liberalism into disrepute, although the basic premises persist today.

Vietnam war protestThe 1960s featured some theologians who promoted a moral mood of “Enjoy, enjoy!” in sync with the hippie rebellion of the Vietnam war years.  Simultaneously, Jean Paul Sartre (atheist, existentialist) encouraged commitment to world transformation via revolution.  I see both of these elements in evangelicalism today, in the feel-good passive experiences of church life and the micro-commitment to social justice programs.  (Micro?  Yes, when you allocate less than 1% of your resources.)

Berger decries such “mood theologies” that come and go with cultural trends.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t see the simplicity of basing theology and practice on the Bible.  Too easy!  He thinks a solution can be found by discovering signals of transcendence within life’s experiences.  These are phenomena within our ‘natural reality’ that appear to point beyond that reality.  That’s ok, in my view.  I would suggest such signals as the obvious design of the nanotechnology of life, the fossil record that shows distinct kinds, the awesome sedimentary rock record as evidence of the Genesis Flood, the ancient prophecies that point to the restoration of Israel, and the incredible and timeless practicality of Biblical instruction for marriage, child-raising, and conducting business.

Berger suggests some others.  Man’s fundamental trust in reality, in order, is perfectly consistent with the God of the Bible.  This is an appropriate presuppositionalist argument, of course.  Liberalism / atheism cannot rise above philosophical chaos . . . if we only ‘think’ and act via materialistic brain chemistry, then reason and logic are missing.  Berger:  “To assert it (that reality is ‘in order’) is itself an act of faith . . . In this fundamental sense, every ordering gesture is a signal of transcendence.”

Such ‘ordering gestures’ include the establishment of a household through marriage, which speaks to commitment, investment, hope, and purpose for living.  Note how the Adversary so viciously attacks this institution in modern times.  Another is the reassurance by a mother to her child who wakes up fearful in the night hours.  When mom says, “Don’t be afraid – everything is in order, everything is all right,” is she lying?  In the Christian worldview, she isn’t.  In atheism, she is.  In atheism, “The final truth would be not love but terror, not light but darkness.  The nightmare of chaos, not the transitory safety of order, would be the final reality of the human situation.  For, in the end, we must all find ourselves in darkness, alone with the night that will swallow us up.”  Genuine reassurance, love, hope . . . exist only in God’s reality.  If, as according to Freud, such faith is a childish fantasy to grow out of,  then what’s the point?  Life is tough and then you die.  Deal with it.

Berger insists that the parental role is not based on a loving lie, but is a witness to the reality of man’s situation under God.  Indeed, parents must model God’s love, God’s laws, God’s justice, and God’s promises to their children.  Dad, mom, if you don’t teach your kids the moral law and the consequences for breaking it, how will they learn of sin and judgment and their need for the Savior?

Interestingly, Berger sees play as transcendent.  “Joy is play’s intention.”  In a game the rules of reality are suspended.  In a football game, for example, what a linebacker can do to a running back would not be socially acceptable in other circumstances!  That’s not the Golden Rule!  In play we suspend reality for a time.  It’s as if we’re “stepping not only from one chronology into another, but from time into eternity . . . When adults play with genuine joy, they momentarily regain the deathlessness of childhood.”

hopscotchBerger observes that when little girls play hopscotch in the park, they are absorbed in their game, separated from the world, which has effectively ceased to exist.  I have noticed myself, in meetings where Christians take joy in fellowship, it’s as if the world’s troubles have been suspended, no sickness, no debt, no pain . . . can’t we just stay here and not go back to that world where trouble happens?  In Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian arrives at the lodge named ‘Beautiful’ and enjoys sweet fellowship with the young ladies Prudence, Piety, and Charity.  The picture is a perfect type of the (ideal) New Testament church, wherein we find safety, fellowship, encouragement, and restoration before we hit the dangerous road yet again.

Play goes too far for many, however.  Professional athletes become commentators, trying to live their entire lives in ‘play.’  Fans invest untold time and emotional energy in watching others ‘play.’  How foolish.

Berger properly sees “man’s unconquerable propensity to hope for the future” as a transcendent signal.  Our existence is always tied to future plans and hopes and fears.  We work to get to the weekend and to get to retirement so we can ‘play.’  We court to find a spouse to get married to have kids to teach them to do the same for their future.  But what is hope but a God-given drive to find Him?  Without a hope for resurrection there is no hope at all.

Another transcendent indicator is the argument from damnation.  Berger notes that moral outrage is the only adequate response for certain offenses.  He discusses the Nazi war criminals as cases in point, Adolf Eichmann in particular, who was a principal actor in the Holocaust.  Berger:  “There are certain deeds that cry out to Heaven.  These deeds are not only an outrage to our moral sense, they seem to violate a fundamental awareness of the constitution of our humanity.  In this way, these deeds are not only evil, but monstrously evil.”  Without God and absolute morality, though, what is a heinous act against another but merely molecules in collision?  Berger:  “Deeds that cry out to Heaven also cry out for Hell.”  Yes.  In reality, in the Biblical worldview, the persecuted have assurance that justice will be done, that God will weigh every thought, word, and deed and deliver judgment righteously . . . for the redeemed, that was completed at the Cross.  For others, Judgment lies ahead.  Paul’s 1st epistle to the Thessalonians is an assurance to a persecuted church.  The passage on the rapture in chapter 4 is specifically offered for hope.  Hope is real, but only in God’s creation.

Adolf Eichmann

Adolf Eichmann

Berger has definite views on apologetics, prefering an inductive or evidential approach as opposed to a deductive, presuppositional approach.  As I’ve explained in other blogs, I would disagree with him on this.  In fact he proposes a weak version of evidentialism, repudiating the approach of inerrancy and evidences concerning the historical veracity of the New Testament documents.  Rather, he wants people to look at the Gospel accounts as a simply human record, but search through the human experiences there recorded to find discoveries of transcendent truth.  Blah!  That leads simply to the mysticism of today’s emergent movement.  You can’t get to any definite answers . . . you wind up standing on sinking sand.

What I like is his desire for open dialogue, to put different religious systems on the table for examination.  For example, he believes that attempts to blend Christianity and Buddhism are based on ignorance, because these are contradictory systems.  Berger advises protagonists of different worldviews to be open and clear about their systems so that the undecided can examine their options.  Such dialogue was more common in Berger’s time.  In my own lifetime I’ve seen a huge shift from open discussion and polite debate to a refusal to engage, with post-modernist anger erupting at anyone who would dare to make declarative statements.  People get locked into whatever wacky worldview slurps them up in their youth, and henceforth despise discussion.  This is not universal, of course, but in the West it is the trend.  I’ve experienced it in my own efforts in 121 evangelism over the last 40 years.  Berger affirms that the search for truth should be paramount, especially in dialogue concerning ultimate issues.  I love such dialogues, but they are harder to find today.

street evangelismIn the author’s concluding remarks he hopes that consideration of signals of transcendence will lead to a rediscovery of the supernatural and, accordingly, victory over triviality.  Modern culture is nothing if not consumed with the trivial.  The issues of Life, Death, Heaven, and Hell must grip the mind and heart of anyone who is not overcome by apathy, which is why I ask that question when I offer a tract to someone . . . “It’s about the big issues – Life, Death, Heaven, Hell – do you ever think about the big stuff?”  Happily, I often get a serious answer to this question, even from a complete stranger I met just ten seconds before.  So there is hope if you can provoke someone to simply pause for a moment and transcend the trivial.  Try it this week.  Give someone a chance.

  • drdave@truthreallymatters.com

Comments are closed.