The Identitarian Epoch

For a long time it seemed that we were living in The Technological Age, a time of progress and promise for the human race made possible by significant advancements in science and technology. Scientific preeminence and technological innovation were going to deliver humanity into its long sought utopia where, because of the development of medical treatments through the free exercise of scientific inquiry, there would be no more death, disease, or pain. In a similar vein, internet communication and digital capitalism would allow us to connect with others over vast distances, while simultaneously fulfilling our every desire — whether material, sexual, or existential — so that there will no longer be any mourning or crying or sadness in the human experience. At long last, in The Technological Utopia, the old order of things will have passed away, and all things shall have become new. The Technological Age was creating the world as it should be, the final destination of mankind’s long and bloody journey into civilization.

We are no longer living in The Technological Age. The utopian claims of science and technology were always dubious, but we should not be surprised that they failed to deliver on their promises. Such utopianism should always be treated with great skepticism. Rather, the twist in the plot is that The Technological Age has resurrected an old monster, one that perhaps never truly died, but had at least been cast into the sea. This monster, running like a viral parasite through the same fibers that were meant to unite humanity, has now arisen in a form far greater than we could have ever imagined, leaving us all dumbfounded in awe, wonder, and terror. This monster has swallowed up The Technological Age, crushing the advancements of science and Enlightenment understanding in its iron jaws. It is a voracious beast with endless appetite, filled with bluster and rage and fire. The Technological Age is dead. We are living in what it has created, and by what it was killed: The Identitarian Epoch.

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This Cultural Moment is an important podcast hosted by John Mark Comer and Mark Sayers, each of whom pastors a church in cities that are thoroughly post-Christian — Portland and Melbourne, respectively. This is a podcast that I believe every follower of Jesus ought to be listening to very carefully and discussing with like-minded people. In the audio above, I, along with my wife Breena and good friend Corey, discuss the first three episodes of the podcast. I highly recommend that you listen to all three episodes of the podcast first, and then listen to our discussion, which we hope will help you get a sense for how to apply the deep topics covered in This Cultural Moment to your own life and circumstances. Below you’ll find a brief of sketch of the big ideas from the first three episodes.

Three Types of Culture

First Culture: A pagan, pre-monotheistic (for our purposes, pre-Christian) culture. Examples would be Europe before the Christian missionaries, Ancient Greece, etc. These cultures were very spiritual in that they believed in many gods and a strong connection between the material realm and the spiritual realm.

Second Culture: A Christian, or otherwise monotheistic culture. Examples of this would be Europe until the First World War, North America after colonization, or Israel from the time of the Exodus.

Third Culture: A post-Christian, materialistic, and thoroughly secular culture that defines itself against Christianity, specifically. Examples of this would be pretty much all of white, Western culture.

Cultural Colonization

The mission movements that transitioned First Cultures to Second Cultures often included more than just the naked preaching of the Gospel. Rather than simply declaring Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of all mankind, these missionary movements imported Western culture into Eastern and Southern contexts. We now have a word for this: “colonization.”

Just as some missionary activity colonized indigenous cultures (which was a huge mistake and sin), we now see that the Third Culture colonizes followers of Jesus. Well-intentioned believers who want to live “on mission” for Jesus very often find themselves transformed to be more like their unbelieving friends rather than helping those friends to become disciples of Jesus.

Relevance isn’t Enough

Mark Sayers describes the period from the late 1980s to the late 2010s as “the relevance period,” in which Christians tried to make the church cool enough to be accepted by the world. What we have learned in the time since then, however, is that the direction of the world has diverged significantly and accelerated rapidly away from Christianity. Whatever similarity there used to be between society and the Church (particularly in the West), it is long gone. Digital capitalism and the sexual revolution have seen to that.

In order to reach people in a post-Christian culture, it’s just not enough to be relevant. Relevance isn’t bad, it’s just not adequate. There is nothing that we can do to make the Gospel cool enough for a culture that defines itself by its rejection of the Gospel.

Discipleship & Spiritual Formation Must Come Before Mission

We cannot send people out into a post-Christian culture unformed. They need to be like Jesus, or they will be eaten alive. A significant problem that we experience in our churches today is the almost complete disappearance of the spiritual practices. For many young Christians the Bible is an obstacle to faith rather than the primary aid to faith that it has been for so many generations before us. Sayers and Comer agree that most of the believers in their churches are deeply anxious, relationally dysfunctional, have a sexual ethic shaped by the post-Christian culture, and are genuinely addicted to their phones.

This is a major problem for the Church, and there is no reason to believe that our leaders are any better off than the average monthly attender. Comer and Sayers sketch a solution that begins with discipling the leaders of your congregation. From there, because of widespread smartphone addiction, we have to reteach people how to live in community and practice the basic spiritual disciplines. The secret to formation isn’t a secret — we just have to do the things the Church has always done. We have to obey Jesus, do the disciplines, and have community.

If you have listened to the first three episodes of This Cultural Moment I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section. You don’t have to have listened to our discussion on it, but it might be helpful. If you haven’t discovered it yet, please take a listen and then come back and tell us what you think!

I listen to too many podcasts. My problem is that I’ll hear something in a podcast, think, “Oh, that’s good. I need to think about that some more,” and then completely forget about it after an hour because I’ve already moved on to the next podcast. The other problem I have is that something will stick with me, but I have no idea where I heard it, or what the host was referring to, so I don’t know where to go to more information. Such was the case with the phrase “non-anxious presence.” The host of the podcast (Which one? I can’t remember!) said this phrase while talking about a book he had just read, but I can’t remember the name of the book. A google search brought up so many results that I can’t sort through them. So as much as I want to give credit where it’s due, and point you to some good resources, I can’t. But I thought the phrase was so good, especially in this uncharted time of crisis due to COVID-19, that I wanted to share a bit about it.

Anxiety and fear are the norm for today, and that was true even before this pandemic got us all locked inside. This anxiety and fear often manifest themselves as outrage, which we find so often on cable news and social media. Now that we’re all quarantined, we’re probably spending more time on social media or watching cable news, which perpetuates our anxieties and fears, which only leads to more outrage — you can see how this can become a vicious feedback loop. If we’re going to get through this, we need to learn to break out of the cycles of anxiety and fear. In my experience, anxiety is assuaged as much by example as by understanding. Seeing someone, whether in my life or on a screen, who is not anxious or afraid helps me to be less anxious or afraid. Conversely, I tend to freak out if the people in my life are freaking out. This is why we need examples of a “non-anxious presence,” and even more importantly, why we ourselves need to be that example for others.

A non-anxious presence is an example of peace, confidence, and courage in the midst of anxiety, fear, and chaos. The storms of life will howl and crash, but we do not have to be afraid. We do not have to be anxious. We need to see others who refuse to be anxious or give into fear because we instinctively draw courage from the courageous. In the midst of chaos, order follows courage. So how can we be a non-anxious presence for the sake of others?

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This is a rather long, and dense, quote from John Walton’s new book, The Lost World of the Torah, but it is worth sharing because it helps us to understand some very important things about the Torah, and the world in which it was created. For context’s sake, this quote comes near the beginning of Proposition (what Walton calls chapters in his Lost World series) 14: Torah is Situated in the Context of Israelite Theology Regarding Yahweh’s Presence Residing Among Them.

[T]he seven days of creation are primarily concerned with God ordering the cosmos to serve as the domain over which he will rule when he takes up his residence and rest in Eden (which is effectively a cosmic temple). In the [Ancient Near East], the world outside of the divine realm was divided broadly into two areas: the human realm, where order was established and maintained, and the liminal realm, where it was not. The liminal realm existed on the periphery of creation and was home to dangerous animals; harsh and inedible plants; hostile terrain such as deserts, mountains, or the sea; and unworldly entities such as demons, wandering spirits, or monstrous demihuman barbarians. The ordered world was protected and sustained by the gods as they took their rest in their temples; rest here refers to active residence and rule, not passive relaxation. The gods do not rest in a bed or on a couch; they rest on the throne. In Genesis, this even days of creation describe the establishment of the ordered world. The process is completed on the seventh day when Yahweh enters into his rest. When Adam and Eve choose to take wisdom (the “knowledge of good and evil,” Gen 2:17) for themselves, they simultaneously become like God (Gen 3:22) and thereby inherit the responsibility to establish and sustain order. Consequently, they are sent out into the liminal world and charged with setting it in order themselves, which they attempt to do by establishing cities and civilization, the structures that were thought to establish order in the human world throughout the ANE. Genesis 4-11 records that these attempts were unsuccessful; cities and civilizations do not, in fact, lead to an ordered condition. The remainder of Genesis provides the setup for Israel’s proposed alternative, which is an order established by God through the instrument of the covenant. The covenant is not a return to Eden (which is neither anticipated nor desired in the Old Testament), but it does represent a kind of order that is sustained by the gods (Yahweh) rather than by humans through human efforts. This divine-centered order is finally established in Exodus with the ratification of the covenant and the construction of the tabernacle, where God takes up his rest among the people (Ex 40:34).
John Walton, The Lost World of the Torah

Walton offers a fairly radical (to us) understanding of the seven days of creation in this text, and he is building upon what he laid out in his excellent book, The Lost World of Genesis 1, which I reviewed here. I have also written about Genesis 1 before, so I won’t rehash all of that in this post. What really caught my attention was the idea of the liminal realm, or wilderness, for Ancient Near East peoples. The wilderness is where chaos reigns, where the world refuses to be subdued and ordered. The wilderness (which would have included the sea) was the home of the chaos monsters and the dark spiritual forces who resisted the will of the gods. The liminal realm was inhospitable to life, and only the accursed would go there.

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What does it mean to be made in God’s image? Many theologians and philosophers down through the ages have offered their best thinking to this question, and the question is so large that there is no pithy answer. To be made in the image of God means more than we can possible understand, given that it is impossible for any creature to fully comprehend his Creator. To be an image-bearer means many things, and Gregory of Nyssa, in his essay On the Making of Man offers this important insight: “the fact that [human nature] is the image of that Nature which rules over all means nothing else than this, that our nature was created to be royal from the first.” In other words, humans are royalty. Not just some humans, as we have seen throughout history, but all humans. Every person is cosmic royalty because every human being was created in the image of God. We were designed to be little-rulers of God’s vast creation, representing him in wisdom, courage, and humility.

We must be virtuous in order to faithfully execute our royal office.

That last part is the key. We must be virtuous in order to faithfully execute our royal office. In the end, it is virtue that separates us from the animals. In making us in His own image, God has, according to Gregory, marked us with the virtues of “purity, freedom from passion, blessedness, alienation from all evil, and all those attributes of the like kind which help to form in men the likeness of God: with such hues as these did the Maker of His own image mark our nature.” God created us to be like Himself, limited only by the fact that we are created beings and not Being itself. This limitation does not apply, it would seem, to goodness. While we never be The Good, we can be – and by the transformative power of the Spirit will one day be – good. We will be so good, in fact, that our desires will align perfectly with our nature (as God intended it), that sin will be impossible for us. But all of this will not happen until the resurrection, for it is impossible to achieve perfection in this life.

What we can be, however, is virtuous. In fact, the pursuit of virtue is required by our station. It is virtue that makes us human. It is virtue that makes us kings and queens. To neglect virtue – whether from laziness or the wrongheaded assumption that, since we are saved by grace there is no need to be good – is to reject the divine imaged-ness of our nature. It is to say to God, “You do all the work, and I will just sit back and wait to enjoy the eschaton.” As Jesus might say, “You wicked and lazy servant!” Is God your servant? Is the image bearer above the one whose image he bears? Again, from Gregory, “There is a great difference between that which is conceived in the archetype, and a thing which has been made in its image: for the image is properly so called if it keeps its resemblance to the prototype; but if the imitation be perverted from its subject, the thing is something else, and no longer an image of the subject.” You are the image of God; therefore, be the image of God.

To be virtuous means to be faithful to our Creator, to live in accordance with the intention for which He created us. You cannot find out who you truly are by indulging every desire, following your heart, or realizing your dreams. Undisciplined, those inevitably move us further from our truest selves. The only real path to self-realization is self-denial. As the Lord told His disciples, “Whoever wants to find his life must lose it.” If we are, in fact, created by God to be royalty, we must educate our desires in the way of Jesus. We must put on the virtues, even when it feels fake. (Honesty is a virtue, but authenticity – as we understand it – is not. It is important to learn the difference.) We cannot rule God’s creation in wisdom, courage, and humility until we learn to do those things which we know we must do even we do not want to do them. We will only become our true selves by putting on virtue, which comes only from obeying the commands of God rather than the commands of our desires.

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