skip to Main Content

Finding the Keys to Culture and to the Human Heart (part 3)

Let me suggest some other ones in our day that I think are very useful for us.
I mentioned idolatry. I believe that when you look at the Bible as a monotheistic text – that there is one God over all of life – idols are intrusions into the God relationship. Every page of the Scriptures, and certainly the Old Testament mentioned explicitly and implied through the very worldview of the New Testament, that idolatry is a much bigger concept. It’s a kingdom concept. Right? So it’s about who rules. And idols are intrusions into the relationship with God. And repentance of idols is actually a way we worship with God. It’s called the Shema. We worship one God with all that we are. In other words, the renunciation of idolatry is a far better way. Now I would think that works better in a context like New York City. But hey, I don’t live there. But I think it’s right. I think it would be a better category to understand them with.
But I also think that in America particularly, and we’re beginning to grapple with this idea that shame is a far better category. Now, Aussies are the same, by the way. Very, very competitive. This (competitiveness) is just one aspect, by the way. In very competitive Americans, everyone wants to be number one. What actually happens is that by creating the winner, we create the loser. And (I) would argue that creates shame. If guilt is an external manifestation of, “I’m responsible to an objective standard before God,” then shame is the internal register. It’s my own self-assessment that I fail to live up to. It creates this downcast-ness in the soul.
I believe women are shamed in this country in a big way. That they can’t keep eye contact. That’s a classic idea of shame. Beauty myths create shame. You create an object of beauty, you create ugliness. It’s a social construct. So, when you put up all these beautiful people and all these winners (of course all of us don’t play that game) we feel like we don’t match up to what we should.
That is a different register for the Gospel.
And by the way, the Good News there is that the Bible deals more with shame than it does with guilt. That might be a shock to you, but it’s true. Because it comes from a culture that is about shame and honor. The Middle East [cultures], like most of the Eastern contexts, are shame/honor cultures. And if you begin to look at the Gospels and the stories of the Bible through that register, you see a whole new set of agendas. That God raises up the downcast. That’s good news, folks. But it’s not justification by faith. You get my gist? You have to bring a different aspect to bear to make it work.
And I would again say that sin is the clue. Look at people’s sins and it’s the clue to how the Gospel might respond. G.K. Chesterton noticed this. The man knocking on the door of a brothel is looking for God.

The man knocking on the door of a brothel is looking for God.

So tell me, what do you think is being sought for when someone goes to a brothel? Overcoming loneliness, right? And you think that people pay for…that they don’t know what they’re doing there? They are actually looking to be touched. I knew a guy when he first came to the Lord. He was a promiscuous young guy. But he was trying to live a pure life. And you know, what he would do? He would sometimes take himself off to the hairdresser, just so that the hairdresser would wash his hair just so he could be touched by a woman. I didn’t think that there was anything unrighteous in that. But the fact that he had to do that shows that there was something in there for him. When a man goes to a brothel, they’re looking for transcendence in the act of sex. A little bit of ecstasy in a world that is misery – that you feel like this life is not worth it.
A person that takes drugs, what do you think? “Oh, that’s bad – brothels and drugs, very bad.” Yes okay, so that’s your self-righteousness speaking. What’s really being sought there? I would argue that something far deeper. When someone takes drugs, it’s something that I can speak from personal experience in this. You’re seeing two fundamental realities being offered: a desire to escape from pain and to eliminate that sense of pain and struggle. And then of course the idea of also ecstasy; the idea of transcendence. Now these are two religious quests, folks. They are looking for the right thing in the wrong places. But it’s the right thing.

C.S. Lewis said that all of our vices are virtues gone wrong. They’re just the same thing – looking for the right thing in the wrong place. Our sins, people’s sins, occlude to what aspect of the Good News you might bring to bear.

The issue of theophany – you look at like theophany – everyone has them. Now a theophany is a moment of religious significance. A moment where God reveals himself in some way. One of my favorite images from the movies is in the movie “The Color Purple.” Where the movie gets its name from is this little slave girl in the South is walking with her mom next to this beautiful hill of violets. It’s just this stunning view. And she says to her mom, “Mommy, mommy, I think God is making a pass at me in the flowers.” It’s a wonderful little phrase – that God is making a pass at me in the flowers. That even in little things like that, you could see it in a sunset. I mean, how many sunsets have been? Thousands of sunsets. But this sunset, this day was like an eternity breaks through me in a moment. Everyone has God experiences – not only Christians. It’s like God flirting with us, right? And I think our job is to name the name of Jesus in that. It’s to actually say what that’s hinting at– that God has provided for us in Jesus Christ.
Now John Wesley was brilliant at this. He developed (well actually, it was thought of before him), but he really developed this concept of prevenient grace. We don’t use that word anymore in our day. But we use the word “convene,” like we “convened this morning,” i.e. it brought us together. But “prevene” means to prepare beforehand. And there was a lot of preparation to make a conference happen. And God bless those folks for doing that – because here we are today, and it takes a lot of prep. That’s “prevene.” And the way that he said it is that God is involved in every person, calling them to himself in and through Jesus Christ. You know, in other words, it’s like God is saying, “Hey check out my Son! Isn’t he fantastic? Look at Jesus.” In other words, he’s the great evangelist. God is the Evangelist.
One of the heresies I think we Evangelicals [have] is that we bring God with us in our pocket. “We’re gonna tell you about God.” Do you really think God has been out until you got there in the room? Do you think that God isn’t involved in people’s lives before they become Christian? God is everywhere. He loves and he’s like a city. I think he’s flirting with us all the time. And the Holy Spirit job is to, again, draw us into Christ. I think that we can trust that. But if you don’t have the register to see that, you’re never going to be able to join with God.
So find out what God’s doing in a room and ask the question, “Lord, what are you doing in the room?” and join with him. You can join with him. It’s a wonderful idea.

Partnering with God to bring salvation to the world.

If you think of this from a Biblical perspective, if you look at the difference between Paul in Athens and Paul in Jerusalem – Paul in Jerusalem has his King James out and is line by line, precept by precept. Because he’s deep within the Bible Belt, right? These are the people of the story, they know the story, he can draw upon their story in the narrative, and at the end is a twist – a Messianic twist. But he’s basically telling and retelling the story in a way that brings the Gospel to those people.
In Athens, they are not the people of the story. So what does he do? He walks around the city and he observes the idolatry. Boom. He says, “I see you’re very religious.” This is their god – the god there apparently was the god, Ceres. It was the corn king – the seed that would die and rise again. And every season they celebrated the corn king. Now they needed to pick up this metaphor of the resurrection that something would die and rise again. And he (Paul) says, “Now look at this, I see you’re religious, you’re looking for this, I can point you over here.” He’s understanding their culture, he reads their poets – poetry is a great search for meaning, folks – 1000 words in one line. Often by reading the best poetry that is representative. You actually pick up what cultures are on about. And it’s a great clue.
I once ran a conference called “St. Paul Goes to the Movies.” On this assumption, I think he would look at movies as to what is being said in movies and interpret them to bring people to a greater appreciation as to what is in the Gospel. Because in Athens, you exegete the culture and bring people to the Lord and then point to Jesus. In Jerusalem, you can start with the Bible and bring them to Jesus. But you’ve got to learn increasingly in America to engage this context as if you are actually in Athens. Because that’s what has happened in the Western world. We need to adjust ourselves.
With that I’ll finish. But I just want to encourage you folks to broaden from a reduced understanding of the Gospel, to see it much bigger and as a kingdom and covenant and creation kind of thing. That Good News is so much bigger than simply personal sin. And it does include that. But it is much bigger.
The human being is much more complex and wonderful and that they are all giving us the keys – like my dad was giving me the key to his heart – and I missed it, and I should have followed it. I don’t know what could have happened, but I should have followed it.
Look for the keys that people are giving you. Look for the keys that the culture is giving us. Try to appropriate it. Try to trust that Holy Spirit will do what he does best. Don’t play Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
For more talks like Alan’s and more information on Amplify, go to:

Read More

Finding the Keys to Culture and to the Human Heart – Part 2

We’ve really been impacted very deeply by the last great reappraisal of our theology. The great Reformation – which we’re celebrating next year the 500 years of the Reformation. And the thing is we’re tuned to that, but the existential issues of those time are very different than the existential issues of today. And because we are not tuned to what has been given to us – we don’t see all the things that I think people are giving us that would lead them into an encounter with God.
Our maps, I believe, don’t fit the territories any longer. And this is true of our ecclesiology and so much of how we do things – but it is true also of the Gospel, in that, somehow we have a reduced anthropology as a result. We are not listening – we’re not understanding the human in his or her existence. And all the things that they represent to us, we call “existential issues” – we’ve reduced them down to a very distinctive understanding of “sinning before a holy God.”
Now, I want to be clear on this, I’m going to explain this stuff a little larger. But, I think that’s a reduction. It’s a reduction of our theology, and it’s a reduction of how we understand the human being. And we need to see them in a much bigger sense of who people are – and certainly a much bigger sense of what the Gospel is.
I’ve been reading a lot of William Blake lately. I like poetry. I love the phrase he uses, “the doors of perception.” So let me read this piece of poetry for you:
“If the doors of perception were cleansed then everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”
And the image here that Blake is saying is that you’ve got to think of a cave or a cavern – and we’re getting further and further back into the cavern. And when you do go back into the cave and you look out from further and further back, what actually happens is that the entrance becomes smaller and smaller. And I believe that we have found ourselves at the back of the cavern and we’re looking through at the world through a very narrow lens – a narrow perspective to what’s going on around us. So we don’t see things as they really are. And he’s suggesting that if we move closer towards the entrance and begin to peer out of it – we begin to see things as they truly are – in all of its splendor and all the wonder and glory of God’s creation. And we’d see things with fresh eyes. Now a lot of this inspired the LSD stuff in the 70s, but nonetheless, I think this is a good perspective. We have narrowed ourselves down to a very, very singular understanding of what the Gospel is and how we see human beings in relationship to God. I think we need to expand out.

95% of Americans believe in God.

I don’t believe we live in the secular world – there is no such thing. Let me explain. “Secular” actually started with the French Revolution. It was an attempt to take the church – which was prior to that, the central organization, the privileged religious institution bonded with the state – to break that bond and put the church as one of the agencies, one of the religious agencies in society. That’s what it means to be a “secular” state. It doesn’t mean people don’t believe in God. 95% of Americans believe in God. It’s just not the Christian God.
In fact, if you look at America (and I look at is, as someone who lives here and loves America) Americans are haunted by God. I mean you listen to movies, you listen to the songs, your art forms – there’s a haunting right throughout this country. You can’t get away from the search. No human being can. Our best anthropology says we’re made with yearnings that only God can fulfill. And I think that we can trust that a secular state doesn’t mean “godless.” It just means it doesn’t believe in what the Church represents or that the Church is the only answer to these questions. But the quest is still on.

I think we need to see it for what it is. We’re not living in a godless world. It’s just not our world where we had a privileged status.

Here’s the problem, most of our formulations of the Gospel and the church were formulated in a time when the Church was in its privileged state. It was Christendom. Well, that’s not the case any longer. But I would suggest that we don’t assume that just because the people rejected the Church and the Church’s hegemony, then they have now rejected the Gospel. Actually, most people think that Jesus is pretty darn cool. They think that the issue of spirituality is really important. Most people do.
I get to Burning Man on occasion. Once a year hopefully. And you can look at it and say, “That’s a pagan thing.” Let me just say, it’s one of the most spiritual events you’ll ever go to. Is it necessarily Christian? No. But there’s a lot of Christian spirituality going down. And you can have a conversation there that you can’t have anyone else. People are really wide open in those places.
It’s not a secular world we’re living in, folks. Open your eyes and see that people are giving us keys to their heart and to what is important to them. They’re haunted. Their yearnings, their art forms, their forms of poetry – all that stuff will give you a clue to what people really think is important. Pay attention. They’re the keys that people are giving you and me.
As an advocate for the missional church and movement theology, one of the things we do at Forge is mission training and networking with agencies I work with. We train people to be missionaries in Western contexts. We teach them that they don’t know the answers to these two questions until you get there. You’ve got to go into the context, and you can’t presume you know the answer until you get there. And you ask two fundamental questions, but I’m only going to deal with one today: “What is Good News for this people group? What’s going to sound like ‘YES!’ to this people group?” In other words, find out what’s going to sound like Good News. And then what is “church” for this people group.

You don’t know the answers until you get there.

The guy who invented the stethoscope said this, “Listen, listen, listen to your patients. They’re telling you the answers.” Listen to your patients, they’re telling you the answers. We still use that sucker to diagnose medical conditions, even though it’s couple a hundred years old. It’s a listening tool. And I believe one of the things we need to do as Evangelicals is not so much be “answer people.” In a missionary environment, we need to listen to our patients. They’re telling us the answers.
I’ve mentioned that we’ve reduced our belief in the Gospel to a very narrow, and I believe, forensic understanding.
Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood, so don’t hear what I’m not saying.
I believe in justification by faith, let me be clear about that. I believe I’m a sinner and that you are and that we need to be forgiven. Jesus has provided that for me – I’ll take atonement any way God wants to give it to me. I don’t debate that stuff – I know some people are worried about that.  Now, I think that if God wants to do it that way, I’m fine with it – I need salvation, I’ll take it any way I can get it. So don’t hear me wrong yet.
But I do believe it’s a reduction.
If the only tool that we have got is a hammer and everything looks like a nail, then you treat everything like a nail, don’t you? If the only understanding of the Gospel that we’ve got is that we are sinners, that we’re guilty before a holy God – in other words, a forensic understanding of the gospel – then you will treat everything accordingly. And the problem with us is that with most Evangelicals, it’s the only tool we’ve got.
Now, this is a little bit about how we came to this understanding of justification by faith. Luther, who was a very, very spiritual man. I really like Luther he’s kind of a larger than life guy, but he was very spiritual. He was an Augustinian monk from the peasant class. Very bright man. Passionate. And as an Augustinian monk living in the medieval Europe. In medieval Europe everything reminds you…all the art forms, the church is very dominant…would remind you that you are here (gestures very small) and God is on the top of the highest cathedral (gestures very high). And you’ve got these layers and layers of mediating angels and saints and Mary and all this stuff until you get down here. And you get hell. It’s this hierarchical view of the universe. Everything reminded you that you’re in big trouble with this holy God, right? And as an Augustinian monk you have a very, very strict anthropology. Worm theology, if you will. This idea of the unworthiness of the human soul. (And I actually like Augustine, by the way. I think he is a very insightful man.)
Anyway, so here’s this really Lutheran Luther, as an Augustinian monk, and what he would do when he would think about a holy God is have what could be best translated as a panic attack. It’s like when he would think of Holy God, (panicked breathing, panic attack), he would have a panic attack. Now I’ve had one once before, I must have been very tired and I thought I was dying. Honestly, I thought I was. And I was a medic in the military at the time. Honestly, I thought I was dying. And I was with my wife and her sister and I thought – well I was embarrassed about it. It’s a funny thing, you know? I think I’m dead. I go to the back of the car and I thought by the time I got home I probably won’t be with them anymore that I’ll just sit in the corner and disappear. I went back home and I thought, “I should go to the hospital.” I’m a medic at the time, and I think, maybe I’m hyperventilating. And I’ve got this paper bag and I’m breathing in and out frantically. (By the way, if you have a panic attack, that’s what you do – you get a paper bag; you just have too much oxygen. So you need to get some carbon dioxide into you. So that’s just a clue.)
Anyway, I was alright; I’m still here today. But the thing is, that is what Luther would get when he thought about Holy God. Righteous man. He wanted to be right with God. And so he begins to search the Scriptures as a professor, and he finds justification by faith, given to us as a gift, to be appropriated by faith. And there, of course, is the Reformation. This is the idea that changes everything. In that context, everyone was living under the guilt, which of course the Church harvested at the time to build the cathedrals. So it was very much a different world.
We’re not living in that world now. So, if I asked the question, “How many people in New York City are having panic attacks today – when they think of Holy God?” 3 or 4, maybe 5? (And before you think I’m a heretic, yes I’ve squared this off with Tim Keller, who I’ve written with. So that just makes me nice and orthodox, right? Having a bit of Tim’s magic rubbing off on me? Right?)
So, they don’t live in that universe anymore. The problem is that no one feels that objective guilt before a holy God because that’s not the God they deal with. Do they think about God? Yes. Probably; in some way. Or I would say the better way of interpreting would be is, I think, idolatry. And I think Tim gets that right, too, in a book that deals with that issue. That’s the better way to interpret this.
Do people feel dominated by the things that they do? Does work take up everything? Is money everything? Is money becoming an enslaving idol? Yes. Are there things controlling my life, trying to give me meaning, but never delivering it? Yes. But they don’t “feel guilty” in the same way. Some people do. But not many. The problem is…if we come with our forensic understanding of the Gospel – now we approach NY City – well not everyone feels guilty. So we have to make them feel guilty before they can feel better. We have to then make them to feel like they are far from God. So we end up like the tongue-clicking Pharisees. “You’re bad people – then I can give you the Gospel.”
I want to release you from this in Jesus’ name. You do not play the Holy Spirit, you suck at it. Stop it. You are meant to be good news people. Good News people. You don’t have to play Holy Spirit. He’s much better at it than you are. He might start at another point. He might start at another point in a person’s journey. He’s more interested in forgiving them from their sins than you are. That’s what Jesus died for. One of the reasons anyway. You can trust Him to take theirs too. He will convict us of sin and righteousness. It is not your function as God’s Good News people. People who are the recipients of grace should offer grace. And tell the story truly. But don’t always, only start with the justification by faith narrative.
For more talks like Alan’s and more information on Amplify, go to:

Read More

Finding the Keys to Culture and to the Human Heart (part 1)

It’s amazing I get to meet with such wonderful people like yourselves. It’s always a great honor; I never take it lightly. It’s a privilege to be here, particularly among a group of people who love the Gospel and who believe in the Gospel – it has brought us together and we are committed to proclaiming it.
It’s precisely at the time in this country where the word “evangelical” is under threat, which I believe, is to what really constitutes a gospel people. I believe it always has to look like Jesus and I think it’s a critical time for us to be talking about evangelism and the Gospel – that these stand behind it. So it’s a privilege to be able to do that now.
It’s hard to know what to say at the end of a conference, which I believe has been amazing – I only arrived last night. What can I add that hasn’t already been said? So I thought I’d start off with a bit of a story which no one else can tell because it’s a very personal one.  But it’s one that will highlight something that has triggered in my life a serious search and research into a topic that I believe relates directly to the issue of evangelism in our time.
So about a year and a half ago, my dad passed away. Now we’d been living in America for about nine years. He’s not been well for a while. So you know dad goes in the hospital, you think: “Do I go back (to Australia)? Is it the last time?” Nonetheless, my brother called me and said, “Look, I do think this is the time – he’s not…he’s going.” And so we packed up and off we went back to Australia to be with him in his last time. And true enough he really wasn’t well. So we were there.
My dad…you cannot accuse him of being a believer in God. He didn’t believe in God. He was somewhat of a naughty kind of man. And, you know [he] is always kind of having “a go” at the “Christian thing.” He didn’t quite understand. He was a Jewish dad and he never understood how his two Jewish boys became these amazing kind of “believer types.”

He wasn’t a very thoughtful man, but he would dig around in pop culture to find things that make sense…as everyone will, right? Which I will make a point of, later.

In the 80s there was a guy called Erich von Däniken. Some of you might remember him, he wrote the book The Chariot of the Gods. It was like this cheesy thing about the aliens coming, and they got hold of some kind of animals and experimented and then created the human race. They would visit us from time to time – and the pyramids and all that. And for some reason that was dad’s schtick. So here we are and we’re visiting with him – my wife Debra was with me and my brother and they’re all believers – he’s asking about the rod and the staff in Psalm 23. And now I’m thinking I know what he meant by that. Because he believed the rod and the staff were things that the aliens gave to Moses that gave him superpowers so he could split the waters and stuff. He had this sort of theory now. But of course, all the other Christians in our group were thinking, “He’s asking about the Bible” and I’m thinking, “No, he’s not. He is putting the bird up at us – right on his deathbed!”
So I was a little angry with him on this – I thought “Really dad? Right at the end? Should you be taking pot shots at us?” Anyway, so one night we were having a meal together, and they phone from the hospital and said, “He’s dying. You should come in now.” So off we go, a very fraught moment. If you’ve been around a family member that is dying, it’s awful. I’ve seen both my parents go that way. Awful. Anyway, we’re all around the table and it’s a fraught moment. So I think, “Well you know he’s dying – he can’t say anything – let’s read some Bible to him. I spotted a Gideon Bible right next to the bin. So I got the Bible, but couldn’t read because I was too emotional. Deb said, “Well, he’s been asking about Psalm 23 the whole week, why don’t we read him Psalm 23?” And I said, “That’s a good idea.”
But we couldn’t read it, so we handed it off to my brother, and my brother begins to read. And I’m looking at my dad, as the Bible reading goes down the line. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…and your rod and staff will comfort me.” And literally on that verse – he dies. Literally. On that verse.
I’m thinking, “What does that possibly mean? How do we understand…how do I understand this thing?” And the fact that this has kind of been his “bugbear” verse all this time. And he goes into eternity with that ringing in his mind. I thought, “I’ve got to take this seriously.”
On reflection on that [whole experience], it was a rebuke to me because I believe that people are often giving us the keys to their life. And I believe that I was dismissive of dad like, “Don’t be stupid about the aliens and all that stuff…well that doesn’t make any sense. Who created the aliens? You still have to deal with the issue of ‘God.’” But actually I never really listened to him on that, I never really pursued it with him on his own terms. And for him it was important. For whatever reason, it was something that he did his research on – for whatever reason. I never really respected that. And the thing is that I felt like something of a rebuke – I’m not responsible for him in that regard. But I felt a rebuke to think that my dad was giving me the key to his heart and if I had pursued that, maybe, maybe that was his way to find God. And, I missed the opportunity.
And so, it really got to me – the idea that I should, now, pursue this idea of “keys to the human heart.”
I believe that people are, in so many ways which we do not recognize, giving us keys that say, “Here!”
It’s the same with the culture. The culture’s been giving us the keys all along, but we just stand and look at them because we are not attuned to them. And this is partly because our frequencies as Evangelicals, at this point in time, are tuned to 16th century issues.
For more talks like Alan’s and more information on Amplify, go to:

Read More
Back To Top
Get the Latest
Updates & News

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to stay connected with us and for access to our latest resources.