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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.
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