When we live in our own cultural setting, with little real exposure to other cultures, it is easy to miss how we got to where we are. When we live in our own microcosm of time and ignore the centuries it took to get to this moment, it is inevitable that we will have blinders on. We will fail to understand and appreciate the foundational ideas and events that our current values are built upon. In the western cultural world of Europe, North America, and Australia, among others, there is an existing set of cultural values that want certain trappings of Christianity, but without the Christ who is at the heart of Christianity. They are values that find their roots in the biblical teachings of Jesus.
We want kindness, acceptance, forgiveness, love, compassion, and respect for others. These things have become ingrained in our culture to the point that most people simply take at face value that it has always been so and always will be so. The problem is, that most people don’t realize those values are the natural by-products of a culture shaped by and infused with, the teachings of Jesus, over many centuries. They are not things that are naturally found in the human psyche and are not typically found in cultures outside those impacted by Christianity. Values like kindness, care for the poor, compassion, and respect for others, are the flowers of the teachings of Jesus. They have bloomed and blossomed because of their connection to Jesus. Sadly, in today’s cultural climate, they are like cut flowers in a vase. They look lovely in the vase on the table and smell wonderful. But they have been severed from their roots, in this case, Jesus, and because they are no longer rooted, they will eventually wither and die, no matter how much plant preservative we add to the vase. And you can begin to see the withering when you look at the vitriol that has become part and parcel of our current disagreements in society.
This idea that our western values are actually based on biblical values has been brilliantly demonstrated by author Tom Holland, no not Spider-Man Tom Holland. This Tom Holland is a graduate of Cambridge University and author of the landmark book Dominion. In that massive 640-page book, Holland details how the values that we take for granted in the west as enlightened and desirable, are historically, uniquely, Christian values. Don’t get the idea that Holland is some on-fire Christian conservative. He is actually something of a religious skeptic when it comes to God. But he is enough of a historian to recognize that so much of what western culture values, comes right out of a Counter-cultural, biblical Christianity.
For instance, contrary to current perceptions of the past, the rights of women were non-existent in ancient Rome. Until the teachings of Jesus took hold, women were little more than property who had no say in the direction of their own lives. Their husbands could treat them with contempt and abuse and that was considered normal. They could be tossed aside on the whim of the husband. The teaching of the New Testament actually leveled the playing field, even if Christians have not been great at following that teaching. Care for the sick, unless they were extremely wealthy, was non-existent, until followers of Jesus began to care for them. People with power could force those without, to have sex and there was no #METOO movement to say otherwise. Why? Because it was a normal, cultural value for the powerful to force sex from the weak. Respect for all people of every socio-economic class was considered outrageous until Christians taught a message of a multi-ethnic, multi-generational, multi-racial family, all united by a common faith in Jesus. Even the basic idea that we are all to be treated with respect and dignity only came to be a cultural value because of the biblical teaching that all people are made in God’s image. In ancient Rome and most of the world, power was the prime value and people without it were considered expendable and useable. Any objective look at history will show that where we are today in terms of our values of human dignity, care for the downtrodden, compassion for the poor, respect for others, and so much more, all find their roots in the life and teachings of Jesus.
If you are a religious skeptic and reading this, it would be worth your while to ask, why do I hold the values I do? Where do they come from? Holland’s book may be a bit much to dive into. Another option would be Glen Scrivener’s book, The Air We Breath, How We All Came To Beleive In Freedom, Kindness, Progress, and Equality, is a must-read. It makes a very strong case that our current western values are uniquely the values of Jesus.
Unfortunately, we are seeing the unraveling of those values and teachings before our very eyes. The more we hear secular voices cry out for tolerance and acceptance, without being connected to the author of those teachings, the less tolerant and accepting we actually become. When there is no foundation to the message, no spiritual or intellectual weight to back up those values, the method of trying to achieve them is to yell louder, become more shrill, and block out anyone who disagrees. Why? Because deep down inside there is a gnawing fear that we don’t have good reasons for our values. We can’t make a defense for them. So we emotionally react and those emotional reactions come from the baser portions of our personality, the very things Jesus taught against and that all other values are ultimately built upon. The fact is, without being rooted in Jesus, we humans are ultimately incapable of living out the values of love, compassion, kindness, and sacrifice for others, that He taught. Oh to be sure, we can have short bursts of those things. But we can’t sustain them.
The popular culture wants Christians to tone it down, to become more blended into the rest of the culture, to privatize their faith. What we actually need is for Christians to double down on being more Christian not less. You see, as the culture has lost its Christian roots, sadly, so have many Christians. The more secular society becomes, the more likely it is for many Christians to also become cut off from their roots that are found in the person and teachings of Jesus. Being cut off from those roots leads to the kind of insipid Christianity we have in our culture. Or worse, it leads to Christians who are arrogant and self-righteous while they try to bolster a faith that no longer resembles Jesus, through the exercise of political power. The answer to both the insipid and power-hungry expression of Christianity is to become more like Jesus, not less.
Becoming more like Jesus means following the radical teaching that he laid out, and not just a little bit. Culture wants us to be tolerant of our neighbors. (If you want to read why I think tolerance is not an option read this post, Why I Refuse to Be Tolerant) Jesus doesn’t want tolerance. He wants us to love our neighbors and not only them but our enemies as well. Culture wants us to make a small donation to some charitable cause. Jesus wants us to live sacrificially and give extravagantly as He did. Culture wants us to respect people of other races and religions. Jesus wants us to throw open the doors of our own homes and invite them in, showing radical, biblical hospitality and inviting them to be our brothers and sisters.
Why does He want us to be so different? So that people will be drawn to Him. The greatest good we can do for anyone is to live in such a way that they come to know the deep love of Jesus and put their lives in His hands. They will not experience that if followers of Christ are not kind, loving, and respectful in their relationships with people who are not followers of Jesus. In other words, if we are not living an even more radical Jesus-like lifestyle then people are not going to see the real Jesus and will ultimately end up with Christianity without Christ. They will have a cut-flower religion that looks good for a time but will eventually wither and decay.