Cultural Disintegration and the Revival of a Moral Imagination

August 4, 2014

We live in a time of cultural disintegration. Not just America, but the entire Western world is jettisoning the wisdom of the ages and striving to remake the world after our own image. And, unsurprisingly, the fundamental arena in which this cultural unraveling is playing out is that of sexuality.

Given the breakneck pace of the change before us, we Christians have struggled to know precisely how to respond. The responses that tend to attract much of the media attention have to do with court cases, legal briefs, legislation, and elections. But in and through all of these legitimate responses, we Christians must labor to revive the moral imagination of this country, and especially of the young people who are casualties and victims of the sexual revolution. This revival of the moral imagination is not first an imposition of Christian morality on a pagan and secular society. After all, if the Bible teaches us anything, it’s that imposing law on a wicked people only gives them more creative ways to sin. And in saying this, I don’t mean in any way to reject the legal and political battles being waged to preserve what we can through law and social policy; it’s simply a recognition that, apart from a revival of a moral (and specifically biblical) imagination, such political efforts can only be a part of a slow retreat. Laws and policies play a crucial role in shaping culture (for good and for ill), but they are insufficient for preserving and promoting the godliness and health of society. For that, the imagination must be converted.

Such a conversion and revival of the moral imagination must begin with the church of Jesus Christ. As Peter reminds us, judgment always begins at the household of God. So what would such a revival of a robustly Christian moral imagination look like?

It would start with anointed preaching of the whole counsel of God. We cannot export what we don’t have, and therefore, our minds and hearts must be shaped by Scripture—by its stories, its precepts, its warnings, and its promises. We must train our imaginations to run in biblical ruts, allowing the narratives of Scripture to exert a formative pressure on our understanding of ourselves and the story we find ourselves in. The Word of God remains living and active, and the task of pastors and preachers is to unleash it through faithful and timely proclamation.

Second, the church’s response to such preaching should begin with our own sincere repentance. For example, we ought to recognize that most of the damage done to the institution of marriage in our society was inflicted by heterosexuals (including professing Christians) through rampant divorce, marital bitterness, and repressed frustration in ostensibly Christian families. Expecting the broader culture to conform to God’s standards when half the church is neck deep in all kinds of sexual foolishness is a classic example of putting carts before horses. Paul has some pretty harsh words for those who berate idolaters while robbing their temples (Rom. 2:17ff). When the salt loses its taste, God throws it out in the street so that it’s trampled underfoot. And the only way to restore saltiness is through receiving the grace of God in heartfelt repentance and faith.

Third, we must seek to bear fruit in keeping with that repentance. Such fruit-bearing begins by demonstrating some antithesis, by actually being a City on a Hill. Let there be a clear and evident difference between marriages and families inside and outside the church. We need strong, sacrificial husbands, who take responsibility for their capable, godly wives, who joyfully submit to their strong, godly husbands, as they together seek to gladly spend themselves that their children may hope in God. Words about the sanctity and centrality of marriage ring hollow when they are not issuing from happy and hopeful families. This means, among other things, that we must take a lesson from the Proverbs 31 woman and “laugh at the time to come.” The short-term prospects for our culture may be bleak, but we’re reminded daily that light follows darkness like that’s its job, as if Someone was preaching a resurrection sermon with every sunrise.

Fourth, faithful preaching of the Scriptures, sincere repentance of our sins, and careful removal of the logs protruding from the eyes of our own families must be part and parcel of the cultivation of glad-hearted, confident, and sacrificial churches. When the church is under assault, one of the central temptations is to complain, murmur and shriek about our plight, as though we could bring down the gates of Hades by our shrillness. Fighting the good fight is essential, particularly when it comes to defending the unborn and preserving the family for the good of children. What’s more, when an onerous and overbearing state insists that we trample our consciences and join them in their hell-bound handbasket, we ought to quote Peter’s words about obeying God and not men and then use every legitimate means to demolish strongholds, topple lofty thoughts and expose the unfruitful deeds of darkness.

But we must always endeavor to winsomely wage culture war, to fight as those whose feet are firmly planted on a Rock that is unshaken by Gallup polls, HHS mandates, or Supreme Court decisions. Fighting from fear and anxiety, besides being tacky, is ineffective. Instead, when we take stock of the present situation and see all of those slopes getting slipped, we remember that we are standing on a mountain that the prophet Daniel says will grow until it fills the whole earth. Which means we are free to gladly and cheerfully sacrifice our time, treasure, and reputations (and some day soon, perhaps, more than that) for the good of fellow believers and for the salvation of the lost and perishing in the world.

In all of this, we must remember that our responsibility, whether at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission or in our churches, is not to singlehandedly change the culture. Instead God is calling us to be faithful at our post, to be faithful where God has planted us. When confronted with the depravity and brokenness that is endemic and multiplying in God’s world, the main question that you should ask is this: What is God requiring of me now? What is right in front of my face that God is calling me to do?

The centrality of faithfulness in little cannot be overstated. Too often, my concern for the advancement of the gospel in the world turns into an attempt to coordinate heavenly troop movements, to treat the culture war like it’s a game of Risk and I’m perched on a balcony on one of Saturn’s moons. In short, it’s easy to try and usurp Christ’s place as the reigning King who is subduing his enemies under his feet (and ours). But the burden of running the cosmos does not fall on my shoulders. The burden of managing my household well does. The crying need of the hour is for millions of Christians to realize that their primary contribution in the culture war may be reading bedtime stories to their children, dating their spouse, and looking for opportunities to cheerfully, sacrificially, and practically love their neighbors. It’s almost impossible to quantify the potency of simple faith and obedience, but let’s just say that it was that sort of thing that has brought more than one godless culture to its knees.

Finally, we must pray. We must pray for an outpouring of God’s Spirit upon the world and a release from God’s chastening judgment. Rebellious blindness holds sway in so many places in this world. And so we plead with God to lift his judgment and unleash his storehouses of mercy. And we pray confidently with the knowledge that, if he so chooses, God could drown the world in grace.

Joseph Rigney
Joseph Rigney is Assistant Professor of Theology and Christian Worldview at Bethlehem College and Seminary.