by Shane Rosenthal
© 1996 Modern Reformation Magazine
Shane Rosenthal, M.A., Historical Theology, Westminster Theological Seminary in CA, is a freelance audio/video editor and producer. He is currently one of the creative producers for the national radio program The White Horse Inn, and webmaster for Reformation Ink. Shane, along with his wife and three children reside in southern California.
The rock band known as Cracker recently released a song titled, "I Hate My Generation." There is something in this song that I can identify with. A couple of decades ago, most of the popular songs were overly optimistic: "All you need is love," "What the world needs now is love, sweet love," etc. But today, a refreshing pessimism abounds in popular music; refreshing not because pessimism is a cherished virtue in and of itself, but because in some respects this culture is beginning to realize that it is unraveling. As in the case of Isaiah before the throne of God, this culture may indeed be realizing that it is coming apart at the seams. Obviously in our case it is not that our culture is being confronted with the glory of God which has brought on this guilt-consciousness, but as I see it, it is our sins that are finding us out. And many of these sins were sown by our parents, and our parents' parents.
One of the things I hate most about my generation is the fact that we don't read. We were not raised on books but on TV. We prefer images over words, entertainment over serious thought, the trivial over the eternal. I've had a number of conversations over the years with friends from my age group about recalling particular episodes of The Brady Bunch or Gilligan's Island: "Remember the one where Jan forgets to wear her glasses and crashes into the family portrait?" "Or how 'bout the one where they go to the Grand Canyon and accidentally get locked up in the old jail cell." When you think about it, it is not a coincidence that Hollywood is turning out many films based on old television shows (The Addams Family, Casper, The Brady Bunch, Flipper, Mission Impossible, etc.) It is also to be noted that many films or TV shows will often make it a point to bring in references from old TV episodes to be used as punch lines. In particular I think of the the movie Wayne's World, a film of which it could almost be said was comprised entirely of such references. There were allusions to Laverne & Shirley, Lassie, Scooby Doo, Star Trek, Bugs Bunny, and other such shows. But what was even more interesting were the many references to televsion commercials within the film. We were reminded of ads featuring The Chia Pet, The Clapper, Pepsi, Doritos, Nuprin, and Pizza Hut. And of course there is the classic scene in which Wayne and Garth pull up to a Rolls Royce to ask the question, "Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?" These references were all quite funny. And the reason they were funny was due to the fact that our minds are simply filled with this type of garbage.
Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote that Americans paid the least attention to philosophy than any other country in the civilized world. They "seek by themselves and in themselves for the only reason for things..." Therefore, he wrote that "Americans have needed no books to teach them philosophic method, having found it in themselves."1 Now if this was true in 1848, it is certainly true today for we are living at a time when classical and Biblical themes are almost completely effaced from the cultural memory. In de Tocqueville's day Americans had philosophical opinions, but not from reading the classic works. Today however, the situation is worse. As in the words of the popular song by Edie Brickell, "Philosophy is the talk on the cereal box, and religion is the smile on a dog."2 For my generation, questions of any significance or depth are almost completely avoided. Many of us sing along with Brickell, "I'm not aware of too many things, I know what I know, if you know what I mean....Shove me in the shallow water before I get to deep"3 Another profound way this is illustrated is again from Wayne's World in which Wayne himself asks this telling but sarcastic question, "Was it Kierkegaard or Dick Van Patten who said, 'To label me is to negate me?'"
Sadly, this cultural decline has not been without its effects in our own Christian communities. In my own impromptu polls that I have recorded at Christian conventions for The White Horse Inn radio program, I have asked individuals to see if they can name the Ten Commandments. Out of probably two hundred interviews over the years only two individuals that I know of could name all ten. I also asked folks if they were familiar with the doctrine of justification, and the majority of Christians said they had never heard of the doctrine. On one level this is a doctrinal crisis, but on another level this reveals a much more basic problem; we are not reading the Scriptures. We are not being saturated with God's Word, either in our own personal study or in our churches.
Recently I was in Boston attending a conference by sponsored by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (the series of meetings in which the Cambridge Declaration was drafted). One night I took a walk through Harvard Square and was approached by a woman who was passing out witness tracts. After handing me a tract she began telling me about the abundant life in Jesus. I decided to play the devil's advocate. "How do you know Jesus exists?" "Because he lives in my heart" she said with a Boston accent. "What if I were a Muslim and told you that I had a personal relationship with Allah, and that my life was very fulfilled?", I asked. She paused for a moment and then began spewing forth in cookie-cutter like fashion many evangelistic texts that didn't relate at all to my question. So I asked, "Again, what if I told you that I was perfectly fulfilled with the Qur'an, and didn't need the Bible?" This time she didn't really know how to respond. Then I asked her to tell me what the main argument of Peter was in his famous sermon in Acts 2, or Paul on Mars Hill in Acts 17, or his famous statement in 1Cor. 15; in short, what was the most central element of apostolic preaching. She said, "Oh, I know this one." But she didn't really. I had to tell her. "The Resurrection!" Anyone can claim to have divine authority, but the Christian claim is that a rabbi who claimed authority for himself vindicated his claim by being raised from the dead: "[God] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead" (Acts 17:31). The point of the story is not merely to point out failures in modern apologetics, but to highlight the fact that many Christians are ignorant of some of the most basic elements of the Bible's teachings. They might not officially "deny" the doctrine of the Resurrection, but they are basically ignorant of the internal substance of the doctrine and all its related implications on life, worship and evangelism. Paul's line is worth considering here, "For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge" (Rom 10:2).
What really shocked me that night, however, was not that I found out how little this woman knew, but rather, how much she thought I knew. After I had talked with her for just over five minutes she commented to me that I had "a remarkable knowledge of the Scriptures." This is what amazed me. When George Lindbeck wrote that his non-Christian students of the fifties had a better grasp of Scripture than did the Christians of the eighties, I felt he was speaking as if I was one of his later students. My knowledge of the English Bible is pitiful. I have a fairly decent grasp of systematic theology (in other words I have learned how to proof-text), but when it comes to a coherent understanding of the Old and New Testaments (especially the Old) I fear my knowledge is dismally lacking.
This really hit me recently when this particular section of Scripture from Isaiah was read from the pulpit one Sunday morning::
On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine-the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth. The LORD has spoken. In that day they will say, "Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the LORD, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation" (Is 25:6-9).
After hearing this wonderful text read aloud I thought to myself about the line: "the best of meats and the finest of wines." My mind was immediately drawn to contemplate the work of Christ on my behalf, offering up his flesh for my eternal benefit, and pouring out his blood to cover all of my sins. Then I began thinking of Communion and how the partaking of the bread and the wine was but a foretaste of that meal to which this passage in Isaiah was refering. It was a wonderful and meaningful moment. At least it was until I thought of the fact that I had no recollection of reading that particular passage before.
Most likely I had read it before, but just didn't remember that I had. But that still points out a glaring problem. I am not grounded in the Scriptures. To a large extent I am a product of my generation. And what is alarming about this fact is that the contemporary church is doing little if anything to counter this problem. There are very few churches where large sections of Scripture are read on Sunday mornings, even though it was Paul who wrote to Timothy to remind him to "devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture..." (1Tim 4:13). This must be recovered in our time.
The lack of personal discipline among individual Christians (myself included), and even more importantly, Christian parents, is a troubling characteristic of the contemporary church. Lamenting the present crisis, Allan Bloom recalls better days:
It was the home-and the houses of worship related to it-where religion lived. The holy days and the common language and set of references that permeated most households constituted a large part of the family bond and gave it a substantial content. Moses and the Tables of the Law, Jesus and his preaching of brotherly love, had an imaginative existence. Passages from the Psalms and the Gospels echoed in children's heads. Attending church or synagogue, praying at the table, were a way of life, inseparable from the moral education that was supposed to be the family's special responsibility in this democracy....The loss of the gripping inner life vouchsafed those who were nurtured by the Bible must be primarily attributed not to our schools or political life, but to the family, which, with all its rights to privacy, has proved unable to maintain any content of its own. The dreariness of the family's spiritual landscape passes belief.4
Now obviously, Bloom is writing from outside the Christian perspective (which itself is interesting to think about-i.e., the issues involved concern more than Christians). Nevertheless, it is amazing to me how similar Bloom's comments are to those made some sixty years earlier by J. Gresham Machen. "The most important educational institution," Machen wrote, "is not the pulpit or the school, important as these institutions are; but it is the Christian family. And that institution has to a very large extent ceased to do its work."5 So you can see the seeds of our present crisis were sown a good many years ago. But again we must counter these trends. We must again heed the instruction of Paul who wrote,
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2Tim. 3:14-15).
Notice that Paul indicates that Timothy had learned the Scriptures from infancy. This must be our goal for our own children. We must not let our children be catechised by television, public school, or exclusively in our churches. Rather, parents must take the heaviest responsibility of equipping their own children, and bringing them up in the fear and knowledge of God. We must raise our children, as Bloom wrote of a former generation, with "passages from the Psalms and the Gospels echoing in their heads."
I am the first to admit that it is easier to turn on the tube than it is to open a book. But our generation must begin to wean itself from this habit. We are becoming addicted to entertainment, neglecting our own spiritual growth, the nurturing of our children, and participation in the larger community. Christians must resist this trend. In the words of Neil Postman, we are amusing ourselves to death. In similar fashion, Bloom reminds us of Nietzsche's disturbing observation that "the newspaper had replaced the prayer in the life of the modern bourgeois, meaning that the busy, the cheap, the ephemeral, had usurped all that remained of the eternal in his daily life." Bloom then adds, "Now television has replaced the newspaper." Are we going to let the busy, the cheap, the ephemeral usurp all that remains of the eternal in our own hearts, minds, and churches? We must not. We must take up the Scriptures once again, and we must teach them to our children.
Now, in order not to be misunderstood, I want to clarify a few things. I am not saying that television is completely a waste of time, nor am I saying that it is wrong to be entertained. It is just that we are becoming a nation of entertainment addicts. My generation has grown up on television. We are sort of like crack babies, who've needed the fix since before we can remember. We're so addicted to entertainment we hardly noticed that many of our churches had been turned into fun, happy, exciting places-like late night TV shows--as Peter Jennings so brilliantly showed us.6 But we are neglecting so many other important responsibilities in exchange for entertainment, and this at a time when knowledge of the Scriptures is dismally lacking, even among Christians-even, dare I say it, among Reformed Christians.
Without being legalistic, we must begin to take our entertainment in moderation. Our generation has a lot of work to do. The culture is collapsing and we ourselves are partly to blame. There has never been a time like the present to swim against the cultural tide. Many people in this country, having been reared on television's slick images, long for the sublime, the unseen, the transcendant. We have that in the eternal Word of God. This is no time to squander our treasure.
1. Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy In America, (Harper & Row, 1988 edition; Lawrence trans.) p. 429-430.
2. Edie Brickell & New Bohemians, Shooting Rubber Bands at the Stars, "What I Am" (Geffen Records,1988).
4. Allan Bloom, The Closing of The American Mind, (Simon & Schuster, 1987) p. 56-57
5. J. Gresham Machen, What Is Faith?, (Banner of Truth, 1925) p. 21.
6. See Peter Jennings' Special, "In The Name of God," (ABC, 1995).
Shane Rosenthal received his B. A. in liberal studies from Cal-State Fullerton, and is currently pursuing a masters degree at Westminster Theological Seminary in CA. He is the producer of The White Horse Inn radio program, and is the webmaster for Reformation Ink.
This article was made available on the internet via REFORMATION INK (www.markers.com/ink). Refer any correspondence to Shane Rosenthal: ReformationInk at mac.com (connect and write as @mac.com -- when I connect them I get a lot of junk mail).