Book Recommendation: All God's Children in Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture

Dear Church Family,

This week, the Men’s Discipleship Group has begun reading the book All God’s Children in Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture by Ken Myers. This week we’re just reading the introduction to the book, so it’s not too late to join us on Tuesdays at 6:30-7:30 am for breakfast and our book-discussion.

All God’s Children in Blue Suede Shoes was first published in 1989, but has since been republished in 2012 with a new introduction by the author. In the original 1989 introduction, Myers gives his main premise of the book:

In this study, I have tried to make the case that popular culture’s greatest influence is in the way it shapes how we think and feel (more than what we think and feel) and how we think and feel about thinking and feeling.

 

In this statement – and in much of the book – Myers is emphasizing the truth of Marshall McLuhan’s insight that “the medium is the message.” That is to say, the offensive content of popular culture (e.g., language, violence, illicit sexuality) have blinded many people – including Christians – to the often more subtle, but equally dangerous, forms of popular culture.

We are often unaware of how the medium of television, movies, and the internet (including all sorts of social media) changes what we believe about truth, reality, and the inherent “givenness of human nature.” As Marshall McLuhan noted:

One thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the element they live in. (Marshall McLuhan, War and Peace in the Global Village (1968))

 

Myers’ book is not a discussion about all those things that Christians might find morally offensive in popular culture. Rather, his book is an attempt to inform and instruct believers about the subtle forces of popular culture with regard to the forms that it takes. And, he tries to help us realize how those forms shape and mold us, often in ways that are contrary to the Christian faith.

For instance, in the 2012 introduction to the book, Myers cites the 2009 study by Christian Smith and Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious Lives of Emerging Adults. According to that study, as quoted by Myers, “what emerging adults take to be reality ultimately seems to consist of a multitude of subjective but ultimately autonomous experiences.” And so, Myers observes, “According to the playbook of popular culture, all value judgments are expressions of preference.” Popular culture often subtly (and sometimes, explicitly) trains us to believe that truth is relative, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, God is just an idea, and the individual’s only authority is himself.

Conclusion

Myers’ book is not simply an examination and critique of popular culture; he also seeks to pave a way forward. Christians believe in the objective nature of truth, reality, and the divine givenness of human nature (that God is the one who made us and gives human beings inherent value). Thus, individual believers and the church as a body, must do all that they can to be shaped and formed by God’s Word, not by the sensibilities of popular culture. We must find a way to oppose this way of thinking by offering to the world an alternative, truthful, and better way.

In an online article, “Is Popular Culture Either?” Myers summarizes some of the key points of his book. I commend both the article and Myers’ book to you. Here is his concluding exhortation from that article, which might also serve as a summary of his exhortation in the book:

Instead of adopting the ways of popular culture, the Church should show the world a more excellent way. Instead of retooling Sunday to render it in synch with Monday through Saturday, the Church, in its proclamation and in its making of disciples, should offer a counter-cultural model of living obedience, seeking to transform what believers and unbelievers experience during the week by what happens to them and around them on Sunday.

 

Postscript: By the way, since 1993, Ken Myers has been the host of an “audio magazine” called Mars Hill Audio Journal, in which he seeks to develop a Christian way of thinking about the world through interviews of various authors, theologians, philosophers, thinkers, composers, and artists. One of his mottos in this endeavor is: “cultural engagement without cultural wisdom leads to cultural captivity.” I’ve been a subscriber and listener of the Mars Hill Audio Journal for about twenty years now, which is probably how I learned about this book. In addition to the book, I highly recommend the audio journal, as well.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Otherworldly Worship

Dear Church Family,

In our sermon this past Sunday from Hebrews 12:18-29, we considered the importance of worship – the importance of showing gratitude by offering to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe (Hebrews 12:28-29). In the sermon, I recommended the book With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship by D.G. Hart and John Muether. Here is a portion of what I shared on Sunday from that book:

…reverence is not obviously attractive or appealing. It is hard and uncomfortable. It doesn’t create a relaxed or welcoming atmosphere. Above all it is not celebrative as that word has come to be used. Reverent worship is not an effective way of persuading the world that Christians are capable of having a good time. That is because modern culture cannot see God as frightening.  So seeker-sensitive worship has replaced a consuming fire with an affirming and empowering God, one who accepts whatever we do. It has substituted the meeting of felt needs for the demands of his law. (128)

 

If you’re interested in further reading on the topic and importance of worship, here are some additional resources that I recommend:

(1) With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship by D.G. Hart and John Muether

- From the back cover: “Drawing on Scripture and Reformed confessions and catechisms, the authors answer such questions as these: When are we to worship? How does the regulative principle guide our worship? How does the dialogical principle shape our worship? How do we worship with reverence and joy? What is the place of the means of grace? How do the elements of worship differ from the circumstances? And finally, the authors tackle ‘the most divisive issue,’ music.

(2) Corporate Worship: Principles & Elements of Worship at Providence Presbyterian Church, PCA (Midland, TX) By Peter M. Dietsch.

- This is a short booklet that is available on our church’s website for free download (in pdf or Kindle format). It speaks specifically to why we worship the way we do at our church. It also contains detailed examinations concerning the biblical and theological basis for the elements of our worship service. Relatively short and intended to be an easily accessible resource for better understanding our worship service at our church.

(3) Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship edited by Philip Ryken, Derek Thomas, and Ligon Duncan III.

- This is my go-to book to recommend to people who wish to understand Reformed and Presbyterian Worship. It contains eighteen chapters written by different authors that cover topics such as the Bible and Worship, Elements of Biblical Worship, Preparing for Biblical Worship, and Worship, History, and Culture.

(4) Leading in Worship by Terry Johnson

- Primarily a resource for those who plan and lead worship, this book is a helpful guide from which I have greatly benefitted.

(5) A Royal ‘Waste’ of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World by Marva Dawn

- This book is more of a theology of worship about how worship shapes both the community of the church and individual Christians.

The author of this last book emphasizes the other-worldliness of worship, and reminds us of what worship of our Triune God is truly about. Also, it is in keeping with the theme of our sermon from this past Sunday and how in our worship, the world is eclipsed as we come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. So, let me conclude this list of recommendations with a quotation from the opening chapter of Marva Dawn’s book:

To worship the LORD is – in the world’s eyes – a waste of time. It is, indeed, a royal waste of time, but a waste nonetheless. By engaging in it, we don’t accomplish anything useful in our society’s terms.

Worship ought not to be construed in a utilitarian way. Its purpose is not to gain numbers nor for our churches to be seen as successful. Rather, the entire reason for our worship is that God deserves it. Moreover, it isn’t even useful for earning points with God, for what we do in worship won’t change one whit how God feels about us. We will always still be helpless sinners caught in our endless inability to be what we should be or to make ourselves better – and God will always still be merciful, compassionate, and gracious, abounding in steadfast love and ready to forgive us as we come to him.

Worship is a royal waste of time, but indeed it is royal, for it immerses us in the regal splendor of the King of the cosmos. The churches’ worship provides opportunities for us to enjoy God’s presence in corporate ways that take us out of time and into the eternal purposes of God’s kingdom. As a result, we shall be changed - but not because of anything we do. God, on whom we are centered and to whom we submit, will transform us by his Revelation of himself.

To understand worship as a royal waste of time is good for us because that frees us to enter into the poverty of Christ. We worship a triune God who chose to rescue the world he created by means of the way of humility. God sent his Son into the world to empty himself in the obedience of a slave, humbling himself to suffer throughout his entire life and to die the worst of deaths on our behalf. He did not come to be ‘solving the world’s problems in any sense that the world could understand.’ Worship of such a God immerses us in such a way of life, empowered by a Spirit who does not equip us with means of power or control, accomplishment or success, but with the ability and humility to waste time in love of the neighbor. (1-2)

 

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Esau's Worldly Sorrow

Dear Church Family,

After the sermon this past Sunday from Hebrews 12:4-17, someone asked me the following question: “Why was Esau rejected by God and found no place for repentance, even though he sought for it with tears?” Here’s the verses (along with the preceding verse to provide some context):

15 See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled;  16 that there be no immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal.  17 For you know that even afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears. (Hebrews 12:15-17)

 

This is a reference to an event that takes place at the end of Genesis 25, where we read of how Esau was famished, having just come in from the field. He asked his brother Jacob for some stew, but Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” So, giving in to the god of his stomach (Philippians 3:18-19), Esau sold his birthright as the firstborn son to his younger twin brother for a single meal.

Basically, the writer of Hebrews is here calling for believers to help guard others in the church from falling away from the faith and becoming like Esau. He’s also calling for believers to guard the body of Christ from the ‘root of bitterness’ that might spring up from such a person. This is similar to Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 5:4-7 where he warns that a little leaven (the sin of an immoral person) might leaven the whole lump (spread to others in the church).

Hebrews 12:17, however, provides a theological interpretation (and warning!) of what happened to Esau after he sold his birthright for a single meal. Later, in Genesis 27, Jacob tricks his father Isaac into giving him the blessing of the firstborn that was intended for Esau (something that was actually in accordance with God’s plan all along: for the older brother to serve the younger (Genesis 25:23)). After Isaac blessed Jacob, Esau became embittered and pleaded with his father to bless him, but no blessing remained (Genesis 27:34-41).

Interpreting and Applying Hebrews 12:17

Speaking of this episode, the writer of Hebrews says, “even afterwards, when he [Esau] desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears” (Hebrews 12:17). At this point, it might help to ask and answer two questions with regard to this verse:

1. Why could Esau find no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears?

The answer to this question can best be found, I think, in how the Apostle Paul differentiates between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow: “For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10).

Worldly sorrow doesn’t lead to repentance; it only leads to death. Worldly sorrow does not lead to true repentance because it is not a mourning over one’s sin, but simply a mourning over one’s loss. Worldly sorrow may seem very real, and even be ‘full of tears’ yet it is not a grieving over one’s sin as an offense to God, but is instead full of self-pity. Worldly sorrow is that which Esau displayed.

On the other hand, godly sorrow (which is according to the will of God) produces true repentance that leads to salvation. According to 2 Corinthians 7:11, godly sorrow is marked by a seeking to vindicate oneself, indignation over one’s sin, fear of God’s judgment, a longing and zeal to be restored to fellowship, and an avenging (or putting right) one’s sin. This is true repentance “whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience” (WSC 87). Esau displayed none of these characteristics of a godly sorrow that leads to repentance.

2. Is there no place for repentance for those who have previously rejected Christ?

The recipients of the epistle to the Hebrews were in danger of turning away from faith in Jesus Christ and the blessings of the new covenant. Thus, the writer of Hebrews exhorts them time and again to not drift or fall away from the faith; he warns them of the very real danger of apostasy (Hebrews 2:1-3; 3:12; 6:4-8; 10:35-39; 13:9). Hebrews 12:17 is in keeping with this warning of the dangers of apostasy. Commenting on this verse, Philip Edgcumbe Hughes writes, “These Hebrew Christians will be guilty of a much greater act of profanity if, disheartened by the difficulties of the contest, they barter not an earthly but a heavenly birthright for a short period of worldly ease and prosperity.”

So, we must not take anything away from these warnings concerning the danger of apostasy. We must not think lightly of the riches of God’s kindness and tolerance and patience; we must recognize that the kindness of God leads to repentance (Romans 2:4). Every Christian must heed and take seriously the warnings about apostasy in this letter – the warnings about the eternal consequences of denying Christ and falling away from the faith.

At the same time, we also know that all those whom God has appointed to eternal life will repent of their sins and believe (Acts 13:48). And so, because we do not know the end from the beginning – as the Lord does (Isaiah 46:9-10) – we ought to pray and hope for the salvation of those who have rejected Christ. We ought to pray that the Lord would be merciful and gracious to them and remove the scales from their eyes.

As John Calvin comments on Hebrews 12:17, he helpfully and directly addresses the question at hand:

Now as he denounces the same danger on all the despisers of God’s grace, it may be asked, whether no hope of pardon remains, when God’s grace has been treated with contempt and his kingdom less esteemed than the world? To this I answer, that pardon is not expressly denied to such, but that they are warned to take heed, lest the same thing should happen to them also.

 

Conclusion

As we saw in the sermon on Sunday, this warning about the apostasy of Esau is actually part of a series of “y’all admonitions” (Hebrews 12:12-17) in which the writer of Hebrews is exhorting believers to watch out for one another. In the larger context of this chapter, this watching out for one another is said to be one of the primary ways in which the Lord disciplines His sons in the community of faith, in the church (Hebrews 12:4-11).

I will sometimes joke with my children, admonishing them by quoting a non-existent verse from the Bible: “Remember what third Peter, chapter 1, verse 1 says: ‘Don’t be lazy!’”

Hebrews 12:15-17, however, is very real and it’s no joke: Don’t be like Esau, and see to it that no one else becomes like Esau!

May the Lord use others in the body of Christ – as we keep watch and guard one another – to discipline us as we strive against sin (Hebrews 12:4), pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Toward a Y'all Hermeneutic

Dear Church Family,

Merriam-Webster defines the word ‘hermeneutic’ as ‘a method or principle of interpretation.’ Seminaries teach courses on biblical hermeneutics or how to interpret the Bible. But everyone – whether they’ve studied or not – has a hermeneutic, or method of interpreting the Bible. And, a person’s hermeneutic is often informed by many things: past experiences, socio-economic context, culture, etc. Yet, the goal is that as we continually read and study the Scriptures, our hermeneutic will become more and more informed by Scripture itself.

In my own personal experience, I have found that many Christians have a hermeneutic that is individualistic rather than corporate – as if the Bible is speaking only to “you” (as an individual Christian) rather than to “y’all” (as the Church of Jesus Christ). Of course, we must make personal applications for ourselves as individuals as we read God’s Word; however, by and large, the Scriptures were written not to believers as individuals, but to believers as God’s household.

So, in an effort to help us avoid what comedian Brian Regan calls “the me monster” and to help us form a better “y’all hermeneutic,” let’s look at just one passage from God’s Word. Philippians 2:12-13 is often interpreted with a “you hermeneutic” when it actually calls for a “y’all hermeneutic.” Here’s the passage:

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)

 

Unfortunately, the end of verse 12 is often quoted out of context as a caveat to the assurance of salvation. If you’ve been around the church for any length of time, you may have heard someone say something like this: “Yes, it’s true, you can have assurance of your salvation, but remember, you must ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling.’”

Well, here’s where a proper “y’all hermeneutic” is helpful. While the word “salvation” is singular, every instance of the word “you” in this passage is not singular, but plural. The Apostle Paul is not saying, “Each one of you is on your own. Everyone has his or her own salvation to work out.” No, he’s emphasizing the corporate nature of the one gift of salvation: “You, the people of God, the Church – all y’all – have been given this gift by the work of Christ – this gift of salvation – in which you all are participating. Therefore, work it out together. Work it out together with fear and trembling – with awe and wonder – because God is the One who is at work in y’all.”

The idea of “working it out” is sort of like when you make a pie crust and you knead the lump of dough, working it out onto the counter until it is a perfect circle for the crust. So, Paul is admonishing the church to remember that they are all called to work out the benefits of salvation to all members of the church, to lovingly serve one another in peace and in unity: work out all y’alls’ salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in y’all, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

So, rather than a call to become introspective and think only about ourselves, this is actually a command to be more concerned about the interests of others in the church.

The Context of Philippians

This insight that we gain from a “y’all hermeneutic” fits in the overall context of the entire book of Philippians. In the first chapter, Paul has already encouraged them to “stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27). Later in chapter 2, he will go on to commend Timothy to them because he is uniquely and genuinely concerned for their welfare (Philippians 2:20). In chapter 3, he teaches them to follow his and others in the church as examples of how to walk in the Christian faith (Philippians 3:17). And, in chapter 4, he urges two women in the church who are in conflict with one another to “live in harmony in the Lord” (Philippians 4:2) and he acknowledges the service of Epaphroditus to himself on behalf of the church in Philippi as “an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God” (Philippians 4:18).

The Immediate Context

This idea of “working out all y’alls’ salvation with fear and trembling” as a call to pursue peace and unity among God’s household of faith also fits in the immediate context of Philippians 2:12-13, as well. In the opening verses of this chapter, Paul says,

Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves. (Philippians 2:1-3).

 

And then, immediately following, he explains what it means to “work out y’alls’ salvation with fear and trembling”:

Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain. (Philippians 2:14-16).

 

Conclusion

We’ve considered just one passage of Scripture where a “y’all hermeneutic” helps us to better understand and apply God’s Word for our lives, but a basic “y’all hermeneutic” will help us throughout our study of God’s Word. In the sermon this coming Sunday, we will be considering God’s call to submit to His Fatherly discipline (Hebrews 12:4-17). But, we’ll miss the entire point if we don’t approach this passage with a proper “y’all hermeneutic.” When we do, we will see that God disciplines us as sons in the household of faith – in the church – as we “pursue peace with all men” (Hebrews 12:14).

As O. Palmer Robertson writes, the book of Hebrews “stresses the mutual unity of the members of the community of the saved with one another. Since the wilderness journey toward the promises of God involves a collective pilgrimage, each member must preserve a collective consciousness” (God’s People in the Wilderness: The Church in Hebrews, 60).

I look forward to worshipping with y’all on Sunday!

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch