Discernment / Ordinary Life / The Skill

Babylon Series: Part 2 Living in Exile: A Model for Faithfulness

A story is told of a man from Colorado who came to northern Minnesota one autumn for deer hunting. The Mid-westerners who hosted him planned to “drive the woods” the afternoon of the opening day of the season. They instructed their friend to walk down the road until he reached the ridge, and then stand on it in order to get a shot at any deer running out of the woods. After giving him a head start, they fanned out in a straight line and began walking slowly through the woods in his direction. When they finally emerged from the woods, however, they were surprised to find no one standing on the ridge. In fact, the Colorado hunter was nowhere to be seen. They drove down the road looking for him, and eventually found him several miles away, still walking, still looking for the ridge. For a man who lived in the Rockies, the hump of earth pushed up on the far edge of the open field just beyond the woods simply didn’t qualify in his mind as a “ridge.” But in northern Minnesota, which is utterly flat as far as the eye can see, it is called a “ridge” to this day. And it is the only ridge around; if he had walked a mile or so further, he would have crossed the border into Canada.

The misunderstanding over the “ridge” was not an issue of intelligence, nor were the plans for the hunt unclear. Rather, the problem arose because the hunter from Colorado had a different mental image or model of “ridge” than the hunters from Minnesota. The image we have of something—the way we picture it in our mind —can make a real difference.

A similar problem can arise when we talk about how to live in the world but not be of it. The model we have adopted (consciously or unconsciously) for how to live faithfully in a fallen world can make a big difference in how we view and respond to culture and life. In this second article of the Babylon series, I want to propose a model that will help make sense of our situation, namely living in exile. I will argue that we have much to learn, living in a postmodern culture, from the texts that tell the story of the covenant people of God who were living in exile in Babylon. In exile they lived among people who did not share their deepest convictions, in a pagan society in which a variety of religions, world views, and values competed for acceptance. Although there are important differences between their situation and ours, the parallels are significant enough that we should be able to learn much from God’s people as they sought to be faithful while living in exile.

A Brief Review
In the first article we noted that there is much to offend Christians in postmodern culture, and that much offense is taken. The question we sought to answer was how we should respond to living in a society surrounded by beliefs and values which are clearly antithetical to righteousness. For guidance we turned to Paul’s experience in pagan Athens, where the Scriptures record that he “was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16). An examination of that text, however, led us to conclude that Paul’s profound response to the paganism of Athens was very different from what most people mean today when they complain that their Christian sensibilities have been offended by something in the world.

More specifically, we identified three significant differences. First, Paul’s “distress” led him to engage the culture and people of Athens, while our “offense” tends to lead to withdrawal. Paul was motivated to understand their beliefs and practices, and as a result he examined their idolatrous shrines and read their pagan poets. When we are offended, on the other hand, we often pull back from what has assaulted our sensibilities.

Second, being “offended” by the behavior and/or culture of unbelievers makes it difficult for us to creatively find points of contact and agreement with them, as Paul’s “distress” moved him to find in the idolatrous culture of Athens. Paul sought to find windows of insight into what the Athenians’ believed, and in doing so, he was able to use their altar “to the Unknown God” as a point of contact to discuss the truth. And he hadn’t read the pagan literature simply to disagree, but quoted approvingly what the Stoic poet said about God, even though the poet had been writing about Zeus.

And finally, Paul’s “distress” was God-centered, while our “offense” tends to be self-centered. The apostle’s deeply moving response to the idolatry in Athens was not that his Christian sensibilities had been assaulted, but that God’s glory was not recognized and honored.

May we grow in faith and spiritual maturity so that we increasingly follow Paul’s godly example. Christian faithfulness is marked not by taking “offense” and withdrawing at the beliefs and behavior of unbelievers, but by a righteous “distress” which compels us to holy spirited, creative, compassionate engagement for God’s glory.

The question of taking offense in a pagan world, however, is only one aspect of the wider question we are seeking to address, namely, how we should live in the world without being part of it. And since this is not a new question, but one which the people of God have had to ask ever since the Fall, it will prove helpful to consider some of the answers Christians have proposed down through the centuries.

Five Different Answers
In 1949, Yale Divinity School professor H. Richard Niebuhr gave a series of lectures that were later published under the title Christ and Culture. In this work, Dr. Niebuhr identified five main approaches that Christians have historically assumed in trying to answer the question of how to be in the world but not of it. Christ and Culture is worth reading with care, and my summary here of the five categories does not do justice to Dr. Niebuhr’s detailed study. Though we might not agree with all the details of his argument, Niebuhr’s five-fold classification remains a helpful analysis today. In the list that follows I briefly define each of the five views Niebuhr identifies in his book, and then I respond to each, mentioning a few strengths and weaknesses of each view.

1. Christ Against Culture
The key idea here is “opposition” or “separation.” In this view, human culture is seen, by and large, as unimportant, irredeemable, and under the judgment of a righteous God. Christians are to obey the command to “come out from them and be separate” (2 Corinthians 6:17), or as the apostle John put it, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). Niebuhr identifies the second century church father Tertullian as an advocate of this position, along with Leo Tolstoy, the early monastic movement, the Mennonites, and the Quakers. It is also the approach advocated by many Christian fundamentalists today.

On the positive side, there are at least three things which commend the Christ against culture view. First, it seems to be motivated by a deep desire for holiness and purity in the midst of a sinful world. Second, it argues for a radical commitment to Christ and his kingdom, even at personal cost. And finally, unlike some of the other approaches, this one takes seriously the profound nature of sin and its effects in a fallen world.

On the negative side, however, the Christ against culture approach shows itself to be inadequate and unbiblical for several reasons. First, it tends to identify sin with culture. This divides life into sacred and secular spheres, an idea that is actually rooted in Greek pagan thought, not in the Scriptures. Second, its appeal to Scripture is too selective. As a result, the attempt to live out this view often ends up being little more than a practical, though inadvertent, rejection of Christ’s Lordship over all of life and reality. Third, the isolation it tends to foster fails to demonstrate and communicate either love or truth to a watching world. And finally, in the end it does not actually separate believers from culture so much as produce an alternative “Christian” ghetto-culture which is usually sadly unimaginative, uncreative, and unattractive.

2. The Christ of Culture
Niebuhr identifies the early Gnostics, and modern liberal theologians such as Albrecht Ritschl as proponents of this view. The key idea is “accommodation.” It is nature, not culture, that is the problem, according to this view, and since reason, science, and technology are not antithetical to faith, following the example of Jesus within the progress of history will allow an unfolding of culture under the universal fatherhood of God.

Evangelicals have tended to be dismissive—even derisive—of the Christ of culture approach, but at least two positive things should be said of it. First, it has historically demonstrated a keen concern for issues of social justice which evangelicals have often shamefully ignored, including a concern for the care of creation, and for justice for the marginalized and powerless in society. As well, it has taken learning and the life of the mind seriously, while an unbiblical and unfortunate anti-intellectualism has plagued the evangelical movement.

On the negative side, however, the Christ of culture approach must be rejected as unbiblical because of its inadequate view of the Fall, and thus the corresponding need for redemption. Christ is not so much Savior as model, and in the end human reason stands in judgment over the Scriptures. As a result, such liberal religion tends to lose any real distinctiveness, and over time appears to be little more than simply an expression of the prevailing culture colored with a faint religious hue.

3. Christ above Culture
Here the key notion is “synthesis,” and early proponents of this view, according to Niebuhr, include Justin Martyr (died AD 165), and Clement of Alexandria (died AD 214). The most influential proponent, however, was Thomas Aquinas who sought to synthesize (bring together) the philosophy of Aristotle with the theology of the medieval church. Life is in two parts, grace (the higher) and nature (the lower). Revelation is seen as being in a place of superiority in the realm of grace, just as reason holds supremacy in the realm of nature. Thus, using reason man can come to the truth, and though reason can be misdirected, the solution is better reasoning under the guidance of the church.

On the positive side, there are at least two things which commend the Christ above culture approach. First, it seeks a unified view of life and reality, convinced that there is one truth, and one God who is both Creator and Law-giver. It also takes divine revelation and the life of the mind seriously.

On the negative side, however, there are several serious flaws. The primary one is that Aquinas failed to take the biblical teaching of the Fall seriously enough. More specifically, our problem with reason in a fallen world is not merely that our reason can be misdirected, but that it is fallen. The solution, then, is not merely better reason, but redeemed reason, or to use Paul’s term, a “renewed mind” (Romans 12:2), which is impossible apart from the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. As well, though some historians may dispute it, a good argument can be made that Aquinas’ synthesis paved the way for the Enlightenment, with its elevation of reason over revelation.

4. Christ and Culture in Paradox
The key idea is “dualism,” as Dr. Niebuhr says, a perpetual sense of living in conflict. Better understood as a motif rather than a school of thought, the Christ and culture in paradox approach is associated by Niebuhr with the apostle Paul (I would disagree), with Marcion in the second century, and primarily with Martin Luther. In this view, culture is seen as deeply fallen, but is also understood as the place in which we must live. Thus, day by day, life feels very much like being torn in two, for believers sense they must live in two worlds simultaneously while feeling completely at home in neither—a sinner in the kingdom, and a saint in the world.

There are at least three things that commend the Christ and culture in paradox approach to understanding how to live in the world while not being of it. First, and most significant, this is what most Christians tend to feel as they seek to live faithfully day by day. This view is plausible because it mirrors our personal experience so admirably. Second, it faces up honestly to the real difficulty of the struggle we face. Rather than give simplistic answers, it is content to acknowledge our limitations, and to insist only Christ’s return as King will fully resolve the tension that comes from living in a fallen world. And third, it reminds us that we are, in Peter’s words “aliens and strangers” living after the cross but before the consummation of our faith in glory (1 Peter 2:11).

On the other hand, there are problems with this view. One is that this position, in practice at least, tends to lead to an unhealthy conservatism. Since we must become involved in culture in order to proclaim the gospel, but since there is little hope for culture on this side of glory, the concern tends to be primarily that of seeking to keep the culture from degenerating into anarchy, which would interfere with the ability to preach the gospel. Thus there is a tendency to conserve order rather than seek deeper reform. As well, this approach can easily degenerate into a sacred/secular dichotomy. Being caught in a paradox is never comfortable, and soon it becomes easier to concentrate on one side of the dualism. In the end, it can allow people to take the easy way out, keeping a foot in both camps without having to do the hard and risky work of really integrating culture and faith.

5. Christ the Transformer of Culture
The key notion is “conversion,” according to Niebuhr, though “reformation” or “renewal” would work equally well. Creation, creativity, and human culture are seen as good gifts of God, but now sadly distorted by the Fall. Christ died to redeem all of creation, and his Lordship means that all of life and reality is to be brought under his Kingship and into conformity with his law and word. All of life and culture is to be permeated with and conformed to the good news of Christ. Niebuhr identifies the apostle John, St. Augustine, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards as proponents, and I would add Francis Schaeffer and Jerram Barrs to the list.

I would argue that Christ the transformer of culture, out of the five historical approaches listed by Niebuhr, is the one that best captures the biblical teaching on living in the world while not being of it. It is rooted in the biblical understanding of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation as the unfolding drama of what God is doing in human history through Christ. It holds an equally high view of sin and of the Cross, while insisting that there is no dichotomy between the sacred and the secular. It provides for a correct understanding of Christian spirituality as being the nature of true human experience, and it honors Christ as King across all of life, culture, and reality.

Honesty insists there are some negatives worth mentioning. First, this approach can be misconstrued as an excuse to not be concerned for evangelism. Some have also used this position as an excuse to marry their career, claiming that they are attempting to pursue it to God’s glory, when it appears more likely that they have turned their job and personal success into an idolatry. And finally, without the careful nurturing of a rigorous Christian world and life view, this transformationalist approach is very difficult to maintain. It is exciting to speak of transforming culture, but it is a costly enterprise that requires cultural insight wedded to biblical and theological literacy. If a keen Christian mind is not developed within the context of the community of God’s covenant people, discernment will not mature, and hope will languish. And, during those periods when the surrounding culture seems to go from bad to worse, discouragement can set in, causing the believer to migrate to one of the other five approaches—but more on that in a moment.

Where Evangelicals Are Today
At the risk of greatly oversimplifying the matter, let me suggest that the trajectory of the modern evangelical movement in terms of Niebuhr’s five categories runs something like this. At the time of the First Great Awakening (1735-1743), evangelical Christianity was, by and large, transformationalist. Following in the footsteps of Augustine and Calvin, Jonathan Edwards proclaimed a gospel in which Christ is Savior, Lord, and Transformer of culture. Then, under the influence of the Second Great Awakening (1795-1830), and the onslaught of the Enlightenment, evangelicals withdrew in the early years of the twentieth century into a strongly Christ against culture stance. Fundamentalism was born as a response to modernism, and increasingly the effort was to save souls while leaving culture to the world—all of which would be burned up when Christ returned anyway. Then, when the decade of the sixties burst on the scene, even old-time fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell discovered that they increasingly felt not-at-home in American society, and felt something had to be done about it. And they heard the voice of Christian thinkers like Francis Schaeffer and Carl Henry reminding them that Christ is Savior and Lord, as well as the Transformer of culture.

Now, this was heady stuff, and conservative Christians were optimistic. Since what we believed was true—after all, we believed the Bible—simply insisting on our own values and ideas in the public square would automatically be for the common good. Besides, there were good reasons for what we believed, and those reasons were obviously compelling. Pictures of fetuses proved they were babies—nobody would doubt that once it was explained to them. And anybody with an IQ over 70 could understand that relativism was self-defeating. To top it off, there were lots of us—we were the moral majority, remember—and so our entry into the political arena meant we could make an impact, politically, economically, and spiritually.

Needless to say, things did not turn out as expected, and optimism, it is safe to say, has waned. I am neither a prophet nor a sociologist, but what has happened, it seems to me, is that the strong biblical foundation required to sustain and nurture this reformational view through discouraging times has been weak or nonexistent. Biblical, theological, and creedal illiteracy has increased, and the hard work of cultural discernment has been replaced by a reactionary spirit. As a result, it seems that we are presently in the midst of what appears to be a fracturing of the evangelical movement into some of Niebuhr’s other four categories.

Some evangelicals, for example, are fleeing towards a Christ against culture stance, withdrawing into the imagined safety of their own subculture, which is, in reality, a Christian ghetto. Particularly popular among home- and Christian-school families, this movement is increasingly cynical, reactionary, and survivalist.

Other evangelicals are becoming increasingly accommodationist (the Christ of culture approach). Os Guinness has identified four steps liberals tended to move through in the 30s and 40s, and it doesn’t take much imagination to spot the same process at work in sectors of the evangelical movement. The four steps are these: 1. Assumption: there is something in the modern world superior to what’s gone before (such as the power of modern marketing and the application of various techniques for numerical growth); 2. Reduction: those aspects of the faith that seem incompatible with modern sensibilities are dropped or downplayed (such as doctrinal substance, God’s wrath, or covenant community); 3. Translation: what is left of the faith is translated so as to jive with modern sensibilities (as in church shopping, or worship as entertainment); and 4. Accommodation: the faith increasingly becomes acceptable to and indistinct from the surrounding culture. Unlike the liberals, who accommodated to classical culture and biblical criticism, Christ of culture evangelicals are drawn to pop culture, consumerism, and marketing—but the accommodation is similar, even if the final product looks different. In any case, it is far removed from a transformationalist approach.

Many evangelicals who claim they are transformationalists, in actuality are not. They tend to be so offended by the direction society is taking that they do not really engage the culture in order to reform it; rather, they seek to force change through power politics, economic boycotts, and cultural protest. But these are reactionary tactics, and not only is there growing evidence that the attempt will fail, there are signs that disillusionment is increasing. Rather than promote reformation, this activism provokes a backlash from the unbelievers we are called to win, and makes evangelicals look like merely one more special interest group seeking to force its agenda on the public square.

A Model for Faithfulness: Living in Exile
What is needed, it seems to me, is for evangelicals to develop a theology of being in the world but not of it—what Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio refers to as a “theology of the exile.” Why the emphasis on exile? When we read the Bible, it is proper to ask which portions of Scripture seem to be addressed to believers in circumstances most similar to our own. This is not to say that all the Scriptures are not normative for us, for they are. Nor does this suggest that some parts of the Bible can be highlighted while the rest ignored. Rather, the question we are asking simply takes the historical and textual context seriously, recognizing that in history God’s people have been called to live faithfully in a wide variety of cultural circumstances. And, when we ask which portions of Scripture seem to be addressed to believers in cultural circumstances most similar to our own, two come to mind. The first is Acts 17, where Paul visits Athens. And the other involves the Old Testament people of God who were living in exile in Babylon.

Acts 17 is vitally important to teach us how to engage the surrounding culture and how to speak the truth winsomely into it. Paul did not live there over an extended period, however, so we must turn to the Old Testament record of the exile to gain insight into how to live faithfully over the course of a lifetime. And the biblical record of the exile is really quite rich. It includes, in Jeremiah 29, a letter that God had the prophet Jeremiah write to the exiles in Babylon instructing them on how they were to live. And in the book of Daniel we have a record of four Jewish believers who lived faithfully in Babylon, even at the risk of their lives. These passages are worth serious study.

When we reflect on what living in exile means for the people of God we discover a dynamic model for Christian faithfulness. Consider three Old Testament cities (thinking of them as metaphors for life in a fallen world), and put them on a continuum—Jerusalem, Samaria, and Babylon.

Jerusalem is where God’s word is honored, and though not everyone living there is a believer, the culture is ultimately rooted in the reality of God and the truth of his law. The Temple dominates the landscape, worship is central to life, and the passing of time is marked by the succession of feasts and sacrifices commemorating God’s grace and care for his people. Disputes are settled by appeals to the law of God; poetry and music flourish, giving praise to the living God and celebrating the glory of his creation. Jerusalem is not heaven, of course, but all of culture—politics, justice, art, and the work of one’s hands and mind—all of culture resonates with the God who has spoken and who is Redeemer, Judge, and King.

Now consider Samaria. It is certainly very different from Jerusalem, but it is not so very far away either. Populated by people who have over the years married unbelievers, their commitment to God and his word has been compromised. During the period of the prophets, for example, Samaria was a center for idolatry, and it was there that Ahab and Jezebel encouraged the worship of Baal. Though this rank idolatry has ended, Samaritans don’t worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, but on Mt Gerizim. Rather than accept the entire Old Testament, only the first five books of Moses are accepted as canonical—a limitation that is reflected in Samaritan belief and practice. Still, the Pentateuch is better than nothing, and at least part of God’s word and law is honored.

Finally, think about Babylon. Very far from Jerusalem, and far even from Samaria, the literature and culture is what one would expect when belief in many gods gives rise to a world view in which sorcery, charms, magic, and astrology are an essential part of life. The capital city of a great military empire, Babylon has become home to people from every part of the known world. God’s word and law, if acknowledged at all, are seen as simply one option among many, representing the provincial beliefs of a people whose god has been soundly defeated by the army of Anu, Enlil, and Ea, the three great Babylonian deities. The culture, personified in the king, is idolatrous and unjust, with morals repugnant to true righteousness. Here the people of God are a small minority, living among people who do not share their deepest convictions, in a society in which a variety of beliefs and values compete for acceptance.

Jerusalem, Samaria, Babylon. Which of the three is a metaphor for where you and I live today? Which city is the best analogy for life in our pluralistic, postmodern culture? I suppose it is possible that some might disagree with me, but I do not find the question all that difficult. We are certainly not in Jerusalem, and even Samaria sounds foreign to me. We are living in exile in Babylon.

Many evangelicals, however, act like they are still living in Jerusalem or Samaria. Consider, for example, the issue that was discussed in the first article: taking personal offense at the behavior or language of unbelievers. If I go to see a movie in Babylon, should I not expect the film to reflect Babylonian beliefs and values? As a Christian I may disagree strongly with those beliefs and find the values utterly contrary to God’s law, but surely that should not be surprising. Nor, if I am living in exile in Babylon, does it make sense to be offended that Babylonians act like Babylonians, or that they fail to make many films that reflect the beliefs and values of Jerusalem. In fact, I should not be surprised if they make films that deride the beliefs and values of Jerusalem—after all, this is Babylon.

The model of living in exile thus helps clarify why we might want to watch Babylonian films, even though they do not reflect the beliefs and values of Jerusalem. The fact that Babylonians make art that reflects their world and life view should be seen as an opportunity. We need windows of insight into the Babylonian culture, and points of contact in order to launch discussion of the big questions of life, and Babylonian art is one place where both can be found. Besides, one need not be a believer to make good films, just as an author need not be a Christian to write fine fiction, full of insight into life in a fallen world.

The model of living in exile also clarifies why reacting negatively to Babylonian films can be so counterproductive. To be reactionary when Babylonians do what Babylonians do erects walls between them and us, when our concern should be to enter their lives with love and friendship, until we have earned the right to share the gospel. It is hard to live in exile, hard to be surrounded by people who do not share our deepest convictions. It is much easier to be reactionary in Babylon, and more satisfying too, because being offended by them makes us feel so very righteous. Besides, it is disappointing to be stuck in Babylon when what we really want is to live in Jerusalem. It is hard work to find creative and winsome ways to translate the gospel into terms they will understand. It requires discipline to develop skill in discernment, and single-mindedness to nurture biblical literacy in the midst of the busyness that presses in on us. It takes time and energy—and perhaps a great deal of study and thinking—to give honest answers to honest questions. It takes patience to refrain from giving answers to questions they have not yet asked, and which they cannot yet appreciate or receive. It takes perseverance to love sinners whose sin we find repugnant, and humility to remember that our sin seems less wicked only because it is ours.

If we are living in exile, we are not here by chance. God has called us to serve him here, in this place, and not in another. In the same way the Jewish exiles were convinced that it was God’s hand that took them to Babylon (see Daniel 1:2), so we have been called to be faithful in a pluralistic and postmodern world.

Seeing ourselves as living in exile will help us better understand what that faithfulness consists of.

But What About…?

If the model of living in exile is appropriate, it would be wise to look more closely at the experience of the Old Testament people of God in Babylon to see what we can learn from them. What instructions did Jeremiah give in his letter to the exiles in Babylon? How did Daniel and his three friends model faithfulness as they lived out their lives in exile from Jerusalem?


Christ and Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr (New York, NY: Harper & Row; 1951).