Wednesday, August 18, 2004

The gods on our wrists

This week, I'm reading through Prophetic Untimeliness, by Os Guinness. Subtitled A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance, this short book discusses the ironic fact that Western Christianity's increased attempts to be "culturally relevant" have left the Church more irrelevant than ever.

The first section is pretty interesting. Guinness begins by highlighting some of the huge societal and cultural changes brought about by the invention and widespread implementation of the clock in the Western world. He notes that other cultures developed a host of proverbs and slogans to describe the Western dependence on accurate timekeeping (e.g. gods on the wrist).

One aspect I find interesting is the linguistic shift resulting from this innovation. Guinness notes how ideas of "civilization" and "progress" were once gauged in terms of spatial measurement, not time. The ancient Greeks, for example, defined "barbarians" as those living outside their enlightened expanse of territory. And the word "progress" was seen in terms of spatial distance covered (like in a journey, a la Pilgrim's Progress). These terms, however, have shifted to having more temporal connotations. Think of the implications found in the terms "Dark Ages," "Middle Ages," and "Modern Age." Thanks to the Enlightenment, we know that mankind is always moving forward, so our current age represents the apex of civilization and development. Obviously, everything before us was hopelessly mired in ignorance. As a result, Guinness notes, we've come to use chronological language ("backward," "Neanderthal," etc. as negative examples) to denote the level of advancement, with the understood fact that everything pre-dating our current age was somehow deficient in their understanding of the world.

And of course, this over-emphasis on time results in the ever-present pressure to be "relevant" to whatever trends of the times arise. Ultimately, this attitude infiltrates the Church, which (as Guinness and so many others rightly note) tragically sacrifices its own relevance for the sake of pursuing "cultural relevance." How do we combat this? Well, I haven't read that far yet. But I'll be sure to let you know.

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