Illustrating the culture

Illustrating the Culture

The gospel story intersects with many of the issues that are facing our friends and family, offering opportunities for evangelism. Are you ready?

Is your preaching and teaching ministry doing enough to prepare your church for the task of evangelism? In this series, Andy Paterson offers biblical encouragement that every Christian has a role to play, free from false guilt.

This is part 17 in the series.

We’re trying to work out what is the wise speech that Paul commends. In the last article we touched upon a number of principles: start from where people are, speak their language, and try to identify with them. In this article, we look at using appropriate illustrations and expressions.

Tim Keller encourages us to subvert our listener’s way of thinking by using illustrations drawn from their own cultural authorities. Of course, this is what Paul did before the Areopagus in Athens: in Acts 17:28 he quotes two of their own poets, Epimenides and Aratus.

For us, the poets of our age are those whose music is followed.

Any cursory viewing of the Glastonbury music festival will show tens of thousands singing out words they had memorised from their favourite artist. Whilst many of these lyrics are anodyne or worse, there are some that reflect the angst, confusion, and despair of the modern age.

Just one example out of many is Taylor Swift’s song ‘22’:

“We're happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time.
It's miserable and magical, oh yeah.
Tonight's the night when we forget about the deadlines, it's time uh oh.
I don't know about you but I'm feeling 22.
Everything will be alright, if you keep me next to you.”

Exposing the inconsistency

Let me give you two examples of what has been written or said by well-respected academics and thinkers which can be used to expose the inconsistency and assumptions of their own clan.

The philosopher Thomas Nagel, back in 1997, wrote this in his book The Last Word: “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

The flawed but brilliant American writer and University professor, David Foster Wallace, said this at a commencement address in 2005, three years before he hanged himself. “A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.”

And if we keep our eyes and ears open there are numerous contemporary illustrations that will help us make our communication as clear and effective as we can. The Christian blogosphere will often pick up such gems, and it’s a good idea to keep up to date with one or two trusted bloggers who might point us in the right direction.

But often we don’t even need to go that far.

News, celebrities, and sport

News stories of celebrities and sporting heroes, of events both tragic and glorious, give us a deep pool to swim in for our illustrations. There may be some wisdom in knowing the outline (if not watching every episode) of the dramas that are shaping conversations at work or at the school gate.

  • What point are they making?
  • What questions are they raising?
  • How does your distinctive viewpoint as a believer contribute to the discussions they provoke?

We should not be surprised that with all the wonders of common grace and all the pain and turmoil of living in our fallen world, there are numerous ways the gospel can intersect with and illustrate the issues facing our friends. We just need to be ready.

Then we should be delighted and able to speak of what actually happened to us when we became Christians and speak of the effect it had upon us. We should show that this is earthed in everyday reality.

Go beyond the cliché

At times, this is where our language can let us down; we need to go beyond the cliché.

To say that I was ‘born again’ is both glorious and confusing. It needs careful unpacking. Or to say that ‘I asked Jesus into my heart’ suffers from the same problems. It’s probably best to find other ways to explain what God has done in your life.

Of course, this means you not only need to be self-aware, but you also need to be theologically acute, conscious of what God has actually done in giving you new life and how the death and resurrection of Christ is central in your story. You don’t need a theology degree to do this but you should be sufficiently informed about the greatest thing that’s happened in your experience. After all, you know how you got here biologically, so shouldn’t you have the same awareness of what happened spiritually?

The danger can be that our laziness and ignorance will allow us to fall back upon that incomprehensible ‘Christianese’ rather than having a sufficient grasp of our salvation to enable us to shape our communication naturally for the hearer before us.

Tell your own story

We need to remember that we live in an age when telling your own story is far more acceptable than it may have been a generation or two ago. Because we live in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society we are more ready to listen to one another’s experiences.

Aneurin Bevan, the Welsh Labour politician, once said “This is my truth, now tell me yours”, which in turn became the title for the Manic Street Preachers 1998 album and summed up the way society was changing.

In an age when society considers each truth as valid as another, however contradictory, we should use this opening and let our ‘truths’ be known, confident that a sovereign God can and will vindicate the message of grace.

It's probably worth having a think through your unique salvation story and working out how you could communicate it with someone who asks. See if you can get it down to under five minutes in a cliché free zone. And maybe ask a Christian friend to critique what you have prepared. It’s amazing the blindspots we can develop.

Are you ready?

Next time: Anticipating the questions.

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