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A World of Meaning

This entry is part 25 of 32 in the series

"Toward Conservative Christian Churches"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

Once a pastor has it settled in his mind that sola Scriptura does not require him to ignore, dismiss or reject extra-biblical sources of knowledge, he may safely walk through God’s world and examine it, knowing that it is, indeed, his Father’s world.

A pastor should become personally fascinated with meaning. How could it be otherwise? He communicates truth as a vocation! He cannot communicate truth effectively if he becomes provincial and narrow in his knowledge. He must have an insatiable curiosity, which scans the breadth of the created order.

Because he is a communicator of religion, two areas of meaning should be his special focus: language and culture. Language is the tool of his trade, so he cannot afford to be careless of the meaning of words. The man who gives us all a rod to the back in this regard is Richard Mitchell. Mitchell is relentless is telling us that disordered speech represents disordered thinking, which in turn represents a disordered imagination. Careless writing or speaking ultimately represents a carelessness with meaning and truth. Yes, Mitchell is lewd in certain places. Yes, he is a modernist, who denies the transcendent. However, once again, where he speaks truly, that truth is true for a Christian.

Since culture cannot be divorced from religion, pastors need to understand what culture is, how it is formed, what it produces, and what its relationship is to religion and faith. Practically, a right view of culture touches the core of a pastor’s work: worship, communicating and applying Scripture, discipleship, evangelism, missions, so-called “contextualization”, and a host of other ministry concerns.

I am personally distrustful of some evangelicals when they begin to speak on culture, for their definitions seem novel, partial and rather vacuous. I think we find more helpful guides in those who perpetuate the classical view of culture. T.S. Eliot defended this view in Notes Toward the Definition of Culture. Richard Weaver does much the same in Ideas Have Consequences and Visions of Order. Other helpful guides on culture include Joseph Pieper, Theodore Dalrymple, Roger Scruton, Philip Rieff and Jacques Barzun. If you are looking for a Christian whose take on culture is helpful, J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Culture sketches some of the right views on a Christian relationship to culture. Further, part of the reason for this study of culture is also because a pastor communicates to people within a cultural context. As Ed Hirsch has shown in Cultural Literacy, knowledge of the culture you labor in gives you shared information with others in that culture.

Inevitably, an interest in culture will provoke an interest in the history of culture and its intellectual ideas. How did we get here? Why do people think the way they do? A pastor without a knowledge of the intellectual history of the West will be a perpetual tourist in his own culture. His evangelism and discipleship will be greatly hampered by misunderstanding the presuppositions of the people he meets. Again, men like Weaver, Barzun, Scruton, Christopher Dawson, Russell Kirk, and John Lukacs will help us orient ourselves in the Great Conversation.

The study of culture is important, but what cultures produce affects church life dramatically. After all, we have to sing. But what music shall we use? We must use psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, but what poetry shall we use? We must meet, but what architecture shall we use (assuming we’re in a position to do so)? We might care nothing for the other artifacts of culture (to our own detriment), but a pastor must give attention to these three, for they form part of the church’s worship.  Once more, we are not remiss in consulting men learned in their field, men like Leonard Meyer, Owen Barfield, Cleanth Brooks, and Francis D.K. Ching.

Beyond that, our people are listening to music outside of worship. They are reading books. They are watching television or movies. If we are to be helpful guides to our people, we need to understand something of the meaning of literature, the plastic arts, theater, and the many different media, technology and devices that now populate our lives. A pastor needs to guide his people to be discerning in what they read, watch and listen to, and how they use books, the Internet, television. To do this effectively, he must understand these media, how they work, how they communicate, and how their use affects a Christian worldview. Beyond this, a pastor need to understand the world he and his hearers live in. That includes something of politics and government, economics, law and science.

Once we’ve looked through all this, the question becomes, where does a pastor find the time to all this reading? A few suggestions are in order.

1) I have come to part ways with those who say that a self-respecting pastor spends 25-40 hours a week on sermon preparation alone. While I admire the sentiment towards expository preaching, I wonder if it ends up producing richer sermons, or just longer sermons. Truthfully, how can one have enough time to pray, read the Scriptures, prepare or write other materials, visit the flock, do church administration, build relationships with unbelievers, plan services, counsel those in need, meet with church leadership, disciple the young, take care of home and family, as well as do the kind of reading suggested in this post, if 40 hours of the week are spent exclusively on sermon preparation? I would agree that 25-40 hours ought to be spent on study, but that would include the kind of reading we are talking about, alongside sermon preparation. In truth, reading widely (though this is not the primary reason for doing it) only helps sermons, filling them with a richer variety of illustrations and applications.

2) It may help to divide one’s reading time by subject or type of literature. Systematic and biblical theology, practical ministry books, devotional works, history, classical literature and poetry, philosophy, and general knowledge might be some categories to use. Some men are more able to work through several books simultaneously, while others motor through one at a time. Know yourself, and what works well for you, but find a way to have more than an accidental relationship with all these kinds of reading, without neglecting the Scriptures.

3) Subscribing to quality print, web or audio journals or magazines may be helpful. Interviews and articles often give condensed explanations and introductions to subjects that help a busy pastor.

4) If you are like me, then you graduated from college or university with very little in the way of a liberal arts education. The Internet is proving a boon to those of us who wish to catch up on what we missed. Companies like The Teaching Company or Academic Earth offer courses in everything from music to quantum physics by well-respected lecturers. For comparatively little, one can hear lectures from highly-trained professors.

In the next post, I would like to consider further ways that a pastor can grow in his pursuit of meaning, and encourage this attitude in the church he leads.

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About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.