The last few years have been a whirlwind culturally, and Christians are at a loss to understand why, to say nothing of how to respond. How have we come to find ourselves on “the wrong side of history” as social progressives suggest on so many issues? Is there a way to turn things around? How can we maintain our witness when it seems everyone is trying to out affirm everyone else harder?
It hardly seems like this would be “our time,” yet this is what Trevin Wax argues in his latest book, This Is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel. And he’s right, of course. It just depends on what you mean by this phrase. If your understanding of “our time” is being the voice of the majority on moral issues, and being firmly entrenched in the mainstream of culture… yeah, not so much. But this isn’t what Wax means by it. Instead “our time” refers to the opportunity present a better story, the hope of the gospel in the face of the cultural myths that constantly vie for our attention.
Lie detectors, complimenting, and the third way of cultural engagement
Each chapter of this book follows a similar structure:
- First, he identifies the longing each myth is trying to meet;
- Second, the lie or the myth’s false promise;
- Finally, the points to how the light of the gospel dispels the myth.
For those familiar with Wax’s previous works (or Brandon Smith’s incessant trolling on the Word Matters podcast), this structure should feel familiar. This is Wax’s sweet spot when dealing with complex subjects, in part because the alternatives are so dissatisfying. One can act as a “lie detector” Christian and unyieldingly point out the falsehoods of the cultural story, or you can go along to get along, gleefully refusing to challenge anything for the sake of… well, I don’t really know what, exactly. Instead, Wax wants us to engage as who are “savvy enough to see how the gospel answers deeper longings and rejects humanity’s lies” (13).
It’s a more compassionate approach, one that goes beyond a simplistic “right vs wrong” to “this is better.” Indeed, this is the point of evangelism according to Wax, who writes, “Evangelism is not just convincing people the gospel is true but also that it is better” (12).
So how does he do with that? Overall, pretty well. Let’s quickly look at two examples.
Write fewer whitepapers, tell betters stories
Years ago, a whole hubbub started about a book telling a story about a man who met God in a shack. Many readers glommed onto it like you wouldn’t believe, proclaiming it to be life-changing and restorative to their faith. But many evangelicals responded with whitepapers about why the book’s theology is a hot mess and destructive, which probably helped catapult the book into being a ridonkulous bestseller. But notice the problem: we countered a story, one designed to communicate the author’s theological perspective, with essays and talking head videos.[1. For the record, I read the book. It’s terrible on every level—a poorly written story, awful dialogue, and twisted theology to boot!]
And these concerns were met with a shrug by many. “It’s just a story.”
When Rob Bell wrote a book on hell and how no one is going there, what did evangelical bloggers and pundits (myself included) do? Helped catapult it into megaseller status with many reviews and whitepapers and hot takes. And these concerns were also met with a shrug by many and more than a few reminders about how divisive doctrine is, so really, we should all just try to get along.
And those are just two “in house” examples—material marketed toward Christians. But we do the same with Hollywood films, mainstream music, and literature, too. We denounce and boycott, or we uncritically embrace. We might try to create “family friendly” alternatives, but rarely do we offer something better. Something to counter the myths they peddle—those for significance, of the American dream or personal fulfillment. On this point, Wax writes, “If we are to be faithful in a world of entertainment, we need to create and promote better stories. It’s one thing to write a fifty-page criticism of a popular book or movie. It’s another thing to craft a better story” (64).
He’s right, of course. But in order to do this, Christians need to expose themselves to better stories. And too many of us don’t do that. We read Christian fiction, or Spiritual Formation non-fiction, or academic works… And there’s nothing wrong with any of these per se, but they’re not enough. We need to read great stories and seek to understand why they’re great. What is it that draws us in? What is it that captivates us? And how can we tell something better, truer and more beautiful in light of it?
Sex is everything and nothing at the same time…what?
The seventh chapter, “Sex Rebels,” is a shining example of the conflicting lies at play within our cultural mythology. Simultaneously, the myth tries to tell us that sex is both nothing and everything. It is a basic biological function, so no big deal. But if you’re not sleeping with someone of the opposite or same gender, what’s wrong with you? If you want to be happy, you need to be having sex. But if you want to be happy, you need to see it as no big deal. This explains so many people I knew in college, by the way.
The truth, the something better Wax points to, isn’t just an affirmation of God’s design for human sexuality, but the reality that we shouldn’t be looking for satisfaction in it. We can’t be, and our brokenness isn’t cured by being in a physically intimate relationship. “We put sex in its place not by saying, ‘Sex isn’t a big deal,’ but by telling people, ‘You are so much more than your sexuality'” (174).
This is the balance we need in our day, especially as we continue to have the lie peddled to us that unless we’re true to ourselves in these areas (usually referring to fulfilling whatever urges we might feel) we cannot every truly be whole and happy. We won’t be able to flourish as human beings. Instead, we need to help people see that we only flourish when we live within the bounds of God’s intentions for marriage and sexuality.
Encouragement for the overwhelmed
This Is Our Time is a great encouragement for all of us who look around and feel completely overwhelmed. This isn’t because we’re going to find how-tos in every chapter, though. It’s because Wax’s call to show the world something better is so much more compelling than any 12-step action plan can be. It’s a call to persevere, to dig deep into your faith and with Spirit-fueled effort, maintain a faithful witness as we engage in a society increasingly hostile to our beliefs. To see this as an opportunity for the gospel to shine brighter than it ever has in this nation and the world. So read carefully, read thoughtfully, and take heart. The days may seem dark, but the light always shines brightest in the darkness.
Title: This Is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel
Author: Trevin Wax
Publisher: B&H Publishing Group (2017)