A survey of the adult class at Chapel Hill Presbyterian Church
indicated a strong interest in a course relating to contemporary issues
and sharing our faith. Starting from there, and my college/ seminary
education of twenty years past, I scratched out an outline of topics
put them into a semblance of order, and started prowling for resource
materials. I conceived the entire course as:
ENCOUNTERS - PROBING FOR THE 'LINES' (i.e. an
exploration of the 'points' where we come into contact and conflict
with the our contemporary world and at which we can reach out to
non-believers with the Gospel.)
- Barry McWilliams Chapel Hill Presbyterian Church, Lake Stevens, Wa. Spring 1998
When I began this class, I had
little idea what I was getting into, or how much work would go into it.
Nor did I realize how much my eyes and the eyes of my class would be
opened regarding our contemporary situation. Below is an account of my
research, class preparation and presentations - and an indication of
the seriousness and depth of study that can go into preparing and
teaching a class from scratch; as well as the excitement and new
insights and vision that can result from it.
- March 15th Topic Introduction -
“Buzz sessions” on “the Rebels”
i.e. fallen man, the "world".
Who are they? Where Do we come into contact with them? Where Do we Come
into conflict with them? What have they DONE with the truth? How Do we
answer them? How Do we Reach them with the Gospel?
The questions were accompanied with Scripture References which the
various groups handled in different ways: Rom 1:18-25, 26-32; Rom
2:1-16; Eph 2:1-10; Ephesians 6:10-13; 1 Cor 1:18-31; 2:1-16; 1 John
2:15-17; John 2:1-6; and Acts 17:16-34.
For my reading I began with Abraham Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism
- a series of lectures he gave at Princeton Seminary in 1898 - yet
surprizingly still relevant to our contemporary world of ideas. And
even more suprisingly still in Print on its hundred year anniversary.
March 22nd The Reformed World - Life View (The Infinite- Personal God, Man a creature in His Image, Creation, Fall and Redemption) and a world full of “...isms”
- Class buzz group generated "ism lists" made the class aware of the many ideas that mankind has conceived.
Further efforts at categorizing them resulted in a handout.Also an article by J.I. Packer: "What do you mean when you say God?"
from CT 9/19/86.The key concepts of the Reformed world life view are:
God; Man; and the biblical teaching on creation, fall and redemption.
My college studies included courses in missions under Dr. John M. L. Young. I turned next to those notes and some booklets he wrote, and two books: An Introduction to the Science of Missions and The Church between Temple and Mosque
by J. H. Bavinck, a Dutch missiologist, reviewing in particular his
material on Elenctics. It is from them that I got the two basic
questions Christians should ask of other religions: What have you done with God? and What has happened to man?.
The class topics were leading us to consider first the ways "God" was
understood by them and then how do we as Christians explain and respond
to those views. Further reading included browsing a couple of books on
world religions from the Public Library, and Hustin Smith's The Religions of Man from my own .
March 29th “What have you done with God?” - a key question!
Four tendencies of world religions: Shrink god down to a managable
size, Emphasize His highness, but have Him fade away, Replace him with
a Norm - a moral world order, Turn Him into an "unknowable IT".
[Elenctics from J. H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions] Romans One of course asks the question and gives its explanation: Mankind surpresses the truth!
Continuing in my reading of J. H. Bavinck - The Church between Temple and Mosque...... now looking into
April 5th “What has happened to mankind?” - Are there points of contact with a fallen humanity?
The five questions all mankind addresses: (from BavinckThe Church between Temple and Mosque):
I and the Cosmos? (Am I just a creature or something more?) I and the
Norm? (My sense of "ought" vs my own desires) I and the riddle of my
existence? (Is it just fate or are my actions significant) I and
salvation? (Things are not what I sense they should be) I and the
Supreme Being? (Is there an invisible reality behind what I see). This
class would deal with man created in God's image, and the implications
of this even after the fall. The issue of the point of contact with
[In discussion after class, I "visualized" these as
a circle of 10 nails, with rubberbands crossing holding pairs of nails
in "tension". As Christians we often live with the paradoxes - such as
God's Sovereignty and man's responsibility, faith vs sight, physical vs
spiritual, etc; only God understands how they fit together. Other
religions and world views tend to "pull out nails here and there". . .
. And what makes a good dramatic movie theme? Tension. So which rubber
band's tension does a movie or song "pluck"? An interesting tool for
conversations leading to witness perhaps!] Questions Skeptics Pose from Ravi Zecharias Leadership, Spring 1995.)
April 12th was Easter
and there was no class - the extra week gave me much needed study time.
- April 19th But everyone is wearing “colored” glasses! - the problem of presupposititions and our need for Scripture.
Man's flaw - sin has infected his mind, desires and purposes - i.e.
knowledge, morals, dominion. The class presentation focused on the
effects of sin on fallen man. The Presuppositions of Missions. M&A ptI:2; Communication and Missions, Pt2:4 JML Young. Chart(s)a: Effects of fall on mankind
As I began the class, I was aware that Modern thinking would be one of
my topics. And by now, I had stumbled across Postmodernism - first in a
couple of articles published by Covenant Seminary by Jerram Barrs on Postmodernity: Understanding Our Generation's Thought Life
(In Covenant Oct/Nov 1997 and Dec/ Jan 1998). I didn't realize at first
that this was the tip of a very big and treacherous "iceburg". I found
an article in Leadership Winter 1997 The Riddle of our Postmodern Culture by David Goetz; then another on The Gospel for Gen X by Dieter Zander ( Leadership, Spring 1995). Prowling Amazon.com for one title A Primer on Postmodernism by Stanley J Grentz, resulted in a bibliography and the purchase of two additional books: Generating Hope: A Strategy for reaching the Postmodern Generation by Jimmy Long and; The Gospel in a Pluralist Society By Leslie Newbigin
(which gives a missionary perspective upon coming back to a postmodern
England, and which I read estensively for "Multiculturalism"). From the
non-Christian side I found Hustin Smith's Beyond the Post Modern Mind
at the Public Library. His chapter on "The Revolution in Western
Thought" was especially helpful - and the rest of the book gives quite
a few insights into postmodern theology and New Age mysticism. Hustin Smith and David Griffin, Primordial Religion and Process Theology was also browsed.
April 26th Living without real answers : Modernism and the Post-Modern generation.
The Class was presented "David Letterman style" as "'Sophically Incorrect",
complete with a rock band (a teen group) for commercial breaks and
somewhat flippant interviews with visiting "philosophers" (four class
members representing Greek, Medieval, Modern and Postmodern thinking)
interspursed with monologues on "How do you know a Frog is cooked?",
"July 16th, 1972 the day the world changed" (The demolition of Pruitt
Igo in St. Louis in 1972), "Star Trek, the two generations - two kinds
of thinking"; and a table full of objects for the philosophers to argue
about - highlighting their differences in thinking; closing with a
metaphorical Christian interpretation of them: "They belong to me, are
special to me; I know their past and have given them meaning; and now
you know that because I have revealed it to you. Just as God reveals to
us the meaning of His creation through His Word." Fun! Creative! Made
all my points, and done right on time!"
May 3rd Multi-Culturalism - Can everyone be right? - life in a “cosmopolitan” city
The Gospel is transcultural and cross-cultural. The principles of
contextualization, accomodation and identification. Three views on
Pluralism. The place of Toleration in modern thinking. The world is
coming to us: Two examples of multicultural ministry quite close to us.
Knowing we live in cities with a cosmopolitan mix of cultures; and we
work and our children attend schools with similar cultural mixes, I
thought it important that we explore this topic. (The public school
district in my town has over 40 languages represented among its
students.) Library explorations lead me to John Hick's Auburn Lectures: A Rainbow of Faiths: A Christian Theology of Religion and the discovery that Modernists and Postmodernists differ sharply in regard to "pluralism" and along with it Wrestling with the Ox
- another book on Postmodern theology by a history of religions
professor at Pacific Lutheran University in nearby Tacoma - helpful in
understanding Postmodern theological trends. Researching online on
Bishop Leslie Newbigin - I was reading with fascination his work: The Gospel in a Pluralist Society
- then lead me to a number of profitable links - including the Gospel
and Cultures movement. I later found an excellent article in CT 1/12/98
The Only Way, which echoed my points.
May 10th Values, and the lack thereof - life in an age of ambiguities
Ethics was going to be a challenge. I began with Frances Schaeffer, Whatever happened to the Human Race Chapter 4 "The basis for Human Dignity",
and class notes from my course at Covenant College in Christian Ethics
under Professor Chuck Anderson in 1971. That took me to Carl Henry's Christian Personal Ethics.
The class became two classes - one a survey of the world's attempts at
"speculative ethics": Naturalism, Idealism and Existentialism; and then
one on "revealed ethics" exploring the issues that face Christianity
today -- Along with these I also read material in Theonomy in Christian Ethics by Greg Bahnmen and used material from the Crossroads Website
and the various charts and materials David McCallum has made available
there relating to our postmodern world through an article given to me
by a fellow pastor. I got hold of David McCallum's, The Death of Truth,
it reveals more aspects of postmodernism and its impact on our culture
and institutions, as well as some good practical suggestions for
dealing with them. A lot of the charts in the book are on the website
as well as some helpful material on ethics.
In class, after a brief survey of some "heroes" of past cultures -
Greek, Hercules - Rome; Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere in Medieval
England and their virtues, I set the buzz groups working on finding
"heroes" in our contemporary culture and what virtues they exemplify.
Then we considered the basic questions of Ethics - and the three main
lines of secular ethical thought.
May 17th The essential Gospel - Why personal peace and affluence still aren’t enough.
class took the overlap of the previous topic - on issues in Christian
ethics. Christians live in a state of tension between two "realms": How
do we live in a sinful world and love our sinful neighbors? A
Comparison of three positions on the Law and Ethics: Legalism -
Principles - Situationalism. God's Character is our model for ethics -
and priorities - a focus on redemptive activity. I also presented a
chart I put together The Essential Gospel comparing the
differences in presenting the basic Gospel message in a modernist as
compared to a postmodernist context..
May 24th Paganism Old and New - Modern science and the new spiritualities.
I had started several weeks before working on the subject of Modern Science, another topic I would be discussing. I already had Masks of the Universe by Everett Harrision, which I began reading in depth early in my course preparations, and God and the New Physics by Paul Davies.
Browsing in them made it clear that Modern science had begun to talk a
lot about "God" and that some of their conceptions were "pagan" I knew
from Carl Sagan. Then I found Soul: God, Man and the New Cosmology by Angela Tilby
(now out of print - but check your library) - which I read through
serveral times. I watched the movie Contact with Jodie Foster - struck with the
religious issues it addressed and, in particular, with the woman
astronomer, at first unwilling to believe in anything she could not
test, then appearing before a Government investigation - "I know what
I've experienced, but I can't put it into words." I also read The Big Shebang: A Report on the Universe(s) by Timothy Ferris. Added to my handout materials were an article on the New Age from Christianity Today and a chart from Unmasking the New Age by Grotius. Browsing the Web found a considerable number of sites on Creation and Evolution issues, as well as an interesting article on "B.B. Warfield: Prophet for the Children of the New Age".
But are Christians addressing the four most significant scientific
ideas that have shaken modern scientific cosmology in the twentieth
century: Einstein's Theories of Relativity; the "Big Bang" concept of
the origin of the Universe; Quantum Mechanics (wierdness) and Chaos
Theory - discoveries and thinking that have had a most significant
impact on contemporary thinking. This would be the subject of a long
essay and my class lecture. Judging on the rumblings from G.A. perhaps
I should lay low.
May 31st How do we break through the walls of “secular humanism” and “despair”?
By now I had read through several times the Christian books on
Postmodernism. I had also found a number of websites on the topic and,
in particular, a symposium on the Christian Response to it: with a
delightful article on "Can you lead a deconstructed horse to water?". I
began to gather and summarize the practical ideas these men have
suggested in dealing with contemporary people - especially those who
were postmodern in their thinking - whether they were aware of it or
June 7th Christ and culture - Five approaches to confronting the “world”.
[based on Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture - but then I found a Campus website; and read Jimmy Long's chapter in Generating Hope.]
Striking was the diversity of opinions expressed by people in the
class. I have not seen a recent World Magazine article that someone in
the class mentioned.
June 14th The Arts and the Media - are they our friends or foes?
This topic seemed to have minimal source materials available. While
postmodern thinking has swept through our society by means of the
commercial revolution and the technological revolutions of media (film,
music, TV and fashion) and the arts (See Grenz Postmodern Primer),
in particular architecture and design: Christians have kept themselves
at arms length and uninvolved in the arts. For the former, I read
Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media and the Medium and the Message; and browsed The Gutenburg Galaxy, as well as Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. For the Latter, Franky Schaeffer's Addicted to Mediocracy. Abraham Kuyper offers his opinions on Calvinism and the Arts in Lectures on Calvinism. And for a couple of nifty handouts were articles from Worship Leader Magazine - one on Postmodern Worship. I have found afterwards that probably I should have done work on the development of Consumerism
- through the development of mass production and modern advertizing
(the Media - especially Television) - that continues to have trememdous
impact on our modern global culture and thinking. A library Picture
book The Look of the Century by Micheal Tambini was passed
around during the class. I did up overheads on Postmodern styles of art
- and how extensively they shape our media.