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God and the Zeitgeist

What many of us in the church desire at the moment, especially church leaders, is an understanding of the zeitgeist. It is a word that according to Google’s default dictionary means: ‘the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.’ To quote something from another zeitgeist: knowing what’s hot right now is … hot right now.

What’s interesting is not just that we’re thinking about today’s cultural mood. To an extent these conversations always have their vital place as we consider how to share the unchanging word of God in changing times. What’s interesting is just how interested we seem to be in the zeitgeist.

Many of us—myself included—love to stay abreast of our unique time and location and why it is different from five minutes ago. We like knowing why things are changing and where things are headed. But my question to myself and you is: can this interest in society usurp our interest in God? Compared with the time we spend thinking about cultural phenomena, how much time do we spend thinking of our Redeemer?

Many of us love to stay abreast of our unique time and location. Can this interest in society usurp our interest in God? How much time do we spend thinking of our Redeemer?

It seems important to keep asking ourselves: are we remembering the living God who at this time sees us; who controls the times; who spoke and all things came to be; who could have called forth more than 12 legions of angels to take Christ off the cross; who will soon usher in the new creation through His risen Son; with whom we will spend eternity; whose Spirit brought us to new birth and transforms us from one degree of glory to another; who speaks to us now on the pages of His word?

Deep Wells and Hasty Words

I could be speaking for myself alone, but my feeling is that this preoccupation with ‘getting’ the current social mood has been a gradual shift. When I was finishing high school around 2005, the blogging revolution was in flight. A number of Christian thinkers around Australia were writing bold and regular articles about theology. An online community which engaged in conversation about the truth of God’s word grew. Comment threads were often deep wells. As I read them I devoured mature insights about God’s word. People staked their claims and cared about nuanced distinctions between points. After all, they were talking about God and that mattered. People used online forums to discuss non-click-bait articles since there weren’t many other options. As I remember things, Christians were regularly willing to be sharpened and challenged by what they read.

I would daily read the handful of Australian Christian blogs I knew about and ingest the thoughts of wise leaders across the country. Along with my local church’s leaders, they schooled me to think well about not simply our cultural surroundings but about the God of the ages. Whether they were writing about the Reformation, or arguing carefully through passages of scripture, or discussing an obscure doctrine, many were eagerly seeking clarity about our triune God.

It is possible I just remember all this with a sense of nostalgia for how God was shaping me at that time. And to those who wrote good things: thank you.

But with the rise of social media, societies began changing quickly and it seemed the online theological discussions did too. Those items which ‘cut through’ and had an impact were the ones that said: the zeitgeist is changing (thankfully without the awkward and—in this article—overused word zeitgeist).

The flooding effect of social media seemed to deaden much of the online conversation. Every crazy viewpoint had soon enough been aired. Some contributors were listened to, and others were ignored. Trolling grew.

The flooding effect of social media also seemed, over time, to deaden much of the online conversation. Every crazy viewpoint had soon enough been aired. Some contributors were listened to, and others were ignored. Trolling grew. So did the word ‘meh’ (or at least its sentiment). Everyone was screen-weary from having heard everything. No one was surprised by anything anymore. Reactions were swift and often very short. Writers and readers alike seemed to get hurried.

Undoubtedly the most shared content among us was that which captured ‘this moment’—the immediate and the new. Only that could slice through the noise and the numbness.

Return to Slow Reading

On a note that I hope is not unrelated, I recently restarted an on-again, off-again experience with John Stott’s classic The Cross of Christ. It is not racy. Far from it. It is at points dense, detailed, slow, with no immediate fairy-floss to be found. It rewards marinating—reading and re-reading chapters and paragraphs. Of course, that’s part of the problem and probably why I’ve been on-again, off-again with it.

But let me say: dwelling deeply on God’s work of reconciling the world to himself in Christ has been a tonic for my zeitgeist-battered soul. The unchangeable glories we see at the cross are unsurpassable. They are unseen, spiritual realities achieved by the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ in our physical universe 2000 years ago. Unlike most of the six hundred podcasts releasing next week, and the six steps to a more dynamic life, they have the power to set the heart ablaze with fresh love for God. As Paul declares, here are ‘the riches of His grace that He lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding’.

The final chapters in which Stott applies the cross to us today are among the richest theologically-pastoral writings I remember ever having read. Anyone who has persisted with his towering achievement will know that it leaves you feeling as if you’ve read hundreds of books. (Evidently, John Stott did and he showed us his working.) And above all, he did what we all need most: he read his Bible carefully and sought to reflect its emphases.

Dwelling deeply on God’s work of reconciling the world to himself in Christ has been a tonic for my zeitgeist-battered soul.

As an example of the latter, he chose not to provide a theodicy like the textbooks in his chapter on the cross and suffering, because he didn’t believe the Bible takes us in that direction. His teaching is all the wiser for such a careful redirection. The result is a relevant practical discussion on how to face suffering in light of what God the Son has done.

Something else is surprising too. Stott’s magnum opus is engaged, in a serious way, with the world and its changing views. He canvasses psychologists, sociologists, and revisionist theologians whose work influences how we might see the cross. He often paints himself into a corner leaving his reader almost convinced by a rival idea, only to gently dismantle it in a manner that only someone soaking in gospel grace could. It’s beautiful to experience.

There seems to be much to learn from John Stott: birdwatcher and careful pastor-scholar that he was. Especially in our present moment. Reading him makes me feel like one of Tolkien’s hobbits talking to an Ent—in a word: hasty.

If we are those who create content in this text-laden era, perhaps we need to, like John Stott, focus more on the ever-glorious, unchanging God, unbattered by the changing tides. We have a great and continual need to see through the momentary mists of our day to the clear light that always shines from the lighthouse at Calvary.

And if today we are among those listening or reading, perhaps we need to be careful about what we take in. There truly is no shortage of stuff. We need to pray with Paul that our Father might enlighten the eyes of our hearts so we may know what is the hope of his calling and what are the glorious riches of our inheritance. And then we need to set our spiritual eyes and ears most where they will see and hear those glories.

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