Sunday, September 14, 2008

Reflection on “When the Kings Come Marching In: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem"

Richard Mouw is an author and theologian that I have found to be both insightful and frustrating. I can sometimes read him and discover new truths about Scripture that delight my heart; then other times I stand at a distance unable to follow his lead. In a word, he is the kind of author I love to read because he is never boring and will always force me to reconsider every preconceived notion I have developed. “When the Kings Come Marching In” is case and point. The book is not a commentary on Isaiah’s vision of the New Jerusalem (though it certainly could function in that respect) as much as it is a treatise developing the proper understanding of cultural involvement in this life for Christians. He asks the question that will guide the thrust of the entire book: “How ought Christians to (sic) understand the proper patterns of their cultural involvement,” (p. 3). By cultural involvement he means the broad sweep of cultural life including but not limited to economical, political, artistic, educational, etc. And he believes that the Bible has a multifaceted view on culture that cannot be restricted to only one particular attitude. Thus he uses the vision of Isaiah 60 to show how God would have believers live now in light of what is to come.

I found this book incredibly helpful in many respects. For one, it provided me a reminder of the biblically correct view we must hold of our heavenly destination. Too many Christians today wrongly believe in a bodiless heaven that looks more like Greek philosophy than Scripture. It is true that at death the soul is separated from the body, but that is an unnatural effect of sin that God never intended and will one day redeem through the finished work of Christ. Mouw rightly reminds us that “Christians’ bodiless presence with the Lord is not the final state of blessedness. Our ultimate goal is to be raised up for new life in which we will realize our true destinies as followers of Jesus Christ,” (p. 19). But even with that in mind, Isaiah’s view of heaven is not limited to “me and my state of being,” but he is interested in the future of corporate structures and cultural patterns. Mouw points us to the presence of the ships of Tarshish and the goods and commodities from across the globe being brought into the heavenly city in worship to God. The question we must ask is how can God allow instruments of pagan nations and sinful uses be brought into God’s new city for His glory? Mouw answers, “God’s present attitude, then, toward these instruments of culture is an ambivalent one. As tools of human rebellion and objects of idolatrous trust, he hates them, and he warns his people not to be contaminated by them. But he hates them because of their present uses. And his hatred will lead him to transform them into proper instruments of service,” (p. 32).

A second blessing I received from this book is the full picture Mouw provides of the role of Christians now in culture and society in light of our role to come in eternity. He believes that believers need a complex perspective on culture and society, especially government, because of the complexities of a world created by God, fallen from God, and being rescued by God’s redeeming work in Christ. He clarifies: “What we must show present-day political authority is honor, because we recognize that it is called to perform an important ministry. But as those who know the radicality of the sin that presently affects both individuals and structures, we can only properly ‘honor’ political authority today by constantly calling it to perform the kind of ministry that God requires of all those who administer human affairs,” (p. 68).

The final point that I will mention regarding this book’s helpfulness to my soul is how it consistently and accurately pointed me to the centrality of Christ in all of Scripture and culture. In fact, I walked away from this book with a broader view of Christ’s redeeming work. He critiques a problem he sees in many Christian circles today, which is as he states it giving “full reign to the blood of Christ within a limited area,” (p. 111). This limitation is done by seeing Christ’s transforming power only within the scope of human lives. Mouw observes that Christ’s redemptive work applies to a broader reach of the cultural and societal patterns of the world. In a longer quote, he defines this in a most helpful way: “In an important sense, then, the ‘world,’ the cosmos, which Jesus came to save was bigger than the world he originally created. Not only did this world contain many more people than had populated the original Garden, but it was filled with the languages, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organizations, inherited artifacts, technical processes, and values to which (Richard) Niebuhr refers. And then items were touched by human rebellion. They comprise sinful culture. But they do belong t the fullness of the cosmos for which Christ died; ‘for God sent the Son into the cosmos, not to condemn the cosmos, but that the cosmos might be saved through him’ (John 3:17),” (p. 113).

I do not agree with everything Mouw states in this book, but I am walking away from it with many more questions and challenges to my views of Christ and culture. And I have already adjusted some of those views thanks to Mouw, particularly in that while believers should not be centrally focused on changing culture, we should be looking to the redeeming of culture that God will bring. This is a hope that allows us to seek small glimpses of that transformation today.


Jamie Fugate said...

John I have a number of questions about this book that I hope you can answer for me.

1)You mention that Mouw says that we must be involved culturally in the arts, I have a gnawing suspicion that when many say that they are simply embarrassed by the low-brow status of Christianity and long for the status of being a high-brow artsy type. Is this the case with Mouw and if not how does he guide into a biblical understanding of the arts?

2)I am curious how this book compares with Niebuhr’s work and with the recent book from D. A. Carson and where you advise us to begin in a study of how a Christian is to interact with the culture at large?

3)I am also curious on where evangelism fits within the scheme of cultural engagement in his view?

John Lucas said...

I cannot speak for Mouw on all these issues you raise, so I will simply tell you what he states in the book.
1. Regarding the arts, I don't think he is arguing for a Christian counter-movement that offers a lower-grade alternative to the secular arts. We see this in Christian music trying to emulate pop-culture to be relevant don't we? He is saying (in line with your Kuyper quote) that all of the domain of existence belongs to God and should bring him glory. The arts are part of fallen creation that is tainted and infected with sin. But we should embrace a worldview that sees God's redemptive purposes in this area of creation, using them for God's glory not sin. (NOTE: I think your favorite writer Alan Jacobs is a good example of this in practical terms).

2. I haven't read Niebuhr's work yet, but Mouw does draw heavy influence from that work. Mouw is a shorter work that does not deal with all the facets as Niebuhr. Carson's work is an evaluation and long reflection on that work looking at it in a 21st century mindset. I am not sure it matters which to begin with, and there are other great works out there on this

3. Mouw does not spend much if any time on how evangelism relates b/c it is outside the scope of his purpose. Since he is examining Isaiah 60, he does not venture outside themes he finds there very often. I would venture to guess that he sees evangelism and culture as dependent on one another, in that evangelism must understand culture and show God's redemptive purposes in light of that culture.
Great questions, hope this was helpful.