Thursday, June 14, 2007

Relevance begins with you

Several weeks ago, I posted about two types of relativism, one that I consider truly humble and the other I consider to only have the appearance of humility. Inside that post there is some definition given to the word "relevance," that I would like to readdress and work out some implications for the way Christians lead 'relevant' lives, lives that really matter.

Point 1: "Relevance is a two-place predicate." This means that the sentence "That song is just so relevant" is actually not a sentence at all. Relevance is an idea that links two other ideas. Something cannot be just "relevant." That something must be relevant to something else.

Point 2: "Relevance is reciprocal." In other words, relevance is a two-way street. If A is relevant to B, then by definition B is relevant to A. The person I heard this from first (Professor James Hall in his Learning Company Philosophy of Religion course) used the analogy of a street. So, for example, if there is a road from Nashville to Franklin then there is also a road from Franklin to Nashville. If you cut off Nashville from Franklin, then you have also cut off Franklin from Nashville.

Now, that is about as far as I got in the last post. But, given these two points, I think there are some interesting implications that we need to deal with in relationship to the way we as Christians think about relevance.

Implication 1: There are three ways to establish relevance. 1) You can change A to make it relevant to B. 2) You can change B to make it relevant to A. 3) Or, you can change both A and B to make them relevant to one another.

With relevance, we are dealing with ideas, not roads. We can't just 'build a road' from A to B and leave A and B unchanged. If A and B are not already relevant then something must change in them in order to make them relevant to one another.

And, given our definitions, doing any of these three things will establish relevance both directions, for if A is relevant to B, then B is relevant to A.

Implication 2: If A is unchanging, then B must change in order to establish relevance, and vice versa. And, as we've already stated, if B changes to establish relevance with A, then A is relevant to B.

Now, I was raised with the battle cry, "The Gospel must be made relevant!" Let's do a little analysis. First, this is an incomplete sentence. Let's add the second predicate: "The Gospel must be made relevant to our culture," I think is what these people meant.

Now in order to establish relevance, one of three things can happen. 1) The Gospel can change to be made relevant to the culture. 2) The culture can change to be made relevant to the Gospel. 3) Or, both can change in order to be made relevant to one another.

Can we establish relevance through any of these procedures? Can we change the Gospel? Can we change our culture? I'm going to assume the answer is "No" to both of these questions. As we've seen in previous centuries, especially in Europe, the attempt to change the Gospel to be relevant to the culture ended in the pseudo-Gospel of classical Liberalism (there goes #1). As we've seen in the last century, we can't assert enough influence over even our own nation to change it to be relevant to the Gospel (there goes #2). If we can change neither of the predicates, then we can certainly not alter both in order to establish relevance (there goes #3). For us, this means that there is no direct way to establish relevance between the Gospel and our culture. We either need to make our goal smaller, or give up.

Since, I still think relevance is a good goal to shoot for, let's try a bit smaller: "The Gospel must be relevant to our communities." I think we're starting to get there with this statement. In our communities of faith, we can begin to see how the community might be changed in order to make them relevant to the Gospel (and thus establish relevance between the Gospel and the community). Norms of common life can be established that allow a community to see themselves as part of the Gospel story, that understand the language of sin and redemption, that reach out to others in the name of Jesus Christ. When communities change themselves to become relevant to the Gospel, the Gospel becomes relevant to them and through them may become relevant to people entering the doors.

But, that's still probably not enough. Any church leader can put structures in place that should, in theory, make a community relevant to the Gospel, but that leader will only be frustrated if the liturgy is perfect but the people aren't paying attention. So, one step smaller again: "The Gospel must be made relevant to you." Or, better, "You must be made relevant to the Gospel." Relevance begins with you. When you take the time to pray, for instance, you are probably doing more for the relevance of the Gospel to the world than any kind of hemhawing with systematic theology.

What does it look like to become relevant to the Gospel? It means that when you read Scripture, the words are ever becoming more relevant to you. Because the Scripture contains the apostolic witness to the Gospel, we must continually go back there to find the place where we might change. When biblical words like 'justice,' 'righteousness,' 'holiness,' 'sacrifice,' 'sin,' 'judgment,' and 'Jesus' become living realities to you, then you know you are becoming more and more relevant to the Gospel since, interestingly enough, the Gospel is becoming more and more relevant to you.

And, since you are a being made up of the world you live in and the communities you thrive in, when you become relevant to the Gospel, the Gospel reaches through you to become relevant to your community and to your world. Only you know what it means to be relevant to the Gospel in your 9-to-5 at Bank of America. As you grow (another metaphor for relevance) in the Gospel, the Gospel will become more and more relevant to Bob, June, and Julie down the hall. We can't make the Gospel relevant to anyone, but we can make ourselves relevant to the Gospel, and in so doing, we will find the Gospel doing its work in the places we live, eat, work, and play. Relevance begins (but certainly doesn't end) with you.

P.S. for my theologian friends: this is not ultimately a theological account because 'relevance' isn't a theological word. A theological account might look slightly different, with obviously more emphasis on the living work of the Spirit in the individual, community, and the world.
P.P.S. This account should continue back up through the individual to the community of faith to the world, but it's just a blog. Please don't hear me preaching an individualistic gospel of moral improvement!


Chandra said...


Great post. A very practical approach to a subject that all-too-often gets mired down in mumbo-jumbo.

One question:

When you say "the Gospel becomes relevant," what do you mean? The Story of the person of Christ? Or just the Person of Christ? Can those two be separated? Not to be too esoteric, but does the Gospel become relevant, or does it just become apparent to a person that it was relevant to their lives all along?

I really like your point that we must make ourselves relevant to the Gospel, but I'm curious how that works with a reformed idea of God as primary actor...

Or maybe I'm still just sleepy from my nap!


Unknown said...

Chandra, thanks for the comment!

By the Gospel, I mean the whole story of the Person and Work of Christ and the good news that we can participate in this Person and Work by grace through faith.

"Not to be too esoteric, but does the Gospel become relevant, or does it just become apparent to a person that it was relevant to their lives all along?"

The answer: "Yes." :-) I tried to set up that the Gospel doesn't change to become relevant to the individual; rather the individual changes (or is changed) and then the Gospel becomes relevant to them. The Gospel becoming relevant to someone is nothing other than the person changing to see that it matters to them. And, because of the nature of the Gospel, they will change to see that it really mattered to them all along. In other words, there is an objectivity to the Gospel that is not reducible to inward experience and so the establishment of relevance will take this shape because of its conformity to its object (the Gospel).

One of these days, sometime soon, I'm going to follow up this post with another that deals with a theological account of this motion. This one was, necessarily, a 'secular' account based on the notion of relevance.

Thanks again for the comment!

W. Travis McMaken said...

I guess it's time for one of your 'theologian friends' to show up. :-)

Why are we assuming that the Gospel is not already relevant to our culture? What about the Gospel is not already relevant to our culture? (Forms of human extression in word and deed? Scriptural expression? The person and work of Christ?)

Unknown said...

I'm not saying that the Gospel doesn't have things to say to contemporary culture, because it certainly does. I presuppose that the Gospel is fixed but does not interact im-mediately with culture.

When one is transformed by the Gospel (i.e., when one is changed to be relevant to it as sinner, forgiven, saint) one finds that the Gospel was always already relevant to the world around. But, in any discussion of relevance that involves the transformation of the individual, community, or society, we are not addressing the Gospel's objectivity but its subjective appropriation, expression, and proclamation.

Strictly speaking, A is not relevant to B if B is not relevant to A (this is self-evidently true from the definitions presented). Therefore, strictly speaking, the Gospel is not relevant to the individual (or community or world) until the Gospel matters to them, and it can only matter to them when they are changed to find themselves inside the Gospel story. Only then can they see that the Gospel is relevant to all of life.

My last wandering comment: the reason the Gospel is not relevant to the culture is Sin, i.e., it is our fault and not the Gospel's if we find it irrelevant.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Of course, our finding the Gospel to be irrelevant and its actuality as relevant are to be distinguished. But, I'm still not sure about all this. If you come out and say "I'm only talking about how things appear to the sinner (irrelevant) and to the saint (relevant)", then I can probably leave it alone. :-)

Tim Larson said...

Thank you for this great essay. You bring up lots of good thoughts and points. You are right when you say that we can/should not change the gospel to try to make it more relevant. You are also right when you say that we can not change our own culture. I would extend that to say that we cannot change any culture or individual, as the heart of a culture and the heart of an individual can only be changed by the work of the Holy Spirit. God might use us in this work of change, but it is not our work that causes the change.

I hadn't thought before about how relevance is two-way. Good point. I agree with your two points, and your two implications follow clearly from those two points.

However, I must disagree with some of the elaboration on those points and implications in regards to the gospel and how we bear witness to it.

This post seems to imply that relevance only exists upon knowledge and understanding. You wrote, 'when you read Scripture, the words are ever becoming more relevant to you.' These statements seem to imply that relevance increases as knowledge and understanding increase, and that ignorance entails irrelevance.

I disagree. A and B can be relevant to each other even if A (and/or B) is ignorant of the relevance. For example, the gospel is for sinners, and it is relevant to all sinners, even sinners who have never heard the gospel. Relevance can exist even if knowledge of the relevance is absent. Coming back to your analogy of cities and roads, if Franklin and Nashville are ignorant of the road that connects them, they are still relevant.

So what about the battle cry of 'The Gospel must be made relevant!'? What are we really asking for? The gospel is already relevant - what we need to do is to preach the gospel in a way that reveals to the unbeliever how it is relevant. This preaching may be done differently in different cultures.

The relevance of the gospel may be revealed in one culture by preaching about the geneology in Matthew 1, and in another culture it may be revealed by preaching about the sufferings of Job. The relevance of the gospel may be revealed in one culture by singing songs of praise to God accompanied by a guitar, and it may be revealed in another culture by singing with an organ.

The gospel is already relevant to all cultures. Our job is to help others understand how the gospel is relevant to them by building relationships and presenting the gospel in a way they can understand.

[To look at it from the other angle, if we are to say that relevance requires knowledge and understanding, then we cannot hold to Point 2, because A might know about the relevance when B does not]

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