11 Ways Popular Culture Steals Biblical Ideas

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The decline of the Church in the West is closely paralleled by a decline in biblical literacy and vocabulary. In this article, Timothy Tennent offers 11 examples of how popular culture has strikingly different meanings from the biblical meanings of common Christian words.

Over the last fifty years, the Western church across Europe and North America has been losing between 7,500 and 11,000 members per day. It is a collective loss of over 100 million Christians. These staggering losses have been offset some by the dramatic growth of the immigrant churches in the West. But, we are clearly entering into a period known as the “post-Christian west.” Over time this has resulted in the steady loss of a Christian consciousness in Western culture.

One of the ways this can be observed has been the precipitous decline in biblical vocabulary. Oh, don’t get me wrong, many of the words are still being used, but the meaning of the words has taken a sharp departure from the actual biblical meaning. The Church has been particularly susceptible to this. Thus, I thought it would be interesting to devote a piece to posting the “current” understanding of a few words and placing them side by side with the “biblical” understanding of the same word.

Here are a few examples:

1) Love (pop culture) – An emotive feeling someone has towards another person or towards God.

Love (biblical) –  A covenantal commitment to live and act in fidelity, loyalty and faithfulness.

2) Judgment (pop culture) – An “out of control” act caused by anger and usually fueled by partisan ideas.  (This is closely related to the use of the word “judgmental” which has taken on a universally negative association as one who has a bad attitude towards someone.)

Judgment (biblical) – God acting in holy-love to set things right, restore justice and establish peace in conformity with His reign and rule.

3) Marriage (pop culture) – A relationship of convenience between any two people for the sake of personal happiness and sexual fulfillment.

Marriage (biblical) – A divinely ordained life-time relationship between one man and one woman of covenantal, self-donating love, which overflows in becoming co-creators with God through the fruitfulness of child bearing, reflecting the beauty of the Triune God.

4) Revelation  (pop culture) – Surprising ideas which are made known in a dramatic fashion.

Revelation (biblical) – The record of God’s own self-disclosure regarding himself, ourselves and the world.

5) Inspiration (pop culture) – Mental awakening which produces certain feelings, or causes us to do something creative.

Inspiration (biblical) – Process whereby God the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit spoke through ordinary men and women, restraining them from error, and communicating His revelation to the world.

6) Awesome (pop culture) – A word used for anything one likes, whether a well-cooked hamburger, a sunset, or a worship service.

Awesome (biblical) – A description which is used of God alone, due to His exalted holiness and Lordship over all creation.

7) Fear of God (pop culture) – A destructive idea instilled in people in a manipulative way and often caused by inordinate anxiety about sin, guilt and divine judgment.

Fear of God (biblical) – A holy reverence for God which is the result of the realization of the God’s absolute sovereignty.  This realization is the beginning of all knowledge.

Here are a few additional examples where Christians use language which is at variance with the original meaning of the word of phrase…

8) “good worship” (pop “church culture”) – The feeling we get when our emotions are aroused in the presence of one another and God.

“good worship” (biblical) – The individual and corporate response to the revelation of God.

9) “moral conviction” (pop church culture) – A personal preference for a particular course of action, but is a moral equivalent of all other preferences which are all viewed as equally valid.

“moral conviction” (biblical) – A truth revealed in God’s word which the church is called to joyfully proclaim, embody and extend into the world.

10) “think and let think”  (contemporary Methodism) – A standard phrase quoted from Wesley which is frequently used as a blank check to support and justify a wide range of departures from historic Christian faith and Wesleyan practice.

“think and let think” (historic Methodism)  – Methodists are ecumenical Christians, embracing all Christians around the world.  We remain “steadfast as the sun” on the essentials of the faith, but we encourage flexibility on matters where Christians have historically disagreed.

11) “warm heart give me thine hand” (contemporary Methodism) – A standard phrase quoted from Wesley which is often used to bypass serious theological conversation as long as we have good feelings towards one another.

“warm heart give me thine hand” (historic Methodism) – Wesley’s commitment to Christian unity within the context of shared historic faith.

Perhaps you could continue the lexicon by offering your own examples of words or phrases both in and out of the church which have taken on a decidedly different meaning.

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Timothy C. Tennent is the President of Asbury Theological Seminary and a Professor of Global Christianity. His works include Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century and Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. He blogs at timothytennent.com and can be followed on twitter @TimTennent.

13 COMMENTS

  1. I’ll be frank, you lost me at “one man, one woman”. There are plenty of other verses we could throw back and forth for generations (and I think Christians will be” about non-heterosexual relationships, but to just say “one man, one woman” with no context or evidence besides just claiming it’s biblical?

    Scripture is sacred and shouldn’t be twisted, whitewashed, or simplified for political convenience or personal comfort — was Abraham’s marriage “one man, one woman”? Esau’s? Solomon’s? Jacob (Israel), Rachel, and Leah’s? and so on… Those are all Biblical marriages.

    We can have the conversation but starting off by defining “Biblical” marriage as “one man one woman” is so oversimplified as to be disingenuous.

    (And characterizing the other side as saying marriage is a matter of convenience? Is actually outright insulting. It’s not a matter of convenience if someone is able to have custody of their child, or visit their dying beloved in a hospital room. Do you really think same sex couples who are getting married feel like “oh, this will be so convenient”? Or that maybe they might be experiencing such powerful love for another human being that they want to make a lifelong vow of fidelity, loyalty, faithfulness?)

    A cutesy concept for a little Biblical vocabulary lesson that landed flat on its face when it decided to take a highly charged and extremely complex and serious debate, and reduce it to “My side is biblical and your side is about convenience.”

    • Genesis 2:24English Standard Version (ESV)
      24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

    • Great summation: “My side is biblical and your side is about convenience.” Personally, I think in this century we’re going through at least as big of theological shift as what the Reformation was.

      There are several ways to attack one’s enemies. One is to challenge the others’ motivations. It looks like this: “Oh, they believe [___] so that that they can [___].” About anything can be filled in the blank. It’s an aggressive technique because it is nearly indefensible.

      However… what I’m liking about the current shifting is that it is happening more than about anywhere in the blogosphere and its comments threads. Reformers fought flesh-and-blood wars. Even in the social change of the civil rights movement and the social change of the 1960s, people were in each others’ faces. There were in-the-streets protests.

      The techniques of this generation are different. They are downright jiu jitsu. All that really needs to be done in response to attack of character is to make a compassionate, informed comment and then disregard the assault and insult.

      So Erica, yes, it is insulting.

      But no Erica, insults are not effective. At least not nearly as much as truth and kindness.

  2. I appreciate this article. It reminds us of how important terminology can be. I have sensed a growing difference in the biblical and general accepted theological use of a lot of terms. We need to be sure of who the audience is to communicate more clearly.

  3. Thank you, Dr. Tennent, for this article. I do wonder, however, about the use of the term “biblical” in each case. For example, the description you give of “biblical” marriage – while it matches God’s prescription in Genesis 2:24 and Matthew 19:1-6 – neglects the descriptive view of marriage elsewhere in Scripture, where polygamy is presented as frequent, including the plural marriages of David, for example. For this reason, it think it would have been better for you to use the terms “pop culture” vs. “Christian.” This issue came up at the June 2013 General Assembly of the Church of the Nazarene, where the debate centered around a proposed inclusion in our Manual of a phrase defining “biblical marriage” as between “one man and one woman.” The alternative was to speak of “Christian marriage.” The term “biblical marriage” was ultimately adopted by the GA, but I fear will cause confusion for the reason I have outlined above, particularly in regions of the world where polygamy is practiced. By speaking of “Christian marriage,” the argument from trajectory (that you use in another blog post) can come into play, that the NT was definitely trending toward the rejection of polygamy in the same way that it was trending toward the rejection of slavery and the full enfranchisement of women. In any case, i enjoy your posts and am grateful for your courageous, caring, and calm voice on issues that too easily produce more heat than light.

    • You’re looking for too much nuance. Consider “Christian,” “Godly,” “Biblical,” and even good interchangeable flatly homogenized and systematized synonyms.

  4. Here’s another:
    “Holy conversation” (contemporary liberal theologian) Let’s voice opinions together on any subject and assume each of us is right and true even when our opinions and beliefs are in opposition.

    “Holy conversation” (Biblical) God speaks through His Word, His children obey, pray, and praise.

  5. I’m not a regular on this blog and came here by a link so sorry if I don’t know the context well. That said…

    I don’t understand why a President of a theological seminary is lamenting about these things.

    From where are you expecting a population to get its Biblical literacy? I’d think it needs to be the church and the pulpit.

    From where should the church and the pulpit get its Biblical literacy? Is this not the role of the seminary?

    From many of the sermons I listen to, the breakdown is principally between seminary and pulpit. Most of the pastors that I’ve listened to are under-trained. Consider, by analogy, the case of an medical doctor. What was the knowledge base and skills of a physician 100 years ago? What is it today? It is a very different profession nowadays.

    Most of the pastors I’ve known over the years, have very limited training. They barely know their own traditions never mind any robust knowledge of other streams of Christianity or other beliefs. In today’s pluralistic world, I don’t see how this will engage.

    Secondary, I see many pastors preaching popular theology. The primary reason, it seems, is because “they don’t know better.” The secondary reason, from what I’ve seen, is that they avoid many of the difficult subjects from the pulpit. No, I don’t mean sociopolitically difficult (at least, outside their generally homogenous sectarian in-group), I mean theologically difficult (both within and across groups). There is much that I, as a layman, have learned about Christian history, philosophy, theology, scholarship, etc. that is taught in the seminary but never makes it way into engaging sermon content. Pastors would rather inspire with popular things and basics and inspirational themes. We sell people Bibles with puppies on the covers–what do you think people are conditioned by the system to want to consume?

    So I’d suggest a) sometimes pastors believe the pop theology you lament and preach it as they don’t know better and b) sometimes pastors have been taught better but the preach (or imply or avoid in silence) the sticky stuff because its easier.

    Bottom line: I think the most significant breakdowns are between the seminary and clergy. There’s not too much I, as a lay person, can do other than watch the theological, ecclesial, and pedagogical train wreck. Perhaps this blog is targeted to other theology seminary presidents and their professors. I hope so because really this problem is yours to fix, not mine. My pastors don’t really want their bad pop theologies corrected by someone in the congregation.

  6. hope (pop culture/pop church culture) – to want something to happen or be true and think that it could happen or be true (Merriam-Webster)

    hope (biblical) – to trust (Merriam-Webster archaic); “Hope is patience with the lamp lit.” (Tertullian)

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