Finding the Four Corners

Mark Tenney

Piecing together the puzzle…
“First find the four corners” – good advice, especially for people piecing together the puzzle of connecting Sunday to Monday. The first corner piece might be called unprecedented. If so, horizontal, imagination, and institutions might be the other three corners and frame a more realistic picture of changing the world.

One of the more dire pronouncements Philip Rieff made before his death in 2006 was that we live in an “unprecedented present age without moralists and religions.”1 Before, every society looked up for guidance. A sacred canopy ordered social life, from the earliest pagan religions to “the complex rational world of ancient Athens to the enchanted mysticisms of aboriginal Australia.”2 Later, it was the great monotheisms such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. People today look sideways or inward – but not up in a down economy: half of all US young adults no longer self-identify as “Christian” and 15 percent of all adults check “no” religion.3 It’s unprecedented.

With the vaporizing of the vertical, Rieff said the sacred order – be it fate or faith – became a fiction. Appeals to the vertical (e.g., “the Bible says”) are now verboten. “There is no lighthouse keeper. There is no lighthouse. There is no dry land. There are only people living on rafts made from their own imaginations,” lamented John Dominic Crossan.4 Unprecedented however doesn’t mean the end of the world. It means the first of its kind. If pointing vertically is gauche, we can point horizontally to gain truth, through our shared human experiences. That’s the second corner piece.

C.S. Lewis often pointed to everyday experiences in explaining Christianity. “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”5 His faith looked up (“I see it”) but it also looked around (“by it I see everything else”). Lewis didn’t deny historical proofs, but frequently used daily pointers instead. The gnawing sensation in a stomach for example did not prove that bread exists. But it did point to our bodies being repaired by eating. “In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will.”6

The challenge of a horizontal approach is that it requires Christians to explain reality, not simply expound on religion. That’s not unprecedented. Consider the “patient saints of Clapham.” They opened minds to a shared reality by reframing the imagination – the third corner. The English abolitionists pieced together the puzzle of abolishing the slave trade by issuing a journal, writing letters, distributing pamphlets, public speaking, creating “conversation launchers” (e.g., the Wedgwood plate), and making every effort to persuade by reframing how people imagined the slave trade. This movement was “one of the first great flowerings of a very modern belief that the way to stir men and women to action is not by biblical argument, but through the vivid, unforgettable description of acts of great injustice done to their fellow human beings,” Adam Hochschild notes.7

This process of reframing imagination requires summoning new metaphors, or pictures, to describe reality. The Clapham group reframed slaves as people. A few years later, Thomas Huxley reframed “smart” people in an unprecedented age. In his inaugural address at the opening of Johns Hopkins University in 1876, Huxley described himself as an agnostic – meaning “smart” people don’t know The Way, Truth, and Life with certainty.

“If you use the same words to describe the world, you’re sending the message that nothing’s changed,” Alan Weber says. “Change the language, and you change the way people think.”8 Weber left Harvard Business Review because he believed HBR kept using the same jargon even though the business world was changing. He launched Fast Company. In the same way, the content of the gospel never changes, but the context does. Every time a culture shifts – and that’s a rare occurrence – those who summon new metaphors will likely have their definition of reality taken seriously, according to John Witte, director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University.9 Yet even new metaphors for faith won’t change the world. We need a fourth corner piece.

“America is not ruled by a person, it is ruled by institutions,” Lebanon’s Muhammed Hussein Fadlullah recently noted.10 Arab leaders observe what Christian leaders often overlook, that you change the world through culture-shaping institutions – overlapping networks in media, education, law, architecture, literature, and popular culture. It’s why the Indian automaker Tada bought Jaguar – not for the cars but for the distribution network. Tada’s $2500 auto might be a great idea, but it’s not going to change the world without overlapping networks of media, dealerships, salespeople, and repair shops.

This is a two-fold challenge for faith communities. First, they tend to believe an aggregate of individuals will change the world since people are changed from the inside out. But the reality is that people are changed just as much or more from the outside in by institutions and worldviews become ways of life through overlapping networks of institutions, not individuals.11 Second, even when some faith communities do see the importance of institutions, they tend to create religious ones – think of Christian films and music and schools – that are routinely ignored by the wider world. They rarely shape culture-shaping institutions in the wider world – but they could. Since we’re embarking on an unprecedented age, it’s a wide-open race to define reality. Faith communities could become recognized as the first to find the four corners.

1 Philip Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority, Kenneth S. Piver, General Editor, Volume I, Sacred Order/Social Order (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2006), p. 7.
2 Rieff, Deathworks, p. xxii.
3 The study was conducted in 2008 by researchers at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and funded by the Lilly Endowment.
4 John Dominic Crossan, quoted by J. Richard Middlton and Brian J. Walsh, Truth Is Stranger Than It Used To Be: Biblical Truth in a Postmodern Age (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995), p. 62.
5 C.S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1980), p. 140.
6 C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949).
7 Adam Hochschild, Bury The Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), p. 366.
8 Alan Webber, founding editor of Fast Company. Interviewed by Keith H. Hammonds in “The Life of the Party: The Take of How Fast Company Came to Be,”Fast Company, March 2006, p. 42.
9 Mars Hill Audio Journal, Charlottesville, VA, volume 91.
10 Robert J. Pollock, “A Dialogue With Lebanon’s Ayatollah,” Wall Street Journal, March 14-15, 2009, A7.
11 Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

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7 thoughts on “Finding the Four Corners”

  1. Maria Cochrane

    Reading this makes me realize how important words are. We need to teach our youth to treasure words and to use them properly. In the world of social networking and texting..words are throw-away. THose who can use them well, creatively and in a timely manner, will exercise influence.

  2. I read this article this morning despite needing to get on with business here in Atlanta. I thought to myself, “Mike keeps presenting compelling summaries for a Christian worldview.” I have not read many people are able to be both profound and concise. I think Mike sets a great example for us.

    I find in the “four corners” one issue which I wonder really squares with a worldview consistent based on scripture. It was stated that the challenge of the second corner is the need to explain reality and not just expound Biblical truth. How can the sound exposition of the Bible not cohere to reality?

    Every week I am very encouraged by the number and diversity of references in the articles. I really appreciate how doggieheadtilt gets the ifluence of the market and media on Western culture. And you consider the larger global culture. Again, I think this is an excellent example of how we should be talking about these things.

  3. A great example of culture shaping is the change in attitudes towards smoking and the tobacco industry. Many areas of the US are now virtually smoke free. Not too many years ago you could smoke at work–in the building…at your desk!

    A key player in this change has been http://www.thetruth.com The videos and commercials they have created have been very provocative and effective in capturing the imagination.

    We could learn a lot from them.

  4. Trent asks a good question: “How can the sound exposition of the Bible not cohere to reality?”
    Of course, the Bible does cohere to reality and, in my opinion, explains it better than any other system of thought or belief. The problem, as Mike points out, is that the Bible has been stripped of its authority–its right to propose a worldview–in Western society since the late 1800s. What we need to do, and what Mike is advocating (I think), is to advance a “horizontal” explanation of the world and how humans act in it that is biblically-based but that does not appeal to scriptural authority. Once you have been able to get people to see how the world really works, it’s not that hard to get them to see that the best explanation of those conditions are in the Bible. But you can’t start with “The Bible says…”
    The ‘you’ here refers to regular folks. I still think there is a place for straightforward proclamation of the gospel, in church, by people ordained to that task. But even those folks will need to change their language and their approach when they venture outside the walls of the church into the wider world.

  5. The Lord’s use of parables often reflected the agricultural basis of Jewish & Roman 1st Century society. In parts of the developing world this is still very true but in the greater western world we live in a high technology age & the essential Gospel message should be communicated in modern parables. An example of this is being filled with the Holy Spirit is like downloading a software update for a program off the web or an MP3.

  6. Dan McWilliams

    I think the current church’s four corners would be something like 1. The Bible 2. Apologetics 3. The Bridge Diagram 4. Invite our friends to Church. I recently read that C.S. Lewis gave a talk on the existence of God in a Socratic Society meeting at Oxford. He was so undone by critical comments from an aggressive agnostic in the Q and A time afterward that he gave up apologetics and started writing the Chronicles of Narnia. Pass the new metaphors please!

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